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Story Of London

The Fatal Vespers: IIIb

In 1623 ninety-five people perished when the floor of a temporary chapel in the Blackfriars district collapsed. Two of our antiquaries, John Strype and Walter Thornbury, have left us vivid descriptions of the event. These differ in both the detail and, particularly, in the style. For these reasons it is informative to compare them. Here is how John Strype, writing in 1752, describes the tragedy. Strype was Church of England minister and his approach is very different from that of the journalist Thornbury. It is also much longer, and will be given in three parts. Here is the second part.

Here you might have seen a Man shaking of his Legs, and striving for life. There you might have seen another putting forth his bloody Hands, and crying for help. Here you might have seen one, like some Spectre, thrusting out his Head out of the Grave. There you might have seen his Fellow half dead and half living, intomb’d in that Grave which he was not long to keep. Here you might have seen the Living thus pressed, as they were mourning for the Dead; and the Dead senseless, as they were imbracing of the Living. So that since the Sicilian Vespers, there was never an Even-song more dolorous unto the French, nor more lamentable unto the Scots and English.

The Count of Tillier, who was Embassador here in ordinary for the most Christian King, which Place he hath executed with great Dignity and Authority for many Years together, to the general liking and applause of both Nations, although he was fortunate in this, that not one of his Retinue perished, was much agrieved at this unlucky Accident; with whom the Spanish Delegates did condole, as by mutual reference feeling that Grief, which fellow-feeling had made their own.Moreover, it was reported by one who had good Intelligence in Ely House, that Don Carlos Colomo’s Steward should say, that his Master would not for a Million of Gold, this Accident should have fallen out in his, or Exeter House. A Report like enough to be believed of those, who know how strangely zealous this Nation is in their Religion; and how jealous they are of their own, their King’s, and of their Country’s Honour.Neither were the Sorrows meaner amongst the Naturals of this Kingdom, and the Inhabitants of the City of London.

So that here some Men lost their Wives, Women their Children, Children their Parents, Masters their Servants, and one Friend lamented the loss of another. So that Rachel was weeping for her Children, because they were not. Job was lamenting for his Sons and Daughters, because they were slain together by the downfal of an House, whilst they were eating of their last Banquet. Insomuch that the Streets did eccho with their dolorous Moans, the Walls and Houses did resound with their Cries, and Lamentations. The subsequent Night was so full of Horror unto many, that it may be truly said of it, as was said of another dismal Night in the like kind:
Quis cladem illius noctis,
quis funera fando
Explicit? aut potis est
lachrymis æquare dolorem?
[But who the bloodshed of that night can tell?
What tongue its deaths shall number, or what eyes
find need of tears to equal all its woe?
From the Fall of Troy in Vergil’s Aeneid]

When the Bodies were drawn forth of those heaps of Earth and Timber, which task of Charity they were accomplishing all that Night, and part of the next Day following, there were found to be Ninety five Persons, or thereabout, of divers Conditions, besides those who were bruised, maimed or wounded. Amongst whom were divers Persons of Worth and Quality: As Father Drurie, who was the Preacher; Father Redyate, in whose Lodging this Calamity befel; the Lady Webbe, descended of the Family of the Greshams; and Sister unto my Lady Morley, and my Lady Sturton, and many more besides of that weaker Sex, who then and there were assembled at their accustomed Devotions.

Yet were there many who were in that unfortunate downfal, which escaped the Danger strangely and wonderfully. Amongst whom was Mrs Lucy Penruddock, extracted from a worthy and noble Family; who fell between the Lady Webbe, and her own Maid-Servant, both of which perished; yet she was preserved alive, by means of a Chair which fell hollow upon her, and sheltered her from further danger. So was young Mrs. Webbe, Daughter to my Lady Webbe, who fell near unto her Mother; and Elenor Sanders, who was covered, with many others; whose Lives were saved within the Heaps of these Blood-guilty Ruins.

There was also a Minister, whose Name I cannot learn; and therefore, although he survive this Misfortune, it must be buried as yet in silence; who being present at the Sermon, as being invited by some Romish Catholick to that Exercise, who also gave him the Conduct unto the Place, he fell with the rest of the Multitude assembled there together; and being covered with the Rubbish, Boards, and other Timbers, which fell upon him from the the higher Rooms; and prest with the weight of divers Persons besides, whereof some were dead and some were living. Being in this Agony, which his present pain, and the fear of Death, in his own judgment even hanging over his Head, did impose (and that not without just cause) upon him; being, I say, thus distressed, and striving under those Heaps and Ruins for Life, the hope whereof, in respect of the premised impediments, had almost forsaken him; One of the French Embassador’s Gentlemen, hearing the Noise and Report of this great and dismal Fall, suddenly as he could, opened a Door, which gave entrance into that Chamber, upon the Floor whereof, the Heaps and Ruins, together with the oppressed Multitude, as then lay: Who perceiving light by the Door that opened, the Place before being covered over with darkness, he strove with all the strength and agility he could, which in him was not mean, he being a Man of a very strong and able Body; and at last, after the loss of his Cloak, and renting of his Cloathes, he recovered himself, without any further hurt.Which the Gentleman perceiving, came and demanded of him, whether or no he were hurt, or that he stood in need of any Thing that might do him Service, or procure him Comfort?

But he being almost exanimated and astonished, could not at first apprehend those courteous Proffers which were tendred unto him by this Stranger, who presently went and brought him into a Chamber; where after he had sat a while and refreshed himself with Wine, which was brought unto him, and having thus recovered his Strength and Spirits, he returned to the foresaid Place again; and used his best endeavours for the relieving of others from that Calamity, whereof but even now he was a Fellow-sufferer. His Man who attended him, was recovered among the rest, he being something bruised and hurt in the Arm.Moreover, there was a young Girl, about the Age of ten Years, as is supposed, (when this Minister, out of his charitable and commiserating Disposition, was labouring for the Safety and Preservation of them, whose Necessities did then require it) came crying unto him, and said, “O my Mother! O my Sister! which are down under the Timber and Rubbish.” But he wisht her to be patient for a time, and by God’s Grace they should get forth quickly. Upon which Speech, the Child replied presently, that howsover, this Accident would prove a great Scandal to their Religion. A Speech which is worth Admiration in all Men, as this Relator did truly admire; that a Child of so tender Years, wherein amongst the most towardliest, there is scarce ability to discern between Good and Evil, should next unto that Grief, which the danger of her Mother and Sister did inflict upon her, lament for nothing more, than for the Scandal which their Cause was like to suffer by the Disaster.It was reported also that many more were drawn out alive the next Morning. But I will not stand too much upon the justification of this Report, lest I should seem to be too credulous of those Things which are contrary to the Rules of Reason and Nature.

The Day following, which was Monday, and the Eve of Simon and Jude, there was great Care had for viewing of the Place, and for burial of the Dead. For this Cause, the Recorder and Sheriffs, about One of the Clock in the Afternoon, met at the French Embassador’s House, having first shut up Ludgate, to prevent the throng and resort of the People, which was exceeding great and turbulent in those Places. And then having doubled their Guards upon every Port and Passage, and given express Charge unto the Warders, upon pain of their Displeasure and Punishment, that no Man should enter in, without theirs, or the Coroner’s Warrant, they fell at length to consult about the Business; and after mature Consideration, concluded, That this doleful Accident fell out, not by any indirect Practice or Conspiracy (as was by some maliciously reported) but that those Fourscore and odd Persons fell by means of their own weight, and the weakness of those Timbers which did support the Chamber.

The Jury having thus brought in their Verdict, they disposed presently for the burial of the Dead; some of whom were carried by their Friends to Churches, far remote, there to receive their due obsequies. Others were buried in the same Place, and those were of the meanest Rank; whereof some Twenty, or thereabout, were laid in one Sepulchre, having a common Grave, as they had a common Death and Downfall.The Conjectures concerning this Event were divers: For some gave out, that it was the just Punishment and Vengeance of God inflicted upon them for their Idolatry. Moreover, there were divers doubting Spirits amongst the Roman Catholicks, who thought that this was some Conspiracy of the Protestants. But if the Building had been demolished and overthrown by their indirect and treacherous Means, it must have been done either by blowing it up with Gunpowder, by sapping away the Earth from the Foundation, by undermining it; or by cutting off, or taking away those Supporters and Pillars upon which the Frame and Machine of the Building was grounded.

All which were found to be false, upon most diligent search and inquiry made in that behalf. But that which carried apparent appearance of Truth, and that which the Protestant and Papists did allow, who were of the more milder, temperate, and sounder Judgment, was this: That this Disaster happened not by means of any divine Miracle, or human Malice; but by the defect and weakness of the Place, into which such a Multitude were crowded and assembled together; the Judgment of God concurring therewithal.

The Society of the Jesuits did suffer much, in losing the Persons of Father Drurie, and Father Redyate. And divers Persons of both Religions, but especially the Priests, who are Men of as great Care and Vigilancy, but of a far greater Moderation, did tax and blame them, for that they brought their Flock into a Place of no greater Safety or Assurance; and besides, because their Conventicle and Meeting was so publick, there being divers Protestants assembled at it, some of whom were reported to have a share in this Calamity; and the Times as yet not serving, the King’s Pardon being not yet published, which was granted, as they say, to all the Roman Catholicks of these Kingdoms.Read the other parts of Strype’s account.