“And this is The Monument.” The group stops to look up at the golden glittering depiction of flames at the top of a column on a cobbled street. London has a vast number of monuments – the Duke of Wellington with his victory arch at Hyde Park Corner, Nelson on his column in Trafalgar Square, that great memorial to Queen Victoria outside Buckingham Palace…but there is only one that is simply The Monument. It is the great column – well, great in its day, but dwarfed now by the vast soaring office-blocks all around – that commemorates the Great Fire of 1666.
“In sixteen hundred and sixty-six, London burned like rotten sticks.” Children, even in this age when they are taught little or no history, still learn that rhyme. And, as a leader of regular Catholic History Walks around London, I repeat it often enough, to sagely nodding heads as we gather at The Monument’s base, just near London Bridge and a few yards from the Thames.
What my groups learn, however, that many others do not, is that shortly after The Monument was first erected, wording was added suggesting that the Fire had been started by Catholics: “but evil Popery, which wrought such horrors, remains unchecked.” The claim was, of course, complete drivel. London’s Catholics – even if arson were not the serious sin that it most certainly is – had no interest in starting a fire. Like other Londoners, they loved their city: their home, the centre of their country’s trade and prosperity, a great city of a great nation, a source of pride. The fire started in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, spread quickly because of the daft but cheap custom of using hollowed-out tree trunks as chimneys, and raced through the narrow streets swooping up homes and shops, beautiful old churches, grimy alleyways, plus carts and clutter and litter on its way. It raged for days, and when it finally came under control – belatedly, thanks to inadequate pumps and fire-fighting equipment – it had destroyed many of the cramped, unhealthy, crowded houses that had enabled the plague of the previous year to take so many lives. New buildings, notably the fine churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, arose over the ruins.
What has all this to do with today? Only that prejudice and mob-opinion have long been the stuff of people’s lives. Lots of people probably did believe that Catholics went around burning down cities. After all, they were just evil people, weren’t they? With priests in funny robes doing odd ceremonies. You couldn’t trust ’em.
That unjust inscription was finally removed from The Monument when the tides of history swept it away. In the 18th century the (aptly named!) Catholic poet Alexander Pope had written of The Monument that it “lifts up its head and lies.” By the 19th century, although anti-Catholic prejudice remained strong in many quarters, Cardinal Manning had become a national hero for his concern for the poor and his settlement of the London dock strike, and Cardinal John Henry Newman’s hymns were sung widely in churches across the country while his Dream of Gerontious and Apologia Pro Vita Sua were among the most widely-read religious works of the day. People were appalled that, a couple of centuries before, men had been tortured and executed simply for being Catholic priests.
Just as in the past, anti-Catholic prejudice does have something on which to feast. In the tumultuous years of the Reformation, there really were people, including simple-minded and confused folk, burned alive in Smithfield under Catholic rule for being heretics, and attempts to justify this don’t really work. (“They didn’t burn that many Protestants” can sound uncomfortably like “Only a small number of priests have abused children”).
Today? As I write this, we face new examples of mob hatred and prejudice. In Australia numbers of people probably do believe that an innocent cardinal really has committed vile crimes. Those who shouted and cursed him as he left the court will be relishing ongoing snide jokes and crude conversations. “Catholic priests – you can’t trust ‘em.”
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