Gateway to the Classics: Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Island Story by  H. E. Marshall

Charles II.—The Story of How London Was Burned

A FTER the plague had passed away another dreadful misfortune happened to London, at least at the time it seemed like a misfortune, but really it was a good thing. This was the Great Fire which caused much of the city to be burned to the ground. Many of the dirty houses and narrow streets were destroyed, and with them the last remains of the dreadful plague were also burned away. When the houses were built again they were made better and the streets were made wider, so that the Great Fire was not altogether a misfortune.

The fire first broke out in a baker's shop. As most of the houses were built of wood, and the summer had been unusually hot and dry, the flames spread very fast. They leaped from house to house, and the people, seeing that it was useless to try to save their dwellings, tried rather to save their furniture and belongings by carrying them to other houses. But sometimes, as soon as they had done this the fire would attack these too, and the people had to fly still further away, often in the end losing all that they possessed.

For three days and nights the fire blazed and roared. A great cloud of smoke hung over the city by day, but at night there was no darkness, for the flames made it brighter than by day. The air was hot and stifling, and at last no one could go near the fire, so great was the heat. The earth seemed a blazing furnace, and the sky as if beaten out of burning copper.

To stop the fire seemed impossible. It must burn and burn until nothing more was left to destroy. So houses were pulled down in order to make a gap between the burning ones and those which were still safe. But the work went on too slowly, and before the gap was big enough, the fire had reached the workers, and they had to flee for their lives.

At last some one thought of the plan of blowing up the houses with gunpowder. This was done, and when the hungry flames reached the open spaces left by the houses which had been destroyed, they died away, for they could not overleap the ruins and attack the houses beyond.

So the roar and crackle of the flames ceased, and the great cloud of smoke rolled away, but London, from the Tower to Temple Bar, was left a smouldering, blackened ruin and two hundred thousand people were homeless.

In memory of the Great Fire a monument was raised on the spot where it first broke out, and may still be seen to this day. So fearful were people at that time about plots, and so bitter was the feeling about religion, that many thought the fire had been caused on purpose by the Roman Catholics. But there was never any real reason for believing this, and now every one thinks that it happened by accident.

About this time the King of France became very greedy, and wanted more land and power than he had a right to possess. To prevent him succeeding in his plans to get these, three other countries in Europe joined together, forming what was called the Triple Alliance. The three countries were Britain, Holland, and Sweden. Triple means "three," and alliance means "to join together," and the Triple Alliance was called so because three countries joined together.

As you know, the French and English were old enemies, and this alliance pleased the English, so that Charles was forced to join it, although he really did not care whether the French King was powerful or not.

Charles thought most of all about his own pleasure. He spent a great deal of money, and he could not always make the Commons give him more when he wanted it. Now he thought of a new way of getting money. He wrote secret letters to the King of France, offering to break with the Triple Alliance, and to help him to fight against the Dutch. This, he said, he would do, if the King of France would promise to give him a large sum of money every year.

The King of France promised, and so Charles disgraced himself and his country, not only by breaking his word, but by becoming the servant of the King of France. Openly he pretended to be a Protestant and the friend of Protestants. Secretly he was a Roman Catholic and the friend of Roman Catholics.

For a time Charles kept up the pretence of the Triple Alliance, and by telling the Parliament that he must have more sailors, in order to keep a check upon the French King, he got a large sum of money from them. He got still more money in other wicked ways and then, to the anger of the people, he made war on the Dutch.

But if France was greedy and Britain false, Holland was strong and stubborn. Bravely she fought under her great leader, William, Prince of Orange. In two years Charles came to the end of his money, and he was forced to sign a peace called the Peace of Westminster, and leave France to fight alone. But he still continued to receive money from the French King.

Charles was called the Merry Monarch, because he was gay and laughter-loving. The people were glad at first to have so gay a King, for they were tired of the stern ways of Cromwell and the Puritans. But they soon found out that Charles was selfish and wicked as well as gay, and his reign proved a very unhappy one for Britain.

There was constant discontent, there were constant plots. The King plotted, Parliament plotted, Protestants plotted, and Catholics plotted. But out of all the misery and discontent and injustice of these years one good thing at least grew.

This good thing was the passing of the Habeas Corpus Act. It was indeed no new act, it was as old as the Great Charter of King John, but like much in that great charter it had been set aside by king after king. By this Act no person could be put into prison and left there as long as the King pleased, or until he was forgotten by all his friends. It commanded that every person should be brought to trial, and either punished or set free. Habeas Corpus  is Latin for "have his body," and means that the body of the prisoner must be brought into court at a certain time to be tried, instead of being left in prison for a long, long time or perhaps sent into slavery and exile without any trial or any chance of proving himself innocent. This Act is at least one good thing to remember of the reign of Charles II., who died in 1685 A.D., having reigned for twenty-five years.

He died as he had lived, careless, witty, laughter-loving. He was clever, and it is said that he never said a foolish thing, and never did a wise one. He was lazy, selfish, and deceitful, a bad man, and a bad king. Yet Charles found both men and women to love him during his life, and to sorrow for him at his death because he was clever, good-tempered, and had pleasant manners.

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