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The Great Fire of Warwick was the fifth act of destruction suffered by the town

Posted in British Towns, Castles, Disasters, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about Warwick first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 468 published on 2 January 1971.

Warwick Castle, picture, image, illustration

Warwick Castle by R P Leitch

On the 5th September, 1694, a man in one of the cottages in a lane off High Street, Warwick, went to a neighbour’s home to light a brand to start his fire. But he had not reckoned with the strong wind that was blowing. Sparks were whisked off his brand and swept upwards, setting light to the thatched roof. In a few minutes, the conflagration spread into Castle Street and before long it had taken a firm hold and was raging across High Street and into other streets.

The primitive fire-fighting equipment could do little and the timber-built houses with their thatched roofs quickly burnt. Panic-stricken folk dragged what furniture and belongings they could save from the buildings. Some took their possessions to St. Mary’s church which they felt would be safe but unfortunately some of the articles were already smouldering so that soon the famous church was itself alight and a large part was burnt down.

At last, the spread of the flames was halted by a sturdy stone house and gradually the blaze died down. When the losses were counted it was found that a great many buildings had been destroyed or badly damaged. The first task was to provide shelter for the homeless and, when this was completed, consideration was given to the rebuilding of the devastated town and a body of Commissioners was set up to supervise this task. Some 19 years previously Northampton had suffered a similar fire and the Commissioners took the benefit of the advice from that town and from the experience gained in rebuilding it afterwards.

In order to avoid a repetition of the disaster, the Commission ruled that the new buildings should be of brick or stone with slate or tile roofs – and they showed their wisdom by taking advantage of the opportunity to re-plan the streets. How well they did this can still be seen for, although Warwick has the air of an old town, it is unlike its neighbours in that it has well laid-out streets of stone buildings in place of the half-timbered houses and awkward streets of many of its contemporaries.

It was ten years before the rebuilding of the church of St. Mary’s was completed, and it was an odd coincidence that Sir Christopher Wren who had been employed after the fire of London should also have been called in to advise here. Originally, it had been planned to erect a tower at the west end of the church but, after work had started, it was evident that the pillars would not be able to carry the weight and Sir Christopher was consulted. After inspecting the site and the work that had been done, he advised building the tower at the east end of the church and this was done, with the strange result that the base of the tower projects into the street. In view of the fact that Sir Christopher’s own plan for the rebuilding had been turned down earlier, one feels that it was very forgiving of him to give advice on this matter.

The fire was but one of the disasters which has struck this town. Standing on a rocky cliff overlooking the Avon it was an inviting site for a defensive post, but it had already been destroyed four times when King Alfred’s daughter, Ethelfleda, built the first castle about A.D. 916. A hundred years later this was destroyed but the town had once more risen from the ashes by the time of the coming of the Normans who built a new motte and bailey castle in 1068.

Indeed the town might well have chosen the Phoenix as its badge, but from earliest times the famous bear and ragged staff has been used by the Earls of Warwick. According to tradition, this dates back to Saxon times when Arthal, Earl of Warwick, adopted this animal as his crest. His son, Mordivus, added the staff as a reminder, it is said, of the occasion when he wrenched a young ash tree out of the ground as a weapon to kill a giant. This famous badge appears in many places in the town and county of Warwick, but the most strange example is that with muzzled bears in the Beauchamp Chapel of St. Mary’s. This is a reminder of the occasion when Thomas, Earl of Warwick, so annoyed Richard II that he is reported as angrily saying, “I cannot muzzle you but I will muzzle your bear.” In fact, the Earl was banished to the Isle of Man in 1397 but his sentence was revoked when Henry IV came to power. The muzzled bear is a reminder of his brush with the king.

For centuries the castle was important as the home of the Earls of Warwick and their names appear many times in the history books – there were Richard, who will be remembered for the trial of Joan of Arc; Richard Neville, Warwick the Kingmaker; and John Dudley (later the Duke of Northumberland) who plotted to get his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne. For a time the castle but not the title was held by the Grevilles – they were granted the title in 1759.

The importance of the Earls of Warwick had many effects on the town itself, but one of the most striking changes came in 1793 when George Greville replaced the bridge by which the main road entered the town by one further to the east, so that he could complete plans for the gardens and approach to the castle. This meant that the main road had to be diverted and, instead of entering the town from the south, traffic now arrives from the east. Castle Street, the old main entry into the town, now ends at the castle wall.

Another reminder of the famous families of the past is the Leycester Hospital, established in 1571, by Robert Dudley, as a home for a Master and 12 brethren who were to be ex-servicemen. Despite all the changes that have happened in the world since then, this building still houses a Master and 12 brethren.

This marvellous example of continuity is typical of Warwick where you are conscious of the fact that history stretches back a long way.

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