Robert Hubert

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Robert Hubert (c. 1640 – 27 October 1666) was a watchmaker[1] from Rouen, France, who was executed following his false confession of starting the Great Fire of London.

Great Fire of London[edit]

Main article: Great Fire of London

Between 2 and 5 September 1666, a major fire broke out in Pudding Lane in the City of London, and proceeded to destroy around 80 percent of the city.

Confession[edit]

Hubert's confession, at first, was of starting a fire in Westminster. However, this story proved unsatisfactory, and his confession changed upon learning that the fire never reached Westminster.[2] Having learned that the fire started in Pudding Lane, in the house of the baker Thomas Farriner (or Farynor), he then claimed to have thrown a crude fire grenade through the open window of the Farriner bakery.[3] He claimed to have acted with accomplices, who stopped the water cocks to sabotage the effort to put out the fire. Hubert's confessed motive was, apparently, that he was a French spy,[4] and an agent of the Pope.

Trial and execution[edit]

Hubert's confessions never seemed convincing. His retroactive change of story to fit the facts, though, was not the only reason. Hubert had not even been in London at the time that the fire broke out — he had not even arrived in England until two days after the fire started.[5] That he was not in the country at the time of the outbreak of fire is not in doubt, as testified, years later, by a captain of the Swedish ship the Maid of Stockholm,[6] that he personally had landed Hubert ashore two days after the outbreak of the fire.[7] Having never seen the Farriner bakery, Hubert also did not know that it had no windows. What is more, he was judged so severely crippled that it would have been impossible for him to throw the claimed grenade.[8]

Hubert's confession is often attributed to a mental simplicity, an inability to understand what it was he was doing; a kind of "Confessing Sam" tendency. One source claims, though, that the confession was coerced "probably by an extreme form of torture".[9]

As The London Gazette suggests, some put the disaster down to chance:

[...] notwithstanding which suspicion, the manner of the burning all along in a Train, and so blowen forwards in all its way by strong Wings, make us conclude the whole was an effect of an unhappy chance, or to speak better, the heavy hand of God upon us for our sins [...][10]

Despite the many obvious flaws and impossibilities in Hubert's confession, a scapegoat was needed. Even the king, Charles II, was suspected of having instigated it, in order to punish the people of London for the execution of his father.[11] Nationalism was high with Britain embroiled in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, and many nationalities--the Dutch, French, Spanish, and Irish--were suspect.[12] Frenchmen were particularly vulnerable, as illustrated by the murder of a Frenchman whose tennis balls were mistaken for 'balls of fire'.[11] Hubert, a foreigner and Frenchman, was a chief suspect, as suggested by the London Gazette:

[...] Strangers, Dutch and French were, during the fire, apprehended, upon suspicion that they contributed mischievously to it, who are all imprisoned, and Informations prepared to make a severe inquisition [...][10]

Catholics were also chief suspects, and accusations were so formal as to be added to the Monument in 1668, which stayed (with brief interruptions) until 1830:

[...] the most dreadful Burning of this City; begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction.[13]

Hubert had convenient attributes. He was convicted and sentenced to death at the Old Bailey.

Despite the contradictoriness of both Hubert's account and of public opinion, the Farriner family, in whose bakery the fire had started, was naturally under pressure — they needed to show that their ovens had been doused properly— and three members of the family were present in the jury.[14] Thomas Farynor stated that, after midnight, he had:

gone through every room and found no fire, but in one chimney, where the room was paved with bricks, which fire I diligently raked up in embers [...] no window or door might let wind disturb them and that it was absolutely set on fire on purpose[...][12]

Few of the jury at his trial actually believed Hubert guilty. One contemporary account claims that Hubert was "only accused upon his own confession; yet neither the judges nor any present at the trial did believe him guilty, but that he was a poor distracted wretch, weary of his life, and chose to part with it in this way."[15] The jury stated that he did not have "the fear of God before his eyes, but [was] moved and led away by the instigation of the devil".[16]

Hubert was hanged at Tyburn, London.[17] As his body was being handed to the Company of Barber-Surgeons for dissection, it was torn apart by a crowd of Londoners.[18]

It was hoped that with Hubert's death, "the talk of plots and conspiracies might die with him".[11] In 1667, after the need for scapegoats had died down, the fire was officially attributed to 'the hand of God, a great wind and a very dry season...'.[12] One source attributes the accident to a spark falling upon a bale of straw in the bakery of the Farriners,[19] and many assume the spark to have come from the oven of the Farynor bakery.[20]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Leasor, James (2001). "A Scapegoat is Hanged". The plague and the fire. House of Stratus. p. 235. ISBN 0-7551-0040-9. 
  2. ^ About.com, accessed 3 September 2006. The Great Fire of London 1666: Hunting For A Scapegoat.] "...at first he said he'd started it in Westminster, which the fire never even got near...".
  3. ^ The Register.co.uk, accessed 3 September 2006. What is a Confessing Sam?] "Hubert confessed to having started the fire by throwing a crude fire grenade through an open bakery window."
  4. ^ [1] "... he claimed to have had accomplices had stopped the water cocks for the water supply of London so that the fire could not be fought effectively (during the fire the reservoirs of water kept in the city for such an eventuality were strangely dry). Hubert (who claimed he was an agent for the French) ...".
  5. ^ The Register.co.uk, accessed 3 September 2006.] "...Hubert, a sailor, had not arrived in England until two days after the fire started...".
  6. ^ [2] "... a few years later the master of the Maid of Stockholm testified that the young man, who was bound for Rouen, was on board his ship when the fire broke out."
  7. ^ [3] "Many years later a Swedish ship's captain testified that he had landed the watchmaker ashore two days after the fire had started."
  8. ^ The Register.co.uk, accessed 3 September 2006.] "[he] was never near the bakery where the fire started, and was so badly crippled that throwing anything was beyond him. If that were not enough, the bakery had no windows."
  9. ^ [4] "[he] was coerced into confessing (probably by an extreme form of torture) to having hurled a home-made chemical fireball into the bakery."
  10. ^ a b Wikipedia, accessed 3 September 2006. London-gazette.gif.
  11. ^ a b c Reviews
  12. ^ a b c [5]
  13. ^ About.com, accessed 3 September 2006. The Great Fire of London 1666: Hunting For A Scapegoat.] "Catholics remained the favoured villain [...] the inscription remained until 1830.".
  14. ^ About.com, accessed 3 September 2006. The Great Fire of London 1666: Hunting For A Scapegoat.] "...the group judging him contained three members of the Farriner family. They vehemently denied any wrongdoing and claimed to have doused the ovens properly...".
  15. ^ Quoted in [6].
  16. ^ [7] "The Old Bailey jury, however, found that, "not having the fear of God before his eyes, but moved and led away by the instigation of the devil," Hubert had deliberately started the fire."
  17. ^ "Investigate The Great Fire of London". Museum of London. Retrieved 8 April 2009. 
  18. ^ [8] "The manner in which the Londoners who watched the execution of Hubert tore his body to pieces as it was about to be handed to the beadle of the Worshipful Company of Barber Surgeons for dissection bears witness to the hatred that the fire had aroused."
  19. ^ Winchester, Simon (22 September 2002). "When London Started Over". The New York Times. 
  20. ^ [9] "...and everyone blames the open door of Farriner's oven."