Watching London consumed by the devastating flames of the Great Fire of 1666, John Evelyn, the English diarist and friend of Samuel Pepys, wrote: ‘London was, but is no more’. Over the next three days, four-fifths of the ancient city would be reduced to ashes, casting more than 200,000 homeless out of the city, dragging what they could in handcarts to the outlying fields or on overladen boats across the Thames.
The fire of 1666 came as a last shock to a city that had already been brought to its knees. During the previous 20 years it had been witness to civil war, occupation, the execution of its monarch, drought, unease and plague. Yet within 40 years London would become the greatest city in the world, risen from the ashes to be larger than Constantinople, in design more resplendent than Paris, and home to the financial, philosophical and political foundations that made it the first modern city in Europe.
THE PHOENIX tells the story of this rebirth of the city through six of the city’s most extraordinary sons. Men such as John Evelyn, the writer and gardener who hoped that London would form a new city to rival any European capital; Robert Hooke, the instrument maker who measured out the whole city in the inferno’s aftermath; Nicholas Barbon, a physician and businessman whose pursuit of profit altered London’s very landscape; and John Locke, the economist and political philosopher, whose ideas rejected the past and changed the way that man came to understand the world.
Central to the narrative, however, is Christopher Wren and his quest to rebuild St Paul’s, the cathedral that had for centuries towered over London. For although his dream of constructing a new cathedral would take him 33 years to achieve, it resulted in a building quite unlike any other in England: the nation’s first Anglican cathedral, a palace of order, a temple to reason and a magnificent dome to reign over the world’s greatest town.
Leo Hollis lives in London and is a publisher at Constable and Robinson. He studied History at the University of East Anglia and has worked as an editor at Fourth Estate and Penguin. He has contributed to various magazines and has written two guidebooks, including HISTORIC LONDON WALKS (Cadogan Guides, 2005). He is also the author of THE PHOENIX: The Men Who Made Modern London (Weidenfeld, 2008), which the Economist called ‘A tour de force of biography, history, politics, philosophy and experimental science.’