The Great

06 09 peter the greatToday is the the birthday of Peter the Great, who was born on this day in 1672. I’ve mentioned Peter a few times already when I wrote about about the Dutch artist Maria Sibylla Merian, Frederic Ruysch and the Alaska Purchase. His official title is so ridiculously long that I’m not even going to tell you what it was. So I’ll just stick with ‘Emperor of all the Russias’. But what would you think if I told you that the Emperor of all the Russias spent eighteen months of his reign travelling around Europe in disguise working in dockyards? Well, I am going to tell you that, in a minute.

Peter inherited the throne from his half brother and, from the age of ten, shared the title of Tsar with another step brother. But the real power behind the throne, literally, was his older step sister. There was a hole cut in the back of their double throne and she used to sit behind it and tell them what to say. She later tried to overthrow both of them and got sent to a convent. Then, in 1696, his brother died and Peter became sole ruler. Like anyone who goes about calling themselves ‘the Great’ he wasn’t an entirely good person. He once personally beheaded two hundred people with an axe. But let’s not focus on that.

He seems to have spent most of his reign either trying to start a war or fighting one. His problem was, that although Russia was a vast country, full of all sorts of resources that people might want to buy, exporting them was difficult. What Peter really wanted were ships, he really liked ships, and the only place he could have ships was the port of Arkhangelsk on the northern coast. That wasn’t ideal, because it was ice bound for a large part of the year. What he needed was either a bit of Sweden or to overthrow the Ottoman Empire so he could have access to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. So he thought it might be a good idea to start some wars. But he would need allies.

In 1697, Peter organised his ‘Grand Embassy’ which was an entourage of around two hundred and fifty people, including himself. They set off on an eighteen month journey around Europe looking for support for his plan. The Tsar was travelling incognito, calling himself Peter Mikhailov. But I don’t imagine his disguise fooled many people as Peter was unusually tall at 6′ 7”. They didn’t have much luck. People were far too worried about who was going to be the next King of Spain after the unfortunate Charles II, who wasn’t very well at all.

It wasn’t a wasted journey though, because Peter got to see Europe. Russia was, at that time, still stuck in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance had passed it by. Peter was the first Russian ruler to leave his country in a hundred years and he was impressed by what he saw. When I try to imagine what that would have been like for him, I think about how I would have felt if someone had given me the internet in 1973. Peter loved two things, well, three things, but we’ll get to that. He loved ships and he loved the ‘cabinets of curiosity’ that wealthy people had begun to collect. When he visited the Netherlands, which was a massively important sea-faring nation, he managed to get hands on experience on how ships were built He also recruited skilled workers, who would be able to help him with his plans for a Russian Navy.

06 09 peter and jacobBut it was also in the Netherlands that he got to see how Europeans really lived. In Amsterdam, he met Jacob de Wilde who had a huge collection of books, statues and scientific instruments. Peter was fascinated. Jacob’s daughter made this engraving in commemoration of their meeting. There, he met Jan van der Heyden, who invented the fire hose. That might not sound very significant, but Peter’s capital, Moscow, was a wooden city and fires were quite a problem. He also met one of my favourite Dutch anatomists, Frederik Ruysch, who taught him how to catch butterflies and how to pull teeth. On a second, later, visit, he bought up Ruysch’s entire, extremely odd, collection and shipped it back to Russia.

After that, Peter went to London, where he also studied shipbuilding, in the dockyards of Deptford. This brings us to Peter’s third favourite thing. Drinking. Peter and his men were lodged in a house that belonged to John Evelyn. If you want a historical handle on him, he’s the other man, apart from Samuel Pepys, who wrote a diary that tells us about the Great Fire of London. John Evelyn loved his home, and had spent many years creating its beautiful garden. Peter and his entourage, which I now realise I’ve neglected to mention, included six trumpeters, four dwarves and a monkey, managed to drunkenly wreck the entire place during their short stay. They broke the windows and doors. They tore and burnt the tapestries and ripped up the mattresses. They blew up the kitchen floor. After they left, every single one of the fifty chairs in the house had gone missing. In the garden, they tore up Evelyn’s bowling green and they destroyed his pride and joy, a holly hedge, which they wrecked by pushing each other through it in wheelbarrows. Evelyn was paid £305 9s 6d in compensation, including £3 for “wheelbarrows broke by the Czar”

During his stay in London, he also met with Edmund Halley, of comet fame, who probably helped a bit with the wrecking of Evelyn’s house, so there’s a side of him we haven’t seen. While in England, Peter also visited Manchester. I couldn’t find out what he did there, other than learn how proper cities were built. Despite his behaviour, Peter left England with the gift of a ship and an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, in Law, of all things.

Peter had to cut his visit short because of a threatened uprising back in Russia. On his way, he managed to forge an alliance against Sweden with the King of Poland, who was called Augustus the Strong. The rebellion was over by the time he got back, but he set about modernising his country. He outlawed arranged marriages amongst the nobility. He made them wear wigs and European clothes. If he caught them wearing coats with long sleeves, he cut them off with a pair of scissors. He also tried to make them shave off their long beards. Anyone who wanted to keep their beards had to pay a ‘beard tax’ and keep a token with them to prove that they’d paid it. On one side it said ‘the beard tax has been taken’, on the other, ‘the beard is a superfluous burden’.

He also changed the calender in 1699. The Russians had an odd calender, based on the Byzantine one. They reckoned the year from the supposed date of creation. So for them, it was the year 7207. He also changed the date of New Year from September 1st to January 1st, something we didn’t do in England until 1752. So December 31st 7207 was followed by January 1st 1700. It was a big change for everyone. Peter had taken up the practice of smoking and when people saw him with smoke coming out of his mouth, some thought their Tsar had been captured and replaced by the Devil.

Maybe, we’ll leave Peter there. Just before he picks up that axe and starts swinging it. And before he starts forcing everyone to build him a big city in the middle of nowhere. Except, I have one more wild story to tell you. In 1701, while visiting his friend Augustus the Strong, they went on a three day drinking binge which ended with a cannon-shooting competition. Augustus won.

London’s Burning

09 02 fire of london 1Today marks the outbreak of the Great Fire of London in 1666. This was obviously not a brilliant thing for anyone at the time, but in hindsight, it’s pretty spectacular. What started as a small fire in a bakery on Pudding Lane spread over four days and destroyed more than 13,000 homes, 87 parish churches, most of the buildings belonging to the City authorities and St Paul’s Cathedral.

At the time, the most effective way of controlling a large fire was to pull down other nearby buildings to create a fire break. Due to the indecision of the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, this was not done until the following night, by which time the blaze had become an uncontrollable firestorm. Hot air from the flames was rising so quickly that it created a vacuum at ground level which caused strong winds to rush in from all directions. This made the fire spread erratically.

09 02 fire of london 2The City of London was a very crowded place surrounded by a Roman wall. Most of the buildings were made of wood and thatch which made them extremely flammable. Access by road was restricted to the eight gates in the city wall. The city was open to the river on its south side and the Thames should have been the important source of water that could have helped to put the fire out as well as a means of escape for the citizens. But this area was packed with buildings made from tar paper and warehouses containing many flammable materials including gunpowder so most of the waterfront soon became inaccessible. There was a second water supply from a water tower at Cornhill but unfortunately the pump which supplied it was also destroyed by the fire. Although fire engines were available the fire was to hot for them to be able to get close to the flames.

By the following day people start to give up trying to fight the spread of the fire and settled instead for trying to move their belongings to a safer place. Flying embers cause seemingly unrelated fires to break out and people started to suspect that the fire was a result of terrorism. Britain had recently been at war with the Dutch so suspicion fell on foreigners. The Coldstream Guards, who had been brought in to help out began to put more effort into rounding up suspicious people than to fighting the fire. These worries were fuelled by burning of the General Letter Office and the headquarters of the London Gazette. As people struggled to save their possessions, anyone with a cart or a boat that was still able to reach the shore was able to make a lot of money transporting goods of the upper classes to safety. The streets were crowded and the gates jammed with people who now just wanted to leave the city to the flames. Magistrates ordered the city gates shut to encourage people to fight the fire instead of leaving. The Lord Mayor seems to be one of the people who left as he isn’t mentioned again.

The King himself, Charles II, took management of the situation. He put his brother James, Duke of York, in charge of organizing groups of fire fighters who were well paid and well fed. They also rescued foreigners who had fallen victim to mobs. It was reported that the king also worked manually to throw water on the flames and demolish buildings.

St Paul’s Cathedral was thought to be safe because it was surrounded by a plaza and had thick stone walls. The crypt had been packed with printers goods from nearby Paternoster Row. Unfortunately building was undergoing restoration under the direction of a man named Christopher Wren. It was surrounded by wooden scaffolding which caught fire on the third day. The lead on the roof melted and ran down the streets making them impassable. The stones exploded like grenades. When the fire moved east towards Tower of London, which was packed with gunpowder, the garrison stationed there started to blow up houses on a large scale to prevent the spread. It was this method that really helped to stop the spread of the fire the following day.

Both Samuel Pepys and a man named John Evelyn, who was a founding member of the Royal Society, described walking through the ruined city after the fire was out. They both describe how the ashes burned their feet. The fire had been fed not just by the wood and thatch of buildings but also the oil, pitch, coal, tallow, fats, sugar, alcohol, turpentine and gunpowder stored near the river. The flames had been hot enough to melt the steel that was also stored there. The iron chains and locks on the city gates had also melted. The official death toll was very small but we will never know how many perished in the flames.