Today (October 26) in London History – the Fatal Vespers

It was comparable to a capacity crowd at the Royal Albert Hall being struck dead, all of them, in one fell swoop. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one’s short. And grim. Horrible in fact.

It’s October 26th, 1623. 

It’s a Vespers service. Vespers – it’s a beautiful word. A very old word. In the late 14th-century vesper meant “the evening star.” It, vesper, came from a 12th-century Old French word meaning evening, or nightfall. And drilling down even further – that 12th-century Old French word, came from the Latin word vespera, meaning evening star, evening, west. Our English word west, is of course similar in sound and derives from that ancient Latin word, Vespera. Etymologists have actually traced it back to a ProtoIndo European root word meaning ‘down’ – thus literally the direction in which the sun sets.

That bit of etymology is haunting.

Haunting because the Vespers service in question took place right on the western edge of London. In Blackfriars. In Hunsdon House, the French ambassador’s house.

And that house fell – down. Well, the upper room of the house fell down. About 300 people were crowded into that old room. They were there to hear a religious service, a religious service that came to be known as ‘the fatal vespers.’

The great weight of the crowd 

in the old room suddenly snapped the main summer-beam of the floor, which instantly crashed in and fell into the room below. And then, like dominoes, the main beams there also snapped. They crashed through to the Ambassador’s drawing room, which was over the gatehouse, a distance of some 22 feet. The part of the floor that was less crowded held firm. The people at that end were able to escape. They cut through a plaster wall into a neighbouring room. 

Vespers. The sun going down. Darkness. Human beings falling. Nearly a hundred of them into eternal darkness. That was the death toll of the fatal vespers – about 95 people. Many others were badly injured.

You want names? The 300 people were there for a Vespers service preached by two English Jesuits, Robert Drury and William Whittington. Drury was preaching when the floor caved in. He and his fellow Jesuit were killed on the spot. 

And this is the point in the story where you reach the turnstile. And you’re praying they don’t go through. Willing them not to.

But of course they did. Both sides of that religious divide seized on that terrible, dreadful occurrence and tried to use it as a stick to torment and beat their religious opponents. The Puritans put it about that it was an Act of God, a providential judgement on the Catholics. And Catholics blamed the Protestants, said the fatal vespers was a Protestant plot. Ninety-five dead people. Many more badly injured. That’s how many families paid the steepest possible emotional price. To say nothing of the inevitable economic hardship it will have entailed for many of them. The decent thing, the human thing, the best thing would have been for those two communities to come together – show compassion, comfort their neighbours, come to their aid. But, no, couldn’t have that. Not when there was an axe to grind, flames to be fanned, hate to be sown.

Four hundred years is a long bridge of time to cross. Well, we don’t of course cross it. We try to see across it. But it’s through a glass darkly. We only have two names – the two Jesuits. We have the location. We have the date. We have the approximate time of day. And we have what happened. And then that awful aftermath of blame and chalking it up to god and approving of his killing 95 innocent people when they were in the very act of worshipping Him… but that’s all we have. We don’t have any other names. Of victims. Or of survivors. So it’s hard to bring it into more than amorphous focus. But there is, I think, one thing we can do. We can get those numbers into sharper focus. And to do so is, surely, to get a better idea of the impact of that event on that time, on those people. 

Start with the number of dead. Nearly a hundred people. That’s how many people were killed in the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in Sheffield in 1989. In the Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels 39 people were killed.

The population of London in 1623 was about 200,000. 100 people killed – well, nearly a hundred – that’s about one in 2,000 Londoners. Translated to today’s London that would be about 4,000 Londoners killed in a single mishap.

The capacity of the Battersea Evolution is exactly 4,000. The capacity of the Royal Albert Hall is not much more than that. You want to get the measure of what happened to London in 1623 in Hunsdon House in Blackfriars just imagine – it’s a horrible thought – something like that happening to a full house at the Royal Albert Hall. You can’t think about that very long without having to avert your gaze. 

And a Today in London recommendation? Well, not sure which Dantesque circle of London hell we’ve been exploring, but as long as we’re there we might as well suck it up and take a look at another circle of torment. Off we go to The Museum of London Docklands exhibition Executions. The exhibition opened a week ago.  It explores how public executions were an undeniable feature of city life for over 700 years. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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