Robert Hubert

Executed but innocent

Robert Hubert (c.1640–66), a French watchmaker, was travelling from Sweden to his parents' home in Rouen, France, as the only civilian passenger aboard the Maid of Stockholm, a Swedish merchant ship. The ship was intercepted by an English warship and ordered to divert to London, thereby starting a chain of events that would lead to Hubert's death. Hubert gave a false confession that he started the Great Fire by throwing a fireball through the window of Pudding Lane. He was subsequently hung. Described as being "not well in mind" and afflicted by a palsy to his leg and arm, it is widely accepted that he was, however, innocent.

The Tyburn Tree, where Robert Hubert was executed, wrongly accused of starting the Great Fire of London.

Above: The Tyburn Tree, where Robert Hubert was executed, wrongly accused of starting the Great Fire of London.

1 - the number of people officially tried and executed as responsible for the fire.

26 - Hubert's approximate age at the time of the Great Fire.

31 August 1666 - the date the maid of Stockholm arrived in London.

£3, 10s - the amount promised to Peterson for transporting Hubert to France. It was only when he arrived at Hubert's parents in Rouen (to request his payment) that Peterson learned of the execution.

2 days - the time after the fire started that Hubert first left the ship, on the Tuesday, according to testimony given years later by the ship's captain Peterson.

Did You Know?

On Monday evening, disgusted to see Hubert grinning and muttering "Very well! Very well!" and "Yes! Yes!" at the sight of the fire, Captain Peterson had him taken below deck and barricaded into the hold of the ship. Hubert escaped later that evening, managing to force the door open and then escaping through a side hatch in the captain's quarters. Peterson caught sight of Hubert on the quayside, just before he was grabbed and taken away by an angry mob.

11 September 1666 - the date Hubert was arrested in Romford.

12 miles - the distance that Romford lies north east of London.

4 - the number of weeks that Hubert spent in the White Lion Prison before his trial commenced, a period of brutal treatment and interrogation, as was the norm for prisoners at the time.

Did You Know?

Although he had spent much of his adult life living in London, Hubert spoke little English.

23 - the number of men Hubert claimed had been involved in the fire raising, each using fireballs.

1 shilling - the sum Hubert claimed he had been paid by a fellow Frenchman, Stephen Piedloe, to throw a fireball (a crude form of fire grenade) through the window of a house in Westminster, with the promise of a larger payment if he escaped to France.

04 September 1666 - Tuesday, the day on which Hubert claimed he threw the fireball, 2 days after the fire had already started. Later, in court, his confession extended to being responsible for starting the fire, by using a stick to push a fireball through the window at the bakery on Pudding Lane. It is not known whether fear or mental instability was behind his false confession.

Did You Know?

There were many people who doubted Hubert's sanity and testimony but they kept these views private, probably for fear of appearing to have papist sympathies. The chairman of the Parliamentary committee believed Hubert "was a madman and...no more guilty of burning the city of London than he was", whilst another doubter was the Lord Chief Justice, who told the king he "did not believe a word of his discourse, so disjointed was it." None of this could save Hubert from his fate.

11 October 1666 - the date Hubert appeared before the Lord Chief Justice Kelyng and his confession changed again.

12 months - the period prior to the fire that Hubert now claimed the attack was first planned, whilst in Paris.

3 - the number of perpetrators that he now claimed to have been involved, down from the 23 that he claimed in an earlier confession (he claimed the other two arsonists escaped to France).

One pistole - the amount Hubert claimed he had been paid by Piedloe (a pistole was a gold coin with a value slightly less than a sovereign).

Five pistoles - the additional amount Hubert claimed he had been promised upon completion of the task.

Did You Know?

Thomas Farriner was a signatory on the Bill against Hubert.

4 - the age from which one witness, a French merchant named Graves, claimed he had known Hubert, stating that he was "a person of mischievous inclination fit for any villainous enterprise". Graves claimed that he had visited Hubert in prison and that he had confirmed his guilt, "not out of any malice...but from desire of a reward".

24 October 1666 - the date the House of Commons committee had Hubert take the Recorder of London along with John Lowman, keeper of the White Lion Prison to the area around Pudding Lane, to reveal whether he could take them to the place the fire started, thereby indicating his guilt if successful or innocence if not. Hubert apparently did this, however a crowd had already gathered around the ruins of the bakery, making it quite clear where the fire had started (Lowman failed to mention this detail in his statement).

27th October 1666 - the date Hubert was hanged at Tyburn.

Did You Know?

As Hubert was being transported to the White Lion Prison in Southwark, crowds lined the streets to jeer, spit, and throw stones, manure and rotting vegetables at him.

£11 - the amount paid to the executioner, Jack Ketch, to hang Hubert.

12 inches - the lengths into which the rope used for the hanging would be cut and sold by Ketch, at an auction at a nearby tavern (this was always the hangman's privilege, and the amount raised was dependent upon the notoriety of the accused).

1 hour - the length of time Hubert's body was left hanging from the gallows, before the gaol surgeon confirmed his death and his body was cut down.

Did You Know?

Hubert's body was intended to go for dissection by the barber surgeons at Newgate, however when he was being lifted back on to the cart that had brought him to the gallows, an angry mob overcame the guards and attacked the corpse.

17 December 1681 - the date Peterson spoke at a new inquiry into the causes of the Great Fire, testifying that, whilst his ship arrived in London two days before the fire, Hubert was "never ashore nor out of his ship from his coming into it until the Tuesday after the fire began".

15 years - the period after Hubert's execution that Peterson, captain of the Maid of Stockholm, testified of Hubert's innocence.


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