Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Guest Post: Richard Denning and London in 1666

Curling Up By The Fire is thrilled to have Richard Denning, author of the newly released The Last Seal (July 20, 2011 - Paperback), here with us today.  He is here to discuss London as it was in 1666, the setting of The Last Seal, and also the time of the Great Fire that destroyed most of the city.  For those of you who are not familiar with Richard's latest release, here is synopsis of The Last Seal:

September 1666: a struggle between two secret societies threatens to destroy London. Three hundred years previously the Praesidum defeated and incarcerated a demon beneath the city. Now the Liberati aim to release it and gain its power for themselves. Meanwhile agents of the King are seeking four suspected foreign spies who are, in reality, disparate and unlikely heroes: GABRIEL, the sole remaining member of the Praesidum, crippled by his fear of failure; FREYA, a young thief orphaned by the Great Plague, driven by poverty and self-interest; TOBIAS, a cynical physician, obsessed by his desire for vengeance against the Liberati cavalier who killed his father, and finally and most vitally, BEN, a Westminster schoolboy, whose guilt over his parents’ death threatens to destroy him. Thrown together by chance when Ben finds an ancient scroll revealing the location of arcane seals that bind the demon beneath London, the story launches into a battle between the Liberati and Praesidium, a battle which takes place within the Great Fire of London. These four must overcome their personal problems and work together if they are to foil the plans of the Liberati, protect the city and gain the means to defeat the demon.

A visit to London in 1666

by Richard Denning

I am delighted to be a guest on Curling up by the Fire. I am a Young adult sci-fi, historical fiction and historical fantasy writer. This post is part of a blog tour celebrating the release of my historical fantasy novel, The Last Seal. The Last Seal is set during the Great Fire of London in 1666. So it was suggested that I write a post about what London was like in 1666 to set the scene for the reader.

London in the summer of 1666 was by far the largest city in Britain and the third largest in the world after Paris and Constantinople. The population of greater London was about 300, 000 - say the same as Coventry, UK or Lexington, USA today. Most of the population lived in the suburbs but around 80,000 lived within the old Roman and mediaeval city walls.

John Evelyn - a contemporary of the famous diarist Samuel Pepys complained that the city had no plan, no order or organisation. It had simply evolved around and along the old Roman and medieval roads and no one had tried to impose upon it a structure. The City was an overcrowded warren of narrow, winding, cobbled alleys existing cheek by jowl with the dwellings of the better off and merchants warehouses. Most houses were wood and thatch as very little building had been done in stones other than churches.

London, apart from during the worse months of the plague (see later), was a thriving trade hub. The focal point for traders from foreign parts was the great Royal Exchange at Cornhill which on two levels had over 130 boutiques and shops and where merchants from a score of countries would meet and trade goods from the orient and the new world. Down by the waterside at Billingsgate the catch of fishermen was sold - fresh fish and shellfish like oysters in barrels. Over in the Shambles markets near Cheapside near Newgate Prison a thousand good were hawked by the open air traders: honeyed nuts, muscles, fresh meat and candles. Around St Pauls were dozens of books shops and pamphlet printers. Further west at Westminster Hall the covered markets sold sweets and trinkets to the court flunkeys and Westminster school boys whilst on its roof the head of Oliver Cromwell could be seen on a spike! One should imagine the constant noise from hundreds of traders calling out their wares, the clatter of hackney carriages, the whinnying of horses and the babble of thousands going about their day to day life.

It was a city of vast overcrowding with the poor crammed into tenements. The typical six- or seven-storey timbered London tenement houses leant over to almost touch other buildings. It was a city of great poverty as you can read in this excerpt from The Last Seal:

Below the thief, on the banks of the ditch running beneath the bridge, was the Rag Fair. The poorest came here each day to pay copper coins for a few pathetic clothes stolen in tenements or stripped off the dead, linen taken from the beds of plague victims and then washed in urine in an effort to cleanse the contagion, or wigs pulled off the heads of passing pedestrians on Cheapside by enterprising boys hanging out of first floor windows.

Children played on the narrow shore barely inches from the decaying body of a dog that floated downstream through the stinking filth that was the River Fleet. A brief gust of wind from the north brought more noxious smells, this time from scores of huge brass and iron vats standing along the water’s edge and perched on top of fires that threw a dense cloud of smoke and fumes skyward. The vats produced a hundred wares: vinegar, glue, cured leather and soap, or were used to bleach cloth or boil the fat off animal skins. Further up the river, butchers smoked animal carcasses and the refuse from this and all the other trades was thrown into the water or littered its edge. The smell was unbelievable and sickening, but here, in rotten wooden huts overlooking the ditch, the poor just endured.

The city was still suffering from the effects of the great plague of 1665 to 66. At its height in the summer of 1665 1000 people a day were dying and the city was all but evacuated by the wealthy - with the king moving court to Oxford for the winter. Overall 100,000 people died which is ONE IN FIVE of the population. In September 1666 the city was only just returning to normal just in time for its biggest disaster - the Great Fire of 1666.

London was a city which was extremely vulnerable to fire. Firstly this was due to the crammed buildings mostly made of wood and built extremely closely together. London contained hundreds of workplaces, many of which were fire hazards. So it was full of foundries, smithies, glaziers and of course bakeries. The riverfront was lined with vast warehouses which had stores and cellars of combustibles which increased the fire risk. These included tar, pitch and hemp as well as spirits in great quantity.

London was also full of gunpowder, much of which was left in the homes of private citizens from the days of the English Civil War. The war had only finished fifteen years before and most men - especially nobles and wealthy merchants would have stores of weapons and barrels of gunpowder. The summer of 1666 had been one of the hottest in living memory. As such the wood and thatch houses were as dry as tinder - tinder which was ready for a spark.

That spark came in the early hours of September 2nd 1666. A careless baker in Pudding Lane forgot to put out his fire and it spread creating an inferno which would destroy 13,000 houses and make 70,000 of London’s 80,000 population homeless. The Lord Mayor failed to act and it was down to the trained bands of militia to fight the fire and finally put it out. King Charles II and his brother, James Duke of York were even seen on the streets fighting the fire. In the end, though, it was the wind dropping and changing direction coupled with the blowing up of houses that ended the fire.

It is estimated that the destruction included 13200 houses, 87 churches, 44 Guild Halls, St Pauls Cathedral, Baynard’s Castle, the Royal Exchange, Newgate prison and many other important sites. Maybe 1 person in 3 or 4 of greater London was made homeless. The Great Fire cost London an estimated £8 million in buildings and 2 million in goods. At the time, the City's annual income was only £12,000. In today’s terms the loss to the city was about £14 billion – maybe more.

The old wooden city was gone forever along with the slums and warrens. There was a chance now to rebuild along planned lines with great avenues and squares. In the end though each landlord insisted on having his own buildings rebuilt and the opportunity was lost. Never the less at least the rebuilding was done in stone and London got many new churches including today's great St Paul's Cathedral designed by Wren.

It is this city in which my novel is set - a novel of gunpowder and sorcery in 1666!

To read the first part of The Last Seal visit my website here: http://www.richarddenning.co.uk/thelastseal.html

Check out the books Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/TheLastSeal

I am on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/RichardDenning

Author Biography
Richard Denning was born in Ilkeston in Derbyshire and lives in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands, UK, where he works as a General Practitioner (family doctor). He is married and has two children. He has always been fascinated by historical settings as well as horror and fantasy. Other than writing, his main interests are games of all types. He is the designer of a board game based on the Great Fire of London.

By the same author:
Northern Crown Series (Historical fiction)
1.The Amber Treasure
2.Child of Loki (Coming 2012)

Hourglass Institute Series (Young Adult Science Fiction)
1.Tomorrow’s Guardian
2. Yesterday's Treasures
3. Today's Sacrifice (Coming 2012)

The Praesidium Series (Historical Fantasy)
1.The Last Seal


  1. I love historical fiction, Richard. Glad to have found your post. Thanks for friending me on Twitter!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. I love many period of historical fiction myself. Saxon era and 17th plus 19th century being favourites.

  3. Sounds intriguing, Richard, placing your story against that backdrop. The blurb for the book is catchy, and I've been drawn to that part of English history before.

  4. It is certainly an interesting period and a lot is going on - politics, religion, unrest at home and conflict abroad. Just struck me as a fertile ground for a fantasy.