By Richard Denning
I am delighted to be a guest on Lovely Old Tree. 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 a visitor to the capital would see if they went on a tour in that summer of 1666.
London was originally a Roman settlement at a convenient crossing point over the Thames. Indeed London Bridge in its various incarnations has been built on the same spot by Romans, Saxons, Vikings and as far forward as the modern age. The Roman walls were later the sites of medieval city walls that defined the city’s boundaries for centuries. Places like Westminster and Holborn were separate towns and villages. Gradually, however, the population grew and spilled out of the city, merging with these satellite villages until by 1666 it had reached Westminster around the bend of the Thames.
If you had been used to country villages and small market towns then visiting London would have opened your eyes. In today’s terms the city was not large. It population was in the order of 350,000 to 400,000 or so which is only the same as say modern day Coventry but that still made it the largest by a long way in England at that time and the third largest in the world after Paris and Constantinople. Most of these people lived outside the old city of London in the suburbs but around 80,000 resided within the old Roman and mediaeval city walls.
Within those walls there existed something of the order of 14,000 houses, 100 parish churches, 50 Company or Guild Halls, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Bridewell Palace, Newgate and other City prisons, the General Letter Office, and seven city gates and the great bridge itself of course.
Entering the city via that bridge would have left an impression both wonderful and gruesome such as recorded in 1598 by a German visitor to London:
On the south is a bridge of stone eight hundred feet in length, of wonderful work; it is supported upon twenty piers of square stone, sixty feet high and thirty broad, joined by arches of about twenty feet diameter. The whole is covered on each side with houses so disposed as to have the appearance of a continued street, not at all of a bridge.
Upon this is built a tower, on whose top the heads of such as have been executed for high treason are placed on iron spikes: we counted above thirty…
Fortunately during the reign of Charles II this practice died out. Nevertheless the sight of 200 and more shops perched on the bridge would have been something to see. It is estimated that as many as 4000 would have lived on the bridge alone.
Once in the streets of London however some visitors were less than impressed, with John Evelyn – a contemporary of the famous diarist Samuel Pepys complaining that London was a “wooden, Northern, inartificial congestion of houses’
This description is not that far wrong. For the City was an overcrowded warren of narrow, winding, cobbled alleys lined with towering tenements maybe 7 stories tall, huge warehouses and hundreds of places of work – foundries, butchers shops and chandlers. In some cases the buildings leant so far forward as to meet the houses opposite them. Most houses were wood and thatch and very few were made from stone. Moving around the city would have been difficult enough with the dense population doing battle with the crush of carts and hackney carriages in an age with no traffic control.
London was the largest consumer of goods in the nation as well as the largest producer and was above all a thriving trade hub. There were several markets around the city and dozens of areas of commerce but the focal point for merchants was the great Royal Exchange at Cornhill where traders from around the world would trade goods from as far away as the far east – James I having established trading links with Japan. The population in general would be more interested in the heaving markets along Cheapside with its meat and other goods or the fish markets at Billingsgate or maybe trinkets and sweets from Westminster Hall. The noise from the population and all the traders calling out their wares must have been a din.
Many of the goods on sale were made in hundreds of locations around the city. Right there in the same streets that people lived and walked, animals would be slaughtered and their blood drain down to the river. Their hides would be cured in cauldrons of urine collected from all over the city with the fumes belching out to mix with the smoke from foundries and the stench from vats where carcasses were being rendered into glue and candle wax. The stench must have been incredible.
The people of London would have several concerns other than day to day existence. The nation was at war with the French and Dutch and there was a lot of anxiety about foreign spies. At the same time there was worry about plots by both Catholics wishing to make England “papist” and republicans looking to overthrow the King. Superstition was rife. It had not escaped notice that the year -1666 – contained the number 666 which had biblical significance. Indeed that and such omens as eclipses and comets had more than a few people convinced that they were living in the last years and God’s judgement was at hand.
A visitor to the city would have been aware that it was still suffering from the effects of the great plague of 1665 to 66 which had killed 1 in 4 Londoners. At its height in the summer of 1665 1000 people a day were dying and even in September 1666 the plague had not died out. Indeed it is believed that it took a disaster of epic proportions to finally destroy the thousands of rats that carried the fleas which were the host of the contagion. It took the Great Fire of London.
London was a city which was extremely vulnerable to fire. This was due to the cramped buildings made of wood, warehouses full of combustibles which increased the fire risk and huge stocks of gunpowder, much of which was left over from the English Civil War. It really was only a matter of time before a fire started – and then a disaster would occur.
So there we have it – London in 1666: a heaving congested warren of wooden houses. A thriving metropolis. Loud, smelly and busy and just a little bit paranoid and waiting for the great fire that would rip out its heart. It is this city in which my novel is set – a novel of gunpowder and sorcery in 1666!