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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!
The Last Seal is a young adult historical fantasy novel set during the Great Fire of London and is part of the Praesidium series by Richard Denning. When it comes to reviewing new books, I certainly can’t claim to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction, but what really interested me about this book, and the reason I was asked to review it, was the historical element. So my aim is to look at it from a historical perspective and judge how well it makes history exciting and accessible – the main aim of Lovely Old Tree! And in short: The Last Seal does this very well.
The plot follows the fortunes of Ben, a schoolboy at Westminster, who having lost his parents in a fire, feels depressed, lost and intent on escaping the tedium of school life. He does this by playing truant and wandering off into the hustle and bustle of 17th century London and this action, which appears unimportant, catapults him into a terrifying and exciting adventure.
He meets Gabriel, a bookseller with a more thrilling job as member of the Praesidium; Tobias, a doctor with a score to settle; and Freya, an orphan thief with more intelligence than the other three put together. This group of very different people soon find that they are immersed in a battle between the Praesidium and the Liberati and have to risk their lives to save London, and the world, from the release of the evil demon Dantalion. And Ben finds that his role in history is far larger than he ever thought possible.
Now, I have a notoriously short attention span when it comes to novels and it takes a lot to really keep me engaged, but I honestly found it hard to put this book down. The pace of the story is perfect. The characters are introduced at the right rate so that you really get to know them and care about them. The excitement and tension of the plot rises incrementally throughout so that you really cannot wait to turn the page and find out what happens next.
The characters are also very well presented and described – and they are likeable, which I consider to be a very important factor. They are also very different people, thrown together by circumstances and therefore they give us a very interesting rounded picture of the people of 17th century London. They are varied by gender, class, age and background, therefore the interactions and tensions between them (for example between Tobias and Freya) keep the story stimulating.
Additionally the characters have their flaws and secrets that keep them from becoming stereotypes. Ben does not fall into the trap of being the standard poor orphaned hero; neither does Gabriel become the wise benevolent wizard. Through a combination of guilty secrets, childish anger, self-interest, greed and stupid mistakes, all of the characters are convincing and engaging and develop naturally throughout the story.
Now it might sound from the plot that the book is mostly fantasy with little history involved, and I must say that I did worry about this. The first chapter is set in 1380 with the first attempt to release the demon and although it is exciting, it focuses on the battle and the magic spells. However my fears were soon laid to rest when I got into the main plot as the historical detail is really fascinating. Denning weaves the true story of the Great Fire of London into the plot so that, despite the magic, the story is believable, which is a very difficult thing to achieve. The path of the fire, the number of days it lasted, the buildings it destroyed and the things people really said and did all fit into the story of The Last Seal. The fact that the Praesidium and the Liberati are secret societies (so the public would never have known what happened during the fire) means that, as far as I’m concerned, the story of Dantalion, Ben, Freya, Tobias and Gabriel could be true!
One of my favourite things about the book is the description of 17th century London. The Royal Exchange, St Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge are described in such detail that it really transports you to what it would have been like at the time. I love the way London locations keep being mentioned, helping me to reimagine places I know back in time. Old London Bridge:
Made of stone, with a dozen and more arches, it was impressive enough, but upon it an entire town had been built. Dozens of houses, shops and taverns of timber and stone crammed upon either side and soared three or more stories high. At either end was a fortress-like gatehouse that was locked at dusk and opened each dawn. The southern gate bore a grizzly display of the severed heads of more than a dozen criminals and traitors which, after their execution, were impaled on spikes as a warning to all who saw them.
The most successful thing about the inclusion of this historical description is that is does not read like 17th century London is a foreign country. The description does not treat the vast differences between historical London and present-day London with awe or surprise. The city is described as though by Ben or another contemporary and this really makes the history come alive as the reader feels a connection with London whichever era it is in.
The book is aimed at young adults, so is an easy read, but personally I quite like that factor. Ben and Freya are both young people and I often find superfluous language irritating in stories that are meant to be exciting adventures. With that audience target, you may occasionally find that the passages where characters have to explain their backstory or the backstory of the secret societies can be a little jarring and deliberate. However I would say that this is a common problem in plots where centuries of backstory play a key role.
I did thoroughly enjoy this book but I would say it is not for everyone. The historical elements are certainly strong enough to interest a history fan like me, but you really do have to be prepared to suspend disbelief and accept the magic and fantasy in order to fully immerse yourself in the book. I’m only able to do this because I allow myself to accept the premise that this story could be the truth behind the Great Fire of London.
In this way then, The Last Seal is not like other historical fiction as the fantasy element is very strong, but if you enjoy both then it is a brilliant read. I would definitely recommend this book, particularly for those interested in getting a good overview of 17th century London, in an entertaining way.
About the author:
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.