Thursday, September 15, 2011

Introduction to the Great Fire of London

Guest post by Richard Denning
Author, The Last Seal

This guest post is one of a series celebrating the release of my historical fantasy novel, The Last Seal, which is set during the Great Fire of London in 1666. As the Great Fire may not be a familiar subject to American readers, it was suggested that I make this an introduction to this great calamity.

Here in the UK, you sometimes hear a quiz question that goes like this: What started with pudding and ended with pie? The answer is, of course, the Great Fire of London, which started at the bakery in Pudding Lane and, at its farthest northwest point, reached around Pie Corner.

The Great Fire of London in 1666 is the largest urban fire ever in UK -- even compared to the firestorms experienced during the Blitz of 1940-41. In four days, it swept through the central parts of the city from the early hours of Sunday, 2 September to Wednesday, 5 September.

London in 1666 had a population of around 350,000 to 400,000 of which 80,000 lived within the old medieval City Wall. They lived in a congested warren of teetering wooden tenements, warehouses, guildhalls and churches. Most of the city was made of wood, and many of the warehouses were full of combustible materials. Hundreds of foundries, chandlers, bakeries and other places of work involving fires were dotted around the city. Fire fighting was basic at best, and as a result it was almost inevitable that a huge fire would one day happen. All it took was a spark...

How did it start?

The Great Fire started at the bakery of Thomas Farriner (or Farynor) on Pudding Lane, shortly after midnight on Sunday, 2 September, and, driven on by a strong wind, it spread rapidly west across the City of London. What should have happened is the mayor should have given orders for the creation of firebreaks by means of demolition of houses. But the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, failed to give the orders and even went back to bed. By the time large-scale demolitions were ordered on Sunday night, it was too late. Hundreds of houses were ablaze, and the fire was out of control.

On Monday, the fire moved on west and north into the heart of the City. Panic took over, and alongside this a deep feeling of paranoia and a belief that someone was to blame. Rumours arose of suspicious foreigners setting fires particularly focused on the French and Dutch, England’s enemies in an ongoing war. These substantial immigrant groups became victims of lynchings and street violence.

On Tuesday, matters got even worse. The fire spread over most of the City, destroying St. Paul’s Cathedral, Guild Hall and the Royal Exchange, and then crossing the River Fleet to even threaten Charles II’s court in Westminster.

In the end, King Charles II and his brother James took direct control of the fire fighting efforts. Regiments of soldiers were deployed to aid the fire fighting and try to restore order. The fire was finally brought under control by virtue of a more organised campaign of destroying blocks of houses -- in many cases using gunpowder such as kept in the Tower of London. This was aided by the strong winds finally dropping. By Wednesday, the fire was under control and considered over by Thursday morning.

What was destroyed?

More than 13,000 houses, 87 churches, 44 Guild Halls, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Baynard’s Castle, the Royal Exchange, Newgate prison and many other important sites were destroyed. Maybe 1 person in 3 or 4 of greater London was made homeless. Something like £14 Billion of damages in today’s terms was caused.

Rebuilding the City would take years, but the fire at least meant that architects like Sir Christopher Wren could have a hand in shaping the city. Indeed, many of the buildings a visitor to London would see today -- such as the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral -- are his creation.

Blending history and fantasy

My novel follows the five days of the fire, but adds a fantasy twist to it. When I started researching it and read around what beliefs and superstitions people had, I thought there could be a novel in it. I found out about the widespread paranoia about foreign plots and conspiracies that people had at the time, as well as their belief in magic being real. All that came together very quickly into an idea. I asked myself, What if the fire was not just an accident? What if there really were secret societies involved and a supernatural explanation behind the great event? This, then, inspired the idea behind The Last Seal:

What caused the Great Fire of London? The Last Seal offers an explanation... 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.

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. Yet these four must overcome their personal problems and work together if they are to foil the evil plans of the Liberati, protect the city and gain the means to defeat the demon.

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 that takes place within the Great Fire of London. Ultimately, Ben and his friends must confront and defeat both the demon and the evils of the Liberati to save their city and themselves.

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.

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

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Twitter: @RichardDenning


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