Hell that reduced London to ashes and was heard 40 miles away

The devastation of the Great Fire of London was catastrophic

The devastation of the Great Fire of London was catastrophic (Image: GETTY)

The crackle and roar of the flames could be heard 40 miles away in Oxford, like the roar of a great wind. Lead roofs turned into rivers of molten metal, stones splintered, and human casualties (officially, there were only six deaths, though the actual number was likely many times higher) were reduced to ashes.

The devastation was catastrophic: 80 per cent of the Walled City of London and at least 63 acres beyond were destroyed, along with 86 churches and much of the government’s vital bureaucratic infrastructure. Up to 80,000 Londoners were left homeless amid a scorched landscape of smoking rubble.

Yet without it, according to novelist Andrew Taylor, who has brought to life the sights, smells and sounds of the Great Fire and its aftermath in his hit historical crime series The Ashes of London, the capital would be very different.

He believes it was the biggest upheaval until the Blitz nearly 300 years later, which accelerated the growth of the suburbs and created some of the first commuters, who lived outside the city but went to work.

“The Georgian and Victorian periods saw big changes, but they were gradual, structured, and worked with what was already there,” he explains. “Whereas this was random destruction on a huge scale. In a way, it was worse than the Blitz because it was so focused and cataclysmic. The beating heart of London was ripped out.”

“Even the ruins have perished,” reads the Latin caption on this line drawing of Saint Paul in flames. (Image: GETTY)

Perhaps inevitably, the seriousness of the inferno was not immediately realized by the authorities, which began in Pudding Lane, near the modern Monument, in the early hours of Sunday, September 2, 1666, and spread westward at an alarming rate.

“When told there was a fire on the east side of town, the mayor said, ‘Man, a woman could put it out,’ which must be one of the biggest mistakes of the 17th century. Taylor explains. “The fire spread to the west for the next four days. To the west, it reached Fleet Street and Holborn in the north.

“On the third day he arrived at St Paul’s and that was a symbolic moment. Until then, the inhabitants had thought that Saint Paul was sacred, inviolable. He was on a little hill and built with these big stone walls, he could take anything.

“This was the vast old ramshackle medieval cathedral, bigger than the one we have now. But they were doing repair work and the sparks were carried to the roof where they set fire to the medieval oak trees that were left exposed. Once they got going, that was it.

“The temperatures were extraordinary. With six acres of lead covered roof, there was a silver rain coming through the building and out the doors.”

Finally, King Carlos II personally took charge of fighting the fire after being informed of its seriousness by the naval administrator and chronicler Samuel Pepys.

“It only went out when they started blowing up houses to create fire breaks,” says Taylor, 71, who lives with her
wife of the photographer Caroline in Coleford, Forest of Dean. “It must have been terrible. Even 40 miles away, in Oxford, it sounded like waves breaking on a distant shore. Suddenly, everything disappeared, replaced by this wasteland of hot ash. Two or three days later, the ground was still too hot to walk on.”

Reflecting on the catastrophe, Taylor, who studied at Cambridge, worked as a librarian before becoming a full-time author of nearly 50 books over four decades, including four original Bergerac novels when the 1990s Jersey-set detective novel arrived. eighty. with the idea of ​​turning the aftermath of the Great Fire into a crime scene.

Carlos II took over when Samuel Pepys insisted on the seriousness of the fire

Carlos II took over when Samuel Pepys insisted on the seriousness of the fire (Image: GETTY)

Ashes of London in 2016 featured James Marwood, a young civil servant, and Cat Hakesby (née Lovett), the daughter of a regicide who had signed the death warrant for Charles I. As the flames recede, a corpse, the murder victim, not fire, and Marwood is tasked with finding the killer.

“Samuel Pepys lived by the Tower in Seething Lane,” he recalls. “Reading his account of the fire, I realized the impact it must have had on the country. It is a period of enormous transition: the Civil War, the Restoration and the beginnings of the constitutional monarchy that we enjoy today. At the beginning of the century, Jaime I was an almost absolute monarch, at the end of the same Guillermo III ruled with the consent of Parliament.

The novel was a critical and commercial success and the gripping sixth installment, The Shadows of London, begins, once again, with the discovery of a body, before examining the machinations of the court, where an aristocratic but impoverished young French woman, Louise de Keroualle, is being maneuvered into bed with the King.

Taylor explains: “On one level, Shadows is a whodunit with a faceless corpse found on a construction site, but it’s really about the abuse of power. How powerful men will exploit weak women. There is no doubt that de Keroualle, who is a real life figure, was greedy and budding and not a terribly nice woman.

“But I was planning this book several years ago when the whole #MeToo movement was breaking down. All of this focused my mind, rather late, one might say, on the awful things powerful men can do to young women. Once you approach it from the perspective of her being forced to be seduced by this middle-aged man, she was 20 or 21 and he was 40 or 41, things looked quite different. I know it sounds terribly pious, but it seems so damn unfair.”

Surviving letters reveal how the French ambassador Colbert de Croissy placed de Keroualle in the king’s orbit and ultimately in his bedroom so that she could spy on him.

I think it was less useful than the French expected. Carlos II was not stupid”, says Taylor. “Although he was of very high birth, he had no money. He needed a rich husband and no one would marry her despite her status since she had no dowry from her. She resisted. She was a virgin, she was defenseless.

Marwood was inspired in part by Samuel Pepys, as a way of exploring the political, social and economic changes of the 17th century. “Pepys was middle class, but most of his family had supported the wrong side in the Civil War, so he had to start from scratch. He was lucky, he had a cousin who was a big shot in the Restoration government,” Taylor continues. “Marwood doesn’t even have that, so he starts out as a very young employee and has to fight his way up.”

Similarly, Cat Hakesby, who becomes an architect as the series progresses (not entirely implausible, Taylor insists), represents the growing influence of women.

“There are persistent rumors that there was a well-bred Cheshire lady who advised the likes of Christopher Wren on their designs,” says Taylor. “But the broader inspiration is that women were just beginning to emerge from the domestic shadows and there were situations where a woman could have a lot of agency. If she were a widow, she could take over her husband’s business.

“If he were alive and had a business, let’s say he was a carpenter or bricklayer, he would be the foreman and tell the men what to do, but she would be the one who would keep the books, order the products and do the work. hiring and firing.”

Taylor draws on period documents and maps during her research whenever possible, touring London to get a feel for the geography and architecture. In fact, one thing the fire hardly changed was the layout of the streets.

“With a 17th century street map, you can still walk from the Tower to St Paul’s, down Ludgate Hill to Fleet Street, that’s Great Fire territory,” he says.

“People likes it [designer] John Evelyn and [architect] Christopher Wren wanted to use the aftermath of the fire as an opportunity to rebuild London as a baroque capital like Lisbon, with wide avenues and organized in a geometric plan. He made plans of squares, roundabouts, colonnades and canals. It would have been beautiful, but a new city was never built for two reasons: one was money and the other was time. London was so integral to the kingdom’s prosperity that it had to be up and running as soon as possible.

“This was before insurance, before organized banking, and before easy credit for large-scale infrastructure projects. There was no way to raise the money, so it had to be redone bit by bit.” Today, Taylor, a modest and soft-spoken author, seems almost surprised by his success. Along with the late Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel, he has been a pioneer of modern historical fiction.

“When I was in school and I was doing poorly in O-Level and A-Level history, I was surprised because I really loved history,” he smiles. “But I didn’t like the academic straitjacket. Once I started writing historical fiction, I had the license to explore history imaginatively.

“You need the facts, of course, but Mantel put it so well in his Reith Lectures. He used the phrase that he interrogated history and that’s something I think historical novelists can do.”

Having traveled when he was younger, he remembers the words of the novelist John Fowles, who opined that “to travel east is to go back in time”.

“If you stay in a wooden house in a Himalayan village with no running water or sanitation, you are actually stepping back to 16th century England. And that really interests me: what life was like for ordinary people.

“Not only the physical life, the roads they used, the clothes they wore and the food they ate, but the mental furniture; what they thought about women, the government, and God.”

Using Marwood and Hakesby, Taylor is able to investigate the past. And despite the rise of so-called “decline” – the idea that we are all on the hunt – he says it is a mistake to look through rose-tinted glasses at our distant past. “Yes, we are getting these huge wage disparities between rich and poor that we know from research make society less happy and less stable,” says Taylor.

“One thing I’ve learned is not to romanticize the past: it was crap!

“Looking back makes you realize how lawless it was, and despite the decline in social care and social justice we’ve seen in recent years, life is still better today.”

  • Andrew Taylor’s The Shadows Of London (HarperCollins, £18.99) is out now. Visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832. Free UK postage and delivery on orders over £20

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