In 1666, the Great Fire of London raged for four days. Most of the densely populated walled city was reduced to a wasteland of smouldering ashes. Many suburbs to the north and west were also destroyed.
The statistics are terrifying. The flames consumed more than 13,000 houses and 86 churches. Between 70-80,000 Londoners lost their homes and their places of business. Fire insurance hadn’t been invented. The government lacked both the money and the organizational skills to deal with the disaster.
To understand the scale, think of the Great Fire in terms of modern London. In 2016, 350 years afterwards, such a catastrophe would mean that almost a quarter of the population of Greater London would be refugees, fleeing from the ruins of their city. Nearly two million people.
Among the lost churches was St Paul’s, the great medieval cathedral that dominated London’s skyline. Then as now, St Paul’s was iconic, the spiritual heart of city. In 1666, Londoners stored their goods there, believing the Fire could not breach its high stone walls.
They were wrong. St Paul’s glowed like a great oven. The ancient oaks in its roof burned at extraordinarily high temperatures. The enormous masonry blocks cracked in the heat, sounding like artillery fire. Six acres of lead covered the roofs. The Fire melted it. Liquid metal rain fell into the body of the cathedral and ran in silver streams through the doorways. In Oxford, forty miles to the west, the moon turned blood-red, and the distant flames sounded like the roar of surf.
The Ashes of London, my new novel, starts outside St Paul’s on the night the fire devoured it. One of the witnesses is James Marwood, a clerk at Whitehall, the largest palace in Europe before its destruction (also by fire) later in the seventeenth century. Another is a young woman, Catherine Lovett, who has a strange fascination with architecture. Her family consider her as a cross between a social outcast and an asset to be negotiated on the marriage market.
The centre of the novel is a murder mystery: among the long-buried dead of St Paul’s is a very recent corpse, a man with his thumbs knotted behind his. The body is a problem for the Government, terrified that the destruction of the City might be the result of a conspiracy, and that its consequences could soon explode into unrest or even rebellion. Only a few years earlier, civil war had split the country apart; the King had been beheaded outside his own palace; and Oliver Cromwell had ruled over a puritan commonwealth.
The body is also a problem for James Marwood, who has his own secrets to hide. He works for the man responsible for government propaganda and intelligence gathering. The dead man is wearing the servant’s livery of Catherine’s uncle, one of the most influential merchants in the country – a man whose money gives him access to the highest in the land.
Marwood is commanded to pursue the truth. The trouble is, he finds answers to the wrong questions. Meanwhile, Catherine runs for her life from false security of her family into a lawless city of ashes, where the refugees search for their lost homes and criminals look for easy pickings among the ruins. Soon their paths cross again.
What I found strangest about writing this novel was how familiar Marwood’s London was to me – despite 350 years, despite endless rebuilding and expansion. But the Government still rules from Whitehall, Parliament sits at Westminster, the City is the place where money lives – and the Thames still runs through London’s heart and gives the city its reason for being there.