1666 by Rebecca Rideal

Whenever friends and family come to and ask what they should do or see, The Monument is always top of my list.  Well, my list for them.  311 steps is a tad much when The Walrus and Carpenter is around the corner.  Still, what it stands there for is one of the most transformational events in London's history, The Great Fire.  The four days of fire in 1666 reshaped London, it's people and marked the high point of the reign of Charles II.  Even before the rebuilding was complete, the writing was on the wall for the House of Stuart.  It is a world that so very familiar, place names, people and the City, but yet, somewhat alien.

Rebecca Rideal begins her tale of London a year before the fire, in 1665.  It was a pivotal year in the history of the city.  The theatre district was buzzing, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn were writing their diaries, London business was booming, King Charles was shagging just about anything that moves and England was at war with the other great maritime trading power, Holland.  We journey through the city where the war at sea is so real to Londoners, they can literally hear it, with the echo of cannon rolling down the Thames.  It isn’t going terribly well.  Most battles end in a score draw and England is fast running out of cash.  Charles needs a quick win and he needs manpower.  As the battles rage at sea, the theatres fill, Nell Gywnn makes her debut on the boards, a new fangled craze called the newspaper takes hold and then people start to die of as a disease returns that still shakes us to our soul, the plague had returned.  The narrative builds on the panic that sweeps through the city as the toll continuously rises.  Rideal takes us parish to parish, street to street, family to family.  It is frankly terrifying.  The panic and fear rise to the highest in the land as the doctors and finally the court abandon London to her fate.  The tales that have comes down to us tell of the fear and the stout determination of a very few who stayed around to offer help to those locked away in their houses.  It is fascinating to read about the doctors who, by luck more than judgement, took daily drafts of nutmeg, not fully realising that nutmeg is a natural flea repellent.  And yet, all the while, the battles at sea continue.

The miseries of London are such, you are almost willing Rideal to hurry up and get to the fire to cleanse the city of something far worse than the flames.  When she does, a book that is already reading to a very high quality is kicked up a notch.  The description of the fire itself is masterful.  Starting with Thomas Farriner’s family asleep above their bakery on Pudding Lane, the heat builds and the last third of the book follows the fire throughout the city.  No one, lowly or mighty are safe.  The burning of the old St Paul’s and the thousands of books thought safe within it is heartbreaking.  And yet, good old bureaucracy does nothing but fan the flames.  Ironically, it was the monarch who didn’t really take responsibility for anything who probably saved most of what was left of the city.  Firebreaks were cut and, I believe, Pepys’ buried cheese saved.  You have to take the small wins in these sorts of disaster.

Wenceslaus Hollar's illustration of London before and after the fire.

Wenceslaus Hollar's illustration of London before and after the fire.

1666: Plague, War and Hellfire is a brilliant narrative history.  Rebecca Rideal tells the story of the event that enabled London to be reborn with a verve and aplomb that brings the city, and the fear that lived within, to vivid life.  London is a city I adore, to the point that I have a drawing of Christopher Wren’s plan for post-fire London hanging on the wall of the dining room.  Even though only the churches and The Monument made it into existence, if not the layout, it is amazing to see the dreams of those just after the darkest of nights.  In 1666, Rideal has taken the reality that formed that dream and brought it back to life with all it’s grim, fear, death and true wonder.

1666: Plague, War and Hellfire by Rebecca Rideal is out now, published by John Murray.

Sir Christopher Wren's grand plan for London.

Sir Christopher Wren's grand plan for London.