1665: The First Blast
The new Quinton novel, The Blast That Tears The Skies, is set against the dramatic events of the year 1665. This is one of the few dates in British history that most schoolchildren allegedly still know, but its prominence is due principally to the dreadful outbreak of plague that swept through London that summer – and from my own teaching experience over many years, I know that few things go down as well with twelve year old pupils as grizzly descriptions of plague symptoms and the often bizarre ‘preventatives’ that were adopted at the time. The plague does provide part of the backdrop to The Blast, but the book’s main focus is the outbreak of the second Anglo-Dutch war, which was proclaimed in London on 4 March, and the main narrative runs from that time to the climactic Battle of Lowestoft on 3 June, one of the great epics of the age of sail (and which I’ll describe more fully in a subsequent post).
The year 1665 began with a natural phenomenon that was taken by many at the time as a sign of great and terrible things to come. In November 1664 a comet appeared in the skies, remaining visible until March; a second comet was seen in April, although for the purposes of the novel, I’ve conflated these into one. Pepys first noted it on 15 December 1664: ‘so to the Coffee-House, where great talk of the Comett seen in several places and among our men at sea and by my Lord Sandwich, to whom I intend to write about it tonight’. Sandwich’s journal, published by the Navy Records Society in 1929, records that he had first seen the comet on the eleventh. On the seventeenth he recorded this description:
This morning about 3 o’clock I saw the Blazing Star again in the main topsail of the Argo Navis, distant from the Great Dog – 29o35′, the Scorpion’s Heart – 26o. The bodyof the star was dusky, not plain to see figures or dimensions, but seemed 4 or 5 times bigger than the Great Dog, of a more red colour than Mars. The tail of him streamed in the fashion of a birchen besom towards the Little Dog the one half of the distance between them.
Sandwich, commanding the fleet in the Channel, made regular observations of the comet throughout the winter. Pepys records frequent sightings of it and that the King and Queen sat up one night to watch it. The more credulous took it as an omen, and the first apparent proof of their dire predictions came on 7 March 1665, just three days after war had been declared, when the great ship London, a powerful Second Rate man-of-war mounting 76 guns, suddenly blew up in the Hope, a stretch of water in the Thames estuary. She was intended to be the flagship of Sir John Lawson, vice-admiral of the Red squadron, in the forthcoming naval campaign against the Dutch. Not all of her men were aboard, but a significant number of women were – wives, girlfriends and perhaps some rather less formal companions. Over three hundred were killed, although a small number survived because, miraculously, the roundhouse at the stern was untouched by the blast and remained above water.
Built at Chatham and launched in 1656, the London was an impressive ship which had served in the blockade of Dunkirk in 1658 and in the Baltic in 1659. At the Restoration, she was part of the fleet that went to Scheveningen to bring back the royal family; the new Lord High Admiral James, Duke of York, the future King James II & VII, was embarked in her. In 1665 she was armed entirely with brass guns, some of which had been made by a gunfounder coincidentally named Henry Quintyn. The cause of the explosion remains unclear, but both at the time and since, the principal concern was with the loss of so many valuable brass guns. Salvage attempts began almost immediately and some guns were brought up, but the great majority remained on the sea bed. The wreck of the London has attracted considerable attention in recent years. Several TV programmes have been made about it – I took part in the filming of one of them, a short item for BBC’s The One Show, last summer with Dan Snow – and these have inevitably made much of the fact that so many women were aboard the ship when she blew up, although this was not uncommon in the Restoration period. Additionally, the questionable legality of some recent salvages of guns from her has attracted the attention of the authorities. What is likely to become the definitive study of the reasons for the loss of the London and the fate of her guns has been written by my friend and colleague Frank Fox, author of the outstanding The Four Days Battle, 1666 (the setting for the forthcoming ‘Quinton 5’!), and will be published later this year in volume 8 of the Transactions of the Naval Dockyards Society.
The destruction of the London forms the basis of a chapter in The Blast That Tears The Skies. No spoilers, though – I won’t reveal how Matthew Quinton becomes involved, nor the identity of the distinctly unlikely partner who accompanies him during this particular episode! And the London is only the first of the sky-tearing blasts that give the book its title…