Well, it’s August, which means the publication of Death’s Bright Angel, the latest Matthew Quinton adventure, is ever more imminent! To mark both this and the fast approaching 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, which forms the backdrop to the climactic chapters of the book, here’s the first ‘teaser trailer’ – yes, the first few pages of Death’s Bright Angel! More soon, but in the meantime, enjoy!
The Great Fire of London began at about one in the morning on Sunday, 2 September 1666. By the time it was extinguished, some eighty hours later, about 13,700 houses had been destroyed, along with the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, fifty-two livery halls, eighty-seven churches, and St Paul’s Cathedral. About sixty to seventy thousand people were displaced, becoming refugees in their own city. Moorfields and the other open spaces in and around the City became vast camps for the homeless. Miraculously, fewer than a dozen were killed, although it is possible that the number of unrecorded deaths was higher.
For centuries, it has been accepted that the Fire was an accident, caused by the carelessness of a baker in Pudding Lane. Many contemporaries, though, were convinced that the Fire was started deliberately. 1666 had seen several plots, real or imagined, and countless intimations of imminent disaster. There were many predictions that London would be consumed by fire, as punishment for England’s sins (specifically, for those of her king, the notoriously immoral Charles II); indeed, even Mother Shipton and Nostradamus were supposed to have predicted the fiery destruction of the city in this, the year that contained the Number of the Beast in its date. Above all, though, at a time when the British Isles were engaged in a colossal naval war against both the Dutch and the French, many blamed enemy action – especially deliberate arson by foreign and/or native Roman Catholics. This opinion was reflected in a rabidly anti-Catholic inscription placed in 1681 on Sir Christopher Wren’s monument to the catastrophe; and although the inscription was removed in the nineteenth century, the monument itself still survives, giving its name to one of the busiest stations on the London Underground. Meanwhile, a French watchmaker, Robert Hubert, actually confessed to starting the fire, and was hanged as a result. But all modern books about the subject agree that he did not arrive in London until after the fire began, and the reason for his pointless martyrdom remains a mystery.
The Great Fire of London is one of the most famous events in British history, one of the very few that still fulfils the age-old criterion of ‘what every schoolchild knows’, and its consequences still shape the cityscape of the United Kingdom’s capital to this day.
Rather less well known is the fire that destroyed the Dutch town of Westerschelling, known to contemporary Englishmen as Brandaris, just over three weeks before the Great Fire took place. Whereas the conflagration in London is generally regarded as the result of an accident, that on the Frisian island of Terschelling was a deliberate act of war, carried out by units of King Charles II’s Royal Navy. About one hundred and fifty Dutch merchant ships were torched in the adjacent Vlie anchorage, and the town was burned to the ground. The only known fatal casualties on the Dutch side were a watchman and two old women. The event is still remembered in the Netherlands as ‘the English Fury’, and the 350th anniversary of it is being commemorated on the Frisian Islands during 2016.
There is no known connection between ‘the English Fury’ and the Great Fire of London, although many at the time speculated that the one was revenge for the other.
Fire is a temptress.
To be sure, in childhood you learn very swiftly indeed that going too near her will burn you. Keep your flesh in her flames, and it will roast like that of a hog on a spit. When you are older, and witness such an event, you learn that if a living body is burned, as in a Spanish auto-da-fe, then the charred flesh will peel from the bones, and the sickly-sweet stench will attract the attention of dogs two miles downwind.
But there is that moment when you are close to the fire, but not too close. She warms you. She embraces you. She dances her seductive dance for you. She waves her red-gold locks at you, as brazen as a Dublin harlot. She lures you in. And you remember the scriptures’ talk of the refiner’s fire, the fire that cleanses, the fire that takes away your sins. In that moment, that one moment before your flesh blackens and the pain becomes unbearable, you want nothing more than to leap into the flames, to be consumed, to be at one with the temptress.
So it was with me, that September of 1666, when London burned and I felt the flames singe my face and hands as houses collapsed all around me. When I saw great Saint Paul’s, which had stood for half a millennium, crumble to ashes. When I thought, more than once, that this was justice: divine retribution for the flames that we, the English, had inflicted upon others. The flames of countless ships, burning upon the sea. The flames that I, Matthew Quinton, had inflicted upon peaceful innocents. The flames that, perhaps, provoked the most terrible of retributions. And vengeance, too, for the very personal sin that I had committed, the sin that could be purged from my body and soul by cleansing, redeeming fire. In those same fleeting moments, I wanted to turn, to fling myself into the fire, to feel the embrace of the temptress.
Sometimes, when I have business in the City – in other words, when I have to berate my brokers on the Exchange for swindling what they perceive to be an ancient, bent, senile creature out of a proper return on his investments – my coach takes me past Wren’s preposterous Monument to the Great Fire that consumed London, more than sixty years ago. (In England, we erect memorials to disasters. O tempore, o mores.) When I was younger, I would climb out from time to time, and read the inscription on the west side:
This pillar was set up in perpetual remembrance of the most dreadful burning of this Protestant city, begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction, in the beginning of September, in the year of our Lord MDCLXVI., in order to the effecting their horrid plot for the extirpating the Protestant religion and English liberties, and to introduce Popery and slavery.
Of course, those who consider themselves wise scoff at this. The Fire was not begun deliberately by the Papists, they say, but was a mere accident, all the fault of a baker in Pudding Lane. The inscription has become an embarrassment, and there is talk of altering it, or removing it altogether. But the mob, the many-headed monster that still sees the sinister arts of France and Popery behind, say, every accidental kitchen fire in Shoreditch, will not hear of it. And, of course, our so-called politicians become craven when confronted by the mob, and the wrath of the so-called ‘news-papers’ that pander to it.
What a country we have become!
So, whenever my coach takes me past the Monument, I think back to those strange days in the summer of 1666, the year that incorporated the Number of the Beast, and I think upon the truth of the Great Fire of London. The fire that I saw consume old Saint Paul’s, and dozens of churches, and street after street, and which threatened so much more, so much that was dear to me.
A great Popish conspiracy? The stupidity of a careless baker? Or something else altogether? Now there’s a question.
And perhaps it is time that I, one of the last who remembers the days of flame that consumed a great city, provided its answer.
‘Never thought I’d see the day when those colours flew proud in these seas,’ said Urquhart, the taciturn Scot who served as sailing master of my command, the King’s ship Royal Sceptre.
She was a fine sight indeed, the great sixty-gun man-of-war coming down at us upon the wind, exactly one month to the day before London began to burn. She heeled slightly to starboard, her sails filling with the breeze, the bow wave breaking around her cutwater as she surged through the swell. Her cannon were run out, ready for action. Her men were working the clewlines, leechlines and buntlines, gathering in the fore and main courses, a sure sign that she was intent upon a fight.
From the glorious ship’s ensign staff streamed a vast banner of pure white, interrupted only by fleurs-de-lis.
The royal ensign of France. Flying in the middle of the North Sea, at the very heart of what we captains of King Charles the Second regarded as our British seas. The France of King Louis the Fourteenth, who was allied to our mortal foe, the Dutch Republic, against whom we had just fought two colossal sea-battles, one of four days and one of two. So the great ship coming towards us was an enemy, and we were closing to engage it.
We: not just the crew and guns of the Royal Sceptre, irreverently by-named ‘the King’s prick’ by her crew, but our consort too, the nimble Fourth Rate frigate Association. We two ships had been detached from the main fleet to cruise southward, toward the Straits of Dover, expecting to arrest a few Dutch merchantmen disguised as neutrals, and maybe to fight a Zeeland privateer or two. Never, ever, expecting to be facing one of the leviathans of King Louis’ brand new navy. Five years before, France’s entire navy could have been defeated by a single Thames barge. Now this titan was coming straight for us, and we knew that somewhere behind her – hours? days? weeks? – was an entire fleet of her vast sisters, commanded by the Sun King’s bastard uncle, the Duke of Beaufort.
Our ship’s chaplain emerged from the steerage, strode up to the quarterdeck, looked over at the Frenchman, and nodded at me.
‘Now, Sir Matthew?’
‘Now, Francis, if you please.’
The Reverend Francis Gale, a stocky fellow fast gaining on his fiftieth birthday, with yet a slight trace of his native Shropshire in his voice, went up to the rail and looked out over the ship’s waist. Warrant and petty officer’s whistles brought forward a makeshift congregation of those who could be spared from their stations. My officers and I removed our hats in due reverence.
‘Thou, oh Lord, art just and powerful,’ Francis began, embarking once again on the great prayer before battle enjoined in the Book of Common Prayer. ‘O defend our cause against the face of the enemy. O God, thou art a strong tower of defence to all that flee unto thee; O save us from the violence of the enemy. O Lord of Hosts, fight for us, that we may glorify thee. O suffer us not to sink under the weight of our sins, or the violence of the enemy. O Lord, arise, help us, and deliver us for they name’s sake. Amen.’
The men in the waist echoed the amen.
When I first encountered him, four years before, Francis Gale was a hopeless drunk, broken by the memory of his true love’s death during Cromwell’s assault on Drogheda. Now he was the vicar of Ravensden, the family living in the gift of the tenth Earl of that name, my brother, and the deeply respected chaplain of my commands whenever he could obtain leave to accompany me to sea.
‘Oh Lord we beseech thee,’ he said, moving on to his extemporised prayers, ‘to grant us victory over the Frenchman, yonder. The true and natural enemy of all Englishmen, against whom our ancestors strived and triumphed at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. The embodiment of the Popish tyranny that burned honest Protestant folk at the stake in the reign of Bloody Mary. That wooden hull, oh Lord our God, is the very embodiment of Popery and France! Popery, that consumes all before it by fire and treachery! Popery, that pretends to serve thee, yet is naught but the Whore of Babylon! France, that seeks universal monarchy over the world! France, that persecutes her own Protestant children, the godly Huguenots, more and more every day! Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, grant us the battle this day! God, grant victory to England, King Charles, the Royal Sceptre, and our noble captain, Sir Matthew Quinton! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, amen.’
A growl, composed in equal measure of devotion and national fervour, came from the men in the waist. We officers made our own amens dutifully, if less fulsomely. As Francis turned toward me, I said, ‘A little strong today, Reverend Gale?’
He shrugged. ‘My mother never liked the French, Sir Matthew. Lost a lover in the Breton war in the old Queen’s day, or so she said. Besides, the men have got so used to fighting the Dutch, they might have forgotten they’re dealing with a different coin here. A very different coin.’
‘She’s changing course, Sir Matthew!’ cried Lieutenant Julian Delacourt. An eager but woefully inexperienced young man, only son and sole heir of an impoverished Irish nobleman, he had taken up his post in this ship just over a week before.
Indeed she was. With the wind south-westerly, the Frenchman was starting to turn north-east, giving us the advantage of the wind.
‘Running for the coast,’ I said to my officers. ‘Brave, to make for a lee shore. But he’ll have a shallower draught than we do, maybe even than the Association does, given how lightly the French build and arm their ships. A bold captain, this, my friends – running for the shoals, hoping he can outrun us as the flood sets to the northward, and thus get into the mouth of the Scheldt. But we’ll disabuse him of the notion, by God!’
Not many years before, Matthew Quinton would not have been able to make a speech like that. In those days, I could barely tell where north-east and south-west were. Yet then, I was already captain of one of the King’s man-of-war: a King’s man-of-war, and by far the greatest part of a crew, that did not survive to tell of my failings.
‘Gentlemen,’ said my not much older but infinitely wiser self, ‘we will clear for action, if you please. Mister Delacourt, we will signal to the Association –‘
Just then, and only for a moment, I caught a glimpse of part of the splendid white-and-gold carving upon the French ship’s sternpiece: a maid in armour, being wafted to heaven by angels. So this was our foe, as recorded in the latest list of King Louis’s men-of-war. The Jeanne d’Arc, new built at Toulon. In our tongue, the Joan of Ark. Well, we English had roasted the namesake, and now we would burn the ship named after her, too.
That said, I prayed that the Jeanne d’Arc was not commanded by either of the French naval captains whom I knew well. Roger, comte d’Andelys, was a good friend, who had served me in the disguise of a sailmaker’s mate when he was in disgrace at the court of King Louis. Whereas Gaspard, seigneur de Montnoir, a knight of Malta, was a mortal enemy, a fanatic who had once attempted to convert me to Rome when I was in his power.
I dismissed the thought. Roger was at his chateau in the valley of the Seine, trying to find a wife and fulminating against those rivals at court who had ensured he held no command at sea during this expedition. Montnoir, meanwhile, was supposed to have died aboard a great Danish man-of-war that I fought some six months before, the Danes, like the French, having joined the war on the side of our Dutch enemies; but although there had been no word of Montnoir since, there was no confirmation of his death, either. And while a part of me would gladly have fought the Seigneur de Montnoir once again, another part prayed fervently that such a truly malevolent and implacable enemy was already dead.
‘Fighting sails, Mister Urquhart!’ I shouted. ‘Master gunner, cartridge and shot to the guns! Half pikes between decks, if you please! Case shot to the swivel guns! Loose the tackles, open the ports, thrust out the main battery!’
Our drummers beat to quarters, our trumpeters sounded our ship’s challenge to its enemy, and the Royal Sceptre sailed into battle.
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