Sunday, September 25, 2011

Plots, beliefs and Omens in the Great Fire of 1666

By Richard Denning
The 17th century is the age of Newton and Harvey and other scientists that discovered many of the scientific truths we know today. YET it was still a time where people believed in magic, witchcraft and omens. It could be a paranoid time. It was also a moment when the average Londoner had reason to distrust foreigners and to be afraid of home brewed plots and conspiracies,  Today I look at some of those beliefs, fears and distrusts and how as a result they suggested to me that the Fire was a perfect moment for the setting of a historical fantasy.
Witchcraft and Magic

Put simply in this time period, despite the growth of science, people believed in Magic and in witchcraft. It  was during the reign of Elizabeth I that campaigns to catch and try witches began – around 1563 - and these were further developed during the reign of James I. The estimate of the number of persons hanged as witches in England  in the  century or so of active trials was about 1,000. The first person hanged for witchcraft was Agnes Waterhouse at Chelmsford in 1566, the last was Alice Molland at Exeter in 1684.
If you were a women who was old, ugly, had warts you were at possible risk of accusation. If you fell out with a neighbour they might just call you a witch. Then the search would begin for “evidence” such a calf being still born in the area or milk turning sour.

Prince Rupert’s demon poodle
As an example of how much credence people might sometimes give to tales of magic and demons, in the civil war the Parliamentarians spread a rumour that Boy – Prince Rupert’s dog (prince Rupert was nephew to King Charles I) – was a demon in disguise. Pamphlets circulated claiming that he had the power to predict the future, find treasure, alter his shape and was invulnerable to bullets. Alas if he did have this power, it failed him at the battle of Marston Moor in 1644, because Boy died at that battle.
The mid 17th century was a time of great superstition and people attributed significance to omens that they saw about them. There were Solar eclipses in the southern hemisphere in 1666. Comets had been seen in the skies in 1664. There were also lunar eclipses. People seemed willing to believe that any apparently natural occurrence had deeper meaning. For example in 1666 it was widely reported that a hen’s egg had been laid in Poland with the mark of the cross on it.
All of these – and many other occurrences  - were believed by many to imply that some great catastrophe was looming.

There was even a prediction made by  William Lilly, the best known astrologer of his day, who predicted the plague of 1665 and the  Great Fire of London (1666) in 1652. Of course the year 1666 would be likely to attract such predictions due to its signifiacnce (see below) and there were many predictions that DID NOT come true that are not reported but many people suggested after the fire that his (and other) predictions were to blame.
The End of the World
Every few years people predict that the world will end. Many people believed that 1666 was the end of the world!! In the Book of Revelations there is this passage that says that the number of the beast – of the devil is 666.  In 1666 many people thought they were living in the year the world would end (because of that 666 bit.) In the New Almanack and Prognostication of 1666 astrologer John Booker who was quite well known, pointed out the significance of the date. There were other articles in advance of the year - for example a priest pointed out that if you arranged all the Roman numerals in order (MDCLXVI ) it became 1666 and that must mean something surely! Then there was the "interpretation" - a mathematical/theological work that analysed 666 and 1666 and purported to show how these were magic numbers. This book was a best seller in 1666 - even the diarist Samuel Pepys bought one.

Home brewed Fears
In 1666 King Charles II had only been king 6 years. There were many who did not fully trust the king and a good number who opposed his restoration and believed in a republic. Some would go as far as armed rebellion or attempts at assassination. There were at least half a dozen plots against the King in those first 6 years. Charles responded by introducing a robust organisation of spies and informers. Because of these attempts to overthrow the king there was great fear of more Catholic “papist plots” like the Gunpowder plot of 1605 and the more recent attempts on the king's life.

Foreign Enemies
Mistrust was not just confined to home spun plots and enemies. In 1666 England was at war with both Holland and France over domination of the seas and of world trade and everyone was paranoid about foreign spies. As a result all foreigners were viewed with suspicion and stories abounded about atrocities inflicted by these other nations.

When I was researching the start of the fire, I started thinking that given the superstitions of that time period in which many people did believe in supernatural explanations for much of what they saw around them, it was only a small jump to a plot focused around a fantastical basis for the fire.

The Last Seal

This, then, was the spark of an idea that became The Last Seal. So we have the real world of 1666 with its cramped London of tenements and warehouses, celebrities and historical buildings, its markets and its thieves. Blended amongst it we have the spies working for the King, secret societies, sorcery and a demon.
The Last Seal is, I hope, fast moving, exciting and at times frightening, but I have strived to make it a good recreation of the period. 

Check out the book’s Facebook page here:
Read part of the book here:
Buy the book on Amazon:  available in Paperback and Kindle


  1. Some things don't change? We still demonise our enemies; some faiths believe in astrology; the millenium bug was another scare story. And some people seem to worship celebrities.

    What happened to the Enlightenment?

  2. Indeed. People have been and will be always the same I think.

  3. Can't wait to read it, Richard!! Fascinating post!

  4. Plots, beliefs and Omens in the Great Fire of 1666
    By Richard Denning. Wow. A fascinating and entertaining introduction to topic of superstitious and other beliefs in England during the 17th century.
    Thanks for sharing,

  5. What a fascinating subject! And your book sounds very intriguing as well.


  6. That was a very interesting blog. It made me remember something from a book I read before. In your research did you find evidence that the fire had the positive benefit of stopping a great plague that was raging through London?

  7. Terrific post...oh that poor little dog!

  8. Sophia, the plague was on the wane by the time of the fire but by no means was over. There were new cases even whilst the fire went on. Since plague is carried by fleas on the bodies of rats then the very fact that thousands of rats would have perished in the fire is believed to have hastened its end. Certainly the Great Plague was the last significant one.