Charles I of England was beheaded in 1649. But his heir did not take the throne; rather, England entered the period known as “the Republican Commonwealth,” during which the radical Puritan Oliver Cromwell, using the title of “Lord Protector” ran the country as a dictatorship. Cromwell’s death (from natural causes) in 1658 resulted in the eventual restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and Charles II was called back from exile to serve as king.
Charles II had perhaps more than his share of challenges. One task was to eliminate the Fifth Monarchists from Britain. This was an extremist Puritan sect, numbering up to around 10,000 adherents, which took its name from a prophecy in the Book of Daniel about four ancient monarchies (Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, and Roman) that would precede the kingdom of Christ. They saw Charles I as the last of the Roman monarchy, since they were convinced the prophecy would happen soon – in 1666 – given its similarity to the cryptic biblical Number of the Beast from the Book of Revelation, chapter 13, verse 18). The Fifth Monarchists played a role in the killing of Charles I to ease the way for the kingdom of Jesus. (It appears their Bible reading was selective, and they missed the parts about not killing, and beating your swords into plowshares.)
Many of the group’s leaders were arrested and executed after two aborted uprisings, one in 1657 and one in 1661. Adherents remained, however, and continued their agitation while avoiding capture.
There was more.
The Great Plague of London, the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England, ravaged the population from 1665 to 1666. Anyone getting ill for any reason could inspire a panic. Then the Great Fire of London started on September 2, 1666, fanned by strong winds and fed by wood that had been stockpiled for the coming colder months. The fire eventually consumed about 13,200 houses and 87 churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral.
All of these occurrences form the backdrop for this work of historical fiction. The story begins on September 4, 1666, while London was still burning and onlookers were gathered before St. Paul’s Cathedral, which stood at the highest point of the city and was believed to have been impregnable. But on this day, it was consumed by fire. As St. Paul’s history website explains, a wooden scaffolding erected to add a dome contributed to the spread of the flames around the cathedral. The high vaults fell, smashing into the crypt. There, thousands of books stored in vaults leased to printers and booksellers fueled the flames and put the structure beyond hope of rescue.
Two of those observing the destruction of the cathedral are the main characters of the story, and they alternate narration. Although Catherine “Cat” Lovett and James Marwood don’t know each other (yet), both are the offspring of fathers who were Fifth Monarchists. Cat’s father had been on the run for six years and she had not seen him in all that time. Marwood’s father was released from prison six months before the story began. The father’s brain is now addled, and Marwood has to care for him. Additionally, in exchange for his father’s release, Marwood had to agree to go to work for an influential member of the government, ostensibly as a clerk but also doing whatever “errands” he was assigned. One of these errands was to help investigate the murder of a man found during the clean-up of the cathedral fire. Marwood observed that the murdered man had his thumbs tied behind his back, and worse yet, other similarly trussed bodies turned up before long. Marwood thought he could pick up clues as to what was going on from the grounds of the cathedral ruins.
Cat gravitated to the ruins as well. She aspired to be an architect, although that was not really an option for women. But she was drawn to St. Paul’s, since it was being rebuilt by the renowned Christopher Wren. He and his team of designers had responsibility for rebuilding 52 churches in the City of London after the Great Fire, including what later came to be regarded as his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral.
As Marwood struggled to figure out what happened, he was also tasked with locating Cat’s father, who was on top of the King’s “most wanted” list. If he could find Cat, he thought perhaps he could find her father as well and fulfill at least part of his assignments. But Cat suddenly went missing. Cat’s aunt and uncle, with whom she lived, were trying to push her into an arranged marriage with an execrable man, and her lecherous cousin had become a danger to her. She felt her only recourse was to go into hiding.
The tension rises as the two inexorably make their ways toward one another, with each of their lives at serious risk during this time. The lack of restraints on violence – especially with respect to women – and the overarching authority of the king who had the power of life over death, made the survival of Cat and Marwood respectively a continuous gamble.
Evaluation: This is the first in a series of thrillers set in this time period. I always enjoy murder mysteries that teach me something in addition to providing a page-turning diversion.
Published by HarperCollins, 2016