My guest blogger is someone who I have admired for the thoroughness of her research when writing an historical novel. Introducing Katherine Pym.
Katherine, like many "HF" writers has chosen a niche for much of her work. Read her blog, and see just how small that niche is. She's become an expert on the subject!
I like to write historical novels, and my era of choice is 17th century London. Fact is often more compelling than fiction, and research brings to the author/reader unique human interest stories.
Due to the large amount of current events during the 1660’s, my intention is to write a novel per year until 1666 when old London burned to the ground. So far, I’ve had success writing stories each year from 1660 to 1662.
True London (approximately one square mile) resided within the old wall. Everything outside was its suburbs, such as the theatre district near Drury Lane, Covent Garden, the London Bridge, and London Pool where tall ships were outfitted to sail the high seas. Across the bridge to Southwark and Bankside where the brothels were, the Clink Prison, Bear baiting, and the old Globe, none of these were considered London.
This blog will be unruly, and for much of it, unkind. But culled from research, it is all true.
My latest release (London 1662) titled Of Carrion Feathers dealt with espionage against the king, primarily from the discontents who survived the transition between Cromwell’s Protectorate and King Charles II’s Restoration.
My work in progress (London 1663), is about health, science, and medicine. As you can imagine, studies were raw and primitive, and unpleasant to its victims. To determine how blood, heart, and lungs worked together, the Royal Society primarily dissected dogs. The Chirurgery (Surgery) Guild used hanged felons to find their answers. (Note: The hue and cry against exhuming bodies for study—as in Tale of Two Cities--took place in later centuries.)
Hopefully, a family member wouldn’t be subjected to hanging, then dissection, but if he were…
When a man committed a crime in Covent Garden, he was not in London, but Middlesex County. He’d be dragged to Hicks Hall, and there undergo a grilling by the Grand Jury. If the crime was serious enough, he’d be transferred to London, Newgate Prison (built in the 12th century), and be tried at the Old Bailey.
The area of Newgate and Old Bailey permeated with the stink of man at his worst. Over the centuries, prisoners found a kink in the walls, and a few breakouts occurred. In the 1630’s, that was corrected, and by the 1660’s, the prison was near impregnable. After the fire of 1666, it burned to the ground. The fire was so hot, stones shot from buildings like grenades that exploded at impact. Surprisingly, very few in London died during the Great Fire.
But I digress…
The 17th century justice system gave little leeway to the accused. Most of the time, the perpetrator was hanged, and there was little he could do. If the crime was murder, there were no defense lawyers. The indicted person was on his own to show the judges, jurors, and witnesses that he was innocent.
The more notorious the crime, the more spectators jammed into the Old Bailey. It was up to the witnesses to show what the accused did. It often ended up in a shouting match between the prisoner, the victim or loved ones of the victim, and their witnesses.
Jurors were picked to serve for the season, 12 from London and 12 from Middlesex County. The judges preferred jurors who knew each other and had served before. It was a smoother business that way.
When the accused stood at the dock ready to receive sentence, the judge would ask, “What have you to say,” to avoid death by execution, “according to the law?”
At this moment, while the prisoner stood at the bar, his brain functions stopped by the fact he would soon die, the executioner would slip a little rope in the form of a noose around the accused’s thumb. He’d then slowly close the noose.
How would he respond to that? The poor fellow must have gaped, and in shock, he more than likely could not utter a word.
Once convicted of a crime and the verdict was death by hanging, most prisoners ended up at Tyburn Tree, and would be executed with several others.
Tyburn was once a village in Middlesex County. What made Tyburn gallows unique was the way it was constructed, ‘a wooden triangle supported by three legs.’ Quite a few felons could be hanged at a time. It was a marvelous sport for the people.
Public executions were entertainment. Crowds gathered en masse to watch these events. The village of Tyburn profited by large hangings. They set up food and drink stalls, erected bleachers so that good folk could see clearly. They brought their children, and baskets of food. They picnicked and laughed.
England’s justice system would not allow a guilty person to escape his sentence. Stories of interest:
One fellow condemned to be hanged found a way to escape as he was brought to the gallows. When the bailiffs hauled the poor fellow to the ‘tree’, his legs shackled, the condemned man jerked out of the way. The crowd impeded the gaolers from catching him. He ran down a hill and jumped into a river, the weight of the shackles pulling him down. He drowned.
Not content to have the prisoner die before being properly hanged, he was hauled limp and wet back to the gallows, and there hanged with the other prisoners. (They did this during the French Revolution, too. Not hanged - guillotined.)
Enter Oliver Cromwell who was very dead when executed for treason.
When King Charles II returned from exile in May 1660, he brought back a few things. One – a French tradition – put women on stage. Another, he sought revenge for the regicide of his father, King Charles I.
Charles II did not want to execute every regicide, but the men around him did. They were determined to show the world what rogues and rascals the regicides were for killing Charles, the father. After several executions, and when new names were recommended, Charles, the son, waved his hand in dismissal. He was tired of death.
He did, however, accept revenge on the head of Oliver Cromwell.
Excerpt from Of Carrion Feathers by KPym: “The Protector died of an illness on a stormy night in September of 1658. Wind blew and rain pelted the earth. With his son incapable to lead the people, Cromwell’s death left an appalling void. Those who remained in the Commonwealth tucked their heads into their bolsters, and shivered under the calamity of a terrible loss. They begged the Lord God to deliver them from the shocking death of their loved one.
Finally, with nothing else for it, God not returning their Saint to a now beleaguered people, the country gathered in great pomp and ceremony to give the Protector a proper fare-thee-well. His doctors had embalmed him and filled his coffin with spices. After a long ceremony of viewing his effigy with infinite prayers and speeches, Cromwell was enshrined in Westminster Abbey amongst dead kings and queens of the realm.
When the new king returned, Charles II could not forgive the men who tried to kill him and succeeded in killing his father. The king ordered Cromwell to be disinterred from his shrine. They yanked him from the grave to endure a rigorous execution.
Along with other regicides, Cromwell was hanged at Tyburn. After several strokes of the axe through fabric of the shroud, he was beheaded, his body cast in a hole beneath Tyburn gallows. They stuck his head on a pike for the whole world to see at Westminster Hall.” It remained there for twenty or thirty years before it was spirited away on another dark and dreary night...”
Life in the 17th century could be brutal, but people then were as we are today. They tried to live their lives, learn from their mistakes, and when they died, make peace with their Maker. Sometimes, the harsh hand of justice got in their way, and the end was less than kind. Today, we have appeals, and felons in prisons live fairly well. If they’re condemned to die, they live much longer than in the 17th century. Science and research continues with rats and mice, hopefully, not dogs, but human bodies are still dissected for research…
For more works on London 17th century, please see amazon for Of Carrion Feathers, or her other novels:
In UK, you must search separately, but for Of Carrion Feathers:
Also see her blog: http://novelsbykatherinepym.blogspot.com/