Friday, September 8, 2023

The London Of John Dee and Margaretta

We welcome back author GJ Williams for a sensory guide around Tudor's fascinating reading..... Was there a time when cinemas had a sensory experience - the seats shook during Earthquake? I'm sure some film had a scratch card where the audience scratched and sniffed for 'aromavision'.  Just be thankful we don't have that in this blog!

Blog part two: The London of John Dee and Margaretta


                                                                       Medieval Maps, London

Let me take you back to the Tudor London of John Dee, my detective in The Conjuror’s Apprentice.

It is May 1555.

Only a year ago, Mary Tudor entered the gates of London to take the throne when a Protestant council tried to give Lady Jane Grey her crown. At first Mary was hailed a heroine as people believed the Tudors held the right to monarchy. But it was short lived.  Respect turned to resentment and finally rage as she blundered ahead with her obsession to return England to staunch Catholicism. She has taken a Spanish husband, thrown the Protestant clergy into goal and in February the burnings started when John Fox was led to the stake past his pregnant wife and ten children and took forty-five minutes to burn to death. Since then another sixteen have met their maker in the flames. Fear has gripped the city and now spreads to the towns as Mary’s henchmen try to flush out anyone who questions the old faith. Many of the rich have already fled to Germany.


                                                   Wedding of Mary 1 of England and Philip of Spain

There is anger too as the City is changed by incoming Spanish. When Prince Philip came to marry Mary in July 1554, he brought 4,000 people in his entourage. In reality, London is multi-cultural – the docks bring people from ports all over Europe and traders come from as far afield as India, Africa and Asia. But the Spanish are seen as imposters. They believe themselves elite and more cultured than the English and look down on our conservative dress. But they are seen as filthy criminals with designs on the virtue of English women. Already, the hostels and drinking holes have signs up saying ‘No Spanish.’  

Ten months ago, Queen Mary announced she was with child. A week ago, Te Deums rang out of the churches announcing the birth of a prince. The merriment continued for days. But then the rumours started. Pamphlets appeared on the streets saying there is no child, that she had born a dog, that it was a phantom child, that a noble is walking the back-alleys of the City looking for a new babe born to an English woman and a Spaniard to place in the Royal crib. Some say Mary is dead and her husband will take the throne. This morning the burnings began again in Smithfield market and the terror is back.


                                Image from

When you get up in the morning, the first thing to assault you is the smell. Only the rich have latrines which flow into ditches. The rest empty their chamber pots into the street before dawn. You will also see piles of rubbish, rotting food scraps and a few dead animals. If you are unlucky enough to live near the meat or fish markets the air will be thick with stench.  Laws have been passed to force people to clean the roads in front of their houses, but with 100,000 people in little less than two square miles the filth wins. Your rank will be linked to the part of the city in which you live. If you abide in the South, you will be well used to breweries, brothels and bear pits; but North of the River and you are likely to be better off and even rich. If you are close to Court or in banking, you are probably living in Westminster or The Strand where the houses are grand and gardened.

There will be no shower and changing of clothes. You keep yourself clean by rubbing yourself down with course linen and chewing on a stick to clean your teeth – if you have any left.  Your clothes, like your street, will denote your rank in society. Brown serge and linen for the poor; bright brocades, and silks for the rich. But none of you wear crimson or cloth of gold as the sumptuary law insists those are exclusive to royalty. Your clothes will smell even if you do not and so, if you have money, they will be perfumed with herbs, or rosewater. But just to be sure, you will pick up a nosegay and fasten it to your belt for holding to your nose when you pass something (or someone) particularly rank.


                                           River Thames Part 2, British History online

Work will start at dawn and you will have to walk along narrow, earth streets perpetually dark because the upper floors overhang and any slice of light is blocked by the washing strung between buildings. If you have to move to another part of the City, you will likely make your way to the great River Thames – the principle highway of the city as carriages are only for the rich and tend to be seen as only for the weak. At the river’s edge you will look across more filth – flotsam and jetsam from the breweries, tanneries, and quays along with general rubbish. The river throngs with ships, wherries, barges and swans. Standard transport is a wherry – a rowing boat with a single passenger seat and, if big enough, a canopy to keep you dry. The wherry man is likely rough as hell, but he will know every one of the hundreds of landing steps along the river banks and he will have as much gossip as a London cab driver today.  You could try crossing the only bridge – London Bridge - but it is so cluttered with houses, shops, animals and people it takes an age to walk over. The wherry is faster.

The only sounds you will hear are the voices of others, shouts from shops, calls from hawkers and the sound of church bells. Every week, animals will be driven through the streets to the slaughterhouses – but no sound of engines. They do not exist.


A witch feeds her familiars in this illustration from the 1579 pamphlet about Windsor woman Elizabeth Stile (Photo by Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

Your focus will be on today. For you cannot get news quickly. You will pick up events from gossip and pamphlets on the street. But your main source of news will be the clergy-man in your church on Sunday. The world is opening up. There are universities, schools, libraries and new skills arrive in the City from other lands. But still you are told the world is flat, that God punishes through pestilence and anything out of the norm is branded as sorcery. Even mathematics is regarded with suspicion and called conjuring. Everything you do is dictated by Court and the men of power who have the ear of Queen Mary.

Your fears are few but deep – being accused of being a Protestant (or found out if you are), being taken to the Tower or any other fetid goal in the City; fire because all houses are built of wood and wattle, and disease. The plague is not the threat it was, but now there is smallpox and the sweating sickness which flare up a causing panic at regular intervals. You also fear poverty for the churches are not the charitable havens they were and the poor faced a grim end – begging on the streets which was illegal and punished by whipping or the workhouse. 


The research behind.

When I am writing The Tudor Rose Murders, I need to immerse myself in the world of my characters. I need to see, smell, taste, feel what they experience. This means months of research – and ongoing learning through books, internet, libraries, courses, history programmes, podcasts, talks, and begging historians for a bit of their precious time. It means going to Tudor houses, and Tudor buildings, sitting in museums and walking the streets of London on a Sunday with a medieval map and guidebook in hand.

The Conjuror’s Apprentice is set in May 1555 when Queen Mary was facing a phantom pregnancy and thought to be dying. Her sister, Elizabeth is next in line to the throne, but a body in the Thames holds a letter which puts her and the Tudor dynasty in peril. The killings continue, forcing the detectives – John Dee and his apprentice, Margaretta to scour London in search of a serial killer. The plot moves between Westminster, The Strand, Southwark stews, St Dunstan’s (now the insurance district) and Hampton Court – all connected by the River Thames. I have tramped the streets of every one – but have yet to cross the Thames is a wherry.

The Conjuror’s Apprentice by G.J Williams is available in good bookshops and through Amazon from September 18th 2023.



  1. You paint a chilling, nauseous picture of incipient Elizabethan London, sufficient to make one oh-so-happy to be alive today, even in these times of putrafaceous politics. Paint me very eager to read your book.

  2. Ugh! And some people long for the good old days. As with Everett, yo've hooked me. Thank you.

  3. This is horrible--and horribly fascinating. Thank you. Will be watching for the book in September.

  4. Well, GJ, I am so glad that non of my primary sources described the sanitation conditions in Potosi in 1650. Otherwise, I would have abandoned the whole idea of the book. Still, frigid as my setting was, (at 13,500 feet), the Spanish still come off as bad as all the other colonial regimes. Pass the perfumed handkerchiefs please. From Annamaria