Picture in your mind a Jacobean street –
There! See it in all its stooped wooden-slant glory,
Quivering with smoke in the evening air –
Its newly restored constitution breathing out from every beam,
Buzzing with the heartbeats of a thousand busy souls. We pan over
The slope-rooved frames, slowly inching forward to take in the crowds
As they act out their night-time ways.
The houses and inns seem to collude together like conspirators –
They whisper of plots and secret dissensions,
Leaning on one another to support their claims. Rumours fly through the fug:
The Dutch! The Dutch are coming!
So says the newspaper crier touting his evening wares.
Salacious stories of the King’s court! Dominicans in the dominion!
A man makes his way through the noise.
Mark his rich coat, his brimmed hat, his bright buckled boots.
This is a gentleman, we must understand. A financier or clerk of court, perhaps.
Watch as he takes himself carefully over the mud on the road,
Raising his heels to keep them clean. He holds a bible in his hand.
A carriage passes – a hand waves through the open window.
We follow him as he finds himself on a new, wider thoroughfare –
A street of the City, where Williams and Henrys went riding,
Along which martyrs were dragged screaming,
Where – not so long ago – Cromwell and his generals came marching.
The street of Wyatt and Surrey, but not Shakespeare.
Notice the repainted doors, where – if you care to look closely –
A trace of a red cross may still be seen. It is a sign that this street, like every street here,
Has known death. Beware of the blood beneath the cobble stones,
It seems to suggest. But that too will be burned away before long.
Follow our man’s eyes –
They reach over the rooftops and church spires that mark the distance.
He’s looking over to Whitehall, where they killed King Charles.
But they killed him in every alley, in every home and every mind,
Only to be forced to exhume and re-examine the body a decade later.
And there he is, come back again, the regal son sitting in his golden carriage –
His father’s sharp nose piercing the September air.
Publicly, they condemn Clarendon for the barren marriage,
But everyone knows it’s the Catholic at the King’s ear to blame for the lack of an heir.
Here in this capital, memory has a physical presence.
It takes on new shapes, new disguises. But,
If you turn your ear in the right way, you can find yourself feeling it
Breathing down your neck. So it seems on this night.
There is a gunpowder-unease straining at the eaves;
A straw-man effigy sits at the back of every pub.
Our figure follows his path through the city, apparently unaware
That tonight a plot is being prepared in history’s oven.
He cuts past Parliament – grand, wizened Westminster, that foundation stone
Of careful dissent – and finds himself at the door of the abbey. His shadow slips in.
A quick prayer is made, one hand resting on the bible, the other tracing the cold flagstones.
So now we know – he is the church warden, stout defender of the faith.
The sun finally falls, and candles begin to stoop. Meals are eaten. Graces uttered.
Drunkards totter along the south-bank, singing sailor songs.
And, somewhere in the maze of buildings, a baker goes to bed.
The shout rises through the dry air.
It plumes outwards and echoes from a hundred voices – more and more by the hour.
There is an early glow on the horizon, pre-empting the dawn.
Cinders begin to rain down and catch on the hems of dresses.
They smuggle themselves in hay, spreading like secrets.
It seems the devil himself has come tonight to dance.
Now buckets fly through hands towards the flames.
Lines of men try to staunch the spread. Our cleric is among them,
Directing a train of water towards a hollowed-out inn.
Some say the King is helping. Some say so is his brother.
A thunder-crack rips through the night. Gunpowder has returned to the streets.
It demolishes homes where it failed to eat thrones,
Clearing a space to beat back the beast.
Fire fells fire. Fear spreads regardless.
As the city empties itself, the whispers begin.
It’s the Jesuits, it’s the papists they say,
With their devil-tongues whipping up the embers
It’s the republicans, it’s those radicals they mutter
Ready to render the world a ruin –
Though the rumpers and the ranters are long gone from power,
And their reformation came to nothing.
Soon the camps beyond the urban limits are flush
With new arrivals. A hush descends as they see
The court arrive in retinue, training their belongings.
And out on the Smithfield grass, our clergyman sits under covers,
Homeless, his bible lost in the rush.
Picture in your mind a Jacobean street –