The Conjuror’s Apprentice by Gwenllian Williams is the first in a new Tudor crime fiction series featuring Doctor Dee.
What was life like for The Conjuror’s Apprentice?
by Gwenllian Williams
The Conjuror’s Apprentice is set in 1555. My detective duo are Doctor John Dee, a brilliant philosopher and astrologer, and his apprentice, Margaretta Morgan, a low-born girl from Wales. But this girl is no ordinary servant. She has a strange gift of being able to hear and feel the unspoken words and thoughts of others. As a woman she can walk among others unnoticed and unseen, picking up the information which will feed her master’s mind and give him the power to regain his family’s standing in court. It starts with a body in the Thames which implicates the queen’s sister, Elizabeth, in treachery. Dee and Margaretta have to navigate the households of the powerful, the men of court, the stews of Southwark and then the Tower to unravel the plot and uncover the serial killer who hunts with yellow wool.
As a novelist, I take real people and real situations and throw a murder or more into the middle. This means that my research has to be long, deep, and accurate. When writing you can only drip in everything you learn or the story will grind to Proustian pace. However, immersing yourself in the environment in which my characters live, helps me see events through their eyes, drive dialogue which fits the time and pull through the emotions they likely would have felt. You need to take yourself back to a world which is so very different and yet so very similar. Today, London is a multi-national metropolis of concrete, steel and paving with bustle, noise, heartiness and sometimes danger around every corner. In 1555 it was a multi-national metropolis of wood, wattle, tile and dirt with the same tumult of humanity
So, when Margaretta walked the streets of London in search of evidence for her master, what was the world she saw and smelled around her?
The smell and the sounds
If you woke in Margaretta and Dee’s London, the first thing to hit you would be the stench. Water did not run into houses, save a few of the very rich or monasteries who had been granted piping off the great conduits. There was no water – no flushing toilets or showers. So people made use of pots which were emptied into the streets. Along with human pee and excrement you might expect to find dead animals, general rubbish and around the markets, rotting meat, fish and vegetables. People were meant to keep the road before their shops and dwellings clean, but it was an un-enforceable law. If you were in the vicinity of Cheapside – the main market with streets going off for various products (Meat Street, Milk Street) the smells would alert you to the produce. Probably the nicest smelling road was Bread Street. A walk down to the Thames would have you expecting the relief of cleaner air and a water-freshened breeze. No. The Thames was the main route of the city but also its main dumping ground for rubbish, used hops from the breweries, urine from the tanneries and sewage. We often think of the people as being smelly – though this is unlikely. Washing and bathing were mainly for the rich, but everyone kept their skin clean by rubbing down with coarse linen. Teeth were cleaned with wooden picks and clothes sweetened with lavender and rosewater. Today we hear engines and the sounds of mobile phones. In 1555 all you would hear was conversation, the calls of hawkers, the hum of a tavern, the sounds of animals being driven through the street. News was passed by town criers and your time was told by the church bells. Gossip, slander and rumour was passed through pamphlets dropped on the streets having been printed in illegal presses, their authors often going unseen and unknown – a bit like Twitter trolls today.
London today is sparkly bright and buildings soar up for light. In Tudor London the streets were narrow, dark and dirty – more like alleys – enough room for a cart or a few oxen (the medieval equivalent of donkeys) to pass through, but overhung by the upper floors of the timber and white wattle houses. The jutting out of the first floor would take away most light and the washing hung between windows blotted out the rest. There was no tarmac, and no paving unless you were in a more affluent area such as Westminster or The Strand. In winter months, gravel or rushes might be thrown down to fill the ruts and puddles – but you were advised to wear pattens to lift your skirts and shoes above the mire. Special care was required early morning as this was the ritual emptying of the pots. Some urine would have been given to the young men collecting it for the tanneries, but the rest muddled into the mud on the streets. Many people had a pomander or nosegay attached to their belt to sniff in places of high stink.
Your main roads are still standing – the long roads such as Cheapside, Gracechurch Street, The Strand, Ludgate Hill, Fleet Street. They were often named after the work or wares sold within them such as Fish Street, or the significant buildings or churches. So, Conduit Street held the great Conduit; Fleet Street led to the Fleet River now buried under the streets. But your main thoroughfare was the great River Thames. If you were rich you travelled by barge, the rest went by Wherry – a rowing boat with a stern seat, sometimes a canopy for shelter and one rough wherryman on the oars. If you were poor you walked and had to cross the Thames by the one bridge – London Bridge which was a span of houses, shops, livestock driving and mess.
Tudor London was multi-cultural. The river and the docks brought men from all over the world, and the world was opening up by sea. People of all cultures mingled, but the English had a reputation for arrogance and elitism towards dark faces and different tongues. In 1553, when Queen Mary (Later known as Bloody Mary) married her Prince charming, Philip 2nd, 4,000 Spaniards arrived in his entourage. Just like today, there was fury and talk of invasion, being overrun, there being no room and that jobs and women would be stolen from the Englishmen. Day to day rules and practices were dictated by clergy and counsel. Rules of business were dictated by the guilds and companies – though these had to be agreed with clergy and counsel. Social class was generally set for life. If you were born to the street you generally stayed there and the same if you were born to the great houses of the gentry and Court players. However, young men did have a route to a career and money through the apprentice system, though this was carefully managed by the guilds and places limited to ensure they maintained the competition. Women could really only advance their prospects through marriage and in widowhood could take over their husband’s business.
Life and belief about the world was crafted by religion. People believed the world as flat and the planets whirled around it as that is what God had created in seven days. The believed that true magic happened in a church service – that the Holy Spirit walked among them and brought mystical blessings. People often carried a bible or a prayer book. This led to a fear of anything outside religious doctrine or process. Anything not understood was deemed sorcery often called conjuring. Mathematics were seen as conjuring, use of herbs was potentially witchcraft, the ability to foresee or guess the future seen as sorcery.
The apprentice, Margaretta, in The Conjuror’s Apprentice would have kept her special gifts very secret. Her ability to hear and feel the thoughts of others would have had her branded a witch and the consequences terrible. An accusation of witch craft usually ended in death – often starting by ducking in which a woman – and it was nearly always a woman – was tied into a cucking stool (later called a ducking stool) and held under water. If she drowned, she was deemed innocent. If she survived it was assumed she was possessed. In England first offences were usually punished by flogging or imprisonment, only serial witches were executed by hanging. But in Europe the paranoia was far greater and an accusation of witchery would inevitably end in being burned or boiled alive. We know that Doctor John Dee was called the Great Conjuror of England – a label he railed against for years. He did not help himself by using ropes and pulleys to make a mechanical dung beetle fly for a play in Cambridge University; then he was known for calculating horoscopes and also dabbled with angels.
So, when he complained: .. And for these and such like marvellous Acts and Feats, Naturally, Mathematically, .. and Mechanically wrought and contrived: ought any honest Student and Modest .. Christian Philosopher be counted and called a conjuror? …Shall that man be .. (in hugger mugger) condemned as a Companion of the Hellhounds, and a .. Caller, and Conjuror of wicked and damned spirits?
The answer was ‘yes’; and in The Conjuror’s Apprentice the consequences of that answer is a threat as great as the serial killer they are trying to uncover.
The Conjuror’s Apprentice is available in bookshops and bookselling websites from 2nd October, 2023.
I am a Welsh woman living in Somerset. As a psychologist with a passion for history my historical crime writing takes real events and people into which I throw bodies and plenty of psychological drama. The Conjuror’s Apprentice is my debut in a series, with book two scheduled for publication next June. Like all authors I would be really grateful if you show any enjoyment of my work through a review on Amazon and Goodreads. Please support independent bookshops. If you are interested in articles about characters and events in Tudor England, please visit my website www.gjwilliamsauthor.com and subscribe or follow me on Instagram GJWilliams92