In the early summer of 1641, London is one of the most dangerous places in Europe. King Charles is facing growing challenges from Parliament and many of London’s people, stirred up by firebrand politicians such as John Pym, sense change is in the air. For Roman Catholics – such as the Tallant family – the mood is doubly dangerous. The Tallants are spice merchants, importing the precious condiments and selling them to those wealthy enough to afford to disguise badly-kept meat with pepper, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger. When two Jesuit priests disappear, Thomas Tallant is asked to investigate. When their bodies are found, it is obvious that they have been executed.
Both Sir Robert Tallant and his son Thomas are Members of Parliament, and they are about to witness one of the most famous scenes in British history, but first they must discover who is behind attacks on their premises – both their warehouse beside the River Thames, and their family home out in what was then countryside beyond the City. Are the attacks at the behest of rival merchants, jealous of the Tallants’ connections to the powerful Dutch East India Company, or is something more personal involved? And who is fomenting the violent activism of the Apprentice Boys?
These days we might think of The Apprentice Boys as purely a phenomenon of the political divide in Northern Ireland, but the Apprentice Boys in London predate the Derry incident by over forty years. The London Apprentices in the 1640s were a loosely organised group of many hundreds of young men who took to the street in protest at what they saw as exploitation by their masters. Inevitably but not necessarily correctly, they equated what they saw as their own servitude with the Royalist cause.
The author gives us a brilliantly described account (albeit moved a few months earlier) of the celebrated visit to the House of Commons by King Charles on 4th January 1642 in order to arrest the five members – John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Hollies, John Pym and William Strode – who he saw as central to the plot to bring him down. In this novel, their absence is attributed to a secret message passed earlier in the day to John Pym, and results in the King declaring ruefully, “All my birds have flown.“
Michael Ward does a sterling job of recreating the political and social tensions on the streets of London during what was, arguably, the most turbulent period of British history. The Wrecking Storm is published by Sharpe Books and is available now.