This week the Museum of London announced that the second century bodies they were studying had Chinese ancestry, so adding another layer to our constantly growing knowledge of London’s diverse past. Bodies from the first to third centuries have shown that soldiers were stationed here from across the Roman Empire. It is ironic that now as we move to isolate ourselves and create barriers to newcomers, 1900 years ago these Roman citizens included people from across Europe and as far away as Syria and North Africa. Further evidence comes from parish records from the sixteenth and seventeenth century which record marriages, deaths and baptisms such as “Christopher Cappervert, a blackemoore” in 1586. In the royal court at the start of the sixteenth century, Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, was attended for 26 years by Catalina de Cardones, a lady of the bedchamber who is recorded as an Iberian Moor. Eighty years later Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, issued a proclamation about the number of black people in the population and “She ordered that ‘those kinde of people should be sente forth of the land.” Doubly unpleasant as she had been known to have black musicians and at least one black maidservant. Across the community craftsmen, domestic servants and actors are recorded in the general population, and with the expansion of trade there were sailors, merchants and travellers in the port.
When I started work with my son, Sam, on our book about 1666 and the Great Fire of London we had little idea quite how much we needed to analyse and consider. The story is a fictional account (possibly obvious when the narrator is a flea!) but from the start we felt it was essential to portray the events as historically accurately as possible. The tricky bit, we found, was balancing artistic licence with fact without losing the interest that would provide discussions in the classroom if using it to support the topic. Vlad the flea has to be bigger than in reality otherwise it would be impossible to see the larger view and the narrator – truth bent. How the fire started, what London looked like, what people wore and their appearance was important – truth maintained as much as possible. It was therefore significant that the characters were diverse in age, gender and ethnicity. Having lived and taught in London I hoped it would feel more real to kids who knew London. Was London like a village in a rural area? No almost certainly not. But then that is the point. London was and is that proverbial melting pot that has been described as being dominated by port and court. The population was larger, more transient and more varied. To ignore that was to remove part of the history.
What is the colour of history? It is many colours. Depending on when, where and who is in the picture. In the end the important part is to make the picture as true to what we know as we possibly can.
Vlad and the Great Fire of London is now available through Amazon.
Free lesson resources linked to the Great Fire of London available from TES
Contact Reading Riddle for information about storytelling and drama session – details here.