Wrath of God or a Cosmic Fart? The Great Plague of 1665-1666

London in the year of the plague, 1665

The last epidemic of the bubonic plague hit London in 1665, killing at least 100,000 people, or a quarter of the city’s total population. 

Though it hasn’t really been seen since in Britain, the plague did not come out of nowhere. There had been four other outbreaks between 1560 and 1660, the most recent being in the 1620s. People read the weekly Bills of Mortality to count the deaths, the rich to decide whether it was wise to leave the city for the country to avoid it, and the tradesmen to see if they were likely to have any work. (1)

There were two types of plague, pneumonic and bubonic, and both came from the Yersenia pestis bacterium, which was carried by fleas. The pneumonic plague set in when the disease went straight to the lungs, and the afflicted would die within three days. With the bubonic plague, most common in 1665, it went to the lymph glands. After ten days of incubation, the lymph glands swelled into “buboes”, and usually killed the victim within five days, although there was about a thirty percent chance of survival. (1)

The Court left before they were in any real danger, withdrawing to the safety of Oxford, while the rest of London waited. 

“The face of London was now indeed strangely altered: I mean the whole mass of buildings, city, liberties, suburbs, Westminster, Southwark, and altogether; for as to the particular part called the city, or within the walls, that was not yet much infected … sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and, as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger. Were it possible to represent those times exactly to those that did not see them, and give the reader due ideas of the horror that everywhere presented itself, it must make just impressions upon their minds and fill them with surprise. London might well be said to be all in tears; the mourners did not go about the streets indeed, for nobody put on black or made a formal dress of mourning for their nearest friends; but the voice of mourners was truly heard in the streets. The shrieks of women and children at the windows and doors of their houses, where their dearest relations were perhaps dying, or just dead, were so frequent to be heard as we passed the streets, that it was enough to pierce the stoutest heart in the world to hear them. Tears and lamentations were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for towards the latter end men’s hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour.” (3)

The Bills of Mortality reported 68,596 deaths from the plague, but Pepys put the number closer to 100,000. A contemporary doctor thought the true number was closer to 200,000. (1)

A plague doctor. This one is Roman,
but the costume would have been
much the same. The “beaks” were filled
with fragrant herbs.


With the staggering number of deaths caused by the plague, human and animal (it was ordered that all cats and dogs in the city be put down), finding a place to bury the bodies became an issue. Most of the dead were still buried in churchyards, and the churchyards tried to accommodate them for as long as they could, stacking bodies on top of each other with or without coffins until every churchyard in London was filled with rotting, infected flesh. The smell must have been horrific. Soon the dead were put into enormous plague pits throughout the city. They’re still finding these today, so it’s impossible to say how many more remain below the city. 

Almanacs blamed the plague on “a cosmic fart”: “The pestilence generally derives its natural origin from a Crisis of the Earth whereby it purges itself by expiring those Arsenical Fumes that have been retained so long in her bowels.” (2)

Many people thought it was the wrath of God. Still others had claimed to see it coming in the bad omen of two comets that had appeared over the city in 1664:

“A blazing star or comet appeared for several months before the plague, as there did the year after another, a little before the fire. The old women and the phlegmatic hypochondriac part of the other sex, whom I could almost call old women too, remarked (especially afterward, though not till both those judgements were over) that those two comets passed directly over the city, and that so very near the houses that it was plain they imported something peculiar to the city alone; that the comet before the pestilence was of a faint, dull, languid colour, and its motion very heavy, solemn, and slow; but that the comet before the fire was bright and sparkling, or, as others said, flaming, and its motion swift and furious; and that, accordingly, one foretold a heavy judgement, slow but severe, terrible and frightful, as was the plague; but the other foretold a stroke, sudden, swift, and fiery as the conflagration.” (3)

The Great Fire of 1666 did much to eradicate the plague from the city. So much of London was incinerated, fleas included. Stone houses replaced the wooden ones, and rats had a much harder time trying to get into these. The Rebuilding of London Act of 1666 ordered widened streets and banned open sewers, wooden houses, and overhanging upper levels, aiding sanitation and making the city less vulnerable to the spread of fire and disease. The overflowing churchyards proved the necessity for larger cemeteries further from the bulk of the population, and led to the establishment of the first formal cemeteries on the outskirts of town. 

For some truly terrifying reading, check out Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). You can read the whole thing here, courtesy of gutenberg.org. Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis is a wonderful history of death in London throughout the ages and the chapter on the plague might just give you nightmares (I would have used it here, but I loaned my copy to someone and they don’t want to give it back!). There’s also an interactive guide to London’s many plague pits on historic-uk.com here

Sources

1. Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997.
2. R. Saunders. The English Apollo. London, 1666.
3. Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. 1722. 

The Act of Oblivion: Guest Post by Historian John Polsom-Jenkins

Charles II in exile. Philippe de Champaigne, 1653
By early 1660, England and Wales had been in a state of civil war since 1642 and engaged in intermittent related conflicts in Scotland and Ireland since 1638, to say nothing of foreign wars against the Dutch and increased colonial engagements. The success of Parliament against King Charles I had resulted in the traditional structure of England: its monarchy, government, courts, and national church, being dismantled and replaced with a series of experiments in republican government and more radically reformed religion. However, Parliament ultimately found itself unable to negotiate a political and religious settlement between the varied interests who had fought against the King, especially since a wide range of fanatical religious groups had developed during the unstructured years of war, some of them now espousing a radical social agenda, all of which was deeply threatening to those who still believed in a rigid social structure and unified national church.

Parliament eventually having felt compelled to put the King on trial and execute him for treason against his own people, and with his son in exile on the continent, the reins of government fell to the army and Oliver Cromwell in particular. In the 1650s, Cromwell succeeded in creating a sort of hereditary military dictatorship (the Protectorate), in which he fulfilled the role of king in all but name.  When the Protector passed on in 1658, his son, Richard, inherited his mantle but wore it unconvincingly and was persuaded to resign in April 1659. This left the army in charge of the country and it was George Monck who emerged as its foremost and most decisive general. Monck had been a royalist commander under Charles I before joining Parliament to lead its forces against the Irish. Once again, Monck demonstrated his preference for strong, stable government and, in March of 1660, began negotiating directly with Charles II (whose Scottish coronation had been moved as a result of Monck’s attacks) to secure his Restoration to the throne of England. Charles was restored by May.

By the time Charles returned to England, popular opinion had swung in his favor and the army was decidedly on his side, but ruling the country would be no easy task. The extravagant celebrations which accompanied Charles’ entrance into London on his 30th birthday, 29thMay, 1660, masked a country which had suffered years of bitter warfare and division. How to unite the Parliamentarian idealists, who had seen their hopes (in many cases for no less than bringing about heaven on Earth) dashed, with the Royalists, who had suffered military defeat, exile, and confiscation of their property, and who were now anxious for payback?

Charles II was canny enough to realize that for the country to heal, or even cease to tear itself apart, there would have to be plenty of forgiveness, not least from himself. Before he even set foot on English soil, the Act of Free and General Pardon Indemnity and Oblivion, or Act of Oblivion as it is usually referred to, had been agreed on and passed by the interim Convention Parliament. The Act of Oblivion offered a general pardon towards the King’s disloyal subjects for anything they might have done in the regular passage of warfare or governance during the Civil War and tried to prevent the “late Differences” from being perpetuated further by instigating fines for factional name-calling for the following three years (£10 for gentlemen; 40 shillings for everyone else).

Although the Act of Oblivion and Charles’ Declaration made from exile in Breda both represented a genuine attempt at reconciliation in April 1660, they both left unsaid some uncompromising realities. Charles had many who had followed him into battle and exile at the expense of their families, estates, and fortunes and who now expected their loyalty to be repaid. However, the new King could ill-afford to reinforce divisions and push his former opponents back to rebellion. Indeed, his Restoration could not have happened without the support of former opponents in the army, especially Monck.

Further, there were limits to forgiveness. Those most personally offensive to the King, those regicides most directly involved in the trial and execution of his father, were excepted from the general pardon, the new regime famously even going to the length of exhuming the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton, and John Bradshaw, in order to give the corpses a traitor’s death. Of the forty-one surviving signatories to Charles I’s death warrant, only nine shared this fate with the unfortunate corpses along with four others regarded as contributing to the regicide (a preacher, Charles’ guards). Others were saved by family connections, excuses, or running into exile. Charles II needed to restrain himself from being too vindictive in order to preserve the peace, but it was also dangerous to allow those who had so blatantly challenged the divinely-appointed status of his family to rule to do so without consequence.

Perhaps the Act did do something towards consigning the divisions of the immediate past to oblivion, but new divisions developed from the old and Charles’ brother was deposed within five years of taking the throne.

For the verbose legalese of the Act in its entirety, see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/statutes-realm/vol5/pp226-234

Dr. John Polsom-Jenkins

Newgate: Welcome to Hell


From 1188 until 1777, Newgate Prison stood on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey in the City of London. Appearing in literature as far back as The Canterbury Tales, Newgate was a real hell on earth that struck terror into the people of London for more than 700 years. 

Originally a gate in the Roman wall, a prison was built on the site at the end of the twelfth century. According to medieval statute, it was managed by two elected sheriffs, who in turn rented the administration to private Keepers for money. Being a keeper or a gaoler was a very sought-after position. They took their payment directly from the inmates, which made it one of the best paying positions in London. 

The Keepers charged for everything. They charged inmates for entering the prison (as if they had a choice), for putting their shackles on, and for taking them off. Many charged up to four times the legal limit for these and for basic human needs such as food and water. Inmates commonly died of starvation, violence, or disease, such as Jail Fever (typhus). They were sent there for debt, dissent, and crimes of any scale from stealing a few pennies to murder. They were kept together in long, filthy cells with little daylight and no sanitation until they were freed, executed, or died.

On the other hand, if you had money to spend, you could stay in relative comfort in a private cell of your own with a bed, food, tobacco, newspapers, and perhaps some prison gin. Prostitutes regularly visited the prison and serviced the inmates for a price. Some keepers even had arrangements with the inmates to let them out at night on the condition that they would return and share anything they had stolen. 

Reading a list of Newgate’s famous inmates is like reading a who’s who of British history. Claude Duval was kept there from December of 1669 until his execution in January of 1670. An even more famous ladykiller, Giacomo Casanova, was kept there for a time for alleged bigamy. Sir Thomas Malory (yes, as in Le Morte d’Arthur), pirate Captain Kidd, highwayman James MacLaine, pickpocket and fence Moll Cutpurse, and even the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, all stayed in Newgate for a time. Jack Sheppard escaped twice. Daniel Defoe was imprisoned there as well, and in his Moll Flanders, the heroine is born there and later does time there herself. 

Newgate was moved and rebuilt in 1777. In 1783, executions were moved there from Tyburn, and the prison continued operating there until it was closed in 1902. 

This prison plays a big part in both Tyburn and Virtue’s Lady, and it’s no secret that Mark’s been inside a couple of times. For a good, hard look at Newgate from the inside (complete with cadavers, rats, and sexpest wardens), check out The Southwark Saga. 

The King’s Evil: Touch Me, Your Majesty

Here’s the King, curing some Evil.

Disease was very common during the Restoration. In spite of the medical advances of the seventeenth century, there was much about the human body and disease in particular that remained mysterious. Magic was still believed to cure any number of ailments, and people often relied on superstition to treat illnesses. Executioners made most of their money by selling off pieces of dead convicts: their clothes, the noose, and even body parts were sold to Quacks for the making of charms thought to cure everything from headaches to bad luck. 

One of the most mysterious of these illnesses was the King’s Evil. I know how it sounds, but it’s not chlamydia. The King’s Evil, or scrofula, is tuberculosis of the lymph nodes of the neck. It was called the King’s Evil because it was believed that only the touch of a King could cure it. 

The disease often went into remission on its own, so the Royal Touch appeared to work. Kings had been touching people afflicted with scrofula as far back as Edward the Confessor. Robert Herrick even wrote a poem about it:

O! lay that hand on me,
Adored Caesar! and my faith is such,
I shall be heal’d, if that my KING but touch.
The Evill is not yours: my sorrow sings,
Mine is the Evill, but the cure, the KINGS.

-Robert Herrick, “To the King, the cure the Evil.”


While he waited in exile, touching those afflicted with the King’s Evil was one of the few royal duties Charles II could perform. As soon as he was back on the throne, people flocked to him to cure it, and he touched 1,700 of them within his first two months back.

Charles took his duty very seriously. Before long, a system was worked out whereby the afflicted would visit the King’s chirurgeon on Bridges Street in Covent Garden for what we would think of as a referral, and the King would see the afflicted personally on Wednesdays and Fridays, often in the Banqueting Hall. Once the system was up and working, he began to see up to 4,000 people per year, seeing more than 90,000 total between 1660 and 1682. 

Louis XIV touched those afflicted with the King’s Evil in France, but there were those who believed that he lacked the divine gift so generously demonstrated by Charles II:

All lawful monarchs, God’s viceregents are
And by his Princely Patent govern here; 
But all have not an equal grant from Heaven. 
The Cure o’ th’ Evil to Britain’s Monarch’s given! 
Whose royal touch hath healed our leprous land, 
‘Tis therefore TREASON not t’obey’s command.

-John Gadbury’s Almanac, 1666.

There you have it. If you are unlucky enough to be afflicted with scrofula, you’d better make sure the monarch touching you is British. 


In other news, Virtue’s Lady is out today. If wondering what happened to Mark and Jane has been driving you crazy, now you can find out! The buy links are below. 

My blog tour is well and truly under way, and today you can find me talking about different aspects of the book all over the place. I’ll be stopping by Nicole Hurley-Moore’s blog with a post about the plot and why I wrote it the way I did, and I’ll be visiting Susan Hughes with a post about seventeenth century marriage. I also made it to Tara Quan’s blog with a writing tip, and The lovely Christa Maurice has a fun excerpt for us today as well, so be sure to stop by and tell us all what you think. 

Without further ado, I’m going to go throw some confetti around and find something bubbly to drink. It’s Release Day! Woohoo!

Illegitimacy: ‘Unnatural’ Birth in Stuart England

James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth,
eldest illegitimate son of Charles II and Lucy Scott.

The Restoration is seen as a period of almost legendary promiscuity. In the years following the Merry Monarch’s return, business for actresses and prostitutes was booming, domestic servants were prey for their masters, and many couples cohabited before they married, sometimes for years. Charles II himself had a dozen illegitimate children that he acknowledged, but the recorded rate remained at or below three percent of all births. Was this down to the growing popularity of condoms, dodgy statistics, or something worse? 

The truth is a little bit of all three. 

Most people did not marry until they had the means to establish independent households, causing many to delay marriage until later in life or to never get married at all. The mean male age at first marriage was between 27.1 and 28.1 years, and for women it was between 24.8 and 27. Men and women both commonly lived independently of their families before they married, if they ever did, and many couples cohabited. Between 1600 and 1649, roughly twenty-five percent of babies born in England were born within eight months of the wedding. Coward points out that: “Before the mid-eighteenth century marriage did not begin with a church wedding service; marriage was a process that began from the moment of the betrothal and was concluded by a ceremony in a church. As a result, conception often took place before the marriage process ended.” (2)

It is worth mentioning that this only takes into consideration the weddings and births that were formally recorded. Many marriages, particularly among the poor, had no church service and nothing more than a verbal contract. (4) Furthermore, many births went unrecorded, and the high rates of miscarriage and infant mortality make it impossible to get even a ballpark estimate of how many pregnancies occurred outside of a formal marriage, however it was defined. As many as three out of four children born in London could expect to die before the age of six. (3)

Astoundingly, the rate of illegitimacy only rose above three percent once during the entirety of the seventeenth century. (2) I find this hard to believe. Charles II probably accounted for most of those himself. He had twelve that he acknowledged, many becoming dukes and countesses, but most illegitimate children would not have fared so well. (4) Seen as unnatural and inherently untrustworthy, surviving illegitimate children would carry the stigma of their births with them their whole lives. 

So in an age known for promiscuity, why were the numbers of illegitimate children so low?

Condoms continued to grow in popularity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were used primary to defend against syphilis and other venereal diseases, but also to protect against pregnancy as Casanova himself had advised. Unfortunately, the sheaths made from linen, sheep gut, or fish skin were a poor protection against pregnancy as they were held in place by ribbons and perhaps prayer, and were commonly re-used. Linen, of course, is porous, and would not have been a very reliable form of contraception. (5)

Infanticide was tragically common. “Unmarried mothers, terrified of the life of prostitution and destitution that they saw an inevitable after the shame of bearing an illegitimate child, covered up their pregnancies, and when their child was born either left it exposed to the elements to die, or abandoned it by a hospital or a workhouse where they hoped it might be given the chance to live.” Their short lives kept hidden, these births were unlikely to have been recorded in the parish records. (3)

There was a significant increase in prosecutions for infanticide in the seventeenth century. The Act to Prevent the Murdering of Bastard Children of 1624 required the woman to prove her innocence rather than for her accusers to prove guilt. Women employed as domestic servants were especially vulnerable to sexual advances or abuse by their employers. Between 1703 and 1772, twelve percent of the women executed at Tyburn were hanged for infanticide and a large proportion of those had been employed as domestic servants. (1)

Any woman bearing a stillborn child ran the risk of being accused of infanticide. As for the fathers, Worsley points out that: “Men were never criminalized in the same way for becoming parents outside marriage – how could they be? The master who made his maid pregnant had huge power over her. Society saw him as the deputy of the king, indeed of God, in the little kingdom of his own household. To criticize him would be to suggest that there was something wrong with the social order, and this was impossible.”(6)

The poor were not the only people having illegitimate children. As we know, Charles II and Louis XIV had at least a dozen each. Worsley explains that it was not that illegitimate children were not born into high society, but that their births were more easily kept quiet. “In the chapel of the Georgian St James’s Palace, some babies mysteriously ‘dropped in the court’ were baptized; no one knew who their mothers were, but various Maids of Honour seemed suspiciously willing to stand as godmothers.” (6)

Taking into consideration what we know of the limitations of parish records for this period, it seems likely that the true number of illegitimate births was much higher than that estimated three percent. Stillbirths, infanticides, and abandoned children would not have been counted, and others would have been spared the stigma if their parents married fast enough. As for the number of babies ‘dropped in the court,’ I couldn’t find an estimate. 

Sources
1. Brandon, David, and Brooke, Alan. Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree. Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004.
2. Coward, Barry. The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714. Longman Group UK, 1980.
3. Moore, Lucy. The Thieves’ Opera. Viking, 1997.
4. Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997.
5. Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. Scarborough House, 1992.
6. Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk. Walker & Company, 2011.

A Fortune on Friday Street: Finding the Cheapside Hoard


In 1912, workmen were excavating the cellar of 30-32 Cheapside on the corner of Friday Street when they discovered a fortune in jewelry hidden in a wooden box. Containing more than four hundred pieces of jewelry from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, what became known as the Cheapside Hoard was the find of a lifetime and a historian’s dream come true. 

Though no one knows for certain, it is believed that the hoard belonged to a goldsmith who had stashed it in his cellar during the English Civil War. The house was part of what had been Goldsmith’s Row, the center of jewelry manufacture in London since the middle ages. The whole street burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and new houses were built on top of the ruins of the old ones, hiding the hoard for three hundred and fifty years. 

Even though we’re pretty sure where it came from, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to suggest an alternate theory in The Southwark Saga. We first met Mark, Jack, Will, and Harry in Tyburn when they were all still robbing coaches as highwaymen. Although they have given it up by the beginning of Virtue’s Lady, old habits die hard, and they find out that it’s more difficult to stay on the right side of the law than they thought it would be. 

You may remember Harry bemoaning the loss of an enormous stash of treasure when you first met him in Newgate…well, he left that treasure under the floor of his old girlfriend’s house on Friday Street. The money from the sale of even a portion of what’s under there could solve a lot of problems in Southwark, if only they could find a way past her father to get inside…

Today, most of the hoard is kept at the Museum of London, with some pieces at the V&A and the British Museum. If the Museum of London is a little far for you to travel right now, they have a great collection of photos of some of the hoard’s best pieces on their website here.

For an excellent, in-depth piece about the Cheapside Hoard complete with video and stunning photos, visit GIA’s website here.

Dark Roast: Drinking Coffee in the 17th Century

A Midnight Modern Conversation. Hogarth.

In The Southwark Saga, the coffee is terrible. Sally regards it with suspicion in Tyburn, and it’s one of the first bad things Jane smells as she arrives in Southwark in Virtue’s Lady. But how bad could it have been?

Pretty bad. Here are the instructions they were using: 

“Take a gallon of faire water & boyle it until halfe be wasted, and then take that water one pint, and make it boyle, & then put in one spoonful of the Powder of Coffee and let it boyle one quarter of an hour, stiring of it two or three times, for fear of it running over, and drink it as hot as you can, every morning, and fast an houre or two after it.” (1)

Although the coffee was powdered, it would have been likely to leave a thick sludge at the bottom of a cup (if not in the rest of it). When Jane says that she could have stood a spoon up in it, she isn’t exaggerating. Drinking it very hot would go a ways to disguise the burnt taste of coffee powder and well water left to boil too long in a pot over a fire. It would have been rare to add milk to it. People did not commonly drink milk because it was thought to be unsafe, and they were probably right. As for sugar, it was sold in loaves that had to be broken up and pounded before it could be added to anything, let alone coffee.

It was a far cry from Starbucks, but they were lucky to have it. 

Coffee was a luxury drink like tea or chocolate, but became popular in England before either of the others. Coffee houses were a predecessor to the men’s clubs of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, frequented primarily by men (and perhaps women of ill-repute). The first coffee house in England was opened in 1650 in Holborn, and by 1663, there were 82 of them in London alone. 

Now when we think of Britain, we think of tea. Samuel Pepys mentioned drinking it as early as 1660, but it wasn’t until after Catherine of Braganza married Charles II in 1662 that tea came into its own. Her affection for the drink from her native Portugal started a trend among the wealthy that only intensified as tea became more readily available with the founding of the East India Company. (2)

When Jane returns to drinking tea after trying Mark’s coffee, she can barely taste it. For a truly interactive experience, try boiling up some coffee powder when you’re reading The Southwark Saga. Your taste buds will never be the same again.*

(1) Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997. P. 158
(2) UK Tea & Infusions Association: Catherine of Braganza. 

*Or go to your coffee house of choice. I hear they admit women now.