The Restoration: a Brilliant Period for Historical Romance

With so many British historical romances set in the nineteenth century, you would be forgiven for thinking nothing happened in England before the Regency. Although the nineteenth century was a time of progress and those famous balls at Almack’s, I decided to set my new historical series two hundred years earlier in the seventeenth century. 

Charles II in exile

The Southwark Saga begins in 1671, eleven years after the restoration of Charles II. The Restoration is an exciting period to read, write and research. It was a time of change and was characterized by cataclysmic events, such as the English Civil War that saw the execution of Charles I and the exile of his son with a significant part of the Court. The Plague killed more than a quarter of London’s population between 1665 and 1666 and was chronicled in Defoe’s nightmarish Journal of a Plague Year. The last of that was wiped out by the Great Fire of London, which incinerated most of the medieval City of London over a four day period, destroying 13,200 houses and 87 churches including St. Paul’s cathedral, and killing or displacing thousands of people. After the fire, London was rebuilt with a new street plan designed by Christopher Wren, and began to take on the shape it is today, with the new St. Paul’s Cathedral as its crowning glory. 

Solomon Eccles

There were also many larger than life figures who we still remember to this day. Charles II, “The Merry Monarch” had more mistresses than there are days in the week and more than a dozen illegitimate children, and when the Great Fire threatened to consume the entirety of London, he and his brother, the Duke of York, fought the fire themselves. Diarist Samuel Pepys meticulously recorded his daily life in the 1660s, providing an invaluable resource for historians, while John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, entertained and enraged with his bawdy verse. Out on the streets, you’ll find Solomon Eccles, a composer who had a religious awakening and spent his days nude with a dish of burning coals on his head, urging passers-by the repent as they did their shopping. 

Nell Gwyn

The Restoration is a wonderful time to set fiction, and particularly romance. With the Civil War behind them, London was in the mood to celebrate. The theaters reopened and women were allowed onstage, providing cheap entertainment to people of any class most nights of the week. The rigid social structure and excessive manners of the nineteenth century had not set in yet, and the social mobility of the time was second to none. Courtesans regularly rose above their stations, such as Nell Gwyn, who rose from being an orange seller of humble birth to become Charles II’s favorite mistress. 

The poor could still marry with little more than a declaration and a witness. Highwaymen haunted the forests and roads around the city, and execution at Tyburn was a real threat to them and anyone caught stealing anything worth more than a shilling. For excitement, color, and danger, you’ll be hard pressed to find a time better for fiction than the seventeenth century. 

Tyburn, the first book of The Southwark Saga, follows Sally Green, a French immigrant and Covent Garden prostitute as she tries to escape her unfortunate circumstances. Hero Nick Virtue, a private domestic tutor turned highwayman, must decide if saving her is worth risking his life.

In Virtue’s Lady, Lady Jane Ramsey attempts to marry out of wealth when she falls for Nick’s brother, Mark, an ex-convict and carpenter who lives in the slum in Southwark. Five years after the fire, Mark is still struggling to adapt his business for a city that no longer wants wooden houses, and the last thing he needs is an earl taking shots at him for ruining his daughter. 

In both books, I hope to show you what the Restoration was like from the ground up. You’ll feel the dirt, smell the river, and taste the terrible, terrible coffee right along with the characters as you are introduced to a new world in historical romance. I invite you to join me in the seventeenth century, and I very much hope you’ll enjoy The Southwark Saga. 

For a directory of my history posts about this period, click on the Seventeenth Century History Posts tab above or click here. This page is a work in progress, but so far I have short articles on infamous highwayman Claude Duval, The Great Fire of London, the Plague, the Cheapside Hoard, condom use, mortality, executions at Tyburn, Newgate prison, illegitimacy, Guy Fawkes, coffee, the lead content in makeup, and a whole lot more. Be sure to check it out! If there are any seventeenth century subjects you would be particularly interested in reading about, please leave your suggestions in the comments below and I will see what I can do. 

Thanks for stopping by! 

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.