1666: Plague, War, and Hellfire

1666: Plague, War, and Hellfire

by Rebecca Rideal


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250097064
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/18/2016
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,302,899
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

REBECCA RIDEAL is a writer and television producer who contributed to such documentaries as: Bloody Tales of the Tower, Adventurer’s Guide to Britain, Jack the Ripper: Killer Revealed, Escape from a Nazi Death Camp, and the triple Emmy award winning series David Attenborough’s First Life. She currently runs the online magazine The History Vault and is studying for a PhD on Restoration London at University College in London.

Read an Excerpt


Plague, War, and Hellfire

By Rebecca Rideal

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Rebecca Rideal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-09707-1


The London Burns

... for it is observed that in most Families of England, if there be any Son or Daughter that excels the rest in Beauty or Wit, or perhaps Courage or Industry, or any other rare quality, London is their North-star, and they are never at rest till they point directly thither.

Edward Chamberlayne, The ... present state of england

Tuesday, 7 March 1665

The day started like any other. A pale winter sun brought the dawn. Casting a mottled-grey glow on glazed windows and icy puddles, it offered light but little warmth. London was a month into a deep frost. Across the capital, people woke to clanging church bells and the hubbub of the streets: barking dogs, clattering carts, calling pigeons and chattering early risers. Candles and fires were lit, chamber pots were emptied, food and drink were taken, and the people of the metropolis prepared for the day ahead. The butchers, bakers and tallow-chandlers; the booksellers, grocers and coffee-house keepers; the apothecaries, goldsmiths and city drapers made the short journey from their living quarters upstairs to their shops and businesses below. The rest of the city's inhabitants stepped into the big wide world; their misty breath swirling and rising above the medieval streets.

On this day, if someone had viewed the capital from above, they would have found a city that had long given up the fight to contain itself. A vast canopy of tiled roofs, Gothic church spires, and stone chimneys emitting thick black smoke, covered a warren of passageways and streets below – some unevenly paved, others hard mud and stone. These streets, 'so narrow and incommodious' in the centre of the city, according to John Evelyn, cleaved through a discord of overhanging timber-framed buildings, replete with heavy wooden trade posts suspended overhead. To John Milton, who resided at Artillery Walk to the northeast of the city, it was a place 'Where houses [were] thick and sewers annoy[ed] the air' – indeed, that air often made visitors sick, with Thomas Ellwood being forced to leave three years earlier due to 'the sulphurous air of that city'. Writing some decades later, the poet John Gay asserted that mornings were the best time to travel because 'No Tides of Passengers the Street molest'. Those navigating this labyrinth on foot, and there were a great many, kept close to the walls so as to avoid the waste from the 'troublesome and malicious ... Spouts and Gutters' above and the Hackney carriages and sedan chairs in front and behind. During busy periods, fighting for 'the wall' was common. In 1664, Samuel Pepys recorded how 'two men ... justling for the wall about the New Exchange, did kill one another, each thrusting the other through'. Thanks to its meandering streets, it was, as French philosopher Samuel de Sorbière declared, the type of city that required 'a Year's time to live in it before you can have a very exact Idea of the Place' and while brick buildings could be found in the wealthier areas, the medieval dominated.

Once a modest Roman settlement, the ancient city walls had surrendered to London's growing population and prosperity, allowing the capital to spill out of its old boundaries and form a metropolis of three parts. There was the mercantile heartland within the historic walled City of London, reached by the six city gates and controlled by the Lord Mayor, aldermen, and powerful livery companies. Here, many of the former 'great houses' once owned by noblemen had been turned into tenements, with the most affluent residents living in the centre. Umbilically linked by the Strand to the south-west was the City of Westminster. Containing the palaces of Whitehall and Westminster, it was the formal seat of the nation's political and royal power. Finally, there was the ever-expanding cushion of suburban sprawl that buttressed the walls and tumbled into the surrounding fields and farmland: north, east, south and especially west. These expanding suburbs, alongside the grand houses lining the Thames and Westminster, offered a glimpse of London's architectural future. In Bloomsbury, the Earl of Southampton was in the process of building what Evelyn described as a 'noble square or piazza' – it was in fact the first garden square of its type in London; in Lincoln's Inn Fields, the colonial merchant and Treasurer of the Tangier Committee, Mr Thomas Povey, had an 'elegant house', containing vases imitating porphyry, stables tiled with delftware, fountains and 'pretty cellar and ranging of his wine bottles'; in Piccadilly work was well underway constructing grand new residences for the Earl of Clarendon, Sir John Berkeley and Sir John Denham. All of which looked to the vast, silver River Thames to the south.

Today, an array of characters could be found going about their business. On the river, there were the watermen – like Mr Delkes who carried 'pins always in his mouth' and occasionally pimped out his pretty daughter – bobbing in boats at the wharfs waiting to carry Londoners to and fro. There were the merchant sailors who prepared a cluster of vessels for passage across the Atlantic, transporting Quaker prisoners to work as indentured servants on 'the plantations' of the English colonies of Jamaica, Barbados or Virginia (most likely the former). There were also the many fishermen, out to catch and then sell sturgeon and trout that were in the river in abundance. In the city, Mathew and Thomas Aldred, who had recently set up shop treating 'melancholique and distracted persons', could be found close to Angel Alley in Bishopsgate. Near to the Rainbow Coffee-House of Fleet Street, Thomas Grey sold lozenges for coughs, colds and consumption between 'the two temple gates'. Along Fleet Street, the artist Mary Beale might have been seen packing together her worldly goods ready to retreat to Hampshire after living in the capital for several years. On cold days such as this, a seventy-six-year-old gentleman named Thomas Hobbes could often be seen leaving the Duke of Devonshire's house, wearing a black velvet coat and 'bootes of Spanish leather, laced or tyed along the sides with black ribbons', to take his morning walk. Those needing to leave the city might have made their way to the Red Lion tavern in Lambeth, where Thomas Fisher and Thomas Ryder ran a daily coach service to Epsom, leaving at 8 a.m. promptly. To the west of St Paul's Cathedral, a 'Choice collection of Rarities' (including Egyptian mummies, the 'Thighbone of a Gyant', and 'A Mermaid's Skin'), could be seen for a small price. If money was short, Londoners might consider visiting 'one George Gray, Barber and Periwig-maker', where he would 'give 10 or 12s per ounce for long Flaxen hair, and for other long fair hair 6 or 3s per ounce'; wigs for men and women were a burgeoning trade.

There were an estimated 460,000 people living and working in London, sustained by a vast network of agriculture and industry the length and breadth of the country, and beyond. Coal was shipped from the Tyne, lead from Derbyshire, tin (vital for creating pewter) from Cornwall, fruit and vegetables from the neighbouring counties of Hertfordshire and Kent, cloth arrived from Wiltshire and Sussex, clay pipes for tobacco from the Isle of Wight, and livestock for butchering from Ireland. Further afield, glassware was transported from Delft, fashionable exotic spices and silks arrived from the East Indies, and tobacco and sugar from the Americas. Ale, cider and wine were the safest drinks to consume, but water of varying quality was available. Wells were scattered around London and filthy water from the Thames could be accessed via a large water wheel at London Bridge. The cleanest drinking water available though was supplied by the New River Company outside the city. Established at the start of the century, it had constructed a forty-mile long artificial waterway, beginning at the fresh-water springs of Chadwell and Amwell in Hertfordshire, and ending in Clerkenwell, London. For a price, residents could have a lead pipe installed to feed regular fresh water into their homes.

Like every city, London consisted of both the real and tangible world of food, drink, money, streets, houses and goods, and the illusory, the imagined and the ideological. The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, following over a decade of republican rule, gave another twist to the kaleidoscope of seventeenth-century habits, creating new patterns of daily life. Sundays remained sacrosanct, but every other day saw shops remain open until 10 p.m. Coffee houses and Royal Society meetings offered a space for a select but vocal few to discuss natural philosophy and conduct experiments, while taverns and commercial and cultural centres like St Paul's Churchyard and the Royal Exchange roared with life and frivolity. The Royal Exchange in particular was a cradle of news and gossip. Positioned between Threadneedle Street and Cornhill, 'the Exchange' as it was often called had stood for nearly a hundred years as a centre of trade. The brain-child of Sir Thomas Gresham (whose other project included the college at which the Royal Society was based), it contained a square piazza lined with several levels of shops, stalls and meeting places.

Alongside traditional festivals and fairs, Londoners enjoyed an evolving and vibrant mix of public entertainment – from the theatre, bearbaiting and gambling to new forms of music, dance and an invigorated interest in Continental fashion (buckled shoes, the precursor to the three-piece suit and, most notably, the periwig). There were new spaces to explore, such as the royal parks and shopping arcades, while for those higher up the social ladder, spectator sports such as tennis and horse racing became popular – Charles II himself was reputed to play tennis every morning, and the court trips to Newmarket to watch horse racing became increasingly popular, with two excursions each year. In short, there were many reasons, aside from work and worship, for Londoners to be out and about.

A large number of London's almost half-a-million inhabitants were migrants from around the country who had brought with them a drive to better their lot. The Taswells were one such family. Merchants from the Isle of Wight, in 1660 they had moved to a substantial property in Bear Lane close to London's Custom House on the east side of the city. The statistician John Graunt, himself the son of a migrant father, estimated that each London household consisted of roughly eight people: 'the Man, and his Wife, three Children, and three Servants, or Lodgers'. As a typical merchant family, the Taswells probably conformed to this model. Headed by James and Elizabeth, they had at least two sons, and William, their second son, attended Westminster School on the other side of town. In Westminster, William Taswell may have unknowingly come into contact with another London family, the Mitchells. They lived in a house with five hearths and 'a little sorry garden' in Wood Street. Headed by Miles and Anne, the Mitchell family also included at least two young adult sons and possibly a daughter that Anne had given birth to out of wedlock, thirty years previously. As a family of booksellers, information was their trade and for the past couple of years they had ploughed it well at Westminster Hall on the western side of the city.

As with many semi-public spaces, the ancient hall of Westminster – where nearly two decades earlier Charles I had been sentenced to death – had become a commercial hub packed with traders and shoppers, bartering for bargains and jostling for space. Approaching the hall on 7 March 1665, customers would first be greeted by the macabre sight of three heads skewered to spikes outside the entrance. They belonged to Oliver Cromwell and fellow regicides Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw who, five years earlier, had been exhumed from their tombs at Westminster Abbey on the orders of Charles II and 'executed' as traitors at Tyburn. Entering the main hall, customers would have found all manner of goods on sale, from clothing and books to wigs and buttons. The Mitchells' shop was noted in one of their publications as being 'the first shop in Westminster Hall'. For company, they had their friends John and Elizabeth Howlett, who were haberdashers that had traded from Westminster Hall for at least twenty years. In fact, so strong was the bond between the two families that the eldest Mitchell son was betrothed to the Howletts' pretty daughter Elizabeth, or 'Betty' as she was known. Plans were in place for the couple, once wed, to move to a house in Thames Street, with the Mitchell boy taking on his father-in-law's trade rather than becoming a bookseller like his parents.

There were, of course, booksellers throughout London offering a multitude of printed works. John Playford sold music and dance books at the Temple; Henry Herrington sold plays and operas at the New Exchange; Peter Dring sold the works of cookery book writer Hannah Woolley next door to the Rose Tavern; and James Allestry sold works of science from the Royal Society at St Paul's Churchyard, including its new science journal Philosophical Transactions, printed for the first time the previous day. What marked the Mitchells' shop apart at Westminster Hall was its proximity to political power: it was the perfect place to pick up rumours and gossip from the movers and shakers of the city.

Alongside their books and pamphlets, the Mitchells probably sold the main weekly London newspaper, the Intelligencer. Smaller than modern newspapers, the Intelligencer ran to four or five pages and offered a round-up of events from across the country and the Continent. Since the return of the monarchy, a strict censorship had been imposed on the press under the management of Roger L'Estrange, but the newspaper still offered information for the casual reader. In the latest issue, customers could read about the murder of an English gentleman across the Channel, the capture of foreign merchant ships by a veteran Royalist in Portsmouth, and a great storm in France where there was 'little news at present, but disasters ...'. There were also reports that the Dutch fleet was rapidly expanding, and that it would be 'ready' by the end of the month.

Most of London would have known what was meant by 'ready', but those in any doubt could read the three-day-old notices pinned to the city's landmarks. They were all that remained of a grand, trumpeted procession that had swept through the capital the previous Saturday. Beginning at Whitehall gate at 10 a.m., the king's heralds, supported by sergeants-at-arms and eight trumpeters, had travelled along Cheapside before culminating at the Royal Exchange. Like the notices they left behind, the heralds had announced to the citizens of London that, for the second time in just over a decade, the English had declared war on the Dutch.

It was a war that surprised few. Bound together by a shared Protestant religion in a largely Catholic continent, Anglo-Dutch relations were complex. Under Elizabeth I, the English had supported the Dutch in their revolt against Spanish Habsburg rule, which had resulted not only in the defeat of the Spanish Armada but in seven provinces of the Netherlands forming a free and independent Protestant state, the Dutch Republic. As the Habsburg Empire weakened, the Dutch merchant fleet grew into the largest in Europe, dominating trade along the Iberian coast and competing with the English in pursuit of former Spanish- and Portuguese-controlled trade posts. The resultant prosperity of the Dutch Republic, coupled with the splintering of competing Protestant factions either side of the Channel, stoked an Anglo-Dutch rivalry that shaped European relations throughout the mid- to late-seventeenth century. During the early years of Cromwell's Commonwealth in England, state-sanctioned privateering ensured this rivalry mutated into all-out naval war, with the First Anglo-Dutch War taking place between 1652 and 1654. Under the command of bullish Parliamentarian naval leaders such as Robert Blake, George Monck and John Lawson, English warships were victorious but their defeat of the Dutch was not decisive enough to stem the cause of tension: the tug-of-war for trade supremacy in the East and West Indies.

The fierce competition produced vicious literature that played on national stereotypes, with God and religion used to condemn the failings of each state: in 1664, an English pamphlet entitled The English and Dutch affairs Displayed to the Life argued that the recent deaths of thousands in Amsterdam due to plague was down to God's punitive will; another, linked Dutch prosperity to 'the bloody and inhumane butcheries committed by them against us'; another still, entitled The Dutch Boare Dissected, or a Description of Hogg-Land, described the Dutchman as 'a Lusty, Fat, two Legged Cheese-Worm: A Creature that is so addicted to Eating Butter, Drinking fat Drink, and sliding, that all the World knows him for a slippery Fellow'. For their part, Dutch anti-English literature centred on the idea that Britons were in league with the Devil following the regicide of Charles I. Imagery depicted the English with the tails of foxes, dragons and even devils. In the Dutch poem Nederlandtsche nyp-tang (1652) the author claimed that, of the English:

There false deceit I must tell
and of course their descendency from Hell.


Excerpted from 1666 by Rebecca Rideal. Copyright © 2016 Rebecca Rideal. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Maps ix

Cast of Characters xi

Author's Note xiii

Prologue 1

Part I 1665

1 The London Burns 5

2 Outbreak 25

3 The Turning Tide 57

Part II 1666

4 The Fateful Year 91

5 The Red Sea 117

6 Fantastic Fortune 139

7 Fire! Fire! Fire! 167

8 A Phoenix in Her Ashes 201

Epilogue 227

Acknowledgements 235

Illustration Credits 237

Notes 239

Bibliography 265

Index 275

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