Post-Medieval London, Pt. II – Stuart History

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

Stuart History

Under the Stuarts, it was a time of War and Plague and purifying Fire.  Of a bloody Civil War, between Royalist and Parliamentarian.  And of a peculiarly English revolution under the Parliamentarian Commonwealth and Protectorate  of Oliver and Richard Cromwell, which ended with the Restoration of the Monarchy – albeit, importantly,  a monarchy that could thenceforth  only rule with the  consent of Parliament. 

An early meeting of the Royal Society

It was also, though, the time not only of a continuing Renaissance in the arts, but also of the birth of science, or “natural philosophy”, as it was known.  The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, nowadays generally known simply as the Royal Society, was founded in 1660, the  founding members being William Ball, William Brouncker, 2nd Viscount Brouncker, Jonathan Goddard, Abraham Hill, Robert Moray, Paul Neile, William Petty and Lawrence Rooke.  The purpose of the Society, according to its Charter, was “To improve the knowledge of all natural things, and all useful Arts, manufactures, Mechanick practises, Engines and Inventions by Experiments – (not meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Moralls, Politicks, Grammar [or spelling, presumably], Rhetorick or Logick)”.  Its  first meetings were held at Gresham College.  Perhaps the most famous seventeenth-century collection of Naturalia, or “Cabinet of Curiosities”, was the Musaeum Tradescantianum, founded in around 1634 by the gentleman-travellers and collectors John Tradescant the Elder (c. 1580-1638), and his son John Tradescant the Younger (1608-62), and housed in  a building called “The Ark” in Vauxhall, which was the first such in England  to be open to the general public –  albeit at a cost of 6d.  In time, the Tradescants’ collection was  acquired by Elias Ashmole, and in 1691 donated by him to Oxford University, to form the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum.  Incidentally, the Tradescants, who were actually employed as gardeners – John the Elder  by  Robert Cecil, the 1st  Earl of Salisbury, and by William Cecil, the 2nd Earl; and John the Younger  by  Charles II – are both buried in the church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, which now incorporates a Garden Museum.

On March 24th, 1603, John Manningham wrote: “This morning about three at clock her Majesty departed this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree … .  About ten at clock the Council and divers noblemen having been awhile in consultation, proclaimed James VI, King of Scots, the King of England, France and Ireland … ”. 

The Arch of Londinium, through which James I processed on his triumphal entry into London

On March 15th, 1604, James made a triumphal entry into the City of London, and thence processed to  Westminster to attend his first parliament, amid much pomp and pageant.  A number of contemporary accounts of the event still survive, including that of the King himself, who wrote,  with characteristic bombast: “The people of all sorts rode and ran, nay, rather flew to meet me, their eyes flaming nothing but sparkles of affection, their mouths and tongues uttering nothing but sounds of joy, their hands, feet, and all the rest of their members in their gestures discovering a passionate longing and earnestness to meet and embrace their new sovereign.”  On its way through the City, the  procession passed beneath  a series of allegorically-themed triumphal arches, designed by Stephen Harrison, that formed the backdrops for entertainments by some of the finest writers of the day, including Dekker, Jonson, Middleton and Webster.

James I at the Banqueting House on Whitehall

James, like Elizabeth, was a Protestant, although one widely suspected of harbouring Catholic sympathies. 

The Somerset House Conference that brought to an end the Anglo-Spanish War

One of his first acts as king, in 1604, was to help bring to an end the Anglo-Spanish War, that had begun in 1585, on terms that were publicly perceived to be favourable to Catholic Spain.

The Gunpowder Plotters (by a Dutch artist who had never actually seen any of them)

In 1605, he saw off the  Catholic “Gunpowder Plot”,  “a most horrible conspiracy of the Papish … ” to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster, and had Guy Fawkes and the other ringleaders executed,  and their remains exhibited, as a deterrent to others.  Sir Edward Hoby, the son-in-law of Elizabeth I’s cousin Henry Carey, the 1st Baron Brunsdon, and the nephew of her chief advisor William Cecil, the 1st  Baron  Burghley or Burleigh, and a courtier during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, wrote of the event: “On the 5th of November we began our Parliament, to which the King should have come in person, but refrained, through a practice but that morning discovered” (the discoverer, one Thomas Knyvet(t), the Keeper of Whitehall Palace, was rewarded by the granting of  an extension of the lease on his house, in what was to become Downing Street).  The plot was to have blown up the King at such time as he should have been set in his royal throne, accompanied by his children, Nobility and Commons and … Bishops, Judges and Doctors, at one instant and blast and to have ruined the whole estate and Kingdom of England.  And for the effecting of this there was placed under the Parliament house, where the King should sit, some 30 barrels of gunpowder … .  In a vault under the parliament chamber before spoken of one Johnson [Guy Fawkes’s  assumed name] was found … who, after being brought into … the court, and there demanded if he were not sorry for his so foul and heinous a treason, answered he was sorry for nothing but that the act was not performed.  Being replied unto him that no doubt there had been a number in that place of his own religion, how in conscience he could do them hurt, he answered a few might well perish to have the rest taken away.  … When he was brought into the King’s presence, the King asked him how he could conspire so hideous a treason against his children and so many innocent souls which never offended him? He answered that … a dangerous disease required a desperate remedy”. 

A computer visuaiisation of John Donne’s “Gunpowder Sermon”

Popular   suspicion of James’s  supposed Catholic sympathies remained, even after the Gunpowder Plot, and in 1622, on the seventeenth anniversary thereof, the Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, felt compelled to give a sermon at (St) Paul’s Cross reassuring the congregation as to the King’s  commitment to Protestantism.   In his sermon, he described him  as “in his heart, as farre from submitting us to that Idolatry, and Superstition, which did heretofore oppresse us, as his immediate Predecessor, whose memory  is justly precious to you, was”.  

The Civil War

Equestrian statue of Charles I, Trafalgar Square

When James I died in 1625, his son Charles I came to the throne, and, sadly, so abused his supposed “divine rights” as a King in the  eyes of Parliament, and of the population at large, as ultimately to trigger the  Civil War between supporting Royalists and opposing Parliamentarians, under Oliver Cromwell, in 1642.  In 1641, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford and Lord Deputy of Ireland, an ardent supporter of the King in his power-struggle with Parliament in the period leading up to the Civil War, was executed on Tower Hill for high treason  (specifically, for allegedly saying to the King “You have an army in Ireland you may employ here to reduce this Kingdom”).  His last words, taken from the Psalms, were: “O put not your trust in Princes, nor in any child of man; for there is no help in them”.  A not particularly oblique reference to the sense of betrayal he felt toward the King, who had promised him that he “should not suffer in his person, honour or fortune”; and then, when expedient, signed his death warrant!  Then in the January of 1642, the King and his henchmen entered the Houses of Parliament and attempted to arrest five Members of Parliament, namely, John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles, John Pym and William Strode (Hampden was Cromwell’s cousin, and one of his ablest military commanders during the early part of the war, dying of wounds sustained at the Battle of Chalgrove Field  in 1643).  It is said that when the King demanded to be told the whereabouts  of the MPs, the Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, retorted:  “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here”.   The attempted arrest,  which is ceremonially re-enacted each year during the State Opening of Parliament, when the Crown’s  representative, “Black Rod”, is despatched from the Lords to the Commons, there to have the doors slammed shut in his face, was essentially the last in the  series that eventually led to the outbreak of war  in the August.

The City of London  remained largely Parliamentarian in its sympathies throughout the course of the Civil War, and pivotal to its eventual outcome.  The  early political philosopher  Thomas Hobbes opined that “but for the City the Parliament never could have made the war”.  A leading  Royalist,  Charles I’s  Secretary of War Edward Walker, decribed London as “the head and fountain of this detested rebellion”.  And another went so far as to remark that “[if] posterity shall ask who would have pulled the crown from the king’s head, dissolved Monarchy, enslaved the laws, and ruined the country; say, ‘twas the proud, unthankful, schismatical, rebellious, bloody City of London’”. 

At the time of the outbreak of the war, the City of London’s militia, the so-called “trained bands”, comprised around 6,000 men organised into  twenty companies and four regiments (North, South, East and West).    Subsequently,  it grew to 8,000 men in forty companies and six regiments (Red, Blue, Green, White, Orange and Yellow).  And eventually to 20,000 men in fourteen regiments (five of them “auxiliary”).  The militia was at least partly  under the command of the Mayor and Aldermen.  Its primary role was the defence of London, although  it also contributed brigades of foot to Parliament’s armies in the field.   Its importance waned after the establishment of the New Model Army in 1645.  The  Honourable Artillery Company was unusual in that it, or rather elements of it, fought on both sides!   The  City’s civilian population, including large numbers of Puritans, broke its rule against working on the Sabbath  in order to construct  a ring of defences, eleven miles in circumference, known as the “Lines of Communication”.  There is now little trace of these defences, although the remains of one of the star forts that once formed part of of them have recently been unearthed in an  archaeological excavation in Spital Square in Spitalfields. 

On November 7th,  1642, Giovanni Giustiniani, the Venetian ambassador to the court of Charles I, wrote,  in a letter to the Doge and Senate of Venice: “They do not cease to provide with energy for the defence of London … .  They have sent a number of parliamentarians to the surrounding provinces with instructions to get together the largest numbers they can of their trained bands, with the intention of despatching these subsequently to where the remains of the parliamentary army are quartered.  They have brought a number of the companies of these trained bands … into this city.  All the troops are kept constantly at arms.  There is no street, however little frequented, that is not barricaded …, and every post is guarded … .  At the approaches to London, they are putting up trenches and small forts of earthwork, at which a great number of people are at work, including the women and … children.  They have issued a new manifesto to the people full of the usual representations against the …King, for the purpose of arousing their enthusiasm still more in the support of this cause”.  And later, in 1643, William Lithgow wrote: “I found the … court before Whitehall Gate guarded, and what was more rarer, I found the grass growing deep in the … king’s house.  The daily musters and shows of all sorts of Londoners here are wondrous and commendable in marching to the fields and outworks … carrying … iron mattocks and wooden shovels, with roaring drums, flying colours and girded swords; most companies being interlarded with ladies, women and girls … carrying baskets to advance the labour … .  I saluted … two forts upon Tyburn Way and Marylebone Fields … , both pallisaded, double-ditched and barricaded with iron pikes, the one clad with eight demi-culverins and the other … with four … , both wondrous defensible”.    

A twentieth-century depiction of the Battle of Brentford

The Battle of Brentford took place on November 12th,  1642.  The site of the battle is marked by a granite memorial and by a series of informative plaques.  According to the plaques, what happened here was as follows:“Parliamentarians had arrived in the prosperous market town on Friday 11 November.  The following day the royalists marched from Hampstead Heath and in the early afternoon broke through a parliamentary barricade at the bridge over the Brent.  … [T]he royalists were delayed, fighting two or three hours until the parliamentarian soldiers fled.  This position was defended by about 480 of Lord Brooke’s regiment and survivors of the earlier fighting, with two small pieces of artillery. The royalists soon gained the upper hand.  There seem to have been no civilian dead despite the capture of the town.  About 20 royalists were killed, and perhaps 50 parliamentarians died in the fighting with more drowning in the Thames.  Parliamentary Captain John Lilburne was amongst those captured”.  And what happened next was as follows:  “Later that afternoon the royalists pressed on towards London.  There were more parliamentary troops in a large open area, probably Turnham Green and Chiswick’s Common Field.  These green-coated men of John Hampden’s regiment of foot charged five times, holding the royalists back.  But with night coming and the royalists exhausted from fighting both sides disengaged.  The royalist soldiers who had captured Brentford ransacked the town … The Battle of Turnham Green took place the following day”.  John Gwyn, a royalist soldier, wrote:“We beat them from one end of Brainford to the other, and from thence to the open field, with … resolute and expeditious fighting, …  push of pike and the butt-end of muskets, which proved so fatal to Holles’ butchers and dyers that day”.

The Battle of Turnham Green took place the following day, on November 13th,  1642.  The site of the battle is marked by a series of explanatory  plaques.  According to the plaques, after losing the Battle of Brentford, the Parliamentarians took up a strategic defensive position at Turnham Green, with their left flank protected by the river, and their right by a series of enclosures.  It was here that the following day  they  essentially faced down the Royalists, who found themselves unable to manoeuvre past, in one of the largest-ever confrontations on English soil (albeit a substantially bloodless one), involving some 40,000 troops.   This was a decisive moment in the history of the war, the country, and its  capital. 

The demolition of the Cheapside Cross

On May 2nd, 1643, John Evelyn wrote in his diary: “I went from Wotton to London, where I saw the furious and zealous people demolish that stately Cross in Cheapside”.  The so-called Eleanor Crosses on Cheapside and at Charing Cross in Westminster, originally put up in the late thirteenth century by the then King, Edward I, in memory of his late wife, Eleanor of Castile, were both demolished in the Civil War, as symbols of Royal oppression.  The closest surviving one to London is in Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire.  In 1645, William Laud, sometime Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury, and a man well known for his “High Church” views and his fierce opposition to and persecution of Puritans, was executed as a traitor  on Tower Hill. Among the charges levelled  against him were: “That, by false erroneous doctrines, and other sinister ways and means, he went about to subvert religion, established in this Kingdom, and to set up popery and superstition in the church … ”, and “that, to save and preserve himself from being questioned and sentenced from these and other his traiterous designs, from the first year of his now Majesty’s reign, until now, he hath laboured to subvert the rights of parliamentary proceedings, and to incense his Majesty against parliaments … .” 

The “Putney Debates”

In   1647, with the war virtually  won, the Parliamentarian leadership gathered in the church of St Mary in Putney for the “Putney Debates”.  The debates, chaired by Cromwell and attended by officers and men of his New Model Army, many of whom were “Levellers”, addressed  nothing of less import than the post-Civil War future and constitution of England.  Among the issues debated  were whether power should be vested in the King and House of Lords or in the Commons, and  whether there should be universal – male – suffrage (“one man, one vote”).  Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, personifying the radical contingent, famously argued that:“ … [T]he poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee … ”.  Among the outcomes was a declaration of “native rights” for all Englishmen, including  freedom of conscience, and equality before the law.  Rainsborough went on to be killed during the siege of Pontefract, and to be buried in the church of St John in Wapping on November 14th, 1648.  For a fuller account of his extraordinary life, the reader is referred to “The Rainborowes” by Adrian Tinniswood.    Then, on December 6th,  1648, the Parliamentarian Colonel Thomas Pride expelled over one hundred Presbyterian Members of the “Long Parliament” from the Houses of Parliament, in what became known as “Pride’s Purge”.  At this time, the King and supporting Royalists were Episcopalians, and opposing Parliamentarians were divided among two factions, Independents and Presbyterians.  The Independents mistrusted the English Presbyterians because their Scottish counterparts had earlier entered into an alliance with the King, hence the purge.  The Independent Members who remained after the purge, constituting the “Rump Parliament”, then instigated the legal proceedings against Charles  that led to his trial for treason, and eventually to his execution. 

The Inter-Regnum

The execution of Charles I

On January 30th, 1649, having bid a heartbreaking goodbye to his young children, Charles was executed for treason outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall.  It was a freezing cold day, so he put on an extra shirt,  that no-one might see him shiver, and think him scared (“the season is so sharp as probably may make me shake, which some observers may imagine proceeds from fear [and] I would have no such imputation”).  Eventually, after what must have been a harrowing wait, at 2pm, he delivered an almost inaudible address to the crowd, and at the end proclaimed  “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world”.  He then made a silent prayer,  laid his head upon the block, and had it stricken from his body.  Whereupon, according to an eye-witness account by one Philip Henry, “there was such a Grone given by the Thousands there present, as I never heard before & desire I may never hear again”.  The usually ubiquitous John Evelyn was pointedly not among those who bore witness to the event, writing in his diary: “The Villanie of the Rebells proceeding now so far as to Trie, Condemne, & Murder our excellent King … struck me with such horror that I kept the day of his Martyrdom a fast, & would not be present, at that execrable wickednesse … ”.

On May 19th,  1649,  at what was effectively the end of the Civil War (although skirmishing was to continue for a further two years), the Long  Parliament passed an Act making England  a Commonwealth and Free State “where Parliament would constitute the officers and ministers of the people without any Kings or lords”.  The authoritianism of the Commonwealth – and later Protectorate – made it increasingly unpopular.  On December 25th,  1657, John Evelyn wrote in his diary: “I went to London with my wife, to celebrate Christmas day, Mr Gunning preaching in Exeter chapel … .  Sermon ended, as he was giving us the Holy Sacrament, the chapel was surrounded with soldiers, and all the communicants and assembly surprised and kept prisoner by them … .  … In the afternoon came Colonel Whalley, Goffe, and others … to examine us one by one; some they committed to the marshal, some to prison.  When I came before them, they took my name and abode, examined me why, contrary to the ordinance made, that none should any longer observe the superstitious time of the nativity (so esteemed by them), I durst offend …, and … pray for  Charles Stuart … .  I told them we did not pray for Charles Stuart, but for all Kings, princes, and governors.  They replied … with other frivolous and ensnaring questions, and much threatening; and, finding no color to detain me, they dismissed me with much pity of my ignorance.  These were men of high flight and above ordinances, and spake spiteful things of our Lord’s Nativity”.  And in 1658, John Reresby wrote in his diary: “The citizens and common people of London had then soe far imbibed the custome and manners of a Commonwealth that they could scarce endure the sight of a gentleman, soe that the common salutation to a man well dressed was “French dog,” or the like. Walkeing one day in the street with my valet de chambre, who did wear a feather in his hatt, some workemen that were mending the street abused him and threw sand upon his cloaths, at which he drew his sword, thinkeing to follow the custome of France in the like cases. This made the rabble fall upon him and me, that had drawn too in his defence, till we gott shelter in a hous, not without injury to our bravery and some blowes to ourselves”.

The Restoration of the Monarchy

On April 25th,  1660, which would have been Oliver Cromwell’s 61st birthday (he had died in 1658), the “Convention Parliament” was convened for the first time, in theory as a “free parliament”, with no allegiance to either the Commonwealth or the Monarchy, although in practice as one with overwhelmingly Monarchist sympathies.  Indeed, according to Trevelyan, it was “by the letter of the law no true Parliament, because the King did not summon it, on the contrary, it summoned the King”.      And on May 8th, it restored the monarchy to Prince Charles, making him King Charles II.   

On May 29th, Charles  entered the City of London.  According to an unnamed source: “On Tuesday, May the 29th (which happily fell out to be the anniversary of his majesty’s birth-day), he set forth of Rochester in his coach; but afterwards he took horse on the farther side of Black-heath … .  … In magnificent fashion his majesty entered the borough of Southwark, about half an hour past three of the clock … ; and, within an hour after, the city of London at the bridge; where he found the windows and streets exceedingly thronged with people to behold him; and the walls adorned with hangings … ; and in many places … loud musick; all the conduits … running claret wine; and the … companies in their liveries … ; as also the trained bands … standing along the streets … , welcoming him with joyful acclamations.  …   From which place, … his majesty … entered Whitehall … , the people making loud shouts, and the horse and foot several vollies of shot, at this his happy arrival.  Where …  parliament received him, and kissed his royal hand.  At the same time … the Reverend Bishops … , with divers of the long oppressed orthodox clergy, met in that royal chapel of King Henry the Seventh, at Westminster [Abbey],  there also sang Te Deum, & c. in praise and thanks to Almighty God, for … his … deliverance of his majesty from many dangers, and … restoring him to rule these Kingdoms, according to his just and undoubted right”. 

Charles II’s Coronation Procession or Cavalcade

On April 22nd, 1661, Charles  ceremonially processed  on horseback through the City of London to Westminster, as portrayed by the Dutch artist Dir(c)k Stoop in a painting now in the Museum of London.   The route passed  through four specially-constructed allegorically-themed triumphal arches: one on Leadenhall Street; one at the Royal Exchange on Cornhill; one on Cheapside; and one in Whitefriars (the arches are thought to have been inspired by those designed by  Rubens for the triumphal entry of Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Austria into Antwerp in 1635).   The associated lavish entertainments  were described in detail in print by the Scots stage-manager John Ogilby, in a book entitled, in part (!),  “The entertainment of His Most Excellent Majestie Charles II, in his passage through the city of London to his coronation containing an exact accompt of the whole solemnity, the triumphal arches, and cavalcade … ”.   The following day, April 23rd, Charles was formally crowned King at Westminster Abbey.  Samuel Pepys wrote of the occasion in his diary: “About 4 I rose and got to the Abbey, … and ..,  with a great deal of patience I sat … till 11 before the King came in. …    At last comes in the Dean and Prebends of Westminster, with the Bishops (many of them in cloth of gold copes), and after them the Nobility, all in their Parliament robes, which was a most magnificent sight. Then the Duke, and the King with a scepter (carried by my Lord Sandwich) and sword and mond  before him, and the crown too. The King in his robes, bare-headed [that is, without his customarily-affected wig], which was very fine. And after all had placed themselves, there was a sermon and the service; and then in the Quire at the high altar, the King passed through all the ceremonies of the Coronacon, which to my great grief I and most in the Abbey could not see. The crown being put upon his head, a great shout begun … ”.

Before he had even been formally crowned, Charles instigated a massive man-hunt for  the surviving regicides who had signed his father’s death warrant, most  of whom had gone into hiding, many  in continental Europe, and some  even in the Americas.   He eventually executed them all,  in so doing  violating  the terms of his own “Declaration of Breda”, which had promised a pardon for all crimes committed during the Civil War and inter-regnum.  On October 13th,  1660, Major-General Thomas Harrison was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn (“he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition” as Pepys drily noted); on October 14th, Thomas Scot, Adrian Scroop, John Cook and John Jones at Charing Cross; and on October 15th, John Carew, also at Charing Cross.  John Cook had been  the chief prosecutor at Charles I’s trial.  Shortly before his execution, he wrote: “We fought for the public good and would have enfranchised the people and secured the welfare of the whole groaning creation if the nation had not more delighted in servitude than in freedom”.  And on June 14th, 1662, Sir Harry Vane, who had been a leading Parliament but not a regicide, was beheaded at Tower Hill.  Pepys  wrote on this occasion: “[A]bout eleven o’clock, … we all went out to the Tower-hill; and there, over against the scaffold, made on purpose this day, saw Sir Harry Vane brought.  A very great press of people.  He made a long speech, many times interrupted by the Sheriff and others there; and they would have taken the paper out of his hand, but he would not let it go. … [So] trumpets were brought that he might not be heard.  Then he prayed, and so fitted himself, and received the blow … ”.  The composure and courage with which the regicides met their fate elicited much  sympathy from the watching masses – far from the reaction that  the authorities had wanted!

A seventeenth-century woodcut depicting Venner’s Rebellion

On January 19th,  1661, the cooper Thomas Venner was hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason, for attempting, with fifty or so following so-called  “Fifth Monarchists”, to overthrow the recently restored King Charles II and seize  London in the name of “King Jesus”.  (They believed  Him about to return, in fulfilment of a prophecy in the Book of Daniel that Four Monarchies would precede the Kingdom of Christ – the Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian and Roman.)   Venner and his men, many of whom were veterans of the Parliamentarian New Model Army of the Civil War,  had earlier  in the month congregated in Swan Alley, descended  upon and occupied St Paul’s, accosted passers-by and asked them who they were for, and shot dead one man who answered that he was for Charles.   They had then  gone on the run, and on the rampage, for several days, with Venner personally responsible for   three murders, committed  with a halberd, on Threadneedle Street (a number of people killed in the  rebellion were buried in the Bedlam Burial Ground).    The men were finally surrounded  by  an overwhelmingly superior force of troops, according to one colourful account,  in the Helmet Tavern on Threadneedle Street and the Blue Anchor on Coleman Street, where they made a last stand,  and were either  killed or captured (after troops broke in from roof level, smashing aside the roof tiles with the butts of their muskets).   Venner himself was captured, after being wounded no fewer than nineteen times, and then tried and convicted at the Old Bailey for his crimes.

A seventeenth-century Dutch depiction of the Dutch attack on the Medway in 1667

The Second Anglo-Dutch War broke out in 1665, as England and the Netherlands continued to vie for control of the seas and lucrative maritime trade.    The early exchanges mainly went England’s way.  In August 1666, the English Vice-Admiral Robert Holmes launched a raid on the Vlie estuary, razing to the ground the town of West-Terschellling on the island of Terschelling, and destroying around 130 Dutch merchantmen, in what was to become known as “Holmes’s Bonfire”.  The following month, the Great Fire essentially destroyed the City of London, and came to be widely interpreted by the Dutch as an act of divine retribution for “Holmes’s Bonfire”, and by the English as an act of Dutch sabotage.  The war’s later exchanges went the way of the Netherlands,  as England’s  economy and war effort suffered during and after the Great Plague in 1665 and Great Fire of London in 1666.  In 1667, the Dutch Admiral de Ruyter launched a raid on the  English naval base on the Medway, a tributary of the Thames, a short distance downstream from London, capturing the fort at Sheerness, and destroying eighteen naval ships, including the “Loyal London”, “Royal James” and “Royal Oak”, and capturing another, the flagship, the “Royal Charles”.  It was an ignominious defeat for the Royal Navy, and effectively  forced the English to sue for peace.  The war ended in 1667, with the  Dutch ascendant in the field.  In accordance with the terms of the  peace treaty, the  Treaty of Breda, the Dutch were allowed to retain control of the spice island of Pulau Run in the Moluccas in the East Indies, and also of the sugar plantations in Suriname in  South America.  In exchange, the English were able to keep factual possession of the perceived less valuable New Netherland in North America, the capital of which, New Amsterdam, they renamed New York, after James, Duke of  York (the future James II).

Also in 1665, London  suffered terribly  during an outbreak of Bubonic Plague that came to be known as the “Great Plague”.  There had also been outbreaks in the sixteenth century and in the earlier part of the seventeenth,  in 1563, 1578-9, 1582, 1592-3, 1603, 1625, 1636 and 1647.   One John Harvard of the Queen’s Head Inn in Southwark decided to sail to America to seek his fortune after the rest of his family died in the outbreak in 1625, and the  university that he helped found  there, in Cambridge, Massachusetts,  now bears his name.  The “Great Plague” of 1665 killed at least 70,000 people in London, and possibly as many as 100,000 – far more than the “Black Death” of 1348-9, although far fewer in proportion to the overall population.  This was despite, and perhaps in part because of, the  intervention  of the Mayor, John Lawrence, who issued “Orders … ”  to combat the spread of the disease  which included the shutting up – for twenty-eight days – of all houses which had been  “visited”, complete with all their inhabitants, whether  infected or not (the houses were marked with foot-high  red crosses and guarded by watchmen, who provided food for as long as any inhabitants survived, while  also making sure that none was able to leave). 

The “Bills of Mortality” for the “Plague Year”

The Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks’ “Bills of Mortality” – now in the London Metropolitan Archives – show that of the 70,000 recorded Plague deaths in London in 1665, only 10,000 were in the 97 parishes within the walls of the City  – possibly because a significant proportion  of those inhabitants who could afford to do so had fled to the country.  The remaining 60,000  Plague deaths were in the 16 – generally poorer – parishes without the walls, the 5 in Westminster, and the 12 in Middlesex and Surrey.  St Giles Cripplegate, St Giles-in-the-Fields, St Margaret Westminster, St Martin-in-the-Fields, and Stepney, where there were “pest-houses”, were among the worst affected, with a total of well over 20,000 deaths – 6,500 of them in Stepney alone.  The bodies of the Plague victims were buried either in parish churchyards or in emergency “plague pits”, the latter including those of Tothill Fields in Westminster, to the west; Bedlam, Bunhill Fields and  Holywell Mount, to the north; Aldgate and the  Stepney pest-fields, to the east; and Crossbones Graveyard and Deadman’s Place, to the south. On a macabre note, the bulk of the parish church  of All Hallows Staining  collapsed  in 1671, due, it is thought,  to undermining of the foundations by burials of – 112 – Plague victims!

In his diary, Samuel Pepys wrote with mounting horror of the advance of the disease across Europe from October, 1663, of  the vain attempts to stem it by the quarantining of  incoming ships, of its eventual  arrival in London in June, 1665, and then of its devastating spread over the succeeding summer and autumn.  On August 31st,  1665, he  wrote: “[T]he plague having a great increase this week, beyond all expectation of almost 2,000, making the general Bill [of Mortality] 7,000, odd 100; and the plague above 6,000”.  On September 14th: “[T]he Bill … in the City … is increased and likely to continue so, and is close to our house there.  My meeting dead corpses of the plague, carried to be buried close to me at noon-day …  in Fenchurch Street.  To see a person sick of the sores carried close by me by Grace-church in a hackney-coach.  My finding the Angell tavern, at the lower end of Tower-hill, shut up; and more than that, the alehouse at the Tower Stairs; and more than that, that the person was then dying of the plague when I was last there, a little while ago at night.  To hear that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself.  To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams, to know how they did there, is dead of the plague; and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, when I had been all night upon the water … is now dead of the plague.  … To hear that Mr. Lewes hath another daughter sick.  And, lastly, that both my servants, W. Hewers and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers, both in St. Sepulchre’s parish, of the plague this week, do put me into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason”.  And on September 20th:  “But, Lord! What a sad time it is to see no boats upon the river; and grass grows all up and down White Hall court, and nobody but poor wretches in the streets! And, which is worst of all, the Duke [of Albemarle] showed us the number of the plague this week, … that it is encreased …  more than the last, which is quite contrary to our hopes and expectations, from the coldness of the late season.  For the whole general number is 8297, and of them of the plague 7165; which is more in the whole … than the biggest Bill [of Mortality] yet: which is very grievous to us all”.  On the same day, one  John Tillison wrote: “Death stares us continually in the face in every infected person that passeth by us; in every coffin which is … carried along the streets.  … The custom was … to bury the dead in the night only; now, both night and day will hardly be time enough to do it.  … [L]ast week, … the dead was piled in heaps above ground … before either time could be gained or place to bury them.  The Quakers … have buried in their piece of ground [Bunhill Row] a thousand … .  Many are [also] dead in … other places about the town which are not included in the bill of mortality”.  The “Great Plague” was now at its peak in London, killing over a thousand people a day.  In the City, it had become so deathly still that there were weeds growing wild everywhere, even along Cornhill, Leadenhall Street, Bishopsgate and the other great streets, and in the Exchange.  So  silent  that far and wide the river  could be heard flowing under the score  arches of the old bridge.  My distant ancestor Frances West’s first husband, Citizen and Clothworker Robert Mickell, died of the plague on  September, 17th, 1665, having written in his will only days earlier, evidently only too aware of his own mortality, “I … being well in body … praised bee God for the same but considering the frailty of man’s life and not knowing how soon it may please Almighty God my creator to call me out of this transitory world doe make and ordayne this my last will and testament … ”. 

Pepys  later wrote with  heartfelt relief of the Plague’s  ultimate departure  in the winter of 1665 (it is commonly thought that it  was only killed off by the Great Fire of September, 1666, but the “Bills of Mortality” confirm Pepys’s observation   that it died out at the beginning of the winter of 1665).  On October 5th: “The Bill, blessed be God! is less this week by 740 of what it was the last”.  And on October 26th: “The ‘Change pretty full, and the town begins to be lively again”.  The plague  was now well past its peak, and some semblance of normality was beginning to return to a stricken city.  And the heroic physician Nathaniel Hodges, the only one, it is thought, who had remained in London throughout the plague year to treat the afflicted, could finally rest.  Twice he thought he felt himself succumbing to the  symptoms of the disease, and twice he kept it at bay by drinking increased draughts of sack (he also took a preventive electuary as large as a nutmeg each day).  He went on write an account of his experiences entitled   “Loimologia, sive, Pestis nuperae apud opulum Londinensem grassantis narratio historica” in1672, lamenting therein the uselessness of bezoar stone, unicorn horn and dried toad as anti-pestilential treatments.  Tragically,  he died a pauper in Ludgate Prison in 1688, and was buried in the church of St Stephen Walbrook.

2 thoughts on “Post-Medieval London, Pt. II – Stuart History

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