Category Archives: 17th Century London

The execution of Harry Vane (Samuel Pepys, 1662)


On this day in 1662, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“[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 … ”.

Vane had been one of the so-called “regicides” who had signed Charles I’s death-warrant during the Civil War.  Most of the surviving regicides were rounded up and executed by Charles’s son, Charles II, after he was restored to the throne in 1660.

Tower Hill is visited on various of our walks, including the “Tudor and Stuart London”, “Tudor and Stuart City Highlights” and ”Rebellious London” themed specials.

Further details of all our walks are available in the Our Guided Walks section of this web-site.

Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site, or by e-mail (

“The plague is come to the City” (Samuel Pepys, 1665)

Lord have mercy on London (1665)

On this day in 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“[T]o my great trouble, hear that the plague is come to the City, though it hath … since its beginning, been wholly out of the City; but where should it begin but in my good friend and neighbour’s, Dr Burnett, in Fenchurch Street: which, in both points, troubles me mightily”.

The 1665 outbreak of Bubonic Plague – the “Great Plague” – killed at least 70000 people in London, and possibly as many as 100000 – far more than the “Black Death” of 1348-9, although far fewer in proportion to the overall population.  The “Bills of Mortality” show that of the 70000 recorded Plague deaths, only 10000 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 60000  Plague deaths were in the 16 parishes without the walls, the 5 in Westminster, and the 12 in Middlesex and Surrey.  Stepney was the worst affected, with 6500 deaths.

Bubonic Plague was diagnosed by painful swellings or buboes in the groin or armpit.  It is now known to be caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, in turn generally transmitted by the bite of an infected  rat-flea of the species Xenopsylla cheopis  (such as was common in the conditions in which people, livestock, pets and vermin  lived, cheek-by-jowl, in London in the Medieval to post-Medieval period).   In the Medieval to post-Medieval period, it was thought to be spread by cats and dogs, which were therefore rounded up and killed in large numbers (the resulting  reduction in predation ironically allowing rats to proliferate).  The 1348-9 outbreak, now referred to as the “Black Death”,  caused so many deaths in such a short time that epidemiologists suspect that it was a particularly deadly and infectious – possibly pneumonic or septicaemic – strain  of the disease,  capable of being passed directly from infected person to person without the involvement of the vector flea.  Perhaps significantly in this context, the “Black Death”  was able to continue to spread and even to spike over the winter of 1348-9, when the vector flea would have been inactive, as it is everywhere  today at temperatures of less than 10degC.

The Parish Clerks’ “Bills of Mortality” for the Plague Year of 1665 are examined at  the church of All Hallows Staining on our “London Wall” standard walk, and on our “Tudor and Stuart London”, “Tudor and Stuart City highlights” and “Great Fire of London” themed specials.  The bulk of the church collapsed in 1671, the foundations undermined by plague burials.

Further details of all our walks are available in the Our Guided Walks section of this web-site.

Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site, or by e-mail (

Whales and whaling in London (John Evelyn, 1658)

2 - Skeleton of North Atlantic Right Whale believed to be that described by Evelyn, discovered at Bay Wharf in Greenwich in 2010

On this day in 1658 John Evelyn (see also January 29th and February 27th postings) wrote in his diary:

“A large whale has been taken betwixt my land butting on the Thames and Greenwich, which drew an infinite concourse to see it … .  … [A]fter  a long conflict it was killed with a harping yron, struck in the head, out of which it spouted blood … by two tunnels, and after a horrid grone it ran quite on shore and died.  Its length was fifty-eight foote, height sixteen, black skin’d like coach-leather, very small eyes, great taile, and onely two small finns, a picked snout, and a mouth so wide that divers men might have stood upright in it; no teeth, but suck’d the slime onely as thro’ a grate of … whale-bone, the throate yet so narrow as would not have admitted the least of fishes … ”.

Throughout history, whales have not infrequently ended up accidentally stranded in London  as Evelyn describes, the most recent case being in 2006.

From the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onwards, whales were also deliberately hunted out at sea, and brought back to ports such as London, Yarmouth, Hull and York   to be sold, their oil for lighting and for  lubrication (and their bones for the manufacture of corsets).  The London whaling industry was dominated initially by the Muscovy Company, and subsequently  by its semi-independent subsidiary, the Greenland Company.  By the turn of the  seventeenth and  eighteenth centuries, its fortunes had begun to decline as it found itself for the most part out-competed by a Dutch whaling industry better equipped with specially strengthened ships capable not only of “bay whaling” but also of  “ice whaling” far out at sea, on the edge of the Arctic ice fields.  Nonetheless, whaling expeditions continued to be conducted out of London until the early nineteenth century.  The last was  in 1835.

“In magnificent fashion his majesty entered … the city of London” (Anonymous, 1660)

Charles II coronation portrait by John Michael Wright

Another in the occasional series on contemporary accounts of events in the history of London, this one of  the return to the City  of Prince Charles in 1660 (see also April 25th and May 8th postings),  from 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 … .

… [P]roceeding towards London, there were placed in Deptford … above an hundred proper maids, … who, having prepared many flaskets …, which … were full of flowers and sweet herbs, strowed the way before him as he rode.

From thence he came to St George’s Fields in Southwark, where the lord mayor and aldermen of London … waited for him in a large tent, hung with tapestry; in which they had placed a chair of state … .  When he came thither, the lord mayor presented him with the city sword, and the recorder made a speech to him; which being done, he alighted, and went into the tent, where a noble banquet was prepared for him … .

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.

And within the rails where Charing-cross formerly was, a stand of six-hundred pikes, consisting of knights and gentlemen, as had been officers of the armies of his majesty of blessed memory … .

From which place, … his majesty … entered Whitehall at seven of the clock, 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”.

May 29th was made a public holiday, “to be for ever kept as a Day of Thanksgiving for our Redemption from Tyranny and the King’s Return to his Government, he entering London that day”.  Although the public holiday, popularly known as “Oak Apple Day” or, more rarely, “Royal Oak Day”, was abolished in 1859, May 29th is  still marked by celebrations at  the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which was founded by Charles II in 1681.

Westminster Abbey, where the King went on to be formally crowned in April 23rd, 1661, is  visited, although not entered, on our “St Paul’s to Westminster Abbey” standard walk, and on our “Medieval London”, “Medieval City Highlights” and “Legal London” themed specials.

Further details of all our walks are available in the Our Guided Walks section of this web-site.

Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site, or by e-mail (



A voice from the past (Samuel Pepys)

Seething Lane Gardens (3) - Copy.JPG

On this day in 1703 Samuel Pepys died.  He is buried in the church of St Olave Hart Street, which to this day holds an annual service to  honour his memory.

The following are selected extracts from the entries in his diary for the days of the Great Fire of London in 1666:

“September 2d .  …  Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire … in the City.  So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown, and went to her window; and thought it to be … far enough off,   and so went to bed again … .  … By and by Jane comes and tells me that … the fire …  is now burning all down Fish Street, by London Bridge.  So I made myself ready … and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places … ; and … did see the houses at  that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side of the end of the bridge … .  So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant … , who tells me that it begun … In the King’s bakers in Pudding-lane, and hath burned  St Magnus’s church and most … of Fish-street already.  So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and … there saw a lamentable fire.   …  Every body endeavouring to remove their goods, and …  bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one … stairs, by the waterside, to another.   … Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and … the wind mighty high and driving it into the City, and everything, after so long a drought, proving combustible … : I to White Hall, … and did tell the King … what I saw; and that, unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down [to create fire-breaks], nothing could stop the fire.  The King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor [the singularly ineffectual Thomas Bloodworth]” and command him to … pull down  [houses].  At last met my Lord Mayor … .  To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman ‘Lord, what can I do?  I am spent: people will not obey me.  I have been pulling down   houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it’”.

September 3d. (M)y Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, .., which I did, riding … in my night-gown, in the cart … .

September 4th.  … (T)o the Tower Street, and there met the fire burning … .  And … Sir W. Pen and I did dig [a pit], and put our wine in it, and I my parmazan cheese … .

September 5th.  … About two in the morning my wife … tells me of new cryes of fire, it being come to Barking Church … .    I up; and finding it so, resolved …  to take her away, and did, and … my gold … ; but, Lord! what a sad sight it was by moone-light, to see the whole City almost on fire … .  Home, and whereas I expected to have seen our house on fire, … it was not.  … (G)oing to the fire, I find, by the blowing up of houses … by Sir W. Pen, there is a good stop given to it … ; it having only burned the dyall of Barking Church, and part of the porch, and … was there quenched.  I up to the top of Barking steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation I ever saw… ”.

The aforementioned churches of All Hallows Barking (Barking church) and St Olave Hart Street, which are closely associated with Pepys, are visited, although not generally entered, on our “London Wall” and “Tower to Temple” standard walks, and on our “Tudor and Stuart London”, “Tudor and Stuart City Highlights” and “Great Fire of London” themed specials.

Further details of all our walks are available in the Our Guided Walks section of this web-site.

Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site, or by e-mail (


Civil War and Commonwealth

Cromwell, Palace of Westminster.JPG

Charles I, St Margaret Westminster.JPG

On this day in 1649,  at what was effectively the end of the Civil War, 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”.

Sites associated with the Civil War and Commonwealth are visited on various of our walks, including the  “Tudor and Stuart London”, “Tudor and Stuart City Highlights” and “Rebellious London” themed specials.

Further details of all our walks are available in the Our Guided Walks section of this web-site.

Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site, or by e-mail (

Cromwell, Palace of Westminster.JPG

“O put not your trust in princes”


On this day in 1641, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford and Lord Deputy of Ireland, an ardent supporter of the King, Charles I, in his power struggle with Parliament in the period leading up to the Civil War, was executed for high treason on Tower Hill (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!


Tower Hill  is visited on our “London Wall” and “Tower to Temple” standard walks, and on our “Medieval London”, “Tudor and Stuart London” and “Rebellious London” themed specials.

Further details of all our walks are available in the Our Guided Walks section of this web-site.

Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site, or by e-mail (