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17th Century England Index

Introduction : Constitutional Government
James I and the Divine Right of Kings
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The Second English Civil War
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England during the Reign of Charles II Index

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The Great Plague (1644-1666)

The plague was also known as the black death. Its scientific name is bubonic plague. There had been previous outbreaks of the plague in London, but none so terrible as the one which started in late 1664. The plague was transmitted to people by rat fleas. Fleas suck blood, and fleas carrying the plague virus introduced it into their victim when they feed. As the rats died the fleas started to feed from human hosts. The 1664 outbreak probably started in a suburb called St Giles in the Field. Since the poorer areas of London were very crowded and unhygienic, the plague quickly spread through the population.

The home of a plague victim was marked and the rest of the family were locked inside. In the 17th century it was thought that the plague could be spread through the air, like a cold virus, so the victims family were isolated. This was the worst thing that could have happened since the rats, along with the contaminated fleas, were still in the house. Invariably the other members of the family would be bitten by a flea and contract the disease.

The symptoms of the plague are those of a bad cold at first. This is followed by a high fever, vomiting and painful black swellings, called buboes, develop in the groin and under the armpits. If the black swellings burst, the victim can survive the plague, but in most cases the body is unable to cope with the high temperature and the effects of the virus, leading to eventual death.

Magnified flea drawn by Robert Hooke

Magnified flea drawn by Robert Hooke.
Fleas from rats were responsible for the spread of the Great Plague.

At one stage during the outbreak, up to 6000 people died of the plague in one week. People wheeled carts through the streets and rang special bells to tell families to "bring out your dead". The King, court and Parliament left London for Oxford. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, stayed in London and he wrote a letter describing what was happening in London: I could walk Lombard Street and not meet twenty persons from one end to the other and not 50 upon the Exchange; till whole families, 10 and 12 together have been swept away; till my very physician, Dr Burnet, who undertook to secure me against infection, having survived the month on his own being shut up, died himself of the plague.

The number of dead started falling in 1666. Some people think that the Great Fire put an end to it, but this is unlikely since other plague-ridden cities were also relieved at the same time.

 

 

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England during the Reign of Charles II

The Great Plague (1644-1666)

 

The Great Plague : Extracts from Samuel Pepys' Diary

7 June 1665

"..... This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and 'Lord have mercy upon us' writ there - which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell to and chaw - which took away the apprehension."

10 June 1665

"...... In the evening home to supper, and there to my great trouble hear that the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City); but where it begin but in my good friend and neighbour's, Dr Burnett in Fanchurch Street - which troubles me mightily. ......"

11 June 1665

"I out of doors a little to show forsooth my new suit, and back again; and in going, saw poor Dr Burnets door shut. But he hath, I hear, gained goodwill among his neighbours; for he discovered it himself first, and caused himself to be shut up of his own accord - which was very handsome."

17 June 1665

"It stroke me very deep this afternoon, going with a hackney-coach from my Lord Treasurer's down Holborne - the coachman I found to drive easily and easily; at last stood still, and came down hardly able to stand; and told me that he was suddenly stroke very sick and almost blind. So I light and went into another coach, with a sad heart for the poor man and trouble for myself, lest he should have been stroke with the plague - being at that end of the town that I took him up. But God have mercy upon us all."

20 June 1665

"..... This day I informed myself that there died four or five at Westminster of the Plague, in one alley in several houses upon Sunday last - Bell Alley, over against the Palace gate. yet people do think that the number will be fewer in the town then it was last week. ......"

12 August 1665

"The people die so, that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by daylight, the nights not sufficing to do it in. ......."

16 August 1665

"...... Hence to the Exchange, which I have not been a great while. But Lord, how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the Change - jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague - and about us, two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up."

3 September 1665

"..... And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection - that it had been cut off of heads of people dead of the plague. ......... but Lord, to consider the madness of people of the town, who will (because they are forbid) come in crowds along with the dead corps to see them buried. ......"

16 October 1665

"But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physitian, and but one apothecary left, all being dead - but that there are great hopes of a great decrease this week. God send it."

9 November 1665

"..... The Bill of Mortality, to all our griefs, is encreased 399 this week, and the encrease general through the whole city and suburbs, which makes us all sad."

22 November 1665

"I heard this day that the plague is come very low; that is 600 and odd - and great hopes of a further decrease, because of this day's being a very exceeding hard frost - and continues freezing. ......"

 

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