Bubonic plague had recurred often in the Europe of the Middle Ages. Thought to have been spread by ship-going rats (themselves immune) the plague hit London and south-East England worse in the period 1664/1665 than at any other time in previous centuries.
When the terrible sickness appeared in 1664 it astonished Londoners because not a single case had been recorded for more than thirty years. Perhaps physicians thought the plague had vanished, following improvements in hygiene on board ship. However, the sudden re-appearance of a relentless and mortal disease took London’s health authorities (such as they were) completely by surprise.
The population of England’s capital was around 500,000, people living dangerously close to each other in narrow, dark and dank streets, with the exception of the rich, who preferred to build their large houses in what was then the surrounding countryside, well away from the stench of the river and the pullulating streets. Nearly one fifth of the population died of the plague, and many more because plague rules were inflexible. If a tenement or house contained one plague victim only, the whole building was locked and barricaded from outside, in a vain attempt to keep the disease inside. Any healthy persons left inside had to fend for themselves, not being able to leave the house for food, water and medicines. They had to rely on the charity of friends and strangers.
Court and Assembly moved prudently to the country, where the disease was also in evidence, though less so than in the city centres. The plague even travelled northwards, probably in a box of infected clothes, reaching a village in Derbyshire. When it was discovered by the appalled villagers, they voted to isolate themselves to prevent it spreading, in a very early instance of truly democratic solidarity, and Christian example. Three hundred out of a population of three hundred and fifty died.
Meanwhile in London the Royal Society of Physicians held post-mortems to discover the actual source of the plague, but without notable success. At the height of the epidemic, mass graves were dug and the lifeless bodies of men, women, children and babies were loaded on carts and buried by the hundred. The terrifying street cry was “Bring out your Dead!”
Nothing more was discovered about the terrible disease, whose first symptoms were breathlessness, aches in the bones, loss of hair, and an eruption of black ‘bulboes’ or boils on the skin, especially in armpits and groin. The Great Plague was no respecter of rank: the proportion of nobles and clergy who died (those who had not instantly escaped to the country) was the same as that of the poor and homeless. Doctors insist that had penicillin existed in the middle of the seventeenth century, one single injection would have destroyed the virus.
Death by fire – and Salvation (The Great Fire of London)
In September, 1666, a small fire that began in a baker’s shop in what is now the Square Mile of the City of London became uncontrolled. Fanned by an east wind of unusual strength, the fire reached extraordinary proportions, moving with terrible speed and enveloping the narrow streets filled with houses built mainly of wood. 87 churches disappeared in the flames, estimated to reach the height of a hundred feet. More than 13,000 houses were lost in the immolation. The King and his brother acted with speed and wisdom, ordering the blowing up of districts in the path of the flames. Ordinary citizens fighting fires were amazed to see Charles II and brother James stripped to the waist working covered in sweat with leather buckets full of Thames water.
For those students of history with interest in this fire there are eyewitness accounts extant, written by Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. King and Council made plans for the widespread re-building of an open plan, modern city, but the plans were sadly not developed and finally forgotten. London had to wait for Hitler’s Blitz to finish the essential demolition before London could be re-built. One valued result was the almost total extinction of the Plague, which vanished, burned along with complete streets of badly-built wood tenements.
Christopher Wren and other architects did however manage to re-build St. Paul’s and a number of other churches and public buildings. Wren was also responsible for the Monument, which commemorates the Fire. It had destroyed the slums where the Plague lingered for so long. Not to be cynical, the Fire also provided a tremendous boost to the growth of fire insurance. It was noted by contemporary historians that the death count among citizens was surprisingly small.