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The Great Plague was the biggest epidemic since the Black Death, as one-sixth of London’s population perished as the wealthy fled to their country estates.

The Bubonic Plague was first reported in Great Yarmouth in November 1663 – allegedly imported from Holland in bales of merchandise.

The disease was carried by flea-ridden rats. People were infected when they were bitten by these fleas.

The first reported case in London was in May 1665 in the parish of St-Giles-in-the-Field.

A bill of mortality for the plague in 1665

A bill of mortality for the plague in 1665

Causes and Symptoms

Nobody at the time knew what actually caused or spread the plague but various theories were plentiful.

“Venomous gases” and “worms” were cited as possible causes. There were also fears it was passed on through handling money or letters. Mail was washed, shaken in a sieve or rubbed with rough stones to remove any taints.

Domestic animals were also suspected of harbouring the plague so the Lord Mayor, John Lawrence, ordered all cats and dogs to be killed as he believed they carried the “effluvia or infectious steams in their fur or hair” as they ran from house to house.

About 40,000 dogs and 200,000 were killed but the bodies of the dead animals increased London’s ever-present stench so the Court of Aldermen were forced to issues a special order to remove the animal carcases from the streets.

Rats and mice were also poisoned but, no doubt, hundreds more escaped from the street cleaners. They bred rapidly, especially with their natural predators’ extermination, and swarmed over London. Only the plague could stop the rats breeding further.

Samuel Pepys, 1666

Samuel Pepys, 1666

Many believed the plague was carried through the air as a “pestilential miasma”. It led to the idea that smoke or strong-smelling odours could drive off the plague. Officials insisted lighting bonfires in front of every sixth house in every street when the weekly death toll was near ten thousand.

Samuel Pepys claimed he was forced to chew tobacco to ward off infection.

Early bubonic plague symptoms include buboes (tender enlarged lymph nodes), fever, headache, chills, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea (may contain blood) and decreased appetite.

These symptoms rapidly progress to septicaemia when the Yersinia pestis bacterium is absorbed into the bloodstream causing migraines, a rapid heart rate, delirium and death.

Hot Summer

On 7 June 1665, the hottest day Pepys had ever known, he saw a red cross marked on three doors in Drury Lane.

Watchmen regularly patrolled the streets and quarantined households at the first sign of infection.

The death toll rapidly climbed to hundreds, then thousands, each week. Corpses soon piled up as people were unable to bury their loved ones.

Church bells constantly tolled, “bring out your dead” echoed in empty streets as grave-diggers shovelled corpses into open graves after becoming sufficiently drunk before taking on their revolting job.

Theatres were closed to prevent the disease from spreading.

Pepys found numerous wagons and people preparing for a mass exodus from Whitehall in July.

Charles II in the robes of the Order of the Garter by Sir Peter Lely

Charles II in the robes of the Order of the Garter by Sir Peter Lely

Charles II, James Duke of York and Prince Rupert travelled first to Hampton Court, then on to Salisbury. They left for Oxford in September 1665 when they heard several plague victims had died.

The King’s mother, Henrietta Maria, fled to France where she died in 1669 whilst the Exchequer was transferred to Nonsuch, a palace near Ewell.

The aristocracy, the gentry, professionals (including the President of the Royal College of Physicians) and most of the Anglican clergy quickly fled whilst common citizens were locked in their own houses and left to succumb, starve or survive.

Domestic servants were left destitute as their wealthy employers left for the safety of their country estates. They found shelter in the slums around the city walls as they were left homeless, with no job or income.

Nonconformist clergy, including Thomas Vincent, remained behind offering spiritual comfort and ministering to the sick when most left their pulpits for safety.

Vincent witnessed the horrors of the plague, including a bleeding man who collapsed, a woman carrying a tiny coffin under her arm and naked plague victims running screaming into the streets.

The plague reached its peak during the week of 17 September, with a total of seven thousand deaths.

The plague died down when the weather turned cold.

The people cheered when the King returned to Whitehall on 1 February 1666. His queen, Catherine of Braganza followed ten days later.

Theatres remained closed and the annual Bartholomew Fair at Smithfield was cancelled as the authorities feared further outbreak.

Only 30 plague deaths were reported on 28 August 1666.

Rats destroyed in the Great Fire minimised the risk of infection.

Genetics

Survivors may owe their life (or death) to their blood group, including Samuel Pepys. Those with the blood group A – more common in south-east England – were more likely to become victims of the plague.

A recent documentary, Secrets of the Great Plague, examines why some survivors were immune.

Map of London by Wenceslas Hollar, c.1665

Map of London by Wenceslas Hollar, c.1665

Sources

Faulkus, Christopher, The Life and Times of Charles II, George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited, London, 1972

Fraser, Antonia, Charles II: His Life and Times (Abridged, illustrated format), Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1993

Hanson, Neil, The Dreadful Judgement: The True Story of the Great Fire of London, Doubleday [Transworld Publishers], London, 2001

Harris, Tim, Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms 1660-1685, Allen Lane (Imprint of Penguin Books), London, 2005

Hibbert, Christopher, The English: A Social History 1066-1945, Guild Publishing, London, 1987 [Reprinted 1989]

Picard, Liza, Restoration London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1997

Schama, Simon, A History of Britain: The British Wars 1603-1776, Volume 2, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2001

Tinniswood, Adrian, By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London, Pimlico (Random House), London, 2003

Oliver, Dan, Secrets of the Great Plague, Atlantic Productions, 2006 (Documentary)

eMedTV, Bubonic Plague Symptoms 

© 2010 Carolyn M Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 9 April 2010.