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Royalty Restored or London under Charles II
Chapter XI
by Molloy, J. Fitzgerald

Terror falls upon the people.--Rumours of a plague.--A sign in the heavens.--Flight from the capital.--Preparations against the dreaded enemy.--Dr. Boghurst's testimony.--God's terrible voice in the city.--Rules made by the lord mayor.--Massacre of animals.--O, dire death!--Spread of the distemper.--Horrible sights.--State of the deserted capital.--"Bring out your dead." --ashes to ashes.--Fires are lighted.--Relief of the poor.--The mortality bills.

It came to pass during the fifth month of the year 1665, that a great terror fell upon the city of London; even as a sombre cloud darkens the midday sky. For it was whispered abroad a plague had come amongst the people, fears of which had been entertained, and signs of which had been obvious for some time. During the previous November a few persons had fallen victims to this dreaded pestilence, but the weather being cold and the atmosphere clear, it had made no progress till April. In that month two men had died of this most foul disease; and in the first week of May its victims numbered nine; and yet another fortnight and it had hurried seventeen citizens to the grave.

Now the memory of their wickedness rising before them, dread took up its abode in all men's hearts; for none knew but his day of reckoning was at hand. And their consternation was greater when it was remembered that in the third year of this century thirty- six thousand citizens of London had died of the plague, while twenty-five years later it had swept away thirty-five thousand; and eleven years after full ten thousand persons perished of this same pestilence. Moreover, but two years previous, a like scourge had been rife in Holland; and in Amsterdam alone twenty- four thousand citizens had died from its effects.

And the terror of the citizens of London was yet more forcibly increased by the appearance in April of a blazing star or comet, bearing a tail apparently six yards in length, which rose betimes in a lurid sky, and passed with ominous movement from west to east. [It is worthy of notice that Lilly in his "Astrological Predictions," published in 1648, declared the year 1656 would be "ominous to London, unto her merchants at sea, to her traffique at land, to her poor, to her rich, to all sorts of people inhabiting in her or her Liberties, by reason of sundry fires and a consuming plague."] The king with his queen and court, prompted by curiosity, stayed up one night to watch this blazing star pass above the silent city; the Royal Society in behalf of science embodied many learned comments regarding it in their "Philosophical Transactions;" but the great body of the people regarded it as a visible signal of God's certain wrath. They were more confirmed in this opinion, as some amongst them, whose judgments were distorted by fears, declared the comet had at times before their eyes assumed the appearance of a fiery sword threatening the sinful city. It was also noted in the spring of this year that birds and wild fowls had left their accustomed places, and few swallows were seen. But in the previous summer there had been "such a multitude of flies that they lined the insides of houses; and if any threads of strings did hang down in any place, they were presently thick-set with flies like ropes of onions; and swarms of ants covered the highways that you might have taken up a handful at a time, both winged and creeping ants; and such a multitude of croaking frogs in ditches that you might have heard them before you saw them," as is set down by one William Boghurst, apothecary at the White Hart in St. Giles-in- the-Fields, who wrote a learned "Treatis on the Plague" in 1666, he being the only man who up to that time had done so from experience and observation. [This quaint and curious production, which has never been printed, and which furnishes the following pages with some strange details, is preserved in the Sloane Collection of Manuscripts in the British Museum.] And from such signs, as likewise from knowledge that the pestilence daily increased, all felt a season of bitter tribulation was at hand.

According to "Some Observations of the Plague," written by Dr. Hedges for use of a peer of the realm, the dread malady was communicated to London from the Netherlands "by way of contagion." It first made its appearance in the parishes of St. Giles and St. Martin's, Westminster, from which directions it gradually spread to Holborn, Fleet Street, the Strand, and the city, finally reaching to the east, bringing death invariably in its train.

The distemper was not only fatal in its termination, but loathsome in its progress; for the blood of those affected being poisoned by atmospheric contagion, bred venom in the body, which burst forth into nauseous sores and uncleanness; or otherwise preyed with more rapid fatality internally, in some cases causing death before its victims were assured of disease. Nor did it spare the young and robust any more than those weak of frame or ripe with years, but attacking stealthily, killed speedily. It was indeed the "pestilence that walketh in darkness, and the destruction that wasteth in the noonday." In the month of May, when it was yet uncertain if the city would be spared even in part, persons of position and wealth, and indeed those endowed with sufficient means to support themselves elsewhere, resolved to fly from the capital; whilst such as had neither home, friends, nor expectation of employment in other places, remained behind. Accordingly great preparations were made by those who determined on flight; and all day long vast crowds gathered round my lord mayor's house in St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, seeking certificates of health, so that for some weeks it was difficult to reach his door for the throng that gathered there, as is stated by John Noorthouck. Such official testimonies to the good health of those leaving London had now become necessary; for the inhabitants of provincial towns, catching the general alarm, refused to shelter in their houses, or even let pass through their streets, the residents of the plague-stricken city, unless officially assured they were free from the dreaded distemper. Nay, even with such certificates in their possession, many were refused admittance to inns, or houses of entertainment, and were therefore obliged to sleep in fields by night, and beg food by day, and not a few deaths were caused by want and exposure.

And now were the thoroughfares of the capital crowded all day long with coaches conveying those who sought safety in flight, and with waggons and carts containing their household goods and belongings, until it seemed as if the city mould be left without a soul. Many merchants and shipowners together with their families betook themselves to vessels, which they caused to be towed down the river towards Greenwich, and in which they resided for months; whilst others sought refuge in smacks and fishing- boats, using them as shelters by day, and lodging on the banks by night. Some few families remaining in the capital laid in stores of provisions, and shutting themselves up securely in their houses, permitted none to enter or leave, by which means some of them escaped contagion and death. The court tarried until the 29th of June, and then left for Hampton, none too soon, for the pestilence had reached almost to the palace gates. The queen mother likewise departed, retiring into France; from which country she never returned.

All through the latter part of May, and the whole of the following month, this flight from the dread enemy of mankind continued; presenting a melancholy spectacle to those who remained, until at last the capital seemed veritably a city of the dead. But for the credit of humanity be it stated, that not all possessed of health and wealth abandoned the town. Prominent amongst those who remained were the Duke of Albemarle, Lord Craven, the lord mayor, Sir John Laurence, some of his aldermen, and a goodly number of physicians, chirurgeons, and apothecaries, all of whom by their skill or exertions sought to check the hungry ravages of death. The offices which medical men voluntarily performed during this period of dire affliction were loathsome to a terrible degree. "I commonly dressed forty sores in a day," says Dr. Boghurst, whose simple words convey a forcible idea of his nobility; "held the pulse of patients sweating in their beds half a quarter of an hour together; let blood; administered clysters to the sick; held them up in their beds to keep them from strangling and choking, half an hour together commonly, and suffered their breathing in my face several times when they were dying; eat and drank with them, especially those that had sores; sat down by their bedsides and upon their beds, discoursing with them an hour together. If I had time I stayed by them to see them die. Then if people had nobody to help them (for help was scarce at such time and place) I helped to lay them forth out of the bed, and afterwards into the coffin; and last of all, accompanied them to the ground."

Of the physicians remaining in the city, nine fell a sacrifice to duty. Amongst those who survived was the learned Dr. Nathaniel Hodges, who was spared to meet a philanthropist's fate in penury and neglect. [Dr. Hodges subsequently wrote a work entitled "Loimologia; or, an Historical Account of the Plague of London," first published in 1672; of which, together with a collection of the bills of mortality for 1665, entitled "London's Dreadful Visitation," and a pamphlet by the Rev. Thomas Vincent, "God's Terrible Voice in the City," printed in 1667, De Foe largely availed himself in writing his vivid but unreliable "Journal of the Plague Year," which first saw the light in 1722.] The king had, on outbreak of the distemper, shown solicitude for his citizens by summoning a privy council, when a committee of peers was formed for "Prevention and Spreading of the Infection." Under their orders the College of Physicians drew up "Certain necessary Directions for the Prevention and Cure of the Plague, with Divers remedies for small Change," which were printed in pamphlet form, and widely distributed amongst the people. [We learn that at this time the College was stored with "men of learning, virtue, and probity, nothing acquainted with the little arts of getting a name by plotting against the honesty and credulity of the people." The prescriptions given by this worthy body were consequently received with a simple faith which later and more sceptical generations might deny them. Perhaps the most remarkable of these directions, given under the heading of "Medicines External," was the following: "Pull off the feathers from the tails of living cocks, hens, pigeons, or chickens, and holding their bills, hold them hard to the botch or swelling, and so keep them at that part until they die, and by that means draw out the poison. It is good to apply a cupping glass, or embers in a dish, with a handful of sorrel upon the embers."]

The lord mayor, having likewise the welfare of the people at heart, "conceived and published" rules to be observed, and orders to be obeyed, by them during this visitation. These directed the appointment of two examiners for every parish, who were bound to discover those who were sick, and inquire into the nature of their illness: and finding persons afflicted by plague, they, with the members of their family and domestics, were to be confined in their houses. These were to be securely locked outside, and guarded day and night by watchmen, whose duty it should be to prevent persons entering or leaving those habitations; as likewise to perform such offices as were required, such as conveying medicines and food. And all houses visited by the distemper were to be forthwith marked on the door by a red cross a foot long, with the words LORD HAVE MERCY UPON US set close over the same sacred sign. Female searchers, "such as are of honest reputation, and of the best sort as can be got of the kind," were selected that they might report of what disease people died; such women not being permitted during this visitation to use any public work or employment, or keep shop or stall, or wash linen for the people. Nurses to attend the afflicted deserted by their friends were also appointed. And inasmuch as multitudes of idle rogues and wandering beggars swarming the city were a great means of spreading disease, the constables had orders not to suffer their presence in the streets. And dogs and cats, being domestic animals, apt to run from house to house, and carry infection in their fur and hair, an order was made that they should be killed, and an officer nominated to see it carried into execution. It was computed that, in accordance with this edict, forty thousand dogs, and five times that number of cats, were massacred.

All plays bear-baitings, exhibitions, and games were forbidden; as were likewise "all public feasting, and particularly by the companies of the city, and dinners at taverns, alehouses, and other places of common entertainment; and the money thereby spared, be employed for the benefit and relief of the poor visited with the infection." Pest-houses were opened at Tothill Fields, Westminster, and at Bunhill Fields, near Old Street, for reception of the sick: and indeed every possible remedy calculated to check the disease was adopted. Some of these, though considered necessary to the well-being of the community, were by many citizens regarded as hardships, more especially the rule which related to closing of infected houses.

The misery endured by those in health suffering such confinement, was scarcely less than that realized by the afflicted. And fear making way for disease, it frequently occurred a whole family, when confined with one infected member, speedily became stricken by plague, and consequently overtaken by death. It therefore happened that many attempts were made by those in health to escape incarceration. In some cases they bribed, and in others ill-treated the watchmen: one of whom was actually blown up by gunpowder in Coleman Street, that those he guarded might flee unmolested. Again, it chanced that strong men, rendered desperate when brought face to face with loathsome death, lowered themselves from windows of their houses in sight of the watch, whom they threatened with instant death if they cried out or stirred.

The apprehension of the sick, who were in most cases deserted by their friends, was increased tenfold by the practices of public nurses: for being hardened to affliction by nature of their employment, and incapable of remorse for crime by reason of their vileness, they were guilty of many barbarous usages. "These wretches," says Dr. Hodges, "out of greediness to plunder the dead, would strangle their patients, and charge it to the distemper in their throats. Others would secretly convey the pestilential taint from sores of the infected to those who were well; and nothing indeed deterred these abandoned miscreants from prosecuting their avaricious purposes by all methods their wickedness could invent; who, although they were without witnesses to accuse them, yet it is not doubted but divine vengeance will overtake such wicked barbarities with due punishment. Nay, some were remarkably struck from heaven in the perpetration of their crimes; and one particularly amongst many, as she was leaving the house of a family, all dead, loaded with her robberies, fell down lifeless under her burden in the street. And the case of a worthy citizen was very remarkable, who, being suspected dying by his nurse, was beforehand stripped by her; but recovering again, he came a second time into the world naked."

But notwithstanding all precautions and care taken by the Duke of Albemarle and the worthy lord mayor, the dreadful pestilence spread with alarming rapidity; as may be judged from the fact that the number who died in the first week of June amounted to forty-three, whilst during the last week of that month two hundred and sixty-seven persons were carried to their graves. From the 4th of July to the 11th, seven hundred and fifty-five deaths were chronicled; the following eight days the death rate rose to one thousand and eighty-two; whilst the ensuing week this high figure was increased by over eight hundred. For the month of August, the mortality bill recorded seventeen thousand and thirty-six deaths; and during September, twenty-six thousand two hundred and thirty persons perished in the city.

The whole British nation was stricken with consternation at the fate of the capital. "In some houses," says Dr. Hodges, speaking from personal experience, "carcases lay waiting for burial, and in others were persons in their last agonies. In one room might be heard dying groans, in an other the ravings of delirium, and not far off relations and friends bewailing both their loss and the dismal prospect of their own sudden departure. Death was the sure midwife to all children, and infants passed immediately from the womb to the grave. Some of the infected run about staggering like drunken men, and fall and expire in the streets; whilst others lie half dead and comatose, but never to be waked but by the last trumpet." The plague had indeed encompassed the walls of the city, and poured in upon it without mercy. A heavy stifling atmosphere, vapours by day and blotting out all traces of stars and sky by night, hovered like a palpable shape of dire vengeance above the doomed city. During many weeks "there was a general calm and serenity, as if both wind and rain had been expelled the kingdom, so that there was not so much as to move a flame." The oppressive silence of brooding death, unbroken now even by the passing bell, weighed stupor-like upon the wretched survivors. The thoroughfares were deserted, grass sprang green upon side-paths and steps of dwellings; and the broad street in Whitechapel became like unto a field. Most houses bore upon their doors the dread sign of the red cross, with the supplication for mercy written above. Some of the streets were barricaded at both ends, the inhabitants either having fled into the country or been carried to their graves; and it was estimated in all that over seven thousand dwellings were deserted. All commerce, save that dealing with the necessaries of life, was abandoned; the parks forsaken and locked, the Inns of Court closed, and the public marts abandoned. A few of the church doors were opened, and some gathered within that they might humbly beseech pardon for the past, and ask mercy in the present. But as the violence of the distemper increased, even the houses of God were forsaken; and those who ventured abroad walked in the centre of the street, avoiding contact or conversation with friend or neighbour; each man dreading and avoiding his fellow, lest he should be to him the harbinger of death. And all carried rue and wormwood in their hands, and myrrh and zedoary in their mouths, as protection against infection. Now were the faces of all pale with apprehension, none knowing when the fatal malady might carry them hence; and moreover sad, as became those who stand in the presence of death.

And such sights were to be witnessed day after day as made the heart sick. "It would be endless," says the Rev. Thomas Vincent, "to speak what we have seen and heard; of some, in their frenzy, rising out of their beds and leaping about their rooms; others crying and roaring at their windows; some coming forth almost naked and running into the streets; strange things have others spoken and done when the disease was upon them: but it was very sad to hear of one, who being sick alone, and it is like frantic, burnt himself in his bed. And amongst other sad spectacles methought two were very affecting: one of a woman coming alone and weeping by the door where I lived, with a little coffin under her arm, carrying it to the new churchyard. I did judge that it was the mother of the child, and that all the family besides was dead, and she was forced to coffin up and bury with her own hands this her last dead child. Another was of a man at the corner of the Artillery Wall, that as I judge, through the dizziness of his head with the disease, which seized upon him there, had dashed his face against the wall; and when I came by he lay hanging with his bloody face over the rails, and bleeding upon the ground; within half an hour he died in that place."

And as the pestilence increased, it was found impossible to provide coffins or even separate graves for those who perished. And therefore, in order to bury the deceased, great carts passed through the streets after sunset, attended by linkmen and preceded by a bellman crying in weird and solemn tones, "Bring out your dead." At the intimation of the watchmen stationed before houses bearing red crosses upon their doors, the sad procession would tarry, When coffinless, and oftentimes shroudless, rigid, loathsome, and malodorous bodies were hustled into the carts with all possible speed. Then once more the melancholy cortege took its way adown the dark, deserted street, the yellow glare of links falling on the ghastly burden they accompanied, the dirge-like call of the bellman sounding on the ears of the living like a summons from the dead. And so, receiving additional freight upon its way, the cart proceeded to one of the great pits dug in the parish churchyards of Aldgate and Whitechapel, or in Finsbury Fields close by the Artillery Ground. These, measuring about forty feet in length, eighteen in breadth, and twenty in depth, were destined to receive scores of bodies irrespective of creed or class. The carts being brought to these dark and weirdsome gulphs, looking all the blacker from the flickering lights of candles and garish gleams of lanterns placed beside them, the bodies, without rite or ceremony, were shot into them, and speedily covered with clay. For the accomplishment of this sad work night was found too brief. And what lent additional horror to the circumstances of these burials was, that those engaged in this duty would occasionally drop lifeless during their labour. So that it sometimes happened the dead-carts were found without driver, linkman, or bell-man. And it was estimated that the parish of Stepney alone lost one hundred and sixteen gravediggers and sextons within that year.

During the month of September, the pestilence raged with increased fury; and it now seemed as if the merciless distemper would never cease whilst a single inhabitant remained in the city. The lord mayor, having found all remedies to stay its progress utterly fail, by advice of the medical faculty, ordered that great fires should be kindled in certain districts, by way of purifying the air, Accordingly, two hundred chaldrons of coal, at four pounds a chaldron, were devoted to this purpose. At first the fires were with great difficulty made to burn, through the scarcity, it was believed, of oxygen in the atmosphere; but once kindled, they continued blazing for three days and three nights, when a heavy downpour of rain falling they were extinguished. The following night death carried off four thousand souls, and the experiment of these cleansing fires was discontinued. All through this month fear and tribulation continued; the death rate, from the 5th of September to the 3rd of October, amounting to twenty-four thousand one hundred and seventy-one.

During October, the weather being cool and dry, the pestilence gave promise of rapid decrease. Hope came to the people, and was received with eager greeting. Once more windows were unshuttered, doors were opened, and the more venturous walked abroad. The great crisis had passed. In the middle of the month Mr. Pepys travelled on foot to the Tower, and records his impressions. "Lord," he says, "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 physician and but one apothecary left, all being dead; but that there are great hopes of a decrease this week. God send it."

The while, trade being discontinued, those who had lived by commerce or labour were supported by charity. To this good purpose the king contributed a thousand pounds per week, and Dr. Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury--who remained at Lambeth during the whole time--by letters to his bishops, caused great sums to be collected throughout the country and remitted to him for this laudable purpose. Nor did those of position or wealth fail in responding to calls made upon them at this time; their contributions being substantial enough to permit the lord mayor to distribute upwards of one hundred thousand pounds a week amongst the poor and afflicted for several months.

In October the death rate fell to nine thousand four hundred and forty-four; in November to three thousand four hundred and forty- nine; and in December to less than one thousand. Therefore, after a period of unprecedented suffering, the people took courage once more, for life is dear to all men. And those who had fled the plague-stricken city returned to find a scene of desolation, greater in its misery than words can describe. But the tide of human existence having once turned, the capital gradually resumed its former appearance. Shops which had been closed were opened afresh; houses whose inmates had been carried to the grave became again centres of activity; the sound of traffic was heard in streets long silent; church bells called the citizens to prayer; marts were crowded; and people wore an air of cheerfulness becoming the survivors of a calamity. And so all things went on as before.

The mortality bills computed the number of burials which took place in London during this year at ninety-seven thousand three hundred and six, of which sixty-eight thousand five hundred find ninety-six were attributed to the plague. This estimate has been considered by all historians as erroneous. For on the first appearance of the distemper, the number of deaths set down was far below that which truth warranted, in order that the citizens might not be affrighted; and when it was at its height no exact account of those shifted from the dead-carts into the pits was taken. Moreover, many were buried by their friends in fields and gardens. Lord Clarendon, an excellent authority, states that though the weekly bills reckoned the number of deaths at about one hundred thousand, yet "many who could compute very well, concluded that there were in truth double that number who died; and that in one week, when the bill mentioned only six thousand, there had in truth fourteen thousand died."


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