The Bubonic Plague, known as the Black Death, had reccurred in England for centuries. Rats carried the fleas that caused the plague. They were attracted to the streets of London that were filled with rubbish and waste, and it was the poor that were affected the most by it. It was a ghastly disease. The victim’s skin turned black in patches and would swell up. These patches were called buboes. They would usually first appear in the groin or in the armpit. This was combined with compulsive vomiting, a swollen tongue and splitting headaches. The Black Death was a horrible and agonising killer.
Sir John Evelyn was an English writer, expert on gardening and planting and a diarist. Sir John’s diary, or memoir, spanned the period of his adult life from 1660, when he was a student, to 1706, the year he died. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford. In his diary, Memoirs of Evelyn, he records the progress of the Great Plague of London of 1565/6, the last major outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in England. On page 379 he states that ‘there died of the plague in London this week 1100 and in the week following above 2000. 2 houses were shut up in our parish.’ This was written on 16th July 1665. By this time the plague had spread rapidly throughout London and many people were affected by it. On page 380 of volume 1 he mentions ‘Died this week in London 4000.’ This is dated the 8th August 1665, when the plague in London was at its worst.
Samuel Pepys, an administrator of the Royal Navy and Member of Parliament, is most famous for the diary he kept for a decade while still a relatively young man. He also set up the Pepys Library in Cambridge’s Magdalen College Library and he was President of the Royal Society. In volume 1, on page 351 of his diary, Pepys Memoirs it says, ‘a solemn fast-day for the plague growing upon us, above 700 died of the plague this week.’ On page 353 he wrote that ‘there dying 1089 of the plague this week’. Then on page 355 Pepys recorded ‘At home I met the weekly bill, where above 100 increased in the bill and of them, in all about 1100 of the plague’ and again on page 359 it says ‘By and by to the office, where we sat all the morning; in great trouble to see the bill this week rise so high, to above 4000 in all and of them above 3000 of the plague.’ Finally on page 363 he comments ‘the plague having a great increase this week, beyond all expectation of almost 2000, making the general bill 7000, odd 100; and the plague above 6000.’ All of these are dated from mid to late summer of 1665 when the plague claimed thousands of lives in London.
These sources show that the casualties from the Great Plague were huge and as shown from the bill of mortality, the deaths were increasing each week as the summer of 1665 progressed. The bill of mortality was the weekly mortality statistics for London, designed to monitor burials from 1592 to 1595 and then continuously from 1603. The responsibility for producing the statistics was chartered in 1611 to the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THOSE WHO CAUGHT THE PLAGUE AND THOSE WHO DIED?
When the plague appeared in a household, the house was sealed with the family of the victim kept inside as well; therefore the family would often catch the plague and die too. These houses were distinguished with a red cross painted on the door and the words ‘Lord have mercy on us’. Most people were very religious and believed that the plague was punishment from God because of their sins.
One book from the Library and Archives of Worcester Cathedral called Laurence Echard’s History of England says ‘We were continually entertained with the daily cries from the windows, ‘Pray for us!’ and the nightly calls ‘Bring out your dead!’ which, like dung, were thrown onto carts, and tumbled into pits without numbering.’ There were 2 burial pits in London; one called the Great Pit was at Aldgate and the other at Finsbury Fields. As reported again in Echard’s History of England ‘Several general remedies were undertaken by the public for the cure of this uncommon distemper: The first healing method was a proclamation to command a general fast to be religiously observed throughout the kingdom of England, that prayers and supplications might be everywhere made for the removal of so heavy a judgement’. This suggests desperation as they hoped fasting would cure them of the plague. They believed that they would only be cured when God had forgiven them.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE KING AND THOSE WHO WERE WEALTHY?
The King, Charles II, and his court left London. In Echard’s History of England it states that ‘The whole city of London was abandoned by almost all the rich, who left the poor to die by thousands in a week. Yet there were many noble instances of the courage, piety and charity of the Church of England Divines at this time, who ventured all in the service of God and the poor miserable people. The king himself manifested a paternal regard to his subjects, and though he retired to Salisbury, he left the city to the affectionate care of the brave duke of Albemarle.’ In his diary, Pepys gives a vivid account of the empty streets in London, as all who could had left in an attempt to flee the pestilence. Parliament was postponed and court cases were moved from Westminster to Oxford. The Lord Mayor and aldermen remained to enforce the King’s orders to try and stop the spread of the disease. Watchmen locked and kept guard over infected houses and parish officials provided food. Searchers looked for dead bodies and at night took the corpses to the plague pits for burial.
THE END OF THE PLAGUE
Towards the end of winter in 1666, the plague had died down a lot as the cold had killed off many of the rats. However it hadn’t gone completely and deaths were still recorded because of it. It wasn’t until the following September that the plague was vanquished entirely. This was due to the Fire of London. The Fire of London killed the last of the rats and helped end the outbreak by killing the fleas that were on them. The Great Plague was the last major epidemic in England, until the Spanish Flu, and it was the poor who were affected the worst during the outbreak. They couldn’t afford to leave the city, which increased their chances of catching it, as they were trapped in London with other victims. If they did catch it, they were locked inside their house with their family who they would often pass the disease on to so the family would often catch it too and more often than not, the whole family would end up dead. The rich had slightly higher chances of survival as they were able to make an attempt to flee.
Memoirs of Evelyn volume 1 by Sir John Evelyn, Edited by William Bray, London, 1819
Pepys’ Memoirs volume 1 by Samuel Pepys, Edited by Richard, Lord Braybrooke, London, 1825
Echard’s history of England volume 3 by Laurence Echard, London, 1718
John Peter Bernard, Thomas Birch, and John Lockman, A General Dictionary, Historical and Critical, volume V, London, 1737
A History of the University of Cambridge, volume 2, London, 1815, R. Ackermann