A Hot Mess Across the Pond:

Fire, Plague and Revolt

The Black Death

In the year 1665 death came calling on the city of London. Death in the form of plague. People called it the Black Death, black for the colour of the tell-tale lumps that foretold its presence in a victim's body, and death for the inevitable result. The plague germs were carried by fleas which lived as parasites on rats. Although it had first appeared in Britain in 1348, the islands were never totally free of plague, but it was like an unpleasant possibility that people just learned to live with while they got on with their business. This time it was different.

In 1663 plague ravaged Holland. Charles II forbade any trade with the Dutch, partly out of wise concern, and partly because his realm was engaged in a fierce trade war with Holland which eventually erupted into armed conflict. Despite the precautions, the early spring of 1665 brought a sudden rise in the death rate in the poorer sections of London. The authorities ignored it. As spring turned into one of the hottest summers in memory, the number of deaths escalated and panic set in.

The nobility left the city for their estates in the country. They were followed by the merchants, and the lawyers. The Inns of Court were deserted. Most of the clergy suddenly decided they could best minister to their flocks from far, far away. The College of Surgeons fled to the country, which did not stop several of its members from writing learned papers about the disease they had been at such pains to avoid. The court moved to Hampton Court Palace.

By June the roads were clogged with people desperate to escape London. The Lord Mayor responded by closing the gates to anyone who did not have a certificate of health. These certificates became a currency more valuable than gold, and a thriving market in forged certificates grew up.

By mid July over 1,000 deaths per week were reported in the city. It was rumored that dogs and cats spread the disease, so the Lord Mayor ordered all the dogs and cats destroyed. Author Daniel Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Years estimated that 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats were killed. The real effect of this was that there were fewer natural enemies of the rats who carried the plague fleas, so the germs spread more rapidly.

Anyone in constant contact with plague victims, such as doctors, nurses, inspectors, were compelled to carry coloured staffs outdoors so that they could be easily seen and avoided. When one person in a house caught the plague the house was sealed until 40 days after the victim either recovered or died (usually the latter). Guards were posted at the door to see that no one got out. The guard had to be bribed to allow any food to passed to the inmates. It was not unknown for families to break through the walls of the house to escape, and in several cases they carefully lowered a noose over the guard's head from an attic window and hung him so they could get away.

Londoners were shunned when they managed to escape the city. Even letters from the capital were treated as if they were poisonous. Letters were variously scraped, heated, soaked, aired, and pressed flat to eliminate "pestilential matter".

Throughout the summer the death rate escalated, reaching a high of over 6,000 per week in August. From there the disease slowly, oh so painfully slowly, receded until winter, though it was not until February of 1666 that King Charles thought it safe to return to the city. How many died? It is hard to say, for the official records of that time were patchy at best. The best guess is that over 100,000 people perished in and around London, though the figure may have been much higher.

One footnote to this tale of horror. The plague broke out in the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, brought on a shipment of old clothes sent from London. The villagers, led by their courageous clergyman, realized that the only way to stop the spread of the plague to surrounding villages was to voluntarily quarantine the village, refusing to leave until the plague had run its course. This they did, though the cost was 259 dead out of a total of 292 inhabitants. Each year this heroic event is commemorated by the Plague Sunday Service in Eyam.

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On the night of September 2, 1666, a small fire broke out in the premises of a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, London, perhaps started by the carelessness of a maid.

If it was carelessness, it was carelessness that had enormous and disastrous consequences, for the fire spread and soon the whole building was alight. In the close-packed streets of London, where buildings jostled each other for space, the blaze soon became an inferno. Fanned by an east wind, the fire spread with terrifying speed, feeding on the tar and pitch commonly used to seal houses.

The best account of the Fire comes from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty. He watched the course of the destruction from a safe position across the Thames, and called it, "a most malicious bloody flame, as one entire arch of fire... of above a mile long. It made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruin ...Over the Thames with one's face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops." Pepys buried his wine and Parmesan cheese to keep those valuable items safe from the flames.

After four days while helpless citizens stood by and watched the destruction of their homes, the wind mercifully died and the fire was stopped. Then the accounting took place.

When a dazed populace took stock of the damage, they must have wondered if Armageddon had come. Fully 80% of the city was destroyed, including over 13,000 houses, 89 churches and 52 Company (Guild) Halls. The spiritual hub of the city, Old St. Paul's Cathedral, was nothing but rubble. It was a disaster of unprecedented proportions.

Well, one person's disaster is another person's opportunity. Within days of the fire's end, Christopher Wren submitted plans to Charles II for the complete rebuilding of the city. Wren's grand scheme called for cutting wide avenues through the former warren of alleys and byways that had made up old London, opening up the city to light and air as it were.

Charles liked the scheme, but he realized that the expense and the neccessity of rebuilding as fast as possible made it unworkable. Instead, he appointed Wren to rebuild the city's churches, including St. Paul's, a position the young architect filled brilliantly over the next fifty years.

Wren also was responsible for building the London Monument (1671-79), a memorial commemorating the fire. The Monument (on Monument Street, naturally!) is a slender column 202 feet high, which is the exact distance from its base to the site of the baker's shop where the fire began.

The original plans for the Monument called for a statue of Charles II on top, but Charles objected to the honour, fearing that the people of London would then associate him with the disaster. Wren replaced the statue with a simple bowl with flames emerging. The Monument is open year round and can be climbed to gain a wonderful view of the city. At the base is a carved stone relief depicting the story of the fire.

One final note on the Great Fire. In 1986 the Baker's Company issued a somewhat belated apology for the fire (320 years late). Well, better late than never.

You Say You Want A Revolution

The greatest landmark in the history of England is the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This revolution is called ’Glorious’ because it achieved its objective without any bloodshed. James II came to the throne of England in 1685, after Charles II his brother died. He desired to rule despotically and to re-establish the Roman Catholic religion in England. The common people did not like this. They rose in revolt. This struggle between the King and the Parliament ended in victory for the people (i.e. the representative of the people - the parliament). A constitutional monarchy was now established in England. All the power rested in the hands of people and they availed long cherished freedom. Modern rules were framed according to which the King ruled only as per the wishes and will of the people.

The efforts of James II to restore Catholicism in England bothered the English people. Re-instating -Catholicism in England was his dream and he was prepared to sacrifice even his throne for the sake of his religion. James II was a Roman Catholic and openly so. No one would have minded that. But the trouble with him was that he was not contented with himself being a Catholic. James II issued a statement on his accession to the throne in which he had promised to uphold the Church of England and to regard his own religion as a personal affair. The people at large felt gratified over it. But after the suppression of Argyll and Monmouth’s rebellions he felt himself so strong that he foolishly thought of Catholicizing the whole nation. The Tory and the church party had espoused his cause in the beginning because they had trusted him and taken his early statement as true. But crafty as James II was, he did not prove true to his promise. He could not hope to count on the help of the Tories and the Church, if his religious designs were to be prejudiced and aggressive. He was thus playing into the hands of the Whigs.

The Test Act was passed during the reign of Charles II. It required that every person who wanted to get civil or military posts must accept the Anglican Church and its principles. The Catholics were thus deprived of these privileges. The new King, James wanted to attach more importance to the Catholics and therefore he made fervent efforts to reject his act. He dissolved it. He dismissed his High Court Tory ministers, and surrounded himself with sycophants, chief among whom was the very clever but utterly corrupt Earl of Sutherland. He did not hesitate to announce his conversion to Catholicism in order to please the King. In place of the Earl of Clarendon, James gave the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland to the Catholic Earl of Tyrconnell. Tyrconnell’s instructions were to attack the Protestant ascendancy.

James II was a Roman Catholic and he treated his fellow religious believers’ most sympathetically by appointing them to high positions in the state and the army. Not only that James II invited the Pope of Rome to England and restored his old position officially on him. James II issued his first "Declaration of Indulgence" in 1687 which he suspended wholesale the penal laws against the Roman Catholics. The result was that the Roman Catholics and other Dissenters began to worship openly. The Tories, who stood for the Church of England, were exasperated. The Whigs were unreconciliatory. They were scared that James II was supporting Catholicism under the religious toleration.

In 1688, James II issued the Second Declaration of Indulgence. It was ordered that this declaration should be spread in every Church on two consecutive Sundays. Almost all priests opposed the reading of the Declaration. He condemned the seven bishops to be imprisoned in the London Tower who refused to obey King’s orders and opposed James but they were set free by court amidst public rejoicing. This act made James II unpopular.

James wanted to spread Catholicism in the universities also. For pushing the Catholics to high positions, James used many unfair means. For instance, the post of Head of Megdallan College of Oxford University was vacated and one James Parker, a Catholic was appointed. He even dismissed the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University because he had refused to accommodate a Catholic in the University. The Parliament could not tolerate this high-handedness of the monarch. Moreover the university people also disliked it.