Key Facts & Summary
- The great plague was an epidemic that spread in England between 1665 and 1666.
- It led to the death of between 75,000 and 100,000 people, which is more than a fifth of the entire population of London.
- Historically, it is believed that the disease was an infection of bubonic plague caused by the spread of a bacillus called Yersinia pestis transmitted through the flea bite of rats (Xenopsylla cheopis), or through the bite of rats themselves or other rodents.
- The plague of 1665-1666, however, spread in a reduced manner compared to the black plague that struck Europe between 1347 and 1353.
- Nonetheless, it is called the ‘Great Plague’ because it was one of the last diseases that spread over the British territory.
The living conditions in England
The plague appeared very early in the country – in 1348 – and never really disappeared from the British Isles. However, at that time, people thought they could live by avoiding it.
In 1665, everything changed since the Black Death – as people called it – became very worrying. It was finally stopped thanks to another misfortune that happened in the city of London: the great fire of 1666, which destroyed the areas of the city most infected by the plague. It is estimated that the plague caused about 100,000 victims (i.e. between 15% and 20% of the population of the city at the time).
The year 1665, was marked by a scorching summer. As the population in London continued to grow, many lived in miserable conditions and in poverty. Indeed, the only way for people to get rid of their waste was to throw it out of their windows. As a consequence, streets were covered in human excrement and debris. The city of London was therefore very dirty and very attractive to rats. During the plague, a popular belief circulated: it was believed that cats and dogs were responsible for transmitting the disease. The Mayor decided to eliminate all of them. Daniel Defoe – in his book Journal Of The Plague Year – states that about 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats died in vain since the plague did not come from them but from the fleas that were transported by rats.
Naturally, the first victims of the plague were the people living in the most precarious and miserable conditions. These people lived in slums and could not, therefore, avoid contact with rats or even with people who had already caught the disease.
The nursery rhyme written below refers to the plague of London and is symbolic of the disease’s symptoms:
Ring-a-ring of roses,
A pocketful of posies,
We all fall down.
In fact, the first line is a reference to the red spots that developed on the skins of the victims. It could be a reference to the buboes filled with pus under the armpits or groin. The second line refers to another belief that the plague spread through a cloud of toxic yet colourless gas. It was thought that this cloud could be stopped only if one carried flowers or herbs in their pockets. According to this belief, the flowers or herbs would neutralise the poisonous cloud. The last symptom of the plague was a sneezing attack that usually led to death. However, most of the victims did not even reach that stage and died well before. In fact, some people lived in so much misery that their bodies could not resist the disease.
When the plague began to spread worryingly, the healthy people who could afford it, started to rapidly abandon the city. In June, the roads were filled with sick individuals, and the Mayor responded by closing the gates, forbidding people without a certificate that testified good health to leave London. These certificates became even more sought after than gold and many fake ones started to circulate.
The poor were the people who were most affected by the plague, and the London authorities decided to take drastic measures to prevent the disease from spreading further in the city. All families whose members were affected by the disease were quarantined in their homes with a ban on going out both during the day and night. The house was chained from the outside and a red cross was painted on the door in order to warn others. The only people who were allowed in those homes were nurses and doctors.
In reality, the ‘nurses’ had no medical training and were local women who were paid to visit the infected houses. Thus, they went to see how the victims felt and brought food to those who could afford it. Some people condemned this practice since a few of these nurses took advantage of their status in order to steal goods from the houses they visited.
Other people were paid to bury the bodies that the London authorities found. The unfortunate individuals swept away by the plague were taken on a cart and thrown into a mass grave. Other people were in charge of removing dogs and cats (which were considered responsible for the disease).
The plague reached its highest peak in September 1665, when the summer’s heat became unbearable. Every week – even when the plague had not yet struck – every parish in the city was in charge of establishing a Bill Of Mortality which was nothing more than a paper listing the dead.
Possible causes of the Plague
It is thought that the plague was carried in England by the Dutch ships trading cotton from Amsterdam. Since 1654, various areas of the Netherlands had been affected by a similar disease.
The areas outside London were the first to be affected by the spread of the plague. During the winter of 1664-1665, many contracted the disease and died. However, the winter was cold enough and the plague was contained with ease.
With the arrival of spring and summer, which that year had been particularly warm, the plague began to spread very rapidly on a large scale. The hot weather conditions contributed to the spread of the disease.
The Great Plague
In July 1665, when the plague was already spreading in London. King Charles II decided to move with the royal family to Oxford (an area which had remained untouched by the infection). On the contrary, the Mayor of London and the council remained in the city. Many commercial enterprises came to an end due to the low amount of merchandise and the disappearance of merchants. Only a small number of clergy, doctors, and pharmacists decided to stay in London with the intention of helping others overcome the plague. These personalities include the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London.
Those who remained tried to stop the infection from spreading. They used flaming torches night and day in order to keep the air clean, and spices such as pepper and resins were used as incense. In addition, the authorities urged British citizens to consume tobacco. London was not the only city in England to be struck by the plague. Others had the same fate. The most famous is the case of Eyam village in the Derbyshire region, where the plague was carried by a trader who transported the cotton bought in London: despite efforts to contain the infection, over 70% of the population died.
Contemporary sources report over one thousand deaths per week. Such accounts then increased to two thousand, and, in September 1665, reached seven thousand victims per week. At the end of autumn, the contagion began to subside and the king and the court were able to return to the city. Episodes of plague continued for several months until the outbreak of the Great Fire, which devastated much of the city of London.
Samuel Pepys’ quotes on the Plague
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was brought up into a bourgeois family. He was educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge. A cousin of his father (Edward Montagu) adviser to Cromwell, hired him as secretary. When Cromwell lost his power in 1659, Pepys participated in the restoration of the monarchy in order to bring King Charles II back from Holland. This earned him a very important position in maritime affairs. He developed the naval capacity of his country and obtained the post of secretary of the admiralty. He also held a seat in parliament. He fell out of the king’s graces in 1679, after being unjustly involved in a murder case.
Pepys was also president of the Academy of Sciences from 1684 to 1685. He abandoned politics in 1689.
Samuel Pepys kept a diary between 1660 (when he was 27 years old) until 1669. In order to keep it secret, he wrote it in a coded language known as tachograph, a form of shorthand. In his diary, Samuel Pepys gives us an inestimable testimony about the plague. Here are a few quotes from his journal:
April 30, 1665
‘Great fear of the sickness here in the City, it is being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all’.
June 7, 1665
‘This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord Have Mercy upon Us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind….that I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell and chew, which took away the apprehension’
June 10, 1665
‘To bed, being troubled by sickness, and particularly how to put my things and estates in order, in case it should please God to call me away.’ (Pepys feared he had contracted the disease).
June 15, 1665
‘The town grows very sickly, and people are afraid of it’.
[1.] Arnold, C. (2006). Necropolis: London and its dead. London: Simon and Schuster.
[2.] Moote, A.L. (2008). The Great Plague: The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year. London: JHU Press.
[3.] Pepys, S. (1665). Samuel Pepys Diary – Plague Extracts. Available from: http://www.pepys.info/1665/plague.html