Great Plague in London Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

London suffered northwestern Europe’s last major outbreak of bubonic plague, ending the second pandemic that began with the Black Death of 1347-1352. Despite the deaths of seventy thousand or more people, the city rapidly recovered, in large part because of the localized nature of the epidemic.

Summary of Event

England had suffered outbreaks of plague every ten or fifteen years since the Black Death of 1347-1352. Though societal means of dealing with the pestilence, such as quarantines and boards of health, had developed since the fourteenth century, medical knowledge of the disease and its causes and vectors had not advanced. English society had learned to accept and even expect the plague, though especially heavy attacks could kill thousands and disrupt normal life for months. The year 1603 saw the greatest seventeenth century visitation, and 3,597 Londoners died in an outbreak in 1647. Between 1629 and 1636, the city lost an annual average of 1,500 people to plague, and the later 1640’s saw an average of 1,072 plague deaths annually. [kw]Great Plague in London (Spring, 1665-Fall, 1666) [kw]London, Great Plague in (Spring, 1665-Fall, 1666) [kw]Plague in London, Great (Spring, 1665-Fall, 1666) Health and medicine;Spring, 1665-Fall, 1666: Great Plague in London[2220] Natural disasters;Spring, 1665-Fall, 1666: Great Plague in London[2220] England;Spring, 1665-Fall, 1666: Great Plague in London[2220] Great Plague in London (1665-1666)

In the decade and a half leading up to 1665, however, plague deaths averaged only 14 per year in London, which housed nearly half a million people. Bills of Mortality—weekly publications that listed London deaths by cause—had been introduced in the 1520’s and had long served as barometers that might predict heavy outbreaks. For the year 1664, they listed a mere five Londoners dead of the plague, at a time when nearby Amsterdam in the Netherlands was being ravaged by an epidemic. In 1663-1664, some thirty-five thousand Amsterdamers succumbed to the disease, but an embargo on Dutch shipping and an extremely cold winter in 1664-1665—the Thames River was frozen solid for two consecutive months—seemed to promise a safe new year in England.

Though virtually plague-free in the early 1660’, Britons did suffer from malaria and other diseases that struck during the unusually warm summers. Despite the frigid winter, the spring of 1665 was also unseasonably warm, raising fears of plague brought from the Netherlands. The quarantine period for inbound ships was raised to forty days and mandated for twenty-eight port towns all around the island. The Intelligencer, a London newspaper, printed the plague reports from the weekly Bills of Mortality in order to stem these fears. Before May 1, the periodical reported only three deaths attributable to plague, and it reported only forty-three in May itself. Newspapers;plague reports

Despite the tiny rise, many remained unconvinced by the data, since its collection was dependent on very unreliable people who could easily err in their diagnosis or be bribed. Since May, 1665, families with plague would by law be shut in until all members died or showed no more signs of the disease, Londoners had good reason to avoid being labeled as potential plague carriers. By mid-June, the number of reported plague dead rose to 112 per week. Both royal and civic authorities avoided formal acknowledgment of plague, since an official announcement would invite sudden flight from the city, disruption in local tax gathering and trade with other countries and regions, and interference with the preparations for war with the Dutch.

In June, reported plague deaths rose to 590, though all were limited to only five large suburban parishes. The gentry now began to abandon the city, and the royal family, including Charles II, Charles II (king of England);plague and left for Hampton Court. In Marylebone, a pest-house was constructed to house the diseased poor, and on June 21, local officials began to seal off the area most affected from the rest of the city in hopes of containing the epidemic. Officials shut down theaters on June 5, the Inns of Court in mid-month, and all London schools in July.

Despite these precautions, July saw the plague spread across all 130 of London’s parishes, taking a total of 5,667 lives. Samuel Pepys, Pepys, Samuel an administrator for the Royal Navy, sent his family away but, like other heads of households, remained in the city to continue working. He discussed the effects of the plague in his famous diary, remarking that the city seemed nearly deserted by late July. The four weeks of August saw reported plague death totals of 2,817; 3,880; 4,237; and 6,102. September saw these weekly numbers rise to 6,988; 6,544; and 7,165; and then fall again to 5,533, for a monthly total of 26,230.

Officials combated the epidemic by keeping bonfires in the streets stoked to dry out the supposedly pestilential damp air; houses where plague had visited were fumigated with gunpowder smoke, brimstone, or incense, and a multitude of cats, dogs, and birds that were suspected of somehow carrying the disease were destroyed. Thieves sacked abandoned homes, burial rites were curtailed, and bodies were dumped in mass graves. Individuals sought to avoid the disease by fleeing—a tactic of the well-to-do, including physicians like Thomas Sydenham Sydenham, Thomas —or by medicating themselves with tobacco, secret cures, and patent medicines developed during earlier plagues and wearing toad amulets. Preachers—those who remained—harangued their congregations for angering a God who was now justly punishing them. Quakers and other religious dissidents were treated as scapegoats by Anglicans and Puritans alike.

Monthly death tolls dropped from October through December to 1,050; 652; and 987, respectively, and London was repopulated in December and January. The year 1666 saw around 1,800 plague burials, bringing the total plague death toll in London to 68,596, about 70 percent of the total of 97,300 deaths from all causes in London for the period, according to the Bills of Mortality. Skeptics at the time distrusted the bills and claimed the figure to be much higher: The earl of Clarendon thought 160,000 plague deaths more likely. Historians who trust the bills claim 70,000 to 75,000 deaths, for a total loss of 15 percent of the city’s population, compared to perhaps 50 percent loss in the late 1340’. Skeptical historians place the death toll rather higher, around 100,000, in the light of the insufficiencies of the bills.

Significance

The Great Plague of 1665-1666 marked the last major outbreak of the disease in England. The economic recession and population loss were rapidly reversed, and London’s total recovery was only suppressed by the Second Anglo-Dutch War and the Great Fire of 1666. Migration from across England reinforced the depleted population, which returned to its pre-plague level in 1668.

Culturally, the plague inspired novelist Daniel Defoe’s Defoe, Daniel Journal of the Plague Year Journal of the Plague Year (Defoe) (1722), which blends his own childhood recollections with the historical record and fictional material. After fleeing London, poet John Dryden Dryden, John wrote several major works, including Annus Mirabilis Annus Mirabilis (Dryden) (1667), and absentee London physician Sydenham penned his treatise on pestilential fevers in the plague’s wake. It was while shunning plague-struck Cambridge in 1665 that Sir Isaac Newton made many of his key scientific discoveries, including formulating his theory of gravitation.

Plague also spread to other parts of England, as Pepys notes fearfully in his diary and as the example of the village of Eyam still commemorates. Plague struck Eyam in August, 1665, and the villagers imposed quarantine on themselves. By late 1666, 257 of perhaps 350 villagers had succumbed, with few if any surviving by flight. By the 1660’, plague had all but disappeared from many regions in Europe, though it would strike again mercilessly in the Mediterranean region, as at Lyon (1672 with some 60,000 victims) and Marseilles (1720-1722, killing perhaps 80,000).

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Backscheider, Paula R., ed. A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe. New York: Norton, 1992. Contains text of Defoe’s novel and numerous short articles about the work.
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    xlink:type="simple">Bell, Walter George. The Great Plague in London in 1665. New York: AMS Press, 1976. Long the definitive study of the event and still important for its valuable narrative material.
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    xlink:type="simple">Boghurst, William. Loimographia: An Account of the Great Plague of London in the Year 1665. New York: AMS Press, 1976. A valuable contemporary account reprinted for modern readers.
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    xlink:type="simple">Champion, J. A. I. London’s Dreaded Visitation: The Social Geography of the Great Plague in 1665. London: Centre for Metropolitan History, 1995. Impact of population location on patterns of plague effects.
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    xlink:type="simple">Hodges, Nathaniel. Loimologia: Or, An Historical Account of the Plague in London in 1665. New York: AMS Press, 1994. Valuable contemporary account.
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    xlink:type="simple">Latham, Robert, and Williams Matthews, eds. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. 11 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. See especially volumes 6 and 7 on Pepys’s observations on the plague and its effects.
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    xlink:type="simple">Moote, A. Lloyd, and Dorothy C. Moote. The Great Plague: The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Written by a historian and a microbiologist, this study of London in the plague year details the ways in which the upper and lower segments of society were rendered interdependent by the epidemic.
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    xlink:type="simple">Porter, Stephen. The Great Plague. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1999. Well illustrated modern narrative treatment that covers all of England.
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    xlink:type="simple">Shrewsbury, J. F. History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Places the 1665 plague in the context of earlier epidemics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slack, Paul. Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1985. Important analytical overview of effects of early modern plagues on England.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Charles II (of England); First Earl of Clarendon; Samuel Pepys; Thomas Sydenham. Great Plague in London (1665-1666)

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