The Great Plague of 1665

The Great Plague of 1665

The Great Plague of 1665 was the last major outbreak of the dreaded "plague" or "pestilence" in England. The plague had been around since the fourteenth century, when a pandemic of it, now known as The Black Death, killed millions of people across the world, and it was still a deadly disease in the seventeenth century. It spread quickly and killed fast, usually within days.

Long thought to have been the bubonic plague, because of descriptions of red rings of spots or "ring-a-roses" on victims, one of the first symptoms of the disease, new research suggests that the real killer may actually have been pneumonic plague. This is spread from person to person, whereas bubonic plague is spread by bites from the fleas of infected rats. Human to human infection is far more likely to explain how the disease spread so quickly. Pneumonic plague is also more deadly. But whatever the form of plague, it was greatly feared!

The outbreak of 1665 began in St Giles-in-the-Fields, a poor and overcrowded parish just outside London's city walls. At first, only a few people fell victim to the disease, but by the summer it had spread all over London and hundreds were dying a week! At the peak of the plague in August, over 30,000 people died! It was not possible to bury everyone individually, so mass graves or "burial pits" were dug and the dead were piled into them. The location of many of these pits is unknown, but the victims were probably given a Christian burial. Anything else would have been unthinkable to God-fearing Stuart Londoners.

As the plague spread, the wealthy fled from London and King Charles II moved his court from London to Oxford. Those who stayed tried to protect themselves from the plague as best as they could. They carried posies of flowers and herbs in their pockets, as nice smells were thought to keep the plague away, smoked tobacco to "purify" the air, money was placed in bowls of vinegar in shops, and hand-to-hand contact was avoided as much as possible. To try and contain the plague, the city's gates were shut, all trade with the capital was stopped, and Parliament was postponed. Believing that dogs and cats were responsible for spreading the disease, the Mayor of London had thousands of them destroyed, but if the disease was indeed the bubonic plague (not the pneumonic) then this would not have helped as there would be no cats left to catch and kill the infected rats!

If a person caught the plague, then they and their family had to stay inside their house for forty days and forty nights. A red cross was painted on their door, to warn everyone to stay away, and the words "Lord have mercy upon us". The only people that visited them were nurses, who helped to take care of them and bring them food. Samuel Pepys did not like these nurses, however, saying that they too often stole from their patients!

The plague spread to many parts of the country, hitting York especially hard, but London fared the worst. The plague lasted there until the autumn, killing an estimated 100,000 people. This was 15% of London's population! But this devastating outbreak in 1665 was the last of its kind. While the plague continued to claim lives for some years to come, it slowly faded away. The great fire of London, which broke out the following year, may have helped to wipe out the disease by killing infected rats, but no one knows for sure. The greatest pockets of plague in London were in parishes outside the city's walls, so the fire had little impact on them, and the plague was disappearing from most of Europe at the same time. How and why remains, like the exact nature of the plague itself, something of a mystery!