1666 by Rebecca Rideal Highlights the Tragedies and Triumphs of a Pivotal Year in English History
Rebecca Rideal’s 1666 is a narrative account of three crucial events in English history: the outbreak of the Great Plague, the start of the Second Anglo-Dutch War and the Great Fire of London. By weaving together these events with the extraordinary scientific and artistic advances occurring at the time, Rideal provides an original and captivating view of England on the cusp of modernity.
With a narrative firmly rooted in the diaries, letters and publications of the period, Rideal relies not only on Pepy’s famous chronicle but also on the proliferation of writing during the Restoration era. ‘The seventeenth century was a period when the memoir really came into its own so there are many sources – the works of Margaret Cavendish, Thomas Ellwood, John Bunyan, Ann Fanshawe, William Taswell, etc. For anyone researching Restoration London, Pepys’s diary is an invaluable source. When using any kind of diary, journal or memoir, you must keep in mind that this is just one person’s view of the world; you have to have a keen eye on where Pepys provides facts and where he offers opinion – both valuable, but for very different reasons. What I find fascinating are those rare occasions when two sources intersect.’
On the outbreak of the plague, Rideal draws on the Bills of Mortality, complied by parish clerks and sold to the public. We gain insight not only into how the victims were treated, ‘bubonic plague was a disease unrivalled in its capacity to dehumanize,’ but also the surprising role women played in assembling them. ‘As a source, the Bills are fascinating, but they are not without their challenges. The mortality data was generated by ‘searchers’ who tallied up the number of people to have died within the parish. Women were employed to do the work of examining the dead and reporting ‘to the utmost of their knowledge’ the cause of death. It is likely that these women were recognised by local communities as having basic medical knowledge. Religious minorities were unlikely to be on the list and it is highly probable that many plague deaths were returned as something else to prevent quarantine and/or social stigma. At the end of the Great Plague, the Bills of Mortality listed 68,596 plague deaths in London, but historians believe the true number to be closer to 100,000.’
Though Rideal says she never made a conscious decision to highlight the lives of women, her narrative is rich with their stories. ‘The fact is women were just as much a part of the world then as we are now and many influential and important figures from the time just so happened to be female.’ One such woman is Aphra Behn, who broke cultural barriers by earning her living through writing. ‘As a writer of historical nonfiction, I am not supposed to have favourites but researching 1666, I had the privilege of going through Behn’s early letters, composed during her time as a spy on the continent. They are dripping with personality and offer real insight into a woman who came from nowhere to dominate the Restoration stage. She was a grafter, had a firm grip on the zeitgeist of the day and was stuffed with confidence and ambition.’
Another intriguing subject in 1666 is millenarianism and the supposed return of the Messiah during the seventeenth century. The letters from the rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza to Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, mentions these ideas. ‘1666 had been earmarked as the year that would signal the End of Days. Emerging at the time was a fascinating character called Sabbatai Zevi, a Jewish rabbi from Turkey whom many believed to be the returned Messiah. This news spread all across Europe via a network of envoys, diplomats, and merchants. As a religiously tolerant city, Amsterdam had a sizeable Jewish community (which Spinoza had been born into) and became a hotbed of activity. Dozens of pamphlets and tracts were printed pondering the meaning of Zevi’s claims. This spread to London where a printer named Anne Maxwell (another woman) had her work cut out generating new religious tracts about this supposed Messiah. The furore came to a head when Zevi was captured by the Sultan of Turkey and ordered to either convert to Islam or face execution. Zevi converted.’
The Great Fire of London lasted over four days and Rideal points out the tangible legacy it had on the city. Though the fire might have been stopped earlier if the Lord Mayor of London hadn’t worried about the financial penalties he might incur by demolishing homes to prevent the flames from spreading, in the end very few people died and London was rebuilt, rising like a phoenix from the fire’s ashes. ‘By 1667, 150 houses had been rebuilt and in 1669 Christopher Wren was made responsible for the design of fifty churches across London. His churches embraced baroque style with clean lines, bold cupolas and white stone; his masterpiece was St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose construction spanned the reigns of five monarchs and was completed on Christmas Day 1711.’
Rideal’s narrative strength is connecting how the central events of 1666—the plague deaths, the burning of London, the battles raging at sea during the second Anglo-Dutch war—impacted the scientific and artistic achievements of the time. ‘The publication of Paradise Lost was delayed by the events in London. Like thousands of others, John Milton fled the capital when the Great Plague erupted, taking his manuscript with him. Isaac Newton – then only in his early twenties – began thinking about gravitation at his childhood home in Lincolnshire because plague had forced him to flee Cambridge. It was also a famous battle of the Second Anglo-Dutch War that inspired the Flagmen of Lowestoft, perhaps Peter Lely’s most famous collection of art. More generally, England in 1666 was on the precipice of the period we now call the Enlightenment. All across Europe a network of letters fed ideas about natural philosophy, religion and politics, which in turn was disseminated to the wider public through pamphlets, newsbooks and publications such as the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions (founded in 1665), which anyone could purchase.’
What are the important lessons to be learned from the Restoration era? Amidst tragedy emerges moments of triumph. ‘Like a worm that has been trampled on, London and its people wriggled back to life.’ Rideal stresses ‘resilience, being brave and standing up for what you believe to be right’ as the main lessons from the central events of that fateful year. 1666 provides many stories of resilience and is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to learn about how these crucial events impacted the course of English history.
About the contributor: Cynthia Anderson is a writer living in Geneva, Switzerland. She is working on a novel set in 17th-century China during the early days of the Qing Dynasty.