London and the Seventeenth Century: The Making of the World's Greatest City by Margarette Lincoln
Yale University Press, 2021
When it comes to popular subjects for books on periods of English history, surely the seventeenth century is right up there as the gift that keeps on giving. If, as the famous quote has it, “history is just one damn thing after another,” then the cavalcade of events which began with Elizabeth I’s death in 1603 and ended just over ninety years later with William III mourning the loss of his beloved Mary is a dizzying succession of national twists and turns which have been rummaged through, argued over and written about by scholars for many a long year. To condense all this historical hustle and bustle into one moderately sized, engaging volume and focus it on the capital in all its teeming multiplicity is, then, no mean feat. However, that is what Margarette Lincoln in London and the Seventeenth Century: The Making of the World’s Greatest City largely succeeds in doing.
On the day of Gloriana’s funeral, the London populace was apparently not all that devastated. Indeed, Lincoln goes so far as to say that “some were glad to see her go.” It was the usual story: expensive foreign wars, rising crime and poor harvests had hit the lower orders hardest, which, in turn, had triggered a grumbling, combustible feeling of resentment amongst the late queen’s ostensibly loyal subjects. Adding to this tension was the long-standing friction created by London’s status as an independent civic entity as against the obligations that it owed to the Crown. By 1600 some 200,000 people lived in the city, a figure which more than doubled in the century ahead. The place stank to high heaven due to such open sewers as the offal-filled River Fleet, feeding into the Thames. Regular, casual violence was endemic (particularly amongst young apprentices), brothels and prisons were doing a roaring trade in their respective ministrations, and all in all it seems to have been a pretty grim place in which to eke out a living. Then, just when it looked as if things couldn’t get much worse, by the time James I turned up to claim his throne in May 1603 he was prevented from making the time-honoured formal entrance by an outbreak of the plague, a disease which would eventually kill 33,000 Londoners. Two years later and having barely got his feet under the monarchical table, James found out that a group of dastardly Catholics had planned to blow him and the whole House of Lords up in a fireworks extravaganza. News of this treasonous plot is said to have gripped London for months, not least as manifest proof of the miasmic devilry that was, for the average Jacobean-in-the-street, an ever-present component of the world around them.
A different sort of hocus-pocus, intended to conjure up a sense of civic pride and thereby shore up the socio-economic privileges enjoyed by the proto-bourgeoisie, could be found in the feasts and attendant rituals promoted by London’s livery companies. Such pageantry served to hammer home the message that such organisations as the Goldsmiths’ and Mercers’ Companies rightfully occupied a highly lucrative, time-honoured position at the heart of the capital’s mercantile community. Also doing well were the trading companies, especially those which ventured overseas and dealt in the export and import of much-sought-after goods, having, in London, by far the largest port in the country out of which to operate. Long distance trade was an extremely profitable business in the early part of the century: for example, the East India Company was able, in 1612, to give its investors their money back plus an astounding 220 per cent dividend. Such returns contributed to the increasing demand for shipbuilding as the capital became a swarming, noisy, cosmopolitan entrepôt.
If James I’s reign had witnessed London’s civic landscape resound with an ever-increasing hubbub of profit-driven industry and financial gusto, the start of Charles I’s royal tenure in 1625 seems, from the outset, to have injected a more decorous —verging on stuffy— atmosphere, as far as the reverence bestowed on this regal figurehead was concerned. Evidently he was a cantankerous little chap who relied on such amusing concepts as the divine right to rule (and a stupendous art collection) to bolster his self-confidence. Meanwhile, his subjects out in the streets spent all their time barely surviving in overcrowded, squalid surroundings, with some of them lucky enough to earn a living as ‘scavengers’ (clearing the streets of animal excrement in the daytime) or as ‘goldfinders’ (cleaning out privies by night). From Lincoln’s account, it’s a wonder that anyone who couldn’t beat a hasty retreat to their ancestral pile in the country survived London’s polluted atmosphere, mainly caused by the burning of ‘sea coal’ shipped from the north-east, which John Evelyn described as “Clowds of Smoake and Sulphur, so full of Stink and Darknesse.” Just to make things even more jolly, even the rain turned black from the burning of this carboniferous blight, whilst people tried to fend off the all-pervasive stench that it created by inhaling heroic amounts of tobacco. If you were lucky enough to keep your lungs relatively functional you might find work as a painter, although even then you would be working with noxious substances which withered limbs and blackened teeth— or maybe you might try your hand as a potter, with the attendant risk of becoming cadaverous due to lead poisoning. Even so, for those who could afford it, medical help was at hand, often from a range of charlatans such as Thomas Winche who had “cured the lord mayor’s kitchen servant of an ague at the cost of a shilling by collecting his nail pairings,” or Humfrye Beven, an apothecary in St. Giles who, in 1633, administered a potion to a young woman “on a knife’s point, whereupon she voided blood clots upward. Next day her gums were black; she died ‘spitting and spawling.’”
As Lincoln charts the path towards the Civil War, she gives a whistle-stop tour of the long series of pompously ill-judged interventions by which Charles I steered his kingdom towards pitched battle. Having dismissed his last parliament in 1629, he embarked upon a period of personal rule which saw him having to devise ever more unprincipled ways of raising funds to support his and his court’s divinely ordained lifestyle. This included selling patents and monopolies, which created economic chaos and led to food riots. The raising of revenue through so-called ship money, originally a tax levied on maritime counties to buy a ship and bolster English naval defences, came to be recognised as a general tax when it was extended to inland counties. Soon the opponents of rule without Parliament who refused to pay up were joined by increasing ranks of the disaffected.
Having proven himself disastrous when it came to fiscal propriety, Charles next turned his attention to religious reform and the suppression of nonconformism, in particular Puritanism, which staunchly rejected unconditional loyalty to the Crown. Consequently, by the 1630s certain parishes within the City were hotbeds of dissent. As Lincoln puts it, “church ritual became a battleground” when the diktats of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, who sought to enforce the King’s religious agenda, fed rumours of Charles’ papist inclinations. The attempted imposition of the Book of Common Prayer on the Church of Scotland and the resultant conflict that it triggered meant that Charles had to raise money to assemble an effective army. This, in turn, obliged him to recall Parliament in 1640, and thus the chain of events which led to the Civil War was well and truly underway.
Lincoln picks her way through the critical events of the Civil War at an agreeable canter, and whilst there are no revelatory scoops to report, she does manage to paint a vivid picture of how the average Londoner would have experienced and been informed about the conflict. Her account of the various purveyors of propaganda bestirred by the hostilities reveals some intriguing characters. One such is John Taylor, a self-educated waterman and staunch royalist who, with his castigation of all Puritans as “a rabble of ignorant Mechanicks” and grumbling disdain for the thousands of impoverished “idlers” who had fled to London from the war-torn provinces, evokes parallels with a number of today’s self-appointed media demagogues. Meanwhile, the monarchist ‘newsbook’ Mercurius Aulicus had, in John Birkenhead, an editor whose unscrupulous tricks would have seen him thrive in many a contemporary press baron’s amoral entourage.
However, in a move which rekindled the age-old debate about the limits of free speech, when Parliament issued an order requiring the avalanche of “false, forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets and Books” to be censored before publication, none other than John Milton stepped forward, demanding in his Areopagitica that he be given “the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” Not that these pamphlet wars were waged exclusively between Royalists and Parliamentarians. On the Parliamentary side, there was increasing dissension over intricate points of doctrinal law between Presbyterians, who favoured a centralised state church, and Independents, who rejected national hierarchy in favour of localised congregational control. A leading light in the Independents’ ranks was John Lilburne, one of the most estimable individuals to emerge from the whole Civil War period, a prominent Leveller who advocated unfettered debate about religious toleration and the constitutional rights of freeborn Englishmen, issues central to the momentous Putney Debates. Eventually, however, despite the Parliamentary side’s ideological factionalism, they still managed to overcome their Royalist foes. In January 1649, Charles I was beheaded.
Lincoln’s means of assessing the subsequent Cromwellian Protectorate is to ask the question as to whether it really was a “killjoy regime.” Traditionally the narrative has been that for the duration of the Interregnum (1649-1660) everyone was unremittingly glum and moped about in a perpetual Tony Hancock-style Sunday-afternoon world, desperately waiting for the Restoration to hurry up and inject their monotone lives with a refreshing splash of colour. A concomitant of this is to see Cromwell himself as a tin-pot dictator who, having refused the crown in 1657, nevertheless presided over his investiture as Lord Protector in a ceremony which, according to the Venetian ambassador, “went off rather sadly without spontaneous shouts of joy.” Lincoln’s account of this period is replete with descriptions of authoritarian censorship and constant vigilance to foil Royalist plots, all of which served to cumulatively spiral the country into nervous exhaustion. Not so much a killjoy regime, then, as an angst-ridden body-politic. Intense debate about London’s (and the rest of the country’s) future took place in newly established coffee houses, the first of which opened in 1652, with many more to follow. As Lincoln points out, before the advent of non-alcoholic drinks such as coffee, and due to the lack of clean water, “most Londoners were daily inebriated to a greater or lesser extent”—a sobering thought indeed. In comparison, the refreshment on sale in a coffee house left customers with a clear head, which proved agreeable to Puritans, City businessmen, and those social gadflies who simply wanted to smoke a pipe and read the latest news. By May 1660, with Cromwell two years dead and his son Richard having proven an ineffectual successor, the monarchy was back in business. Just in time for his thirtieth birthday, the newly restored Charles II was paraded through the London streets to the delight (apparently) of an uproarious crowd fuelled by the free wine which the City elders had arranged to have flow from water fountains. Once Old Rowley’s crew had reasserted themselves, they lost no time in hammering home the message about who was now in charge by executing ten regicides, as well as exhuming the bodies of those prominent Parliamentarians, including Cromwell, who hadn’t lived to see the Restoration: their heads were skewered on poles and displayed to the masses as a cautionary warning to anyone else who dared to question the God-given institution of monarchy. The publicity-savvy Charles further capitalised on his image as the best thing since sliced bread (compared to those Roundhead wet blankets) by distributing Maundy money and touching an estimated 92,107 of his subjects to ward off the King’s Evil. These same subjects were also able to buy a range of royal commemorative merchandise such as —in an age before tea towels— rings, thimbles, earthenware flasks, and wallpaper.
Then, in 1665, amidst all the gaudy splendour of Restoration London, along came a major revisitation by the plague to spoil everyone’s fun. In what was still basically a cramped mediaeval city with “webs of lanes and alleys lined with mouldering buildings…ill-lit, airless and foul,” the pestilence had the optimum conditions to spread like wildfire. Painful buboes (tumours in the armpits, groin and behind the ears) as well as discoloured spots spreading over the skin invariably signalled death. The afflicted and their families would be locked in their homes, but still the mortality rate soared. By the end of the year, it is estimated that the plague deaths stood at around 90,000, which represented a quarter of all Londoners.
As if those faced with this daily horror hadn’t suffered enough, the following year, in the early hours of Sunday, the 2nd of September 1666, a baker called Thomas Farriner awoke to find his house in Pudding Lane on fire. The flames spread to nearby houses due to a stiff easterly wind which allowed the fire to quickly rampage through tinder-dry buildings. As the conflagration spread south towards London Bridge, it fed on a range of combustible material such as oil, hay, spices, and timber stacked up in warehouses. By the evening around a thousand shops and houses had been destroyed, with the inferno visible forty miles away. Despite the best efforts of rudimentary firefighters, the City was still ablaze three days later at temperatures so intense that the lead in the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral melted. It was only on the following Thursday that the fire was finally put out. Officially, only six people died, though it is thought that the actual death toll was much higher and, in the good old tradition of blaming foreigners for the nation’s mishaps, people accused the Dutch, or alternatively the French, of causing the fire; indeed, one disturbed Frenchman who confessed to singlehandedly incinerating the capital was hanged, even though the presiding judge knew that he was innocent.
Bar the odd run-in with rival nations, the rest of Charles II’s reign now began to settle down nicely, allowing those intent on testing the limits of human knowledge to press on with their particular interests. Lincoln opens her account of this aspect of London’s history with the rather alarming statement that “on 23 November 1667, Arthur Coga, a crazed and impoverished former student of divinity, became the first person in England to undergo a blood transfusion,” which involved giving the said patient “nine or ten ounces of sheep’s blood.” William Harvey, a physician who had discovered how blood circulates around the body, was responsible for this innovative experiment carried out in front of members of the recently founded Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Other luminaries of the Royal Society included Christopher Wren, John Dryden, and Isaac Newton, each of whom contributed to making the new scientific thinking a fashionable talking-point amongst London’s beau monde. More importantly, the Royal Society also “shone a light on the benefits of coordination and the value of building on the efforts of others, despite obvious class distinctions between natural philosophers (or as they would now be termed ‘scientists’) and lesser craftsmen.”
Away from the white heat of scientific innovation and historic events, Lincoln briefly turns her attention to domesticity in mid-seventeenth century London. We are given an insight into the various tasks expected of a seventeenth-century housewife: anything from baking and brewing to preserving wine, making and dying cloth, and running a dairy. Domestic manuals were regularly consulted (testifying to women’s growing literacy) for recipes and plant-based remedies for such ailments as sciatica, consumption, and the horrific-sounding “falling of the fundament.” At the higher end of the social scale, the main meal came to be taken at midday and small forks were introduced, replacing the custom of eating with the fingers. There was a constant battle to keep linen clean in an atmosphere thick with coal dust, and as a consequence of the weather systems created by the so-called Little Ice Age, harsh winters with their freezing spells meant that it was difficult to obtain water to clean the home.
In a community beset by a variety of hardships that often promoted insular and suspicious mindsets, new influxes of Huguenots from France and the Low Countries in the late century evoked a range of reactions ranging from distrust to sympathy with the trials that these refugees had undergone under the absolutist Catholic monarchy of Louis XIV. This, in turn, sparked fresh waves of anti-Catholic hysteria, as seen in such episodes as the Popish Plot, in which it was alleged that Jesuits were plotting to assassinate Charles II. Meanwhile at court, in what became known as the Exclusion Crisis, a faction of Whig peers tried to pass legislation that would exclude Charles’s Catholic brother James from inheriting the throne. Unsuccessful though this was, when Charles II died suddenly in 1685 James II’s tenure as an authoritarian monarch was burdened by seditious rumblings almost from the outset. The Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s illegitimate offspring, launched his rebellion in 1685, but as it failed to get the backing of key national power-brokers, the duke’s motley collection of supporters was decisively defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor, and Monmouth himself was eliminated via a savagely botched beheading on Tower Hill. Like his father before him, James was totally convinced of his divine right to rule, albeit within the service of promoting Catholicism. In practice this saw him publish the Declaration of Indulgence, which suspended ant-Catholic legislation such as the Test Act of 1673, put in place to prevent “dangers which may happen from popish recusants” by ensuring that only members of the Church of England could hold public, civic, or military offices. This was a tricky balancing act, as the King had, in effect, allowed freedom of worship to Catholics, Anglicans, and Dissenters alike, with the latter two groups feeling distinctly mistrustful of his ostensible ecumenism. By 1688 leading members of the country’s political elite had had enough of the king’s autocratic ways, and a certain William of Orange, who happened to be married to James’s daughter Mary, was invited to politely kick-start the so-called Glorious Revolution.
Ahead of William setting foot in this country, he sent over an official communication from his base in Holland announcing that his sole intention was to uphold the English constitution and preserve liberty. Such advance publicity seems to have gone down well with his future subjects, and galvanised certain radical groups into giving full vent to their growing ant-Catholic fury which, in turn, sparked several periods of rioting throughout the capital. By December 1688 —William having landed with his troops at Brixham in November— James had been allowed to quietly slip away to exile in France. By acting quickly to stifle unrest and engaging in several gestures of royal paternalism, William soon won over the majority of his subjects, Parliament eventually concluding that his status should be one-half of a co-regency with Mary, and that James II had effectively abdicated. William’s status came at the price of agreeing to a list of conditions known as the Declaration of Rights which insisted, amongst other things, on the preservation of civil liberties, no standing army in peacetime, and no taxation without the consent of Parliament. Despite such seemingly progressive concessions from the monarchy, William and Mary’s coronation in Westminster Abbey on 11th April 1689 marked a return to dazzling and distracting the London crowds, the celebratory propaganda machine once more in overdrive. As for the two individuals at the centre of all this populist flummery, they elicited mixed reactions from those of their subjects who encountered them in the flesh. William is described by Lincoln as asthmatic, gaunt, and short, with a cold and distant character. Meanwhile Mary initially made a bad impression, a robustly cheerful whirlwind who buffeted through the royal apartments, eager to examine every nook and cranny. It was only when it was tactfully suggested that she might show a little more self-effacement in view of what had happened to her father that she toned it down a bit, and adopted the role of dutiful wife.
By the end of the seventeenth century the urban fabric of London was changing quite considerably. Although for the poor it was, to all intents and purposes, a world of squalid housing, elsewhere in the city from around the 1670s onwards elegant squares were beginning to replace many buildings that had fallen into disrepair. Skilled Huguenot craftsmen decorated the wealthy’s mansions with French designs. Dutch Delftware was much in fashion, as was precious and exotic porcelain from Japan and China. William and Mary were both keen on remodelling the royal palaces that they had inherited, such as Kensington House and Hampton Court, and their taste for formal baroque gardens did much to encourage a voguish taste for horticulture. As for the couple themselves, by 1690 their natural dispositions and the gratifications of a royal lifestyle seem to have taken their respective tolls. An eyewitness attended a public dinner at Whitehall Palace where William was “phlegmatic and did spit much” whilst Mary was “fat and of a lively colour.” A few years later, on 24th December 1694, Mary woke to find that she had contracted the smallpox currently sweeping through London. Four days later she was dead, to the anguish of her distraught husband.
As the eighteenth century loomed into view, London remained a paradoxical city in which, as Lincoln puts it, “merchants who dined off fine china might have profited from the networks created by the pirates hanged at Execution Docks,” and where many of those same merchants had strong links with the slave trade. Religious differences and appalling inequality continued to fester, but it is important to note that these causes of suffering and strife which had marked the turbulent seventeenth century had also played a significant role in shaping an enduring awareness of national identity.
It makes a pleasant change to pick up a book of historical scholarship and not feel the author’s ideological predilections weighing down every page. Not that Margarette Lincoln has wholly transcended the fashion for historiographical positioning. However, this is a book which doesn’t seek to browbeat its audience with erudition or, conversely, serve up a populist, ready-meal account of the olden days. By steering clear of both extremes, Lincoln has produced a work that engagingly challenges the reader to follow the rich historical twists and turns of her narrative.--Mark Jones