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London and the 17th Century: The Making of the World’s Greatest City
Margarette Lincoln is curator emeritus at the National Maritime Museum, and her previous books have been about seafaring. So this one is a new departure and it is thrilling from the first page.
The 17th century was the most turbulent in England's history. We had a civil war (our only one, so far), we beheaded a reigning monarch, sending shock waves through Europe, and we sent another monarch into exile, enthroning instead a Dutchman and his English wife. London was at the centre of these upheavals, but it had its own additional dramas. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was, even by today’s standards, an audacious act of terrorism. Had it succeeded, the 36 barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords would have obliterated the entire ruling class and the royal family.
Bubonic plague visited the capital fairly regularly, but the outbreaks of 1603-5 and 1665 were particularly vicious. The first killed more than 33,000 people. Whole households were swept away; 60 children died in one alley alone. The second, even more terrible, killed 90,000, a quarter of London's population. Afflicted families were locked in their homes to prevent infection spreading. Londoners who fled to the countryside were stoned and driven back by terrified villagers.
Between the two outbreaks came the fire. It started in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, and soon became a raging inferno, eating up district after district of mainly wooden houses. The heat was intense, and the noise of devastation terrifying. The lead in the roof of St Paul's Cathedral melted, the stained glass windows sagged and smashed, and the walls splintered and exploded outwards.
Books and papers brought there for safety fed the flames; charred paper blew westwards as far as Eton. The blaze could be seen 40 miles off. When it was eventually put out, four fifths of the City had been destroyed, including 13,500 houses and 87 of the 109 parish churches.
Yet London recovered and flourished. Wren rebuilt the churches, among them his masterpiece, the new St Paul's. Elegant squares sprang up, imitating Italian piazzas, but with grass and trees at their centres. St James's Square was completed by 1676; Bloomsbury Square was a tourist attraction shown off to foreign dignitaries. Rotten Row was the first highway in England to be artificially lit.
The theatre district around St Martin's Lane expanded and drew eager crowds. Covent Garden market supplied the capital's fruit and vegetables from 1670. Shipbuilding increased and London became the world's greatest trading port. The ships on the River Thames are like one entire wood or forest from below the Bridge of London to Gravesend, a distance of 20 miles. Demand for luxuries was insatiable and, among the wealthy, shopping became a popular pastime.
The East India Company imported calicoes and chintzes from Bombay and tea and porcelain from China. They also brought back coffee and tobacco, which led to the vogue for coffee houses, where a cup of coffee and a pipe of tobacco would cost you two pence and you could read newspapers (another innovation of the civil war) for free. There were 82 coffee houses by 1663 and each had its clientele; Will’s was favoured by the wits, Lloyd's, in Lombard Street, attracted shipowners and merchants and became Lloyd's of London.
Women were not admitted to the coffee houses, but the London woman, gorgeously dressed and beautified by French perfumiers and French hairdressers, was a late-17th-century phenomenon. Literacy was far commoner among London women than English women generally, and the playwright Aphra Behn was the first English woman to earn her living by writing.
Female actors, among them Nell Gwyn, one of Charles II's mistresses, transformed the Restoration stage. They were often cast in 'breeches parts' that showed off their legs, and Samuel Pepys went to 118 performances in one season alone. Women had a political presence too. The Leveller movement was supported by a contingent of women, clad in green, the Leveller colour.
Lincoln's description of all this is vivid and engrossing, and drawn from multiple eyewitness accounts. One of her main themes is pageantry. London had a voracious appetite for gorgeous processions. Even to read about them is breathtaking. The livery companies transformed the streets with exotic stage scenery and firework displays. There were river pageants too.
One included a fully rigged warship crammed with drummers and trumpeters and armed with 20 cannon that fired incessantly. Yet alongside these high jinks London also exhibited almost unspeakable cruelty. Traitors were hanged, taken down alive and disembowelled, emasculated and chopped to pieces, and their heads stuck on pikes. In 1685 a woman was burnt alive in Smithfield for 'helping traitors'.
Cromwell, intent on military discipline, had two soldiers, guilty of taking bribes, nailed by their ears to the whipping post at Charing Cross. In 1691 an anti-Catholic mob stuffed an effigy of the Pope with live cats, which shrieked horribly when the effigy was burnt on a bonfire at Temple Bar.
Even the highly educated could be remarkably cold-blooded. The newly founded Royal Society, which counted Boyle and Newton among its fellows, carried out gory experiments to transfuse the blood of one dog into another. In 1667 they transfused several ounces of sheep's blood into Arthur Coga, a mentally ill former divinity student. Miraculously he survived.
Lincoln is adept at spotting eloquent details that stick in the mind. She notes, for example, that after the Gunpowder conspiracy the 'juddering' signature that Guido Fawkes appended to his confession indicates how brutally he had been tortured on the rack.
She records that, at the trial of Charles I, Lord President Bradshaw, who was prosecuting, wore a bullet-proof hat lined with sheet iron, and that, after the king's execution, the items from the dead monarch’s personal effects that Cromwell chose to keep included the royal commode, padded and upholstered in red velvet.
The only drawback to this enthralling book is that London never saw battle. The battles happened elsewhere. With luck Lincoln’s next book might explore that part of the century’s history.
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