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News: March 2021


1665: The Year of War and Plague

The Dutch call the year 1672 the ‘Rampjaar’, or Year of Disaster – among other things, the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-74) broke out that year. It could be argued that 1665 was England’s own Year of Disaster, which reached its peak in September 1665.

On Saturday 4 March Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that ‘This day was proclaimed at the ‘Change the war with Holland’. This war has become known to posterity as the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67).  Four days later Pepys was back at the ‘Change, where some news just in was ‘taken very much to heart’ in a great blow to national morale.

Royal Exchange, City of London, listed Grade I: the present building is not the one Pepys knew, but is the third on the site, the first being destroyed in the Great Fire of London. © Mr J Buckley. Historic England

He had heard the ‘sad newes’ of the Second Rate London that morning, as she was being brought from Chatham dockyard to the Hope in the Thames, off Southend-on-Sea. One of the most important ships of the English Navy had perished just when she was needed to go to war with the Dutch: all three Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century were conducted entirely at sea, in the English Channel and North Sea, and elsewhere.

The remains of the London were discovered in 2007 and designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act the following year. A gun carriage has recently been recovered from the site. © Historic England, Lucy Millson-Watkins

In Pepys’ words, ‘ . . . but a little a’ this side the buoy of the Nower, she suddenly blew up. About 24 [men] and a woman that were in the round-house and coach saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned; the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance.’ The London, which was completed too late to participate in the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54), thus also missed the second war with the Dutch, in which she might well have played a crucial part.

Naval Combat at Lowestoft between the English under Duke of York and the Dutch under Wassenaer Obdam. Williem van de Velde (the Elder), 13th June 1665. ©Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands

The English victory against the Dutch at the Battle of Lowestoft in June 1665 was more welcome news, but by this time there was also another enemy to contend with, and one which was far more insidious and deadly. A physical enemy who could be fought at sea was one thing, but an epidemic at a period when no-one really knew how disease was transmitted and how to prevent infection was almost overwhelming. The plague had already made its presence felt in England, reaching London in the spring, and by Wednesday 24 May Pepys had taken notice: ‘ . . . all the newes is of the Dutch being gone out, and of the plague growing upon us in this towne; and of remedies against it: some saying one thing, some another.’ 

Plague Cottage, Eyam, listed Grade II: 18th century around a 17th century core
© Mr D H Schofield LRPS. Historic England. 

The plague also swept across the country, reaching the village of Eyam in Derbyshire that year, famed for its self-imposed isolation in quarantine in 1665-6 to prevent further spread of the disease, with the loss of over 200 of its inhabitants. Plague pits survive in many areas of London, including St. Giles in the Fields: by 20th September 1665, the bill of mortality was at its height, with 7,165 deaths attributable to the plague that week, at which Pepys again recorded his dismay.

Church of St. Giles in the Fields, Camden, listed Grade I: like the Royal Exchange, the present building is the third on the site, being rebuilt in 1733. © Mr A Rau. Historic England

It would be 1666 before the plague died down, but the misery continued as the plague was slow to abate and more disaster would follow. Newport in Shropshire gave a hint of what London would endure in 1666 with its own Great Fire of May 1665, which destroyed many pre-17th century buildings, although some still survive in the town. Watch out for another PastScape feature in 2016 commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London.

Old Guildhall, 1 and 3 High Street, Newport, listed Grade II*: earliest phase circa 1400  © Mr T Kenny. Historic England.

Further reading -
17th century warship - Historic England Research News
Wreck of the Week  - By Serena Cant, Historic England