1666 was a watershed year for England. The outbreak of the Great Plague, the eruption of the second Dutch War and the Great Fire of London all struck the country in rapid succession and with devastating repercussions.
Shedding light on these dramatic events, historian Rebecca Rideal reveals an unprecedented period of terror and triumph. Based on original archival research and drawing on little-known sources, 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire takes readers on a thrilling journey through a crucial turning point in English history, as seen through the eyes of an extraordinary cast of historical characters.
While the central events of this significant year were ones of devastation and defeat, 1666 also offers a glimpse of the incredible scientific and artistic progress being made at that time, from Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity to Robert Hooke's microscopic wonders. It was in this year that John Milton completed Paradise Lost, Frances Stewart posed for the now-iconic image of Britannia, and a young architect named Christopher Wren proposed a plan for a new London - a stone phoenix to rise from the charred ashes of the old city.
I studied this period for my History A Level, and have always had an interest in seventeenth-century history, so this book appealed to me. What I hadn't necessarily expected was what an easy, delightful read it would be, and how many dots joined up, not only in terms of putting the Second Dutch War in context with what was going on in England at the time, but also the way the author rounds off all the stories included here and tells us the fate of those involved.
The opening pages give a taste of what's to come. We get a description of everyday London life, but instead of vague 'would have' or 'probably' statements, we get the details of real people, who are named as they go about their lives. There are also fascinating snippets: I had no idea that (if one had the money) it was possible to have water piped directly into one's home during this period.
The first section of the book concerns the plague and we are told how, initially, there seemed no cause for alarm. The playhouses stayed open, but then people got scared and began to leave. Again, we are furnished with details using witness accounts. Mentioned by name are the Howlett and Mitchell families. Surviving the plague, they return to London and Betty Howlett marries Michael Mitchell. They set up shop close to where I know the Great Fire wreaked devastation. I really hoped that we'd meet them again.
Ms Rideal doesn't just tell us what happened, she tells us about the everyday world but in a purposeful way, without going off at tangents. She might set the scene by describing a London park and how it was laid out at the time, but this is by way of introducing a character who had a part to play in events.
Part Two details the war and the descriptions of the naval battles are excellent, again drawn from witness accounts. The military strategies (those which worked and those which didn't) are explained clearly and at no point was I confused about who was whom. Along the way, we are introduced to characters whose names are familiar, such as Aphra Benn, recruited initially as a - rather unsuccessful, as it turns out - spy.
Then, the Great Fire. And again, detail that surprised. I didn't know that St Paul's was already in a bad state of repair and was clad in scaffolding before the conflagration destroyed it. We have the detailed account from a young boy, William Taswell, as well as those from the likes of Samuel Pepys. We even get details about the early life of Thomas Farriner, at whose bakery the fire started and we learn that he had been in and out of correctional institutions before finally being apprenticed to a baker. Such information reminds us that this is a story about people, not just facts and statistics. The ordinary folk of London are given prominence, although we still get plenty of rich detail about the more recognisable people - Newton, Pepys, Aphra Benn, Rochester - and it really brings the history to life.
The human story is also apparent in the closing chapters. We learn of the complications (legal as well as practical) of rebuilding London, and the after-effects of living through such times. Those who'd survived plague, war and fire show symptoms of what we'd now recognise as PTSD. But many also suffered from guilt - that they had personally or collectively brought disaster upon themselves.
Of course, 1666 wasn't all about catastrophe. There is a wonderful example of scene-setting which introduces Newton's moment under the apple tree. It's informative and evocative and made me think that should the author ever decide to write a novel, it would be excellent.
The epilogue details what became of the people mentioned along the way, and so we find out about the later lives of Pepys, Charles II, Nell Gwynn etc. But, satisfyingly, we also discover the fate of Michael and Betty Mitchell.
Informative, well-researched, beautifully written and very accessible. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this period. Or actually, just to anyone who fancies a damn good read.
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