University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Coping with epidemic disease in the seventeenth century

Man that is born of a woman
hath but a short time to live,
and is full of misery.
He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower [1]

One of the first school history projects I can remember doing, before leaving Australia at the age of fourteen, was to create my own facsimile newspaper reporting on the great plague of 1665. Who would have thought at that stage that I would have ended up as a seventeenth-century historian? I spent hours poring over a London bill of mortality, copying the forms of 17th century handwriting and the strange unfamiliar fatal diseases: ‘apoplexie’, ‘ague’, ‘chrisomes’, ‘dropsie’, ‘griping’ in the guts’, ‘Kingsevil’, ‘palsie’, ‘stopping of the stomach’ and ‘timpany’.  During the week of 19-26 September 1665 in London, forty-two women died in childbirth, sixty-four people of convulsions, 309 of fever and, a sign of the awful dentistry then available, 121 of ‘teeth’. Accidents were also great killers: one was burnt in his bed by a candle, another killed from a fall from the belfry at the church of Allhallows the Great. Three were ‘frighted’, one died ‘suddenly’, and three of grief. But all of these were hugely outnumbered by the 7,165 people who succumbed to plague in that week.

Researching seventeenth-century history, it is very easy to become immured to the high death rates due to infectious disease. Plague, which had prevented population levels from recovering for nearly two centuries after it first appeared in Britain in 1348, made regular reappearances until the eighteenth century. In the late seventeenth and early-eighteenth century smallpox was particularly virulent. The diarist John Evelyn lost two nearly-adult daughters to the disease within a year in 1685.  The elder, and the first to die, the polymath Mary, was mourned over several pages of his diary rather more eloquently than her wayward younger sister: ‘she was a little miracle while she lived, and so she died!’ Her monument is in St Nicholas Church, Deptford. [2]

Monument to Mary Evelyn in St Nicholas Church, Deptford.

Monument to Mary Evelyn in St Nicholas Church, Deptford.

Plague was generally a summer disease, and required specific climatic conditions to flourish. During plague epidemics, royalty usually removed themselves pretty quickly to safety. Despite living at the height of the Black Death, only two of King Edward III’s thirteen children died of it, while a third to a half of his subjects perished. But smallpox was more ineluctable: the annus mirabilis of Charles II’s restoration to the monarchy in May 1660 was somewhat spoiled by losing both his brother Henry and his sister Mary (mother of William of Orange) to the virus before the end of the year. In December 1694 Queen Mary II also succumbed to the disease, dying of a particular nasty and invariably fatal variant known as the ‘black pox’ (hemorrhagic smallpox).  Her normally taciturn husband William of Orange apparently fainted at the news of her death. ‘It is impossible for me to tell you the sorrow that reigns universally in Holland’ wrote the poet Matthew Prior, ‘the people, who never had any passions before, are now touched, and marble weeps.’ [3]

Queen Mary II

Queen Mary II died in 1694 of hemorraghic smallpox

Epidemics especially impacted town and city dwellers. In my research into clerical families of the Civil War period, I frequently encountered country-dwelling clerics with eight to fourteen surviving progeny.  But urban life was often fatal to children. Though the inscription on the funeral monument to Jane, wife of Yeldard Alvey, vicar of the prosperous coal-port of Newcastle upon Tyne, records that she was the mother of ten children, only three were still alive at the time of Alvey’s own death in 1649.[4] Nehemiah Wallington (1598-1658), a London wood turner and prolific diarist, lost four out his five children in childhood.[5] Town populations struggled to replace themselves, and relied for their population growth (rapid in the case of seventeenth-century London) on incomers.

Urban infants might be removed from the metropolis to protect them during their vulnerable years of infancy.  On 17 April 1651 the diarist Richard Drake records his sister-in-law Margaret visiting her two sons Richard and Roger who had been farmed out of London to a wet-nurse in Essex. Yet there was no assurance of safety: a month later Drake records sadly that his sweetest nephew’ Richard had been buried there.  In between, another nephew, John, had been struck down by a raging, bloody cough, and after temporary hopes of recovery, three days later, at nine in the morning, ‘sweetly fell asleep in the Lord’.[6]  Drake later raised his own children out of London in the healthier environment of Richmond in Surrey. All four of them survived to adulthood, their chances perhaps improved by his wife’s breastfeeding, which although recommended as healthy and virtuous by medical and clerical authorities, was not advice commonly followed by the upper classes.[7]  But fellow Surrey resident John Evelyn was not so fortunate: a vast family fortune built on gunpowder production could not prevent him losing four sons in quick succession in infancy as well as the daughters he lost later: only one of Evelyn’s eight children survived him.[8]

During the Civil War years of the 1640s the risk of contagious disease was substantially greater, spread by the armies and widespread social disruption.  My local history students, researching mortality crises using parish registers, have over the years discovered anomalously high death rates during 1643, in several different Civil War-impacted localities, including East Meon in Hampshire around the time of the battle of Cheriton.  These were probably due to war typhus or ‘camp fever’.[9] Towards the end of the first Civil War plague resurfaced in many locations: as Sir Thomas Fairfax harried the retreating royalists through the West Country, disease was the armies’ unwelcome travelling companion, with epidemics reported in Tiverton and Barnstaple in 1646, in North Petherton and Totnes in early 1647, amongst other places.[10] As with fires and other types of disasters, suffering parishes relied on ‘briefs’ or charity collections in neighbouring churches to relieve them, but as everyone was feeling the pinch of vastly increased war-time taxation, the response was likely to be disappointing.

Map of seventeenth century Oxford by Wenceslas Hollar

The City of Oxford suffered repeated epidemics during the English Civil War. Map of seventeenth-century Oxford, by Wenceslas Hollar.


The cramped conditions in the many garrisons of the Civil War made them potentially fatal to the soldiers and civilians who sheltered in them.  Anne Fanshawe remembered the conditions in royalist Oxford:

From as good house as any gentleman in England had we come to a baker’s house in an obscure street, and from rooms well furnished to lie in a very bad bed in a garret …  at the windows the sad spectacle of war, sometimes plague, sometimes sicknesses of other kinds, by reason of so many people being packed together. [11]

The writer John Aubrey was Anne’s contemporary as a student at Trinity College, Oxford.  His fearful parents summoned him home to Wiltshire at the war’s outbreak in August 1642. He resumed his studies a few months later, only to catch smallpox.  He survived, but was sent home again on his recovery, to his great regret: ‘it was a most sad life to me, then in the prime of my youth, not to have the benefit of an ingeniose conversation and scarce any good bookes’.[12] But remaining in Oxford was frequently a death sentence.  In Christ Church Cathedral there are evocative monuments to some of those who died during the siege of Oxford, who included the poet William Cartwright and the notorious Frances Coke Villiers, returned from exile in France a somewhat surprising royalist, considering the persistence with which the king had hounded her for her adultery.  Dr Humphrey Peake, Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, another royalist refugee in Oxford, seems to have had premonitions of his own death there, writing in his posthumously published Meditations upon a Siege,

If I die by a Canon shot … I die sodainly, and my paine is quickly at an end … how much more wretchedly might I have died in my bed, perhaps languishing of a tedious sicknesse, till I grew a burthen … rotting and decaying part by part, with an intolerable stench, which neither I my selfe, nor any of my friends, … Are able to endure, … desolate in death, with none about me, but those … readie to set me packing. [13]

An even worse fate was to be confined in one of the many makeshift and unsanitary gaols of the Civil Wars.  As with prisons today, these were often breeding places for infection, only much worse, as prisoners were supposed to fund their own upkeep or, without it, left semi-starved, housed in the worst accommodation next to the ‘jakes’ (toilet) or exposed to the weather, and sometimes even chained up. Those imprisoned did not readily forget the experience, telling stories to their children years after of their providential survival while those around them succumbed to plague.  William Wake proved hard to kill: his nine lives included being shot in the head in a Wareham street, a vile skin disease caught in Dorchester gaol, and being captured and stripped naked after the siege of Sherborne and ‘sent a prisoner to Poole where the Plague then was’.  Tending to plague victims, and yet being spared, was seen as a particular mark of God’s favour: of Joseph May, vicar of St Austell in Cornwall, it was claimed that ‘though the Plague rag’d in all the dwellings about him, and he himselfe officiating att the interrment, of every Corpse, neither he or any one of his family was touchd’.   On the other hand, if an enemy happened to die of epidemic disease, this was generally interpreted as the hand of God chastising the wicked.  An ‘Antient Woman’ reported how the ‘4 persons’, who ‘persecuted’ Richard Long, vicar at Chewton Mendip in Somerset,  all dyed, one becoming ‘speechless’, another ‘Grew down right Mad’, another ‘dyed in a Barn’, the final one of smallpox. Gloating over others’ misfortune seems cruel to us today.[14]  But as Alexandra Walsham has shown, harsh providential thinking like this was the norm in the early modern period, a consequence of people trying to find meaning in a world in which life itself was very precarious.[15]

Taking into account severe attitudes like these, and the much higher levels of inter-personal violence in early modern society, some historians have taken a ‘pessimist’ view of early modern life, seeing it as characterised by fear, hatred and lack of affection between family members. Early modern parents, Laurence Stone argued, displayed little attachment to their children, and cared little when they died. Stone’s arguments have been widely challenged: even at the time of their publication, Alan Macfarlane pointed out Stone’s selective misreading of the diary of Essex puritan Ralph Josselin in which Josellin begs unavailingly for God to spare the life of his eight-year old daughter Mary, hardly the action of an indifferent parent. It is not hard to find similar examples of parental desperation and despair at the deaths of their children.[16] Nehemiah Wallington had a near-breakdown after the death of his first child.  [17]

There was little choice but to seek out ways and means of coping. Stoic philosophy, in vogue in the 17th century, was of help for to some, along with religious belief.  John Evelyn’s correspondence contains a series of moving exchanges by letter between Evelyn, the Anglican theologian Jeremy Taylor, and Evelyn’s brother, comforting each other in their respective distress over lost children.  In 1656 Evelyn tries to brace up his distraught brother:

We must remember withal that we grieve not as persons without hope; lest, while we sacrifice to our passions, we be found to offend against God … We give hostages to Fortune when we bring children into the world.[18]

A year later, when Evelyn has lost two more of his own children, he is comforted in turn by Taylor who, having lost nearly all his own children, from two marriages, is well able to empathise. He consoles Evelyn by telling him that his two boys are ‘two bright stars’; ‘heaven is given to them upon very easy terms’.  He must accept with ‘patience and submission’ God’s discipline.  He sets Evelyn the practical task of comforting his wife, ‘and make it appear that you are more to her than ten sons’.[19]

Gabriel Metsu, The visit from the doctor, 1660-7, Hermitage Museum

Gabriel Metsu, The visit from the doctor, 1660-7, Hermitage Museum

The seventeenth-century were cruel times, paying the price for increased urbanisation and trade, at a time when medical science had made few significant inroads in treating disease. The frequent wars of this period acted as vectors for the spread of infection to combatants and non-combatants alike.  But some positives can be drawn from the seventeenth century experience.  Firstly, people adapted their lives to minimise loss of life where possible, using the limited strategies available to them. Secondly, loss of life due to infectious disease has been the common experience down the centuries, not the exception, and demonstrates the amazing power of the human race to carry on, even under the most unpromising conditions. While individuals succumbed, the population just kept on growing. Sometimes there were unexpected benefits, such as the plague of 1665 flinging to together a group of scientific geniuses, as reported by John Evelyn:

4th September … I came to Durdans, where I found Dr. Wilkins, Sir William Petty, and Mr. [Robert] Hooke, contriving chariots, new rigging for ships, a wheel for one to run races in, and other mechanical inventions, perhaps three such persons together were not to be found elsewhere in Europe, for parts and ingenuity.[20]

The funeral procession for Queen Mary II.

The funeral procession for Queen Mary II.

Finally, the response to death as something that draws people together in their common humanity.  Sorrow deepens us, and in the right hands can create great art, which may assist those to come in expressing and thus coming to terms with their own losses.  For the funeral of Queen Mary, whose death had made ‘marble weep’, Henry Purcell created funeral music that remains one of the most profound responses in existence to the shock of sudden death wrought by epidemic disease:


[1] Funeral sentences, from the 1662 Anglican Prayer Book, set to music by Henry Purcell, and used at his own funeral in 1695, http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1662/burial.pdf.

[2] The Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, ed. W. Bray (London, Routledge, n.d.), 425-9, 436-7

[3] F. Bickley, The Life of Matthew Prior (London: Pitman, 1914), 36.

[4] R. Welford, St. Nicholas’ Church Newcastle on Tyne (Newcastle, 1880), 130

[5] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [ODNB] Nehemiah Wallington.

[6] Bodleian Library, Rawlinson Manuscript D158, diary of Richard Drake, fo. 14.

[7] T. Reinke Williams, Women, Work and Sociability in Early Modern London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 22-3.

[8] ODNB, John Evelyn.

[9] See a paper by J. Bell discussing mortality at Thame in Oxfordshire, a local transport hub, the same year, J. Bell, ‘The mortality crisis in Thame and East Oxfordshire’, OHLA Journal Vol 3, No. 4 (Spring 1990): 137-52.

[10] Devon Heritage Centre, QS/1/8 1640-1651, Somerset Heritage Centre, Q/SPET/1/94; Bodleian Library, MS J. Walker, C1, fo. 26.

[11] The memoirs of Ann Lady Fanshawe (London, 1907), 24-5, https://archive.org/details/memoirsofannlady00fansuoft

[12] John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. A. Clark (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898), 38.

[13] Humphrey Peake, Meditations on a Siege (1645), 29.

[14] Bodleian Library, MS J. Walker: C1, fos 133, 143: C4, fo. 12.

[15] Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1999), 32.

[16] Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), 4-9; Alan Macfarlane, ‘Review of L. Stone, Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800’ in History and Theory, 18 (1979): 103; Linda Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations 1500-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983)

[17] ODNB, Nehemiah Wallington.

[18] Diary … of John Evelyn, 572-3

[19] Ibid, 583-4.

[20] Ibid, 276.

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