Author Alexander Larman travels back to a time of plague, war, and fire, and finds that the period is inspiring so much in modern times…
Some 350 years ago, England went through one of its most turbulent years, which encompassed plague, war, political skulduggery and, of course, the Great Fire of London. Yet it’s easy to dismiss these events as belonging to a long-gone era which bears no relation to our own.
In fact, we’ve never been more interested in the Restoration than we are now. Following on from the wildly successful Samuel Pepys show at the National Maritime Museum, 2016 will see Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn hit the West End, with Gemma Arterton leading, a major exhibition about the Great Fire at the Museum of London, a new revival of the play The Libertine, starring Dominic Cooper as the licentious Earl of Rochester, and several new books, fiction and non-fiction alike.
Indeed, in 2016, the Restoration’s turmoil and darkness is a source of inspiration for Britain’s cultural pursuits. Here are some more reasons to care about the goings-on of Restoration England.
The Great Fire defined how London is today
Before 2 September 1666, London was still essentially medieval in its construction and layout, especially in the City itself. Houses were built and extended on top of one another, leading to streets being cramped, unhygienic and filthy. It was believed that the Plague, which spread throughout 1665 and 1666, gained much of its traction by these squalid conditions.
With the Great Fire, the old City was essentially destroyed, meaning that architects and surveyors including Christopher Wren had to come up with new and innovative ideas of rebuilding London, on extremely limited budgets given the country’s poverty.
Many of their new streets and buildings still stand today, most obviously Wren’s masterpiece St Paul’s; it was to have been rebuilt anyway, but its total destruction in the Great Fire made its reconstruction all the more necessary.
Anglo-European relations made Brexit look tame
If one of the reasons why we would leave the EU is a distrust of the power of European institutions, as well as those in charge of them, it’s nothing compared to the shifting allegiances and loyalties of 1666 England.
Charles II had spent a great deal of his exile in the 1650s in Europe, and was instinctively pro-European by temperament, but in order to satisfy his advisors and lords, he was drawn into an ill-fated war against the Dutch, the Second Anglo Dutch War, which resulted in huge casualties and destruction of British ships.
If this reminds you of our current Prime Minister and his difficulties with his Eurosceptics, it’s worth bearing in mind that Charles’s war ended in defeat and humiliation – a warning to those who would display such hubris.
Going out was all-important
If you lived in London in the 1660s, you had a choice of entertainments and distractions that make today’s opportunities look tame. The theatre was the most popular, patronised by everyone from the king to paupers, although the quality of the play often came second to the opportunities to arrange some extra-curricular assignation.
Those of heartier appetites enjoyed bear baiting and cock fights, trips to the brothel areas of Shoreditch and Smithfield, or even dinner at the city’s first fine dining restaurant, the Pontac’s Head, which served Haut-Brion wine at the then-astronomical price of seven shillings a bottle – around £30 in today’s money.
But so was looking good
Much like selfies and belfies today, history saw vanity – and what counted in 1666 was portraiture. Samuel Pepys paid £30 (close to £2,500 today) for two paintings of himself and his wife in 1666, which he described as ‘very like’. The expense was great, but then so was the kudos of having oneself immortalised on canvas by one of the best painters in England: in Pepys’s case, the artist John Hayls.
Dressing up for these portraits was as carefully considered a task as choosing the artist, and Pepys ensured that he wore an expensive silk gown, albeit a borrowed one. But then, after the drab days of Cromwell and the Protectorate, spending a huge amount of money on fine dress using silks and cotton imported from Europe was de rigueur for anyone who wanted to get on in society, just as primitive make up was big business for the apothecaries, who used anything from urine and extract of crushed snail to white lead and rosewater.
People went to great extremes to look their best, even dying in at least one case; a great lady used so much mercury as a facial cosmetic that she was killed by it. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that people have died taking selfies in modern times.
The people are still legendary
If you’d had a wide social circle in 1666, you would have encountered anyone from the young Isaac Newton, sitting in his mother’s garden in Lincolnshire and watching an apple fall, to John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, who combined bravery at war against the Dutch with the first stirrings of what became the most depraved poetic career in English literature.
If you’d been unlucky enough to be incarcerated in Bedford jail, then you might have been radicalised by the subversive preacher John Bunyan, then engaged in writing his masterpiece A Pilgrim’s Progress, or if your prison had been in London, you may have been in the next cell to John Milton, then in the midst of finishing Paradise Lost. You might have mixed with Wren, with Pepys, or even with ‘the merry monarch’, Charles II himself.
All these people have remained in public consciousness, and their work, in most cases, has lived on for the past three and a half centuries. Not bad for an age that, seven years before, nobody ever thought would have taken place…