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The Great Plague

The worst outbreak of Bubonic Plague (also called the Black Death) in the Stuart period happened in 1665.

The disease arrived from Holland and was spread by blood-sucking fleas that lived on the black rat.

It spread easily in London because rubbish was just thrown out into the streets and then left in huge rotting piles where the black rats liked to breed.

In May, 43 people were recorded as having died from the plague – by the time summer arrived and the weather became hotter though, this number rose rapidly to 16,229 deaths in August and then 26,219 in September.

Many rich people, including the king and his court, left London to escape the plague. Shops were shut and streets were deserted.

20 The Great Plague

Women called searchers were paid 2p a day to find out the cause of all the deaths. When a person died of the plague, a red cross was painted on the door and the family was nailed up inside the house for 40 days. No one except doctors or searchers was allowed to enter or leave. Whole families died shut up in their homes.

At one point in July, the Lord Mayor of London heard rumours that it was the stray dogs and cats on the streets that were spreading the disease and ordered them all to be destroyed. Unfortunately, this actually caused the numbers of deaths to rise even further as there were no stray dogs and cats to kill the rats.

Doctors tried to protect themselves against infection by wearing a special uniform that had:
  • a mask which fully covered their head and a neck;
  • two glass eyes;
  • a beak stuffed with herbs to purify the air they breathed in;
  • leather gloves to protect their hands;
  • a long gown made out of a thick material which was then covered with wax.
Plague Doctor (The Mirror of literature, 1841)

The cures and treatments they offered were not very effective though – they included asking the victims to: carry scented flowers, wear a lucky charm or use leaches to remove infected blood. 

At night, carts were pulled through the streets to the sound of ringing bells and shouts of “Bring out yer dead”. Soon all the churchyards were full and huge graves called plague-pits had to be dug to bury the bodies in.

It even became necessary to have a certificate of health in order to travel or enter another town or city. In the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, the plague arrived in a box of clothes sent to the village tailor. The entire village was quarantined (cordoned off) to prevent the disease from spreading further, although it is thought that only 83 villagers out of a population of 350 managed to survive this fourteen-month isolation.

Eyam Village - - 205670      Eyamplague

As the colder weather of autumn and winter arrived, the number of deaths gradually grew less and less and the plague eventually disappeared. King Charles II returned to the capital the following year in February 1666.