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England's the Great Plague 1665-1666

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This was the worst outbreak of plague in England since the black death of 1348. London lost roughly 15% of its population

While 68,596 deaths were recorded in the city, the true number was probably over 100,000. Other parts of the country also suffered. The earliest cases of disease occurred in the spring of 1665 in a parish outside the city walls called St Giles-in-the-Fields. The death rate began to rise during the hot summer months and peaked in September when 7,165 Londoners died in one week.

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This was the worst outbreak of plague in England since the black death of 1348. London lost roughly 15% of its population. While 68,596 deaths were recorded in the city, the true number was probably over 100,000. Other parts of the country also suffered. The earliest cases of disease occurred in the spring of 1665 in a parish outside the city walls called St Giles-in-the-Fields. The death rate began to rise during the hot summer months and peaked in September when 7,165 Londoners died in one week. Rats carried the fleas that caused the plague. They were attracted by city streets filled with rubbish and waste, especially in the poorest areas. Those who could, including most doctors, lawyers and merchants, fled the city. Charles II and his courtiers left in July for Hampton Court and then Oxford. Parliament was postponed and had to sit in October at Oxford, the increase of the plague being so dreadful

Court cases were also moved from Westminster to Oxford. The Lord Mayor and aldermen (town councillors) remained to enforce the King’s orders to try and stop the spread of the disease. The poorest people remained in London with the rats and those people who had the plague. Watchmen locked and kept guard over infected houses. Parish officials provided food. Searchers looked for dead bodies and took them at night to plague pits for burial.

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London is an ancient city whose history extends for nearly two thousand years. For much of that time, it has been a major player on the world stage and the driving force in English history. The city was founded by the Romans in the first century AD and was known then as Londinium (Stephen Inwood, 1998)

Even in those days London was a prosperous trading community and an important administrative center, but the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century greatly reduced the city’s wealth and population. London was subsequently controlled by the migrating Anglo Saxons and then from 1066 the Norman invaders ruled London. Key aspects of London’s governing system of aldermen, sheriffs and a Lord Mayor were laid down by Norman London in the twelfth century and remain in place, albeit in a diminished form, into the modern day. The mayor served a limited term and was elected from among the aldermen by the citizens of London, although often only the wealthy voters were allowed to attend (Walter Besant, 1894). The aldermen were elected for life by individuals from their ward, although the mayor and other aldermen could veto an election. These aldermen wielded great powers over the Londoners in their wards and they protected their authority by restricting the involvement of ordinary citizens in civic activities.

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For the most part, even in the 21st century, the plague remains a serious disease. Between August and November 2017, a plague outbreak in Madagascar led to 2,417 infections and 209 deaths

Antibiotic treatment is extremely effective against the plague. But when the disease isn’t diagnosed or antibiotics aren’t available, it can still be very fatal, just as it was back in 1665 and 1666.

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Walter Besant, The History of London. 2nd edition (London: Longmans, Green, and co., 1894), Chap 39.

Stephen Inwood, A History of London. New York: Carroll & Graf Pub., 1998, 15-19, 33.

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