Archive for the ‘prophets’ Tag

Contemporary Journals & Histories of The Great Plague of 1665-66.   1 comment

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Calamity hits the Kingdom:

In the Spring of 1665, Samuel Pepys made the following entry in his diary:

30 April. Lord’s Day … Great fears of the sickness here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.

The sickness he referred to was the bubonic plague, which Pepys had never known before, the last outbreak in London having occurred in 1625. The disease was not a new one but, like the more modern occurrence of influenza, it came at intervals, though not so often, and it was much more deadly, especially in the crowded parts of the cities. This was the worst attack in modern times, though not so widespread and catastrophic as the Black Death of 1348-49. In London, it lasted until the summer of 1666 and carried off some hundred thousand victims. In early 1666, it spread to other towns, mostly in southern England, but by the end of the year, it was over. We now know that the bacillus of the disease, which was endemic in the Near East and parts of North Africa was carried by fleas on the rats which infested the ships trading with those areas. No cure was known and the disease was almost always fatal. Pepys regularly reports the fatality statistics which were given in the weekly ‘bills of mortality’ published by the Parish Clerk’s Company of London. The Puritan minister, Richard Baxter, also kept a ‘Journal’ in which he reflected on the horror of that year:

It is scarce possible for people that live in a time of health and security to understand the dreadfulness of that “pestilence”. How fearful people were, thirty or forty, if not a hundred miles from London, of any goods that were brought to them from there, or of any person that came to their houses. How they would shut their door against their friends and if a man passed another in the field how one would avoid the other as we did in time of war; and how every man was a terror to another. Oh, how unthankful we are for our quiet societies, homes and health!

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When calamity hit the kingdom, as it did in a series of hammer-blows between 1665 and 1667, the instinctive response of both kings and subjects was not to invoke the illumination of science and rational argument but to call for divine intervention through penance, fasting and prayer. Daniel Defoe’s heart-rending account of the harvest of bodies in 1665, A Journey of the Plague Year, was written more than half a century after the event but was based on reliable memories of contemporaries, including one of Samuel Pepys’ amanuenses, Paul Lorrain.

What Defoe described was a culture divided into the mad and the methodical. The puritan ‘prophets’ seemed vindicated in their prophecies that God’s hand would be laid across the back of the ‘sin-steeped’ kingdom. Unhinged prophets walked naked in the streets roaring for repentance before the race was consumed altogether. In his ‘historical writings’, Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon, described how the Plague followed the first ‘hammer-blow’ inflicted by the Dutch Navy in 1665:

There begun now to appear another enemy, much more formidable than the Dutch, and more difficult to be struggled with;

… which was the plague, that brake out in winter, and made such an early progress in the spring, that though the weekly numbers did not rise high, and it appeared to be only in the outskirts of the town (i.e. London), and in the most obscure alleys, amongst the poorest people; yet the ancient men, who well remembered in what manner the last great plague (which had been near forty years before) first brake out, and the progress it afterwards made, foretold a terrible summer. And many of them removed their families out of the city to country habitations; when their neighbours laughed at their providence, and thought they might have stayed without danger: but they found shortly that they had done wisely.

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Fleeing the Plague & ‘Fighting’ it:

But while the King, the Court, the professions (including physicians) and the Gentry all fled London as fast as they could, they left behind the common citizens to be locked up by the watch in their own houses, prisoners of the contagion, left to succumb, starve or survive. Doctors could not help much because they did not know how to cure the plague. Understanding of the generation and transmission of the disease was scarcely more advanced than when it first struck in 1348. Richard Baxter saw that one good thing came out of the plague, that the most useful people in these circumstances were the brave, unselfish men and women who stayed with the dying to give them courage and to help their families. Of course, it was the duty of the clergymen to do this, but many of them had also fled into the country so that for a time the silenced non-conforming ministers were needed too badly for anyone to try to stop them from helping the ill and the dying. They said that, …

… no obedience to any laws could justify them from neglecting men’s souls and bodies in such want and that it would be a poor excuse to say to God, ‘how I was forbidden by law’.

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In March, Clarendon wrote, the plague had spread so much that parliament was willingly dissolved, a necessary measure considering that so many of its members were the House of Commons were assigned to many offices relating to the Anglo-Dutch War which required their attendance at Westminster and in Whitehall. Meanwhile, platoons of watchmen patrolled the streets enforcing the requirement that households become hermetically sealed at the first sign of infection. The regulations may have been designed to seal off the country from the plague, but inevitably the infection always outran the ability to contain it, and in the meantime, they condemned Londoners to be deprived of any hope of work or sustenance except what came their way by charity. The desperate who attempted to escape the net risked arrest and prosecution. From Alderman Hooker, Pepys heard of …

 … a saddler who had buried all the rest of his children of the plague: and himself and wife now being shut up, and in despair of escaping, did desire only to save the life of this (their surviving) little child; and so prevailed to have it received stark-naked into the arms of a friend, who brought it (having put it into new fresh clothes) to Greenwich.  

For once, Pepys and his colleagues were moved enough to allow the child to stay there in safety. Because it was thought that cats and dogs spread the plague, the Lord Mayor of London ordered a general slaughter of them; by Pepys’ reckoning, forty thousand dogs and as many as two hundred thousand cats were duly massacred. That they were so swiftly rounded up and dispatched testified to the fact that what had modernised since the medieval epidemics was the policing of mortality. By the summer, the plague carts were carrying thousands to the burial pits every week. On a hot, sweaty day in early June, Pepys wrote:

This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill-conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy someroll-tobacco to smell and to chaw – which took away the apprehension.  

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Above: “Bring out your Dead” was the mournful cry heard at night as carts coursed their way through the city’s streets collecting corpses. As coffins could not be built fast enough, bodies were tossed into grisly pits on the outskirts.

Staying put & ‘socialising’:

Following that, Pepys ‘posted’ regular records and comments about the spread of the plague in his diary:

10 June: Lay long in bed; and then up and at the office all the morning. … In the evening home to supper, and there to my great trouble hear that the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City); but where should it begin but in my good friend and neighbour’s, Dr Burnett in Fanchurch Street – which in both points troubles me mightily. To the office to finish my letters, and then home to bed – being troubled at the sickness, … and particularly how to put my things and estate in order, in case it should please God to call me away – which God dispose of to his own glory. 

11 June. Lord’s Day: I out of doors a little to show forsooth my new suit, and back again; and in going, saw poor Dr Burnet’s door shut. But he hath, I hear, gained great goodwill among his neighbours; for he discovered itself first, and caused himself to be shut up of his own accord – which was very handsome. In the evening comes Mr Andrews and his wife and Mr Hill, and stayed and played and sung and supped -most excellent pretty company; … They gone, we to bed – my mind in great present ease.

In this comment, it’s interesting to note the willingness of some to ‘self-isolate’, despite the low survival rate which must have been apparent by this stage. Also noteworthy, from our current perspective, is how much (wealthy) people continued to socialise during the plague and the benefit it brought to their mental states. But less than a week later, Pepys was severely affected by what happened during his hackney-coach journey from the Lord Treasurer of the Navy’s house in Holborn. The coach gradually slowed down and the coachman climbed down, hardly able to stand, telling Pepys that he had been suddenly taken sick and was almost blind. Pepys alighted and went to another coach, saddened for the poor man but also troubled for himself since he had been picked up at the end of town where the plague was most concentrated. However, by the end of June, it seemed to some that the peak of infection had passed:

… I informed myself that there died four or five at Westminster of the plague, in one alley in several houses upon Sunday last – Bell Alley, over against the Palace Gate. Yet people do think that the number will be fewer in the town than it was last week. 

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A weekly ‘bill of mortality’ for the week of 15-22 August 1665.

It is obvious from his entries that, by this time Pepys was becoming increasingly anxious for his own health, trying to limit his visits to his workplace and to ‘isolate’ himself as much as possible. The plague was beginning to affect him more personally, as friends, as well as neighbours, were succumbing to it:

3 July: Late at the office about letters; and so home, resolving from this night forward to close all my letters if possible and end all my business at the office by daylight, and I shall go near to do it and put all my affairs in the world in good order, the season growing so sickly that it is much to be feared how a man can (e)scape having a share with others in it – for which the good Lord God bless me or to be fitted to receive it. So after supper to bed, and mightily troubled in my sleep all night with dreams of Jacke Cole my old schoolfellow, lately dead, who was born at the same time with me, and we reckoned our fortunes pretty equal. God fit me for his condition.

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Above: West side of the City

Below: East side of the City

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Yet he was still able to go out and about, ordering wine on 7 July, of which he was pleased to have an ample supply in his cellar. He sent some of this to his wife, who two days earlier had moved out of plague-stricken London to lodge with William Sheldon, Clerk of the Cheque at Woolwich yard. Pepys was also helping to arrange a ‘marriage alliance’ between the families of the Earl of Sandwich and Sir George Carteret. Pepys took Philip Carteret, due to marry Sandwich’s daughter, Jemima, to ‘Dagnams’, the Essex home of Lady Wright, the Earl’s sister-in-law, where the young people were due to meet for the first time. Both were said to be ‘excessively shy’. On their way from Greenwich to Dagenham on 15 July, which included two ferry crossings with their coach and horses, Carteret and Pepys had a silly discourse … as to … love matters, he being the most awkward man I ever met withal in my life as to that business. His awkwardness continued well into their evening visit to ‘Dagnams’ and during his ‘courtship’ of Lady ‘Jem’, which included an afternoon visit to church. She later agreed to ‘readily obey what her father and mother had done’ but the wedding ‘breakfast’ two weeks later, according to Pepys (who missed the service with the bridegroom’s parents due to the tide at Deptford), was very merry … but yet in such a sober way as never almost any wedding was in so great families. Pepys did not mention the plague in his entries for these four days, which suggests that he could still be ‘distracted’ by such amusing ‘episodes’ of a more ‘normal life’.

Fears, favours & funerals:

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As August began, however, Pepys found the Exchequer being moved out of the City to Nonsuch Palace near Cheam in Surrey by royal proclamation. He then returned home to his ‘papers’ and began putting his books into storage, ‘settling’ his ‘house … and all things in the best and speediest order’ he could, lest it should please God to take me away or force me to leave my house. That the number of deaths was still growing can be surmised from his entry for 12 August, in which he reported the imposition of a ‘curfew’ by the Lord Mayor:

The people die so, that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by daylight, the nights not sufficing to do it in. And my Lord Mayor commands people to be within at 9 at night, all (as they say) that the sick may have liberty to go abroad for ayre.

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Having just visited his wife at Woolwich yard, on 15 August he got up at 4 a.m. and walked to Greenwich, where he called on Captain Cockes, who was still in bed. While there,

… something put my last night’s dream into my head, which I think is the best I ever was dreamed – which was, that I had my Lady Castlemayne in my armes and was admitted to use all the dalliance I desired with her, and then dreamed that this could not be awake but that it was only a dream. But that since it was a dream and that I took so much real pleasure in it, what a happy thing it would be, if when we are in our graves (as Shakespeare resembles it), we could dream, and dream but such dreams as this – that then we should not need to be fearful of death as we are in this plague-time. 

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Lady Castlemaine, studio of Lely: ‘But strange it is, how for her beauty I … pity her … though I know well enough she is a whore.’ (16 July 1662).

On 21 August, the Navy Office was moved to Greenwich Palace. For the rest of the year, Pepys moved into lodgings nearby, paying occasional visits to his wife at Woolwich and to his office building in London. The Principal Officers attended a Sunday service at St Alphege’s, the parish church on 3 September. Pepys felt inhibited from wearing his fine new periwig for fear that it was maid of hair cut from infected bodies:

Up, and put on my coloured silk suit, very fie, and my new periwig, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it. And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will buy any haire for fear of the infection – that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague. Church being done, my Lord Brouncker, Sir J. Mennes and I up to the vestry at the desire of the the Justices of the Peace, Sir Th. Bidolph and Sir W. Boreman and Alderman Hooker – in order to the doing something for the keeping of the plague from growing; but Lord, consider the madness of people of the town, who will (because they are forebid) come in crowds along with the dead corps to see them buried. But we agreed on some orders for the prevention thereof.

There was not much that science could do about the death rate, other than count London’s dead with ‘modern’ devotion to the seriousness of statistics and the mapping of the epidemic. In the first week of September, there were 8,252 deaths in the capital, of which 6,978 were from the plague. One in six Londoners died in the plague of the summer of 1665, and despite the onset of cooler weather as September went on, the trepidation hung around. On Sunday 24 September, Pepys caught up with his diary for the last seven days, he was contented that:

… it having pleased God that in this sad time of the plague everything else hath conspired to my happiness and pleasure, more for these last three months then in all my life before in so little time. God long preserve it, and make me thankful for it. 

But on 16 October, he returned to London, if only for a day. The scenes and sounds that greeted him immediately threw him back into a low mood:

But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physician, and but one apothecary left, all being dead – but that there are great hopes of a great decrease this week: God send it.

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‘Home by water … the river beginning to be very fell of ice, so I was a little frightened.’      (18 December 1665). 

The Frozen Thames, by A. Hondius, 1667, detail. Before the river was embanked in the nineteenth century, it was liable to freeze in the most severe winters, especially to the near London Bridge (as shown). In 1676-77 and 1684 ice fairs were held on the Thames.

On 22 November, Pepys recorded that the plague had, that week, ‘come very low’, six hundred or so, the news bringing ‘great hopes’ of a further decrease. These were at least partly predicated on there being ‘a very exceeding hard frost’, continuing the next day, conditions which were apparently ‘a perfect cure of the plague’. It’s interesting to note how then, as now, people believed that the onset of colder or warmer weather could provide at least a partial ‘cure’, though there has never been any significant evidence for this. In fact, the persistence of the plague through the winter months throughout the winter of 1665-56 and its spread to other cities, towns and villages the next year is suggestive of nothing but the sense of desperation that Londoners must have felt as the year neared its close. However, by 24 November, when Pepys visited the City again, it remaining or returning citizens had begun to observe or enquire of each other as to who that they knew before the plague was still alive. There were other signs of life returning, and Pepys was ‘mightily glad to see the Change so full’. He had bought two barrels of oysters from his old shop in ‘Gracious Street’, so pleased was he to find ‘my fine woman of the shop’ still alive, but was then concerned to discover that they had come from Colchester ‘where the plague hath been so much’. On Christmas Day he attended church in the morning and then saw a wedding which he had not seen in many a day, presumably since the one he had helped to arrange in July. This time, the young people were ‘so merry with one another’.

Premature Predictions:

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Early in the New Year of 1666, on 5 January, Pepys went by coach with Lord Brouncker to ‘my Lord’s house in Covent Garden’. There was great interest in the arrival of a nobleman’s coach in town once again, and everywhere porters were bowing to them, and beggars were begging. Pepys went on to describe a much more lively scene than on his previous visits to the City:

… a delightful thing it is to see the town full of people again, as now it is, and shops begin to open, though in many places, seven or eight together, and more, all shut; but yet the town is full compared  with what it used to be – I mean the City end, for Covent Guarden and Westminster are yet very empty of people, no Court nor gentry being there.

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However, Pepys’ optimism proved premature for, in the week after Christmas, as Clarendon later wrote, although …

… the rage and fury of the pestilence began in some degree to be mitigated, but so little, that nobody who had left the town had yet the courage to return thither: nor had they reason; for though it was a considerable abatement from the height it had been at, yet there died still between three and four thousand in the week, and of those, some men of better condition than had fallen before.  

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Edward Hyde, First Earl of Clarendon, Lord High Chancellor, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1662.

The Return of the King:

General Abermale, who was responsible for the conduct the Dutch War from London in the King’s absence, wrote to him in Oxford…

… that there still arose new difficulties in providing for the setting out of the fleet, and some of such a nature, that he could not easily remove them without communication with his majesty, and receiving his more positive directions; and how to bring that to pass he knew not, for as he could by no means advise his majesty to leave Oxford, so he found many objections against his own being absent from London.

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Charles II, as a patron of the Royal Society (of Sciences).

Windsor was thought to be a place where the King could reside safely since there had not yet been any infection there, but as the Court began to move there, taking up all the available accommodation, he became apprehensive about the outbreak of plague in one house in the town. In the end, towards the end of February, the king decided that the Queen, the Duchess of Richmond and all their families should remain in Oxford, while he and his brother, together with his cousin Prince Rupert, would meet the general at Hampton Court, staying there for two or three days a week, with the general returning to London down the Thames each night, 

… for no man did believe it counsellable that his majesty should reside longer there than the despatch of the most important business required.

Meanwhile, on 7 January, the Pepyses had returned to their home in Seething Lane, and on the 9th the Navy Board resumed its sittings there. But when he visited the ‘Change’ again on the 10th, they heard there, to their grief, how the plague had increased in the previous week from seventy to eighty-nine. Nevertheless, even some of the doctors and scientists began to return to the City as January went on and the number of deaths began to fall again. On 22 January, Pepys recorded details of his visit to the Crowne Tavern behind the Exchange, where the Gresham College met for the first time since the Plague:

Dr Goddard did fill us with talk in defence of his and his fellow physicians’ going out of town in the plague-time; saying that their particular patients were most gone out of town, and they left at liberty – and a great deal more, &c. But what, among other fine discourse, pleased me most, was Sir G. Ent about respiration; that is not to this day known or concluded on among physicians, nor to be done either, how that action is managed by nature or for what use it is.

The following day, the ‘good news, beyond all expectation’ was that the number of cases had dropped to seventy-nine. On the first Sunday of February, the Pepyses went to church together for the first time since the outbreak of the Plague. They only returned on this occasion …

… because of Mr Mills coming home to preach his first sermon, expecting a great excuse for his leaving the parish before anybody went, and now staying until all are come home; but he made a very poor excuse and a bad sermon. It was a frost, and had snowed last night, which covered the graves in the churchyard, so I was the less afeared for going through.

Three days later, 7 February, was a fast day for the Plague victims and Pepys spent it returning his chamber to the way it had been before the outbreak, taking all his books out of storage. This was the last direct, contemporary reference to the plague in London in Pepys’s ‘Journal’, so we might assume that by this date there were no more deaths in the capital. However, for at least a week at the end of February, Charles continued to keep his families in Oxford and to use Hampton Court for War meetings. The next week, Clarendon tells us, the number of those who had died from the plague in the City decreased by a thousand;

… and there was a strange universal joy there for the king’s being so near. The weather was as it could be wished, deep snow and terrible frost, which very probably stopped the spreading of the infection, though it might put an end to those who were already infected, as it did, for in a week or two the number of the dead was very little diminished. The general came and went as was intended: but the business every day increased; and his majesty’s remove to a further distance was thought inconvenient, since there appeared no danger in remaining where he was.

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In the third week, he decided to return to Whitehall and was preparing to do so when the news came through that there had been a further fifteen hundred deaths in that one week. As the King’s train rode into the City, the Courtiers found the streets otherwise empty of coaches;

… so much all men were terrified from returning to a place of so much mortality. Yet it can hardfly be imagined what nuimbers flocked hither and thither from all parts on the fame of the king’s being at Whitehall, all men being ashamed of their fears for their own safety, when the king ventured his person. The judges at Windsor adjourned the last return of the term to Westminster Hall, and the town every day filled marvellously; and which was more wonderful, the plague every day decreased. Upon which the king the king changed his purpose, and, instead of returning to Oxford, sent for the queen and all the family to come to Whitehall: so that before the end of March the streets were as full, the exchange as much crowded and the people in all places as numerous as they had ever been seen, few persons missing any of their acquaintance, though by the weekly bills there appeared to have died above one hundred and three score thousand persons: and many, who could compute very well, concluded that there were in truth double that number who died: and that in one week, when the bill mentioned only six thousand, there had in truth fourteen thousand died. 

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Above: A Plague Broadsheet, 1665.

Counting the Cost:

The frequent deaths of parish clerks and sections of parishes hindered the exact week-by-week counting of the dead, but what made it most difficult was the vast number of those who were buried in fields without any account being kept. Clarendon also claimed that many of ‘the anabaptists and sectaries who abounded in the city’, very few left their homes, ‘multitudes’ of them dying without the knowledge of the churchwardens or other parochial officers. They held their own burials in small gardens or neighbouring fields. The greatest number of deaths were of women and children, and also of ‘the lowest and poorest sort of people’, whereas few (rich) men missed their male acquaintances when they returned, ‘not many of wealth or quality or of much conversation being dead’. Due to the plague at Westminster, Parliament met at Oxford in 1666. It was prorogued to a day in April: but, as Clarendon recorded,

… the king had reason to believe that they would not so soon be in good humour enough to give more money, which was the principal end of calling them together. And the dregs of the plague still remaining and venting its malignity in many burials every week, his majesty thought fit to dispense with their attendance at that time by a proclamation: and he caused it at that day to be prorogued to the twentieth of September following. In the meantime, the court abounded in all its excesses. 

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Financially, the plague and the war had so ‘routed’ the revenues and receipts of the Exchequer, that those who collected these had not received enough to discharge the constant burden of their offices. Consequently, very little income was making its way into the national treasury, and neither was any interest being made on the ‘principal sums’. Moreover, as the great financial offices were located in the City of London, their destruction in the Great Fire in September meant that the very stocks which were consumed which would lead to a revival of trade.

The Spread of the Plague in the Country & the Clergy:

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Richard Baxter and his family all escaped the plague, probably because they were not living in London, having already been driven away by the Act of Uniformity which restored the old Anglican Church lock, stock and barrel, leading to the ejection of one in five of the clergy by 1662. Perhaps because of their popularity through their courage and devotion to duty during the plague, another law, the Five Mile Act, prevented them from coming within five miles of any important town or of any place at all where they had once been ministers. Some of these ministers went to small, out-of-the-way villages, while some went into hiding near their old homes and visited their wives and children secretly, on dark nights. They had to live in Acton, then six miles from the City; the Plague followed them there for seven months, but none of them caught it, although, at the end of their time there, the churchyard was like a ploughed field with graves. 

Rev William Mompesson (1639-1709) - Find A Grave Memorial

But it was not only the Puritans and their non-conforming clergy who were brave and charitable during the Plague, as the story of a young clergyman called William Mompesson (pictured above), who lived near Chatsworth in Derbyshire’s Peak District, reveals. After a period of service as chaplain to Sir George Saville, later Lord Halifax, he came as Rector to Eyam in 1664, with his wife Catherine accompanying him.

In 1665, the plague had reached his village through some cloth which had been sent north from London to the village tailor. The consignment of cloth bound brought with it the infectious fleas which spread the disease. After an initial flurry of deaths in the autumn of that year, it died down during the winter only to come back even more virulently in the spring of 1666. As its rector, Mompesson was determined not to let the plague spread, so that in conjunction with another clergyman, the ejected Puritan, Thomas Stanley, he took the courageous decision to isolate the village. He sent a letter to the (3rd) Earl of Devonshire at Chatsworth Hall to ask him to arrange for food and medicine to be placed at regular times on a great stone outside the village. This was done for seven weeks, during which time the Rector asked that no-one should leave the village and no-one did, though all were frightened that they might catch the plague by staying. The Rector made them see that it was their duty to other people not to risk spreading it around the country. All through the seven weeks of self-imposed quarantine until the plague died out, the Rector and his wife went about among the plague-stricken people, nursing them day and night. Mompesson did many other things to help the village during the plague including preventing the spread of it by filling a well full of vinegar for trading. This helped stop the spread of the plague by sterilising any coins that came in or out of Eyam.

In spite of these measures and the continuous care of the Mompessons, 259 of the parishioners died, including the Rector’s wife, but the infection did not spread to any other village in Derbyshire and the neighbouring counties. The plague claimed its last Eyam victim in December 1666. Mompesson became so associated with the plague that he was not universally welcomed at his next parish, Eakring, Nottinghamshire, where his memorial can be found. In 1670 he remarried, his second wife being a widow, Elizabeth Newby. She was a relative of his patron, Sir George Saville, and through his patronage, Mompesson eventually became Prebendary of Southwell, Nottinghamshire, although he declined the opportunity to be Dean of Lincoln Cathedral. He died in 1709.

This historic episode, commemorated each year in the village, has been the subject of many books and plays, notably The Roses of Eyam by Don Taylor (1970). Recently academics have begun to examine the factual basis of the story’s key ingredients: in particular, the extent to which wealthier residents were able to circumvent the ban. For example, despite insisting all villagers should remain in Eyam, Mompesson had his own children sent away to Sheffield in June 1666, just before the quarantine was agreed. At this time he also determined to send his wife Catherine with them but she refused to leave him, later succumbing to the plague.

The Comet, the Coronation & the Condition of the English People after the Fire:

The appearance of a comet in the summer of 1664 had been greeted with the same dismay that this phenomenon had always inspired as a presage of disaster. As Simon Schama has commented eloquently:

Following astrology, as the almanacs reminded their preternaturally anxious readers, was numerology; the tail of the comet heralded the sign of the Beast, his number being, as everyone knew: 666. Sure enough, in the first week of September 1666, up from the bituminous regions of hell, came the diabolical fire. Prophets had long been warning that the new Sodom, steeped in lechery and luxury, would be consumed by the fiery wrath of an indignant Jehovah.   

The longer-term significance of the events of the Great Plague and the Fire of London, forever linked in the psychology of the English people as coupled catastrophes, was that they revealed the 1660s as years of complacency and drift in which the early euphoria of the Restoration gave way to mild political depression. The ravages of the plague, the humiliating Dutch incursions up the Medway during the Second Dutch War (1665-7) and the Great Fire sapped the confidence of 1660-61 that God would bless a land that had come to its senses after the Civil Wars of the previous decades.

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Sources:

Robert Latham (ed.) (1978), The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary. London: Bell & Hyman (Book Club Associates).

G. Huehns (ed.) (1953), Clarendon: Selections from ‘The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars’ & ‘The Life by Himself’. London: Oxford University Press.

Simon Schama (2001), A History of Britain: The British Wars, 1603-1776. London: BBC Worldwide.

Katharine Moore (1961), Richard Baxter: Toleration and Tyranny (1615-1691). London: Longmans.

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The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’: Part One – The House of David.   Leave a comment

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‘Fake History’ versus Religious Literacy:

‘Fake News’ has apparently now found a supplement in ‘Fake History’ for the Trump administration in the United States of America. At the beginning of Advent 2017, in a move mainly concerned with pleasing the religious right in America rather than appeasing Israel, the ‘peacock’ President unilaterally declared Jerusalem as the (exclusive) capital of Israel and promised to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the city. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this action in terms of an ultimate two-state solution in Palestine, the justification that it is based on three thousand years of history is, quite simply, in error, whether one looks at the historical, archaeological or biblical evidence. It is more connected with literal and heretical interpretations of the Book of Revelation among extreme evangelicals than with the records contained in the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles, viewed in the context of other contemporary sources. It is also based on a view which is at best misguided and at worst purely ignorant of the nature of the territories and kingdoms of Israel and Judah in ancient times, in relation to their neighbours, as well as with regard to the role of Jerusalem in ancient times. We live in a time when a decline in religious and historical literacy has allowed a literal fundamentalism to become predominant in church and politics, at least in the USA. A leading American evangelical, Gary M. Burge, has recently expressed his frustration at the failure of his fellows to grasp and articulate the true message of the Old Testament about the true mission of the peoples of Israel:

Numerous evangelicals like me are less enamored of the recent romance between the church and Republican politics, and worry about moving the U.S. embassy. For us, peacemaking and the pursuit of justice are very high virtues. We view the ethical teachings of the scriptures as primary, and recognize that when biblical Israelites failed in their moral pursuits, they were sorely criticized by the Hebrew prophets and became subject to ejection from the Holy Land. … We need people like them now to remind the White House that in the Middle East, even symbolic gestures can have very real, dangerous consequences. But we also need evangelicals to do this. Trump listens to his evangelical advisers—and they are the ones who can lead him back to the Hebrew prophets, where a different point of view can be found.

In this series of ‘postings’, I have chosen to return to the basic sources which I used as a student of Biblical Studies and Church History and informed my early career in teaching History and Religious Education. In doing so, I want to demonstrate how important it is to understand the parallel development of the ancient history of Palestine and Israel with the evolution of an oral and literary tradition of first Jewish and later Christian eschatology, concerned to provide the persecuted faithful with a sustained vision of divine power. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the two are connected in the figure and person of the Messiah breaking through into human reality. This time of year, Advent, Hannukah and Christmas are redolent of these themes.

The Empire of David and Solomon:

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The history of Jerusalem as a Hebrew or ‘Israelite’ capital begins with David’s capture of it from the Philistines, following his establishment of his united, independent rule over the whole of the territory of the ten tribes (II Samuel 5. 17-25). The Philistine empire had been swept away overnight by a man who, unlike the current American President, had won his way to power through his sheer intellectual ability. After the battle of Mount Gilboa (c. 1,000 BC), in which both King Saul, the first Hebrew king, and his son Jonathan were both killed (1 Sam. 31), it had seemed that the Israelite kingdom was at an end and that Philistine power was unchallenged. David’s first steps towards national leadership were taken under Philistine auspices. They thought that they had every reason to trust him, and no doubt approved on his first action, which was to advance on Hebron, the chief city of Judah (II Sam. 2.2-4). They underestimated his status as a ‘national hero’ to the Judaeans, who needed no show of force to choose him as their king. However, to the Philistines, this ‘kingship’ was a title without substance: as far as they were concerned, he was governing Judea as a vassal state on their behalf.

David spent his next few years consolidating his territorial position. He accepted the invitation of the local elders to become king of the north and east (II Sam. 5.1-3). Although his defeat of the Philistines was decisive, he did not annex their home territory: he left them still independent but unable to harm him (II Sam. 8.1). Instead, he went on to conquer the neighbouring states of Moab, Edom and Ammon, and the Aramaean kingdoms of Zobah and Damascus (II Sam. 8; 10. 15-19; 12. 26-31), in such short order that the more distant states of Hamath and Tyre quickly established friendly relations with the new power which had appeared in Palestine. As a result, during his lifetime, no foreign power attacked the Israelite territories. Apart from his capture of Jerusalem, we are not told what happened to the city-states of Canaan. Some had been conquered by the Philistines, others remained independent. Only later in the biblical narrative are they referred to as ‘cities in Israel’. We may assume that they capitulated to David, as it was unlikely that he would have tolerated independent enclaves within his home territory when setting out on foreign campaigns.

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Therefore, by the mid-tenth century BC, a ‘country’ which, only a few years previously, had consisted of a few loosely-organised tribes under foreign domination had now become an Israelite empire, stretching from the border between Egypt and Gaza to the Euphrates. Its creator, David, was to rule it for almost forty years, until 961 B.C. Internally, David took some shrewd steps to consolidate his position. Although his capture of Jerusalem probably took place later than is suggested in the biblical account (II Sam. 5. 6-9), he then transferred his capital there from Hebron. He thus not only secured an extremely strong, fortified city as the centre of his government but also forestalled tribal jealousies. Had he continued to rule from Hebron, the northern tribes might have seen him as a Judaean upstart; but Jerusalem had no tribal connections at all, so he was able to project himself as an impartial king of ‘all Israel’.

Even more successful was David’s transfer to Jerusalem of the ark of the Covenant. This was a sacred object, once the rallying point of the tribal league, which had been captured by the Philistines. It still had the power to command the old loyalties to the priesthood which had existed before Saul became king, and by placing it in his new capital, David made another shrewd move to strengthen loyalty to himself and to allay any suspicions that more conservative factions might have had that he intended to sweep away old traditions and institutions in establishing a new type of monarchy based on the pagan model of the imperial rulers in the region. By this action, he proved both his piety as an Israelite of old and his concern to give the old tribal league a permanent centre where the traditional worship of the God of Israel would be carried on as before.

He was greatly assisted in these policies by what must have seemed to his subjects and contemporaries as miraculous success in everything he did. No-one, it was believed, could have been so successful without at least a measure of divine favour. This is the constant narrative theme of the Hebrew scriptures about him, becoming almost a ‘theological dogma’ in II Sam. 7 where God is represented as confirming David’s position as the divinely appointed and anointed leader through whom God’s will for his people was achieved. There is no reason to doubt that David himself believed this, and saw himself as the servant of the God of Israel. At the same time, however, he was well aware that his was a composite, multi-ethnic kingdom, comprising Canaanites as well as Israelites. The cooperation of the latter was not only essential for the safety of the state, but also of great potential benefit to it. They were the heirs of centuries of civilised urban living and superior to the Israelites both in warfare and in the arts of peace. Unassimilated, they constituted a serious existential threat; assimilated, they provided David with much-needed administrative and military expertise. In return for their loyalty, David seems to have recognised their autonomy over their own local administration, also allowing them the freedom to practise their own religious traditions.

Thus in his religious policy, David steered a careful middle course. At Jerusalem, the worship of the God of Israel centred upon the ark was modified by elements borrowed from the pre-Israelite Canaanite cult. In this way, Canaanites who worshipped in the city did not feel that the Hebrew worship was entirely alien, imposed on them by a foreign conqueror. A similar policy was adopted in the former Canaanite cities, and the worship of their gods, thus tolerated, continued to flourish throughout the period of the monarchy. David was no religious fanatic, though believing himself to be under the favour and protection of the God of Israel. In fact, this ‘multi-cultural’ approach contributed considerably to his success as a ruler by divine right.

David’s systematic monarchy was very different from the chaotic rule of Saul. As a powerful political state, Israel rapidly developed institutions which were entirely new to the Israelites, in many respects modelled on those of its neighbours. The business of efficient government required a professional civil service which David recruited from both Israelite and Canaanite sources, also employing skilled scribes from other countries which had greater experience in administration, especially from Egypt. This central government at Jerusalem provided the king with advice on political problems in the ‘wisdom’ tradition of the Near East. It also administered justice under the king as chief judge, collected taxes and dues, organised a state labour force, kept administrative records and dealt with foreign affairs, maintaining diplomatic correspondence with foreign powers and negotiating international treaties.

These ‘wise men’ were also known as ‘scribes’, belonging to an educated class which was international in character and identifiable throughout the ancient Near and Middle East. It comprised statesmen and administrators as well as men of letters, and it exerted great influence on the affairs of Judah from the time of David to the fall of the Judaean state. They were products of a higher education whose aim was to inculcate a religious mental discipline and to provide hard-headed and clear-thinking men to fill important diplomatic and administrative offices in the state. The title of ‘scribe’ was given to such high officials in Egypt as well as to their counterparts in Babylonia and Assyria. The title ‘scribe’ or ‘secretary’ does not simply mean that the person is a skilled writer, nor does it show that the office he holds is one which calls for linguistic dexterity. It implies that without these skills a man did not possess the essential qualifications for office, and is a reminder that the mastery of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform scripts required intellectual concentration of a high order. In II Sam. 8. 16-18 and 20. 23-25 there are official lists of the leading members of David’s establishment, ecclesiastical, civil and military. Of the two political officials named, Seraiah is ‘the secretary’ of state, and Jehoshaphat is ‘the recorder’. Both are of the highest rank in the government.  Solomon’s principal officials are called ‘statesmen’, and a hereditary principle is seen to apply in both civil and ecclesiastical spheres. The office of secretary of state, occupied by Seraiah under David, appears to be held jointly by his two sons (I Kings 4. 1-6). Solomon’s list is longer than that of David’s reign, reflecting the more complicated organisation of Solomon’s state. Azariah, son of Nathan, is said to have control of ‘the officials’, probably the twelve appointed by Solomon over all Israel, each of whom was responsible for the provisioning of the royal household for one month of the year.

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The degree of centralised control which was exercised by Solomon brought into being a cadre of officials who had close associations with Jerusalem and the court and to whom administration and diplomacy were trusted. They were a class specially educated from an early age for the responsibility of high office, and it may be that a school for ‘scribes’ was founded by Solomon in Jerusalem in order to meet the demand for high service in his state. These ‘statesmen’ were at the centre of government and foreign affairs in Israel and Judah from the time of David to the end of the monarchy. They had all the prestige and reputation as weighty counsellors to the king. Diplomacy and administration became a profession in Judah and were in the hands of a class of men who understood the internationally accepted protocol and had their own standards of efficiency, conscientiousness and integrity.

These administrative developments had far-reaching consequences. In particular, they facilitated greater social distinctions than Israelite society had ever known before. The Canaanite cities were already accustomed to a highly stratified social structure, but this was the first time that the freeborn Israelites had experienced rule by a wealthy, urban ruling class whose interests were far from identical from their own. In the reigns of David and Solomon, Jerusalem became a wealthy, cosmopolitan city in which this ruling class enjoyed a standard of living beyond anything which could have been dreamed of by the Hebrew peasantry and craftworkers. Apart from the fact that they were now free from foreign oppression and slavery, the ordinary Israelite population still consisted mainly of farmers who hardly felt the benefits of Israel’s new ‘imperial’ status.

Supreme above the new upper class stood the king. Whatever the divine sanctions by which he claimed to rule, and however much he might rely on the loyalty of the ordinary Israelite, one of the main sources of his power was his professional army, which owed him a purely personal loyalty. It was this army which had first enabled David to capture Jerusalem, but many of its members were foreigners who had no reason for loyalty to Israel or its deity (II Sam. 8. 18; 11; 15. 18-22; 20. 7, 23). It was these ‘servants of David’ who, during Absalom’s rebellion, defeated the rebels, known as ‘the men of Israel’ and restored David to the throne (II Sam. 18. 7). Having secured his position through this mercenary army, David was able to play the part of an oriental monarch, gathering around him a court which imitated the splendour of foreign courts and tending to become more isolated from the common people (II Sam. 15. 3 f.) He was too shrewd, however, to allow this tendency to go too far. He knew that ultimately he could not retain his throne without the loyalty and affection of his people, and also that too great a departure from social and religious traditions of the Israel of old would put his throne in danger. It is unlikely that this Israelite monarchy, at this or any other time during its short existence, succumbed to the temptation of claiming for itself that semi-divine character which was characteristic of other monarchies of the time. We have to distinguish between some of the high-flown language in the Psalms and the Second Book of Samuel and the actual political realities faced by David. He was certainly regarded, like Saul, as ‘the Lord’s anointed’, the man who had brought salvation to his people, but there were too many men at his court who knew the facts of his rise to power for any further extravagant notions about his office to gain wide credence.

David did, however, firmly adopt one aspect of the monarchical concept which hardly accorded with the Israelite ideas of charismatic leaders, chosen personally by God: the principle of a hereditary monarchy. Saul had also intended that his son Jonathan should succeed him, but under David, the principle seems to have been taken for granted, and it was given a religious sanction in the divine promise given to him in II Sam. 7.  However, neither David’s own position nor the future of his family was really secure. The power and prosperity of the Israelite state made it vulnerable to usurpers, and such men found no lack of grievances which could be turned to their advantage. There were many who had remained loyal to Saul and his family and continued to regard David as a traitor and a murderer, and there were others who had come to disapprove of his arrogant and sinful actions such as his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah. In the north, there were those who resented being ruled by a Judaean, and there were still others who felt that the old religious and social traditions were being overthrown. Following the rebellion led by his own son, Absalom, a man called Sheba, of Saul’s tribe of Benjamin, also rose in rebellion (II Sam. 15-20). Although that rebellion was similarly crushed, the feelings of discontent remained.

The situation in the latter part of the reign was complicated by uncertainty about the succession to the throne. David had a number of wives, several of whom had borne him sons. In the hereditary monarchies of the ancient Near East, there was no rule of ‘primogeniture’, that the eldest son must succeed. The king had the right to choose his own heir, and it was obviously desirable that this should be done in good time. After the death of Absalom, there remained Adonijah and Solomon, half-brothers, as obvious candidates. The rivalry between the brothers led to a dangerous feud among the leading men of the state. But Adonijah made a false move, and paid for it with his life, dragging down with him some of the most important personalities of the reign which was now ending. Solomon was king, but he began his reign with a bloodbath (I Kings 2). In spite of splendid outward appearances, not least the construction of the Temple, the reign (961-922 B.C.) was a period of stagnation and the beginnings of Israel’s decline. This came as no surprise to contemporaries for whom even the reign of another David (which Solomon was not) could probably not have held together the heterogeneous empire for a second generation.

In economic terms, matters continued to progress relatively well. Although the agricultural resources and reserves of Israel were by no means great, it was well placed in other respects. The overlordship of the Canaanite plain had given David control of the only land route linking Egypt in the south with Mesopotamia in the east and Asia Minor in the north. Solomon ensured his control over it by extensive fortifications of the key cities  (I Kings 4. 26; 9. 15-19; 10. 26), deriving considerable wealth from it through tolls, taxes and external trade. He also established, through the alliance with Tyre, a lucrative maritime trade, building his own sea-port on the Red Sea. He also mined copper in Edom and refined it for export. Besides the trade with Egypt and Tyre, trade was also established with South Arabia (I Kings 10. 2,13). These activities brought considerable profit to Israel, but Solomon succumbed to a fatal folie de grandeur by attempting to imitate the splendours of Egypt and Mesopotamia, erecting buildings of great magnificence. Since Israel itself possessed neither the materials nor the skilled labour, he had to import these from Tyre, and as a consequence found himself in financial difficulties (I Kings 9. 10-14). At the same time, he alienated popular support not only by over-burdening his people with an extravagant court (I Kings 4. 7-19, 22f.) but also by extending the forced labour scheme which David had begun to such an extent that it seriously impaired agricultural efficiency (I Kings 5. 13-18).

The Israelite empire began to break up. Judah remained loyal to the king, and the Canaanite cities gave no trouble; but Edom and Damascus revolted, re-establishing their independence and becoming dangerous enemies (I Kings 11. 14-25); and the northern tribes of Israel produced their own leader, Jeroboam, who, when his first uprising failed, retired to Egypt where he was given protection and bided his time (I Kings 11. 26-40).

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Solomon’s most enduring achievement was the building of the temple at Jerusalem, but he could not have realised at the time the significance this would have in later times. The building was merely the corollary of David’s bringing of the ark to Jerusalem. Solomon provided a magnificent shrine for it, but in doing so he employed Phoenician architects and craftsmen to design and build it, thereby ensuring an increase in the Canaanite element of Israel’s worship. Solomon is praised in several biblical passages for his wisdom, but only one of these refers to his statesmanship in doing so. He may have been wise in other respects, but statesmanship was not one of these. Therefore, the early promise of political greatness for Israel went unfulfilled. It had undertaken fundamental changes during the reigns of David and Solomon, changes which would not be reversed. The Hebrews had been brought into the world of international politics and culture. The striking literary examples of this are to be found in the ‘succession narratives’ in which the characters and events at David’s court are described in vivid detail (II Sam. 9-20; I Kings 1; 2) Much of the advances in literary craftsmanship are due to the influence of Egypt and the Canaanite cities, but it is no mere imitation; its authors applied the newly-acquired techniques and insights to their own historical traditions, in which the new confident, national spirit inspired by the heroic achievements of David had given them a new sense of pride.

We not only have the narrative texts of the Books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and the interpretative sources of the prophets on which to base our knowledge of the rise and fall of the Israelite empire, but a vast quantity of written sources dealing with the international setting of the history of Israel has been discovered. Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian records provide a very full account of the histories of those empires, including their relationships with the Israelite kingdoms. In a few instances, they contain independent accounts of events described in the biblical narrative. From Palestine itself we also have two texts, written in Hebrew; the Siloam Inscription, written by Hezekiah’s engineers inside a water tunnel (cf. II Kings 20. 20) and the Lachish Letters, a correspondence between Judaean army officers during the campaign which ended with the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. The excavation of Samaria, the Israelite capital built by Omri, also brought to light the Samaria Ivories, part of the decoration of Ahab’s palace (I Kings 22. 39).

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