How Charles II Dealt With the Plague Outbreak in 1665

In 1665, plague broke out in England and Charles II issued steps to try to contain it. But how successful were these and how far were they implemented? We go back to seventeenth-century London and take a look. 

Fires were one of Charles' measures to combat plague in 1665.
Photo by Paul Schafer on Unsplash

"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," writes Samuel Pepys on 16 October 1665. (1)

This was Bubonic Plague, the same Yersinia Pestis that had swarmed Europe in the years of the Black Death, in the fourteenth century. The disease - which still exists today, but is rare - was spread by infected fleas carried by rats. And in overcrowded, unhygienic towns and cities, it infected quickly and without discrimination. Modern estimates from the World Health Organisation place the fatality rate of plague between 30-100%. (2) It would take one flea bite to be infected, with symptoms including fever and painful swellings of the lymph nodes that would eventually turn into open sores, called 'buboes'. To the people of Stuart England, who had no knowledge of the microscopic world of bacteria, this invisible, indiscriminate attack would have been terrifying. 

And, as in any crisis, they looked to the king for guidance. 

Charles II, with his tumbling dark locks and furrowed brow, issued a proclamation published by his special command, "Rules and Orders To be observed by all Justices of Peace, Mayors, Bayliffs, and other Officers, for prevention of the spreading of the Infection of the PLAGUE.

The order includes measures we would consider helpful in managing disease today, such as 'no stranger was allowed to enter a town unless they had a certificate of health,' and that 'There were to be no public gatherings such as funerals and all houses were to be kept clean.' Clause 10 stipulates the building of 'pest houses', where, upon the onset of symptoms, infected people would be taken, isolating them from the rest of the community. But then goes on to order that 'able and faithful Searchers and Examiners be forthwith provided and Sworn to Search all bodies, for the usual signs of the plague.' 

Charles II, in Coronation Robes, Public Domain

Today, prevention of plague is carried out by isolation, surveillance and practicing good hygiene - and the administering of antibiotics, which were unknown to the seventeenth-century. Charles and his advisors certainly sought to isolate those that were infected and to observe people for swollen lymph nodes and other symptoms, but the order to search bodies would have been done without modern protective equipment. It only takes one infected flea from the local area to jump onto another host and the cycle begins again. In rare cases, Bubonic Plague can be passed from person to person by infected tissues, for example the sores that developed in the later stages of the disease, but flea bite transmission is most common. (2)

The proclamation also suggests that it was thought that the plague travelled, invisible and deadly, through the air, probably because of the stench in closely populated areas, a belief that dates back to outbreaks in the sixteenth century. It is ordered that "Fires in moveable Pans, or otherwise, be made in all necessary publique [public] Meetings in Churches, &c. and convenient Fumes to correct the Air be burnt thereon." 

Informing people where the plague had so far struck seemed also a good idea, and red crosses were ordered to be painted onto doors where it had been noticed. Clause 11 states: 'That if any House be Infected, the sick person or persons be forthwith removed to the said pest-house, sheds, or huts, for the preservation of the rest of the Family: And that such house (though none be dead therein) be shut up for fourty days, and have a Red Cross, and Lord have mercy upon us, in Capital Letters affixed on the door, and Warders appointed, as well to find them necessaries, as to keep them from conversing with the sound.'

Given that the plague was, albeit then unknowingly spread by infected fleas, locking people up in a house where presumably the carriers (rats) still inhabited would have resulted in more infections, and not less. The isolation of the person with symptoms was probably a better plan, if it was followed. But the historical record suggests that this wasn't always the case. 

Depiction of the Plague in London, 1665. Public Domain.

A court hearing from 1665, heard in the presence of the king, specified a house in St Giles in the Fields that was 'shutt up as suspected to bee infected with the Plague, and a Cross and paper fixed, on the doore; And that the said Cross and paper were taken off, and the door opened, in a riotious manner, and the people of the house permitted, to goe abroad into the street promiscuously, with others.' An enquiry was opened to find and punish the perpetrators. (3) Samuel Pepys also documents the instance of an infected person escaping, in his diary entry of 3rd August 1665: 'A mayde servant of Mr John Wright's (who lives thereabouts) falling sick of the plague, she was removed to an out-house, and a nurse appointed to look to her; who, being once absent, the mayde got out of the house at the window, and run away.' (4)

The note -  'Lord have mercy on us' - that was ordered to be nailed to the door, shows us the Stuarts' belief that it was God - and not fires, potions or pest houses that, in the end, would steer the plague away. Charles made sure to include an instruction to 'take special care, that not onely [only] the Monethly Fasts, but that the publique prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays also, be strictly and constantly observed,' so that 'God may be inclined to remove his severe hand both from amongst you and us.' 

Although Pepys often mentions in his diaries that he sees red crosses and notes upon doors, it seems that as long as people didn't show symptoms, it was business as usual. Plague had been present since April 1665 in London - and on 24 May, he writes of the 'plague growing upon us in this towne'. However on the same day he also visits a coffee house with a colleague, goes back home for dinner and then socialises around the city with various people in the evening before returning to his office and then home. (5) It's interesting to wonder how different residents' behaviour would have been if they had known the plague was carried by the rats that scurried through houses, coffee-houses, marketplaces and streets. 

The speed and rate of death meant that people couldn't be isolated quick enough though, and unfortunately bodies lying in the streets were a common sight. On 10 August, Pepys writes with curiosity about 'an odd story of Alderman Bence's stumbling at night over a dead corps in the streete,' but by 7 October, he writes that he 'come close by the bearers with a dead corpse of the plague; but Lord! to see what custom is, that I am come almost to think nothing of it.' (6)

Charles' attempts at trying to isolate and reduce the plague's spread can also be seen  in his proclamation on August 27th 'forbidding the holding of Holden or Howden fair, near York, lest the infection should be carried into those parts of the country which are yet free,' making a special note that people travelling from London are especially forbidden to travel to fairs in Yorkshire 'till the infection ceases.' Predictably, he also stopped 'any coming to the king to be touched for the evil, unless presented by the peculiar officers.' (7)

Charles' efforts to combat the outbreak of plague in 1665-1666 seemed to be based on the understanding that it was spread in the air and between visibly infected people and burning fires would 'clean' it. Although concerned, London's residents still went out to eat, dealt with business and travelled in streets where the infection had been, suggesting that they believed that as long as they weren't showing symptoms, they were safe to go about their normal day. Many measures also assume that the infection was spread from person to person - such as the orders for isolation and restrictions on travel - when this was less of a risk than the rats that carried the plague, unchecked, into the places people felt safest - in their homes and beds. 

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All references to Charles' Rules and Orders of 1666 is from National Archives Proclamation, accessed 30 Apr. 2020

1., 16 Oct 1665, accessed 30 Apr. 2020
2. WHO, Plague. Accessed 30 Apr. 2020 
3. National Archives. Plague. Source 3b. Accessed 30 Apr. 2020
4. Pepys, 3rd August 1665, Accessed 30 Apr 2020
5. Pepys, 24 May 1665. Accessed 30 Apr 2020
6. Pepys, 10 August, 1665 and 7 October 1665, Accessed 30 Apr 2020
7. 'Charles II - volume 131: August 23-31, 1665', in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles II, 1664-5, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1863), pp. 530-545. British History Online  [accessed 30 April 2020].