London and the 17th Century: The Making of the World’s Greatest City, by Margarette Lincoln
£25, 384 pages, Yale University Press
Margarette Lincoln is a rare phenomenon, an academic who is never in danger of becoming a bore. With impeccable scholarship, she has created a brilliant multi-coloured tapestry which vividly conveys not merely the tangled politics of 17th-century London, but also the dangers, joys, horrors and satisfactions of living in the city.
Her writing, always clear, is delightfully spiced with anecdote. Thus, in dealing with the Cromwellian regime in London, she does not disdain to tell us that the Protector, while selling much of Charles I’s magnifi cent picture collection, retained the King’s padded red velvet close-stool.
The portrait of 17th-century London which emerges is an extraordinary mixture of sophistication and squalor. Think, on one hand, of the great men who trod the streets: Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Peter Paul Rubens, William Harvey, Thomas Hobbes, Anthony Van Dyck, John Milton, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Henry Purcell – to name but a few.
On the other hand, as Lincoln makes abundantly clear, no modern sensibility could tolerate the stench and filth of Stuart London, even in the respectable areas. “England is the sole spot in all the world,” observed John Evelyn, “where, among Christians, their Churches are made jakes, and stables, markets and Tipling-houses.”
In 1660 Samuel Pepys entered his cellar and “put my foot into a great heap of turds, by which I fi nd that Mr Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me.” And Pepys was a well-off Londoner.
Even so, whatever the dangers from plague, riot, hunger and persecution, the population of London doubled in the 17th century to some half a million. The hope of a fortune, or merely a living, brought a steady fl ow of immigrants, both from the provinces and from abroad. The foundation of the East India Company in 1600 fostered the development of London as a great international port. By 1700 the population had doubled to half a million, a quarter of whom were involved in one way or another with commerce on the Thames.
So London was at once a death trap and an irresistible lure. Even under Cromwell’s regime, there were Royalists who, banned from the town, decided that “a London jail with friends and drinks” represented a more agreeable prospect than life in the country.
Lincoln shows a particular interest in the fate of Catholics in London. Throughout the 17th century, they were subjected to almost continuous persecution, yet were never entirely driven from the town. In 1700, it is reckoned, there were still some 6,000 Catholics in London. Charles I’s French queen, Henrietta Maria, “the Supreme Petticoate”, had been an object of special loathing and derision on account of her ardent Catholicism. It was hardly tactful of her, though, to refuse not merely a Protestant coronation, but even to enter Westminster Abbey.
The city supported and financed the rebellion against Charles I, albeit with increasing concern about the power of the army and the radical forces unleashed in its ranks. Cromwell’s bleak rule led to rejoicing at the restoration of Charles II. The euphoria, however, proved short-lived. At the end of the 1670s another Catholic queen, the harmless Catherine of Braganza, was viciously traduced during the wholly imaginary menace of “The Popish Plot”.
Catholics were blamed for every misfortune. In 1681 an additional inscription was added to the Monument commemorating the Great Fire, warning that the “Popish frenzy, which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched”.
Commercial interest, however, might trump even religious prejudice. On his accession in 1685 the Catholic James II was welcomed in the city, where his service in the navy was not forgotten. Very soon, however, Londoners were resenting his interference with the livery companies, and showing alarm at his stationing of troops on Hounslow Heath. Most damaging of all, though, was the favour which he showed towards Catholics. Three years later, when William of Orange landed at Torbay, James did not dare march west to oppose him for fear of losing control of London.
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