The Summer of 1603
Plague, Pestilence and A King in Hiding
by Elizabeth St.John
When Queen Elizabeth I died on 24 March 1603, her heir, James I of England and IV of Scotland was north of the border. Although word reached him within days, he needed to put his affairs in order and was in no great hurry to reach London. By the time he travelled south, Bubonic Plague had started to break out in pockets across England. In fact, Stepney, one of London’s outer parishes, recorded its first outbreak shortly after the Queen’s funeral on 28th April 1603. By 1 May, deaths were being recorded right up against the city walls in St. Botolph-without-Bishopsgate.
In the cramped and crowded city the plague spread quickly, fueled by unsanitary and filthy living conditions, and a large rat population infesting the streets and tenements. By the summer, law sessions were suspended, and people stopped attending church. Local physician Thomas Lodge writes in his Treatise of the Plague that “For where the infestation most rageth, poverty reigns among the Commons...” Orders to shutter theatres were given and remained in place for nearly a year.
An enormous number of Londoners died in the outbreak of 1603. In fact, it has recently been estimated that at the plague’s height, it caused 86 percent of all deaths in the city. And although the Great Plague of London in 1665 is remembered as the most devastating, a higher percentage of citizens died in 1603.
Terrified of the pestilence, the highly superstitions King James halted his procession south and arrived at Theobalds in Hertfordshire on 3 May 1603. Like many, he regarded the plague as a sign of God’s anger, and did not welcome this portent at the very beginning of his reign. Others felt that it was God’s lamentation at the death of Queen Elizabeth, which did not bode well for James. By 29 May, a proclamation was issued from Greenwich “commanding gentlemen to depart the Court and City on account of the plaguye.”
Living in London in 1603, playwright Thomas Dekker wrote The Wonderfull Yeare, a pamphlet concentrating on all the “wonderful” events that occurred in and around the city. In his time, “wonderful” was something astonishing, or surprising. His eyewitness account of the horror and death surrounding him is harrowing, and although he escaped the plague himself, his playwright’s pen brought a persona and reality to the experience that is vivid and harsh.
King James eventually ventured into London in July, and his poorly attended coronation went ahead on 25 July, 1603 at Westminster Abbey. His ceremonial Royal Entry to London was delayed until 15 March 1604, when everyone could be assured that the plague was no longer a threat. For now.
The Lady of the Tower
Antidote for the plague
Take conserve of wood sorrel and a scruple of saffron together with the syrup of the juyce of citrons, as much as will make an electuary. Take with a quantity of a large nutmeg every morning.
31st July 1603
It reached that soft half-light, neither day nor night, which we treasure in the summer, and shadows bloomed around me in the darkening garden. I walked to the house, passing by the open windows of the hall.
“’Od’s Blood, Will, I have seen some fearsome sights in war, but to see the tragedy in the city today.”
It was Oliver’s voice, hushed, drifting through the gloaming. I paused to hear more.
Will’s response was choked.
“’Tis one thing to face a man across a battlefield with death on his shoulder, knowing that it is his end or yours. ’Tis another to see a man, mad with grief, trying to breathe life into his dead wife and children.”
“This evil scourge strikes swift. Men sleep with their wife by their side. Children are safe in bed. He awakes, his woman lifeless, children dying, servants gone, house boarded up and no escape.” Oliver’s voice was so low I could barely catch his words.
“Shuttering prevents the spread of the vapors. Should we purchase plague masks, Oliver?”
“The merchants are no longer open. They have fled; physicians too. The town is dwelt in by ghosts.” His voice rose. “For the love of Christ, in all my years, I have never seen anything like it.”
“’Struth, the playhouses are closed. Even the Southwark whores are locked up. I did not expect a silent London—except citizens’ cries begging for release from quarantined houses.”
“Aye, it’ll be a long summer. We can only rely on ourselves. Those left in the city will not help. We need to organize labor for the harvest, check stores, prepare to survive in isolation. You’ll stay, Will?”
“I have nowhere else to go. If I can be of use here, then put me to work.”
One of them reached out to pull the window closed, as if to shut out the evil humors of the night. Pressed against the plaster walls of the old house, I drew strength from its uneven surface, still warm from the setting sun. The manor had witnessed plagues before and withstood them all. I prayed fiercely that it would protect us from this summer of death.
From that night on, the plague days bound our lives, one blurring into another. We were imprisoned, helpless, waiting for the tide of contagion to lap at our door and recede again. I was forbidden to leave the house and its lands, and even my gardens offered little respite. The Thames delivered to our banks carcasses of all kinds, indiscriminate in death between cats and dogs, culled to halt the disease spread, and babes and children who had slipped unnoticed from the death carts. To the east, a pall of thick smoke landmarked the city. The rising sun turned the air around us an unnatural orange, as those who remained lit fires day and night in the hope of burning away the contagion.
Our sentence was measured by the numbers of dead declared by the plague masters in London. While Barbara spent her days fussing over her clothes, making our poor sewing maid pull apart and re-stitch bodices and sleeves till her eyes popped from her head, I lost myself in my writing and recipes. Now that the prospect of the plague stealing into our home terrified Aunt Joan, she encouraged me to brew my concoctions. I spent hours in the stillroom, and more in the solar, writing down all I found.
Mallow and nettles to burst the abscesses, rosemary to strew on the floors instead of the rushes, all I collected in my stillroom, fierce in my acquisition to keep the pestilence at bay. No charnel pit did I want dug in Battersey, no communal burial for our servants, our family. The bells tolled the death knells across the river, and each day, I waited and watched, the sun rising and setting upon the city of death.
Will’s presence shifted Joan’s attention from me, for she and Barbara found distraction in the presence of a handsome man with his stories of adventure and foreign shores. Their interest cooled when Joan discovered that his wealth depended on privateering rather than inheritance. She redefined him as a poor but useful relation, and although Barbara continued to practice her arsenal of flirtations on him, it was apparent that she viewed him as a butt on which to practice her skills rather than a real quarry. At the same time, he really had little patience for her and regarded her as a passing amusement. He preferred to spend his hours outside or playing tables with me. I could see it annoyed Barbara tremendously when he chose me over her.
Anonymous lives tallied our freedom, and as the autumn winds cooled the heat of summer, we waited for the death toll to decrease. Each week, Oliver or Will ventured to White Hall to read the broadsheets and return with the latest news. As autumn crept to winter, and I thought I would go mad with the diminishing daylight hours bringing further enclosure, we sank into brief days and endless nights.
At last, Will rode back with the news that the deaths had reduced to less than thirty souls within the city walls in a week and that the king had authorized a license to open the theaters again. Our Christmas celebration in 1603 was the quietest ever. As the year turned and the solstice marked the sun’s dominance, we began to believe that the worst was behind us. Surely the new king would ascend with the coming year and bring us hope again.