So wrote John Donne, poet and priest, who described London in the 1600s as “a place full of danger and vanity and vice,” neatly encapsulating its horror and allure. The contradictions of London life, its mansions and hovels, its opportunities and epidemics, and the annual influx of migrant workers bringing yet more overcrowding all combined to make seventeenth-century London an intensely stimulating but troubling experience.
The capital continually attracted talent in need of patronage and prospects. The obvious example is William Shakespeare, who journeyed from Warwickshire, joined a company of players, and helped to make it the leading theatre company in London. Shakespeare always lived within easy distance of his work. Early in his career, he had lodgings south of the river in an area called Bankside, which was outside the jurisdiction of the City and home to most of London’s brothels. On days when plays were performed in Bankside’s theatres, watermen estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 people crossed London Bridge, then the only roadway across the Thames. The theatres influenced popular opinion and James I shrewdly patronized the company to which Shakespeare belonged, renaming it The King’s Men.
In Shakespeare’s time, the population of London was around 200,000. By the end of the century, it had soared to more than 500,000. Refugees from France and the Netherlands fleeing religious persecution helped to make London a vibrant, culturally diverse city. They also brought weaving, metal-working and expert design skills that would stimulate the economy. In the course of this century, colonizing voyages to the Americas widened the horizons of Londoners, brought new crops like tobacco to the metropolis, and prompted a curious interest in navigation and oceanic travel.
The scientific philosopher, Francis Bacon, who advocated the close observation of facts and who believed that inductive reasoning was the foundation of all knowledge, was a keen supporter of colonies in North America. He helped to channel the great wealth of London’s livery companies into colonial projects, while courting favour with King James I. The king himself took pride in being a peacemaker. He gave the country two decades of peace during which foreign trade prospered. England’s growing trade was partly linked to the expansion of London. In the first half of the century, long-distance trade fired merchants with genuine excitement. London’s East India trade became hugely profitable. Valuable cargoes of spices (nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper), medicinal drugs, perfumes, silks, and aromatic woods, poured into London from the East. The East India Company’s most profitable 1612 voyage gave investors their money back and a staggering 220 per cent profit. Civil war would damage foreign trade in the 1640s, but it recovered afterwards.
The diarist Samuel Pepys gives us the most intimate record of London’s mid-century streets. A man on the make, he revelled in luxury purchases, home improvements, and startling scientific discoveries. He attended meetings of the Royal Society, attempting afterwards to teach his wife how to use globes; he impressed dinner guests with his expensive new microscope. Pepys’s descriptions of the Great Plague in 1665 and the Fire of London in 1666 are deservedly well known. Both events put London’s population under unprecedented stress and risked overturning the fabric of society.
During the plague, Pepys stayed at his post in the City, putting his trust in chewing tobacco and his rabbit’s foot. Recent excavations for London’s Crossrail Project have yielded insights into how citizens coped and gave meaning to life and work despite unprecedented onslaughts. During the epidemic, ritual continued to help survivors: excavations have shown that even as thousands died, corpses were mostly coffined, and that the coffins were stacked neatly in rows up to four deep. People clung on to convention, even in mass burials.The following year, the Fire destroyed around four-fifths of the walled City. One traumatized observer wrote afterwards that London’s great City was just a heap of stones and rubbish, “nothing more than an open field.” Iconic locations were of keen importance to Londoners and after the Fire rebuilding started at once. King Charles II swiftly planted the idea that London, phoenix-like, would rise more beautiful than before. John Dryden, in his poem Annus Mirabilis, loyally encouraged readers to see 1666 as a year of wonders, and to think of the Plague and the Fire not as disasters but as trials from which the king had emerged triumphant.
The Fire did yield opportunities and luckily London had men to hand who could profit from it. Royal Society members Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke found great use for their talents in rebuilding London. Within six years, the City was largely restored; a new Exchange was completed in 1669, and a new Custom House, one of the first corporate buildings to be rebuilt, was in use by 1671. Most city churches and St Paul’s Cathedral did take longer to construct but the positivity that this rebuilding generated helped people to deal with losses in wars against the Dutch, and with yet another regime change.
The quality of the metropolis certainly attracted genius, but it was also home to ordinary citizens and a growing immigrant population. Often turbulent, the energy and resilience of these Londoners were vital to its character. The seventeenth century was one of the most remarkable periods in London’s history, and one which made a huge contribution to its imaginative appeal.
Margarette Lincoln is a visiting fellow at the University of Portsmouth and was Deputy Director of the National Maritime Museum. She is the author of Trading in War and British Pirates and Society, 1680–1730.