In 1664, there were growing whispers and rumors that the plague--which was devastating Amsterdam--had crossed the Channel to London. City authorities regularly denied these rumors, even though there is now evidence to suggest that the bubonic plague, carried by fleas on rats, had returned once to England in December 1664.
By early 1665, there were many suspicious deaths and rumors of bodies being carted off at night, under the veil of darkness, especially in St. Giles, one of the poorest and dirtiest areas of the city. The whispers grew louder that so-and-so’s neighbor or relative bore the marks of the bubonic plague—great black buboes (swellings in the lymph nodes, in the armpits, groin and neck). Victims had a one-third chance of dying within two weeks, after contracting the bubonic plague. To a lesser extent, but with far deadlier consequences, victims might also contract the pneumonic plague (spread by sneezing and coughing), or even the septicaemic plague (spread through the blood, such as by a direct rat bite).
Finally, the plague could no longer be hidden from the public. Panic, as you can imagine, was widespread. The main roads in and out of the city were closed. People carried posies, with the hopes that the dried flowers would keep the deadly fumes away. Physicians used leeches to try to draw the poisoned blood from the afflicted, but there was little to be done, but pray. Households with plague were boarded up and quarantined, with all inhabitants--living or dead--trapped inside.
The Bills of Mortality listed hundreds, even thousands, of people who had died each week. For months, church bells tolled continuously, religious zealots preached about the apocalypse, cats and dogs were killed, bodies were carted off to mass graves. Everyone within the city was living in terror that they would contract the deadly disease. Of course, a few far-sighted people, such as my magistrate, had acquired certificates of health that allowed their bearers safe passage out of London, but the plague spread more swiftly than anyone anticipated--and very few people escaped in time. King Charles II and his court, nobles, and others with means managed to flee, but many people—especially the poor or incapacitated--had nowhere to go.
In all, the plague of 1665-1666 was the deadliest in England since the Great Plague of 1348, which had wiped out a third of Europe’s population. All told, nearly 100,000 were estimated to have died.
The plague only began to subside when the weather grew colder. Although order was gradually restored—with the return of government, jails, courts, etc—something dramatic had happened. An unprecedented social mobility began to occur: Apprentices had often taken over their late master’s trades, servants had settled in or sold off their master’s property—and often no one was able to gainsay these claims. London inhabitants had barely recovered from the devastation wrought by the plague, when the next traumatic event happened a few months later, when the Great Fire of 1666 ravaged London.
* Contagion: Historical Views (http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/contagion/plague.html)
* Garencières, Theophilus. A Mite Cast into the Treasury of the Famous City of London: Being a Brief and Methodical Discourse of the Nature, Causes, Symptomes, Remedies and Preservation from the Plague, in This Calamitous Year, 1665. London: 1665.
* Moote, A. Lloyd and Dorothy C. Moote. The Great Plague: The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
For Lucy Campion, a seventeenth-century English chambermaid serving in the household of the local magistrate, life is an endless repetition of polishing pewter, emptying chamber pots, and dealing with other household chores until a fellow servant is ruthlessly killed, and someone close to Lucy falls under suspicion. Lucy can’t believe it, but in a time where the accused are presumed guilty until proven innocent, lawyers aren’t permitted to defend their clients, and—if the plague doesn't kill the suspect first—public executions draw a large crowd of spectators, Lucy knows she may never find out what really happened. Unless, that is, she can uncover the truth herself.
Determined to do just that, Lucy finds herself venturing out of her expected station and into raucous printers’ shops, secretive gypsy camps, the foul streets of London, and even the bowels of Newgate prison on a trail that might lead her straight into the arms of the killer.
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SUSANNA CALKINS became fascinated with seventeenth-century England while pursuing her doctorate in British history. A former pirate, she once served on the Golden Hinde--a museum replica of Sir Frances Drake's ship--now dry docked in the Thames. Originally from Philadelphia, Calkins now lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two sons. The Murder at Rosamund's Gate, featuring Lucy Campion, is her first novel.
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