The Fire & Plague

Fire and plague were scourges of urban life in the seventeenth-century, exacerbated by crowded conditions and the absence of adequate systems for containing the spread of flames and contagious diseases.  Relatively small outbreaks of plague and local fires happened regularly and major plagues, in which as much as a fifth of the population might die, took place about once a generation until 1665.  Recognizing London's vulnerability, the Crown and the metropolitan authorities attempted to develop defensive measures.  To inhibit the spread of fires, royal proclamations demanded that new houses be constructed of brick rather than timber, while strictly prohibiting the thatched rooves common in the countryside. By the end of the century the first fire companies had appeared, while a number of measures were taken to quarantine plague victims and eliminate problems like stray dogs that contemporaries associated with the spread of the disease. None of these measures succeeded, however, in greatly curtailing the spread of fire and plague.

In the two years 1665 and 1666 London experienced the double catastrophe of the greatest plague and the greatest fire in its history.  These were followed the next year by a disastrous military defeat at the Medway, a tributary of the Thames, where the Dutch surprised the English fleet at anchor and burned much of it, after capturing the flagship.  These three events engendered a sense in some quarters that God was angry with England and significantly dented the prestige of the King. 

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