This month it's the turn of author and historian Jessica Cale, who takes us back to seventeenth-century London...
If I could go back to any time in history, I would like to be a tourist in Restoration London. My series is set there, and being able to see everything first hand would be incredible. But where to start?
I would like to go back on November 5th, of any year between 1660 and 1665. My chances of making it back to my own time would obviously be improved if could avoid any hint of the plague of 1666, and I would love to see all of the medieval and Tudor architecture that was lost in the Great Fire of that year. London would have been unrecognizable to a modern visitor; there was no real street plan. Instead, the city was a jumble of buildings piled on top of each other to make a maze of alleys and narrow lanes. These were so close together that the fire was able to spread faster than those fighting it could tear the burning buildings down. Much of the London we know today was planned by Christopher Wren during the reconstruction of the city, and I would love to see what it had looked like before. To see what I mean, check out this animation HERE
On my tour of lost London, I would follow the forgotten river Fleet as far as I dared--or, as long as my scented handkerchief could hold out--to see if it really was as bad as Ben Jonson described it in 1602:
Your Fleet Lane Furies; and hot cooks do dwell,That, with still-scalding steams, make the place hell.The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs,The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of dogs:For, to say truth, what scullion is so nasty,To put the skins, and offal in a pasty?Cats there lay divers had been flayed and roasted,And, after mouldy grown, again were toasted,Then, selling not, a dish was ta’en to mince them,But still, it seemed, the rankness did convince them.For, here they were thrown in with the melted pewter,Yet drowned they not. They had five lives in future.Assuming the stench of the Fleet did not render me unconscious, I would spend the afternoon scouring the Royal Exchange for cosmetics and bath products. It was the beginning of the Age of Extravagance, and a surprising variety of products were sold in every imaginable scent. I would stock up on washballs, salves, eye crayons, and Spanish leather for a long-lasting lip stain, but I would pass on the ceruse. As enviable as a smooth, porcelain-white complexion was, we now know that the the product’s high lead content is profoundly toxic and did more harm than good to the skin (and mind).
From the Exchange, I would take a leisurely walk up to Covent Garden, people-watching for famous faces, such as the Earl of Rochester and his libertines. At this point, composer Solomon Eccles could often be spotted running through the streets naked with a chafing dish of burning coals on his head, shouting at passersby to repent. I have seen people do this on Oxford Street with microphones and rather more clothes on, but I think I would appreciate Eccles’ commitment to his unique brand of madness.
In Covent Garden, I would listen in on the caffeinated political discourse at the coffee shops and try a little dark coffee for myself, although it would probably be too much for me. Coffee in 17th century England was thick and black, made by boiling coffee powder and water together for an hour or more. After that, I’d stop into the Hole-in-the-Wall on Chandos Street and try some aqua vitae, or “strong waters” while waiting around to see if I could spot Claude Duval, a highwayman so famously handsome, charming, and successful with women, his tombstone called him “the second conqueror of the Norman race.”
The celebrations would start late afternoon and rage on through the night. At this time, Bonfire Night was known as Gunpowder Treason Day, and its celebration had been enforced by law since the Observance of 5th November Act of 1606. The holiday took on new life under Charles II as it became a celebration of “God’s preservation of the English Throne.” London’s apprentices built huge bonfires all over the city, and it became a kind of festival attacking sobriety and good order. Treacle cake and potatoes were sold by street vendors, and the streets ran red with wine. It was a night of drunken madness until celebrations got so out of control that fireworks were banned by the militia in 1682. It was the craziest night of the year in a notoriously wild period, and that sounds like something I’d like to be a part of.
If you would like to see more of what daily life was like common people in Restoration London, check out my series The Southwark Saga.