London 1666. Creative non-fiction by E. E. Rhodes

I write this here in our family’s bible, which I desire may be saved, in the hope my words are one day found and read and understood.

There was a year we didn’t live.

There was a plague and it had spread across all the world as we knew it then. Some who had money tried to preserve and keep themselves safe. But a disease is no respecter of boundaries or borders. And though they tried to use their monies to ensure that those that did their bidding bore the brunt of it, the illness still found its way amongst us.

We did not travel. There were no means by which we could, nor purpose in it. Most places we might go had closed their doors to all but those who had a familial connection or who had come to fulfil some necessity. Even they were quarantined on their arrival, in case they were an unwilling harbinger of the worst.

There were those who urged us that the good Lord might offer succour if we did but trust. And those who said that all that was required was a more stalwart heart. Some blamed the foreigner amongst us, arguing that they did come with shameful practices and unnatural foodstuffs, and that they carried pestilence in their bags.

It was not so surprising that we made heroes of those who we hoped would go before us into the fray. We did applaud those good souls who did tend the sick and dying, who went unto those who were more vulnerable or old, with a ready hand and naked smile, to mop those with a fever-fled soul. And while we did thank them mightily, and even often, it was with not much more than words and timbrels in the street.

Those that were schooled were kept most often at home, as we believed us a people who have a love and care for the young. But though they often seemed quite well, it was said they too could carry the illness quietly and with not much to show for it. So, though there was much urging for them to be reunited, many loving care-takers kept them retained until it seemed it was safe so not to do.

The matter of housing became most marked and there were those who protested that they could not make nor pay their rent. And they did try most faithfully to work at the behest of those who owned either property or land, to make good their owing. But many did suffer for their lack of employ, nor could they go on the parish, nor make an honest sum equal to their bills. And there were many right good workers who had tried and who were lampooned by those who were of senior rank or owning. And there was much heartache and sorrow and many hungry nights.

For scant were merchants, and those that did make trade, and farmers in their fields, lamented much the difficulties they too faced. For though they might have pretty flocks or honest land there were not the persons or the tools to make all good. And they must work all hours to keep the cities fed, and many found their purses empty and likewise their larder. For they had not the dough to earn their bread, nor any yeast to make it rise.

There were those who spoke truly about what they saw and whose reports we could believe. But many turned their words against their sense and there was no truth to be found nor any hope either. So we must wait for better news and those who tasked themselves to write stories of our fate. We did think that when the theatres opened up we might hear more. But it was hard to find good intelligence during the worst of the time.

Those who had the way of words did proclaim such mightily where they might be heard, and there were many pamphlet sellers who did cry on street corners distributing such goods for free or for only small recompense, to meet the cost of paper or of ink alone. And those that peddled both music and art did try to lift up our spirits that we might be entertained, with roses if not with bread.

Some do say the Parliament is better than any crown. But we might say the monarch has done their best to rally all, though they too have kept quietly to their house. As have the mayor and aldermans as well done what they might but without much fanfare. Perhaps that is for the best.

There has been much disgruntlement with the many honourable members who have fled or who have made profit of and from our fear and wonder. And that they did not stay in London to see our fate but deported themselves much elsewhere and met only by vague arrangement. And that they did variously lie or speak untruth. Not once, but repeatedly, and they did make much pernicious rumour against the common folk.

And for those who have distracted us with the memory of a victory on the Continent, it seems especially wrong that they have wrought, by urging us through loyalty and some brutish sentimentality, to expose us through merriment and dancing to the worst. It is a grave misdeed that will not be forgot.

With pestilence and war and famine, and yes, the fourth came too and there was death, who rode a pale horse. Though it was of great sorrow that we know not the truth of how far she swung her scythe, for there were many who, by dint of their affiliations and circumstances, were not admitted to the figures of the lost. Yet we still remember them and seek to commemorate their names.

There was a year we didn’t live.

Now there is rumour running through the streets of a fire come instead. You careworn folk who did survive the plague be mindful now, lest you too, like me, may find yourselves consumed.


E. E. Rhodes is an archaeologist who lives in Cardiff, with her partner, 4000 books and at least a few mice.

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