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Review: London and the 17th Century: The Making of the World’s Greatest City by Margarette Lincoln. A guest post by historian and author George Goodwin. 

london 17 centuryBefore even opening the book, I set it the test of whether it could be an adequate ‘prequel’ to Jerry White’s wonderful London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing – the elegant and entertaining standard work on the century when London’s greatness was fully-made.

The author starts her story with style and panache with the funeral of Elizabeth I. This is not to show a bereaved city but rather to reflect a moment when, with the gilding of the Elizabethan age now tarnished, King James VI of Scotland was seen as a welcome change and not a foreign interloper. Thus begins this tale of the twin cities that made up the nation’s capital and their changing relationship. In 1603, that relationship was clearly defined: to the east was the City of London, the centre of finance and trade; westwards was Westminster, the centre of government.

Dr Lincoln neatly plants the seeds of the elements that will be covered at greater length as the book progresses: the physical threat of fire and plague; the financial, social and political basis of life in the City; the growth of Puritan influence, hand in hand with the residual fear of Roman Catholic plotting; and the ever-increasing pressure of the Crown on the City in its heavy-handed requests for funding. She also cleverly combines the development of these themes with excursions that are both highly-relevant and delightfully detailed, and which alight on features of everyday life that give a real sense and feel of how London looked, sounded and even smelled in its different areas and at different times during the Century.

This book wears its great knowledge commendably lightly. Its readability is based on an engaging narrative style, built on apt quotation, defining statistics and memorable anecdote. To give one example, the author gives a concise account of the Gunpowder Plot, that includes all the following points. We read that Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, delayed telling King James of the plot because he had to wait for the King’s return from Royston and hunting, an enjoyment that would increasingly be seen as an indulgence – and just one of many. There was delay in the attack, already prepared in 1604, due to continual postponements of the State Opening because of plague. There is the extraordinary detail that Guy Fawkes, after being terribly tortured, had enormous difficulty climbing the scaffold, but he did so in order to throw himself off and to break his own neck successfully and thus avoid the agony of being disemboweled while alive. And we discover how a great fear was created – although just a tiny percentage of the English population, perhaps less than 2%, were openly Roman Catholic – leading to a Puritan purge of Anglican priests in the great majority of London’s smaller parishes, around half the total of 110. Finally, we learn that wise foreigners whose dress and complexion might identify them as Roman Catholics claimed to be French, as French Catholicism was seen as far less a threat than Spanish Catholicism. All the above points being just some of the pearls included in a few pages.

As we go through the book, we have eye-catching details, such as the riots of London’s apprentices (10% of its population and of middling wealthy families) every year on Shrove Tuesday and of a City increasingly obscured by smog due to the far-from-smokeless fuel from Newcastle.

As we move into the reign of Charles I, we witness a Royal Westminster that was increasingly a theatre set and a City being forced to produce unpalatable loans to the King. Thus producing the breakdown in the early 1640s and the King’s foolish departure from London, leading to the initially welcome and then increasingly less welcome rule of his opponents that culminated in the Cromwellian military dictatorship. Illustrating this period, are quotes from the famous such as Milton and Evelyn but also from the lesser known, such as the “go with the flow” Puritan wood-turner Nehemiah Wallington and the rather more resistant Thomas Rugg, a royalist barber. All these are used to build a detailed picture of the Interregnum, including those elements which became permanent. For instance this was the time of a coffee house boom and of a growing seaborne trade and related growth of the Royal Navy – the first changing the sociability of London and the second leading to its vast expansion along the Thames to the east.

Once again, with London in the decade after the Restoration, Dr Lincoln, deftly uses quotation and description. She does so in order to answer the key question as to why Charles II, with all going so badly during the 1660s, emerged with his position intact. This was indeed a time of trial, with the Great Plague, the Great Fire and the Dutch destruction of English shipping in the Medway. The Puritans saw these reversals as Acts of God against a licentious ruler, yet it was also counter-argued that God was showing his displeasure at England having killed his Anointed Ruler, the new King’s father, and was consequently punishing the people at the first opportunity. Certainly Charles II connected with his people in a way that was alien to his father, and very dramatically so during the Great Fire, by taking over direct control of measures following the Lord Mayor’s dereliction of duty, with the latter at home and dismissing the need for any action during the fire’s first night by saying “a woman could piss it out” and then going back to sleep. Once again, the author uses a simple fact to create a strong image, in this case that stone walls of St Paul’s Cathedral, heated to temperatures of around 1,700 degrees Celsius, splintering and exploding outwards. As to whom should take the blame, this time it was not a good idea to be seen walking the streets looking French. And once again, the author gives us a quote that neatly dovetails two things: it is from the poet and Court propagandist, John Dryden, whose poem Annus Mirabilis, published in 1667, projects Charles II as a King to be lauded for triumphing over disaster but also looks forward to the scientific and architectural triumphs of Newton, Hooke and Wren with a prophecy that London would become “a city of more precious mould.”

Finally, following a neatly rounded and often highly entertaining chapter on the trials and tribulations of domestic life, including a mind-boggling quack remedy for piles, we move to the transformative final chapters. These are marked by the extraordinary changes partially resulting from British reaction to French expansionism and Louis XIV’s persecution of its Protestant Huguenot population. As to the latter, the skills brought to London by Huguenot immigrants – up to 10% of its population by 1690 – transformed the city’s material culture. French style was fashionable, even though French power was being resisted to the extent that, under William and Mary, the relationship of the Cities, of Westminster and of London were permanently reformalised through the creation of the Bank of England and a modernized financial system in order to finance the French Wars. That, of course, coming after the last great attempt to establish Roman Catholic preference in England by James II. Dr Lincoln shows the importance of London’s popular revolt in destabilising the King. Incidentally, this was not yet the often mindless mob that so often took to the streets in the next century. On the contrary it could be more discriminating, and thus the French ambassador, a man known for charitable giving and for paying his bills, as well as for a more discrete Catholicism, was left alone. Whereas, in contrast, his Spanish equivalent, seen as his complete opposite in all these matters, had his house first ransacked and then torched.

Yet though the fires that same night that King James fled the City lit up the sky for miles, London, this time, was not greatly damaged. In its firm newly-built state, Britain’s capital begins the period properly defined as the Long 18th Century. In taking us thus far, this well-researched, brilliantly-written and anecdotally-entertaining book does full justice to its own sub-title and completely passes the test that was set in the first paragraph of this review.

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London and the 17th Century: The Making of the World’s Greatest City by Margarette Lincoln. Yale University Press (9 Feb. 2021) 384pp. Published Price: £25.00.

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George Goodwin FRHistS FRSA is a Member of London Historians and the author of Benjamin Franklin in London

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