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Sovereign and the sick city in 1603

Learn about Shakespeare’s England in 1603, when a deadly outbreak of plague coincided with the arrival of a new monarch.

Holly Kelsey

1603 in Shakespeare’s England was certainly, as Thomas Dekker noted wryly in a bestselling pamphlet, a ‘Wonderfull Yeare’. On March 24th, shockwaves reverberated through the country at the news that the iconic Elizabeth I had died. In the absence of an heir, the title was passed to James VI of Scotland. Yet this was to be no easy transition. James had barely got comfortable on his new English throne before a devastating outbreak of plague swept through London and the surrounding countryside. This was to be one of the deadliest instances of plague in England’s history, eventually claiming around a quarter of London’s population.

Among James’ first actions as English monarch was to issue a book of Orders* relating to the plague outbreak, outlining rules and procedures to be followed in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease and to aid those suffering from it. There's a fantastic copy of the Order for Plague in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust library.

James I Orders about the Plague, 1603 (detail)

The first half of the text is dedicated to physical orders enforced to try and control the plague in London and the surrounding areas. Houses were ‘to be closed up’ for 6 weeks if one of the inhabitants fell ill, and the sick were encouraged to be ‘restrained from resorting into company of others’ for fear of spreading infection. If they did leave the house, they were to mark their clothes so as to warn others of their disease - they could be overseen by watchmen and breaking these orders could be punished by a spell in the stocks. Moreover, ‘clothes, bedding and other stuffe as hath been worne and occupied by the infected of this disease’ were collected and burnt. But James also took measures to ensure the sick would not lose everything: he ordered that collections should be made in order to support those who were locked in their houses and to replace their possessions.

The focus of the book then shifts to provide an illuminating insight into Early Modern medicine. In the second half, it prints several preventative and remedial cures recommended by physicians which were designed to be put up in public, ensuring even the poorest members of society had access to them ‘without great charge or cost’. These range from correcting the humours through purging and bloodletting, to herbal remedies. There are also some more intriguing treatments. For example, pregnant women were advised to shield themselves from plague by eating toast covered in vinegar, butter, and cinnamon, whilst the poor, who may not be able to afford vinegar and cinnamon, were told they ‘may eate bread and butter alone’ because butter was seen as a ‘preservative against the Plague’. Those who were already suffering from sores could try and ease them with a warmed mixture of onions, butter and garlic, or if your cupboard was bare, you could try simply laying ‘a load of bread to it [the sore] hot as it commeth out of the oven’!

Although these cures seem bizarre to us, people believed in them and would try anything which might protect them from this dangerous disease. Even when out and about, people were advised to hold herbs in their hands (the same they were burning to clean the air in their homes, such as rosemary, juniper, bay leaves, frankincense, sage, and lavender), or breathe through a handkerchief dipped in vinegar – an early alternative to a medical face mask! Thomas Dekker described the depressing sight of London’s streets strewn with ineffective dead herbs, lying alongside the sick and dying: ‘where all the pauement should in stead of greene rushes, be strewed with blasted Rosemary: withered Hyacinthes, fatall Cipresse and Ewe, thickly mingled with heapes of dead mens bones’.

Whilst Dekker clearly wrote vividly about ‘the diseased Citie’ of London, another playwright (whom Dekker may have collaborated with on the play Sir Thomas More) was also unable to avoid writing about the pervasive plague.

In 1603 Shakespeare’s acting company, formerly named The Lord Chamberlain’s Men under Elizabeth I, became The King’s Men under James I. However their performances were infrequent – theatres had been closed for almost a year due to fears that plague would spread through the crowds. It was around this time (1603-4) that Shakespeare probably wrote Measure for Measure. The play is set in an unruly Vienna heavily afflicted with disease – perhaps inspired by the disruption Shakespeare witnessed around him in plague-sieged London.

In my next post I will be exploring the echoes of plague in some of Shakespeare’s other works.

*Full title:

Orders, thought meete by his Maiestie, and his Priuie Counsell, to be executed throughout the counties of this realme, in such townes, villages, and other places, as are, or may be hereafter infected with the plague, for the stay of further increase of the same. Also, an aduise set downe by the best learned in physicke within this realme, containing sundry good rules and easie medicines, without charge to the meaner sort of people, aswel for the preseruation of his good subiects from the plague before infection, as for the curing and ordering of them after they shalbe infected.

Further reading

James I Orders about the Plague (1603) - in our Library 83392203, Class: SR - 97.8/

James I, Plague Orders (1603) - Online

Thomas Dekker, The Wonderfull Yeare (1603)

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