Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Great Plague of 1665 Through the Eyes of Samuel Pepys

By Maren Halvorsen

The Great Plague of 1665, which struck London during the spring and summer before fading away as winter set in, is perhaps more meaningful to us now than it has been for many years. As we move through our own time of worldwide pandemic, we look back at earlier disease outbreaks, most famously the Black Death of 1348. The Black Death drastically reduced the population of Europe, with lasting political, social and economic consequences. But there was also the Great Plague, which victimized London just as it was recovering from the period of the Civil War and Interregnum.  It is estimated that one-quarter to a third of the population of London perished. We ask ourselves: how did people feel then about the threat of the illness, since they did not know what caused it and had no cure? How did they cope, emotionally, with its impact? What role did government play in the control of the epidemic, if any? These are all questions that concern us with our own crisis, but they weren’t, necessarily, the questions that interested these earlier victims.  

Samuel Pepys

The diaries of Samuel Pepys offer an important, if slightly smudged, window on the Great Plague of 1665. They serve as perhaps the most detailed source we have about the epidemic. Pepys was an English government official, a city man who not only had a prosperous career in the Admiralty but a busy social life as well. His diaries, which cover the years 1660-1669, show a man who loved nothing better than an evening out with friends, fine food, theater and music. He was acquisitive, curious, and industrious, and had a keen sense of humor that tended toward slapstick. He loved to play practical jokes on his stuffy colleague William Penn (father of the William Penn). Married happily to his French wife Elizabeth, he nonetheless engaged in frequent dalliances and affairs, usually with women of lower status who did not have much of a choice in the matter. Once a year, he celebrated the anniversary of his successful surgery for kidney stones, a brush with death that heightened his enthusiasm for life. There is a liveliness to his writing that can make him seem very modern; he doesn’t hesitate to describe his fears and flaws, from petty to profound. Because he wrote using encryption, we can wonder who was his intended audience: his code wasn’t broken until a century later, leaving his diaries open, finally, to the public gaze. The authoritative edition of the Diaries is that of Robert Latham and William Matthews, first published in 1972, but there were several earlier versions of varying quality.

The peculiar power of the diaries comes out with Pepys’ encounter with the Great Plague. He is not writing this as a historian, gifted with 20/20 hindsight; he is in the middle of what is happening. He does not know how things will turn out and so his reactions to the events of 1665 are immediate and authentic. From the earliest rumor of disease to the daily encounters with corpses lying in the streets of London, Pepys weaves his descriptions into the more mundane events of his daily life. Inevitably, we want more; we, at this great distance, know how important the 1665 Plague is, and it can be frustrating to read Pepys’ all-too-brief references to the disease before he moves on to his dinner plans and his arguments with his wife. But this is all part of his authenticity: Pepys was simply living his life, and to him the Plague was one of many things happening to him during the summer of 1665. We can watch as his uneasiness grows, from the first warnings of disease to its spread across the city:

Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up.  God preserve us all.  (Diary, April 30, 1665)

This is Pepys’ first mention of the outbreak. It highlights two key ways of coping with the illness: the city government’s decision to close up infected houses, and the reliance, ultimately, on God’s will. People did understand that proximity to someone with the disease made it likely that they could be infected, though they had no idea about the means of transmission. Infected individuals, and their entire households, were quarantined in their homes for at least forty days, based on the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness. Given that the source of contamination was the flea population, to sequester people in their homes pretty much guaranteed that they would all get sick and most of them would die.

Bill of Mortality

Pepys’ own reaction was complicated. On the one hand, he had trust in, and obeyed, the government’s policies (including a curfew; a rule requiring the six-day airing out of hackney coaches after use by someone who came down with plague; and fires set towards the end of the epidemic, presumably to clean the air); on the other hand, he also invoked, frequently, God’s will, and thus went fatalistically about his daily business and activities as usual. Pepys was always very social, and continued to host dinner-parties, meet up with friends, and attend to his official duties undeterred by illness. He notes the closure of the theatres (a favorite if self-described frivolous activity of his) and the occasional closure of various public houses, but seems to have been one of the few with the confidence to move about in the city:

The streets mighty empty all the way now, even in London, which is a sad sight.  … poor Will that used to sell us ale at the Halldoor—his wife and three children dead, all I think in a day.  (Diary, August 8, 1665)

Human nature being what it is, Pepys also took note of those who resisted laws put in place to prevent the spread of illness: 

Church being done, my Lord Brouncker, Sir J. Mennes, and I up to the Vestry at the desire of the Justices of the Peace … in order to the doing something for the keeping of the plague from growing; but Lord, to consider the madness of people of the town, who will (because they are forbid) come in Crowds along with the dead Corps to see them buried.  (Diary, September 3, 1665)

Besides the government’s policies, citizens took it upon themselves to find other ways to ward off the illness. This was difficult, since the cause was not known, but everyone had their theory. As much as he relied on God’s will, Pepys did make use of possible preventatives:

This day…I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there—which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell to and chaw—which took away the apprehension.  (Diary, June 7, 1665)  

The idea that somehow the disease moved through the air, a kind of miasma of poison, seemed like common sense to a lot of people at the time. Covering one’s face with a cloth, or holding sweet scents up to one’s nose, were seen as possible prophylactics, going back to the time of the Black Death. Tobacco was held to have medicinal qualities, and rumor had it that no tobacconist died during the Great Plague. This is the only preventative that Pepys mentions in his Diary. Because the disease was linked, somehow, to the body, even after death, social custom fell away in the face of fear:

I went away and walked to Greenwich, in my way seeing a coffin with a dead body therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night and the parish hath not appointed anybody to bury it—but only set a watch there day and night that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing—this disease making us more cruel to one another then we are [to] dogs.  (Diary, August 22, 1665)

The social costs of the plague are laid out in this passage. It was not unusual for Pepys to run across dead bodies as he made his way across London that summer of 1665. But in this passage he considers the loneliness of that coffin, bereft of mourners, seen as a mysterious but potent agent of infection. The normal, traditional customs of grief were interrupted, out of fear and ignorance. It reminds us of our own pandemic experience, the sick kept separate from their families, with only Facetime to provide some sort of contact as they fight the novel corona-virus. The traditional gathering at the death-bed forbidden, funerals and memorials postponed.

Pepys’ diary is a curious mix of this melancholy alongside pure delight in living. In one passage, he dolefully describes the emptiness of the streets:

But Lord, how everybody’s looks and discourse in the street is of death and nothing else, and few people going up and down, that the town is like a place distressed—and forsaken.  (Diary, August 30, 1665)

Yet within a couple of paragraphs, we have this description of Pepys’ sartorial splendor (a subject he never seemed to tire of):

Up, and put on my colored silk suit, very fine, and my new periwigg, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it.  And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection—that it had been cut off of the heads of people dead of the plague.  (Diary, September 3, 1665)

This is a good example not only of Pepys’ frequent pivot from fashion to fear, but of the all-too-familiar blend of rumor and anxiety. There was no real evidence that victims’ hair was being shorn for wigs, nor that anybody could catch the disease via such a route, but the very thought of it was enough to defer purchase. As it turned out, periwigs had a ways to go; it would be the French Revolution of 1789, and not the Great Plague of 1665, that helped to do them in, once and for all.

But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that.  And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physitian, and but one apothecary left, all being dead—but that there are great hopes of a great decrease this week:  God send it.  (Diary, October 16, 1665)

This passage was one of the last that Pepys entered having to do with the Plague; it would soon fade from the scene, sent into hibernation by the winter cold. He was fortunate; although his in-laws came down with an illness, it is never clarified whether it was the plague, and his immediate household survived. Every illness in Pepys’ time was grounds for worry; that is why Pepys celebrated the survival of what would be to us a relatively minor surgical procedure. Death was ever-present, and every sickness was a mystery. Agues, fevers, infection, and the perils of childbirth made every day of survival a triumph. In some ways, as ill-prepared as the people of Pepys were in facing the Plague, they were mentally and emotionally well situated for its likely outcome. Pepys himself went on to live a long life of sociability, industry and amusement, with never a backward glance.

[Source used: Robert Latham and William Matthews, eds., The Diary of Samuel Pepys.  London:  Bell & Hyman Ltd., 1972.]


Maren Halvorsen is a novelist whose most recent manuscript, The Bailiff’s Wife, was a Finalist in the category of historical fiction at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association annual literary competition.  Earning her Ph.D. in History at the University of Washington in 2002, she is a specialist in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.  She currently lives on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.  


  1. Thank you for this!

    I recently found myself taking FOREVER AMBER off my "17c shelf" and rereading the plague episodes. That good old pot-boiler is based on lots of solid research, and Kathleeen Winsor undoubtedly knew Peptys inside out.

  2. By 1665 most of Catholic England was destroyed.

  3. Fascinating. It's intriguing to see how "modern" Pepys' thoughts and reactions are.

  4. Wonderful piece - thank you! What we can learn from history...

  5. In an unexpected way, Pepys writing gives me hope. He is something of a leveler, reminding us that, as in all things cyclical, this, too, shall pass. Thank you for an interesting read.

  6. Great article! I really appreciated many of the parallels with today.


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