Restoration England was one of the most exhilarating periods in English history, a brief but brilliant flowering of artistic and literary talent only equalled by a hedonistic dedication to self-indulgence and pleasure that has made every other age seem tame. Yet the clichés overwhelm what is a more interesting and complex story. Alexander Larman, whose new book Restoration: The Year of the Great Fire is out this week, shares 10 things that you never knew about the era…
The man responsible for it was George Monck
After Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658, the future of the Commonwealth government that he had headed looked at risk, in no small part to the comparative uselessness of his son Richard, a man described by his enemies as “Tumbledown Dick”. It was left to one of his father’s supporters General George Monck to make secret contact with the exiled Prince Charles, penniless and desperate in Europe, and propose a deal whereby he could return to England and be crowned king in exchange for an act of “indemnity and oblivion” against those who had been responsible for his father’s death. Except…
The Restoration began bloodily
Underneath his jocular and mild-mannered exterior, Charles sought vengeance for his father’s murder with implacable hostility. He ensured that the commissioners who had signed Charles I’s death warrant in 1649 were executed first, and then, with the aid of his mentor and right-hand-man Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, saw to it that anyone who could be described as hostile to him and his court was done away with. Sometimes this was judicially; at other times, those who had fled England upon the Restoration were pursued to Europe and murdered by agents of the crown there.
The most famous victim of religious persecution was John Bunyan
One of Charles’s first reforms was the 1662 Act of Uniformity, which sought to strengthen the power of the Church of England. This meant that all other forms of worship, whether Quaker or Dissenter, were effectively outlawed and their practitioners, such as Bunyan, imprisoned. Bunyan spent 1666 in Bedford jail, a place he described as being “like hell itself”; as there had originally been no legislation to charge him under, he had been prosecuted under the obscure Religion Act of 1592. However, the authorities’ plan backfired. Not only did Bunyan use his time in jail to write his allegorical masterpiece The Pilgrim’s Progress, but he also successfully radicalised many of his fellow inmates due to his charisma and subversive preaching.
Isaac Newton (may have) discovered gravity in the Restoration
It is impossible to know for certain when Isaac Newton observed the fall of an apple, but one politician, a Whig named John Conduitt, shared an anecdote that suggested that it took place when he was 23. Conduitt wrote that:
“In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother’s house in Lincolnshire. Whilst he was pensively meandering in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from earth, but that this power must extend much further than was usually thought. Why not as high as the Moon said he to himself & if so, that must influence her motion & perhaps retain her in her orbit, whereupon he fell a calculating what would be the effect of that supposition.”
It was believed that the king healed sickness
Although Charles was probably best known in the era for his love of high living and glamorous mistresses, he also had a great interest in science and medicine. It was partly as a result of this, but also a desire to ensure his popularity with the public, that he continued a royal tradition known as “touching the king’s evil”. This consisted of him touching people with scrofula and giving them a gold coin, a twice-weekly ceremony that took place whether he was in London or elsewhere. It was estimated that he touched around 4,000 people a year, with a total cost of around £5,000 in gold coins. It is uncertain as to whether he really cured anyone; there are a few cases of patients recovering after being touched by the king, but the results were probably coincidental.
Protection from the plague was rudimentary
The Great Plague was first detected in late 1664 – with a blazing comet rumoured to have foretold its arrival – and wreaked havoc on England until early 1666. It killed around 200,000 people in total, which was anything up to around one in five of the population in the Restoration. And doctors and apothecaries had no clear idea how to treat it. Those afflicted by it were normally shut up in their houses with their families and left to die, while mountebanks and other conmen offered fanciful remedies, including powdered unicorn horn and liquid gold. Even reputable doctors could offer little assistance, turning to such folk remedies as powdered nutmeg and glasses of warm sack, a kind of Spanish white wine. None of which had any effect.
Samuel Pepys was one of the first men to fall in love with an actress
One of the innovations of the Restoration period was that women were allowed to act on stage for the first time in English history. One of these actresses was a member of the King’s Company, Elizabeth Knepp, who specialised in both female and “breeches” (boys or male) roles, and Samuel Pepys became infatuated with her. He recorded in his diary that “she (is) the pleasantest company in the world” and, inevitably, that “I (am) very pleasant to her”. This “pleasantness” took the form mainly of kissing and fondling, although he did write with glee in 1668: “I had the opportunity, the first time in my life, to be bold with Knepp.”
The first fine dining restaurant in England opened in the Restoration
While we might think of upmarket restaurants as a comparatively recent phenomenon, the first one associated with expensive food and wine opened in 1665. Run by a Frenchman named Arnaud de Pontac, it was named the Pontac’s Head and specialised in serving expensive imported Bordeaux wine that Pepys praised as “Ho Bryan”; better known as Haut-Brion, it has continued to delight oenophiles for centuries since. It didn’t come cheap, however, being served at seven shillings a bottle (around £30 in contemporary money) – given that the average price of a pint of beer was between a penny and a half and threepence, this was a considerable cost.
Charles never wanted to fight the Second Anglo-Dutch War
The Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665–67 resulted in a humiliating English defeat, much to Charles’s chagrin; he had never wanted to fight it in the first place. He had built up a good relationship with the Dutch during his exile, and also knew that they had offered him and his father great financial generosity, so felt indebted to them. Nevertheless, those around him at court were said to be “mad for a Dutch war” on commercial and trading grounds, and so Charles reluctantly acquiesced to attacks on Dutch ships by privateers, which led to a formal declaration of war by the Netherlands in March 1665. Had he stood firm and refused, he would have saved both face and a considerable amount of money.
More than seven people died in the Great Fire of London
A myth exists, repeated by school textbooks and teachers, that there was very little loss of life in the Great Fire. This is untrue, but the story came about through royal propaganda circulated in such publications as the London Gazette, which even went as far as to say nobody died at all. Given the widespread damage to property and the unchecked progress of the blaze, it is impossible to know for certain how many were killed, but the extreme heat was such that many bodies would have been incinerated, leaving no trace. Of the reported deaths, one observer saw “a human body…parched up as it were with the flames; whole as to skin, meagre as to flesh, yellow as to colour”. It is possible that thousands of poor and illiterate people died, unmourned and unnoticed.