A summary of the Great Plague

A sufferer of Bubonic Plague against a backdrop of a graveyard and a burning skyline.

The plague appears to have started in the parish of St-Giles-in-the-Fields outside of London's walls in 1664. The hot summer seems to have caused it to become an epidemic. While 68,596 deaths were recorded in the city, the true number was probably over 100,000, and other parts of the country also suffered. It was raging in the city by July 1665, and reached a peak of 7,000 deaths a week by August, but then died out during the cold winter.

Observers noticed two strains of the plague:

  • Bubonic plague, with painful buboes. This was spread by fleas on rats.
  • Pneumonic plague was airborne, and spread by sneezing. People who caught pneumonic plague often died within a day.

Fight or flight

The plague of 1665 is significant for those who fled as much as those who stayed for the battle. Most doctors, lawyers and merchants, fled the city as did Charles II and his courtiers who left in July for Hampton Court and then Oxford. Parliament was postponed and had to sit in October at Oxford. Court cases were also moved from Westminster to Oxford.

  • Those doctors who stayed were powerless against infectious disease. Germs, the fleas which carried them, and the rats which carried the fleas, flourished in the dirty towns.
  • Cloth traders – and people fleeing the plague – carried the plague from one place to another.
  • The Lord Mayor and aldermen (town councillors) remained to keep order.
  • Watchmen locked and kept guard over infected houses.
  • Parish officials provided food. Searchers looked for dead bodies and took them at night to plague pits for burial.
  • The poorest people remained in London with the rats and those people who had the plague.