“Infection Unperceiv’d, in Many a Place”: The London Plague of 1625, Viewed from Plymouth Rock
The year of Covid-19 also marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower. Its famous voyage brought to New England a band of Protestant “separatists,” many of whom had migrated from England to Holland in 1608 for religious reasons. In 1620, a portion left Leiden with plans to settle in America. In September, at Plymouth, England, they crowded aboard a 160-ton vessel bound for Virginia. After a stormy two-month crossing, they landed near Cape Cod instead.
The Pilgrims’ faced a stark isolation. They “had now no friends to welcome them,” Governor William Bradford recalled. “Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness.” The striking scarcity of local inhabitants was as surprising as the harsh winter. Indian towns had been literally decimated when European ships introduced unfamiliar diseases. Between 1617 and 1619, one onslaught had killed nearly nine tenths of the coastal population. As Bradford put it, “skulls and bones were found in many places lying still above ground.”
Short on shelter and supplies, the new Plymouth Colony faced sickness of its own, losing half its members in the first winter. Still, by 1624 new arrivals had expanded their numbers to 180, housed in several dozen dwellings. With the Virginia Company seeking reimbursement for its investment, the colonists amassed stacks of beaver pelts and barrels of salt cod. That way, ships bringing expensive supplies would not be returning to England with empty cargo holds.
But in 1625, New England’s “hideous and desolate” isolation suddenly began to seem a God-given blessing in disguise. Captain Miles Standish had been sent back to England, aboard a ship laden with furs and fish, to negotiate with overbearing creditors for their “favour and help.” He went at “a very bad time,” Bradford related, for their home country was “full of trouble.” To his dismay, Standish found “the plague very hote in London, so no business could be done.”
Hot indeed. England’s plague had arrived, apparently from Holland, early in 1625, but it went undetected through most of March. George Wither, a poet who survived the epidemic, recalled how the stealthy sickness first approached London through the city’s “well-fill’d Suburbs” and spread there undetected for weeks:
Infection unperceiv’d, in many a place
Before the bleare-ey’d Searchers, knew her face.…
On March 25 the Privy Council, aware that the contagion had entered the city, rebuked London officials for squandering an opportunity to act quickly and failing to take preventive measures weeks earlier. With the benefit of hindsight, members argued that swift action might have “stayed” the outbreak. “You may be assured,” they threatened the Lord Mayor and his aldermen, that a full accounting for this critical failure “will be demanded at your hands.”
Two days later, an unrelated event complicated the situation. On March 27, King James I died of dysentery at his country estate in Hertfordshire. The fifty-six-year-old monarch had been seriously ill for some time. (Ironically, his predecessor, Elizabeth I, had also died of unrelated causes at the start of a major plague outbreak in 1603.) Despite the pending crisis, news of the king’s death prompted preparations for a state funeral and for the public coronation of Charles I.
London witnessed the royal burial, plus crowded church services, on May 7. Five weeks later, the new monarch arrived in the city with his French bride. Parliament convened three days after that, as the death toll continued to rise. “Though the sickness increase shrewdly upon us,” a prominent Londoner wrote on June 25, “yet we cannot find in our hearts to leave this town, so long as here is such doings, by reason of the queen’s arrival, and the sitting of the Parliament.”
The next two months told a different story, underscoring the deep-seated class divisions that almost always emerge in moments of mass contagion. As with the United States today, England in 1625 had experienced decades of growing inequality. One writer complained that as aspiring yeomen became gentry, rich gentry in turn became “knights, and so forth upward.” Meanwhile, “the poorest sort” were becoming “stark beggars” with no safety net beneath them.
Facing plague, the wealthy left the city in droves, and Parliament adjourned on July 11. The first week of the month saw 593 plague deaths in 57 local parishes, but during the last week of July official “searchers” recorded 2,471 victims in 103 parishes. By August 1, at the start of a month that would see the highpoint of the epidemic in London, Parliament reconvened in Oxford. Over the next four weeks, more than 16,000 inhabitants of the capital died of plague.
By the end of 1625, the contagion had claimed nearly 70,000 lives across England. More than half the deaths had been in London. There, the disease had killed well over 35,000, in a city of fewer than 330,000 people. Many more may have been undiagnosed victims. One Londoner wrote that “to this present Plague of Pestilence, all former Plagues were but pettie ones.” Another lamented that no prior chronicle had “ever mentioned the like” for “our famous citie.”
As for Standish, he found the English adventurers who supported the Plymouth Colony were fearful in the midst of an economic collapse and a public health disaster. When the New Englander sought a loan, they could only offer him money at a whopping 50% interest rate. As Bradford later summarized: “though their wills were good, yet theyr power was litle. And ther dyed such multitude weekly of the plague, as all trade was dead, and litle money stirring.”
In early April 1626, the Plymouth colonists welcomed Standish home safely, but his mission had been unsuccessful, and “the news he brought was sad in many regards.” Numerous English allies had been struck down financially and physically, “much disabled from doing any further help, and some dead of the plague.” Faced with such news and given “the state of things,” Bradford observed of his colonists, “it is a marvell it did not wholy discourage them and sinck them.”
If the Mayflower colonists were “separatists” from the Church of England in religious terms, they were also saved by their geographical separation from London’s plague. According to Bradford, “they gathered up their spirits” from this low point and “begane to rise againe.” Nothing aided them more than their remoteness from European epidemics, and their relative immunity from the diseases killing Native Americans, including their Patuxet mentor, Squanto.
Thomas Dekker used this image on the title page when he published A Rod for Run-awayes in 1625. His pamphlet described that year’s memorable outbreak of plague in London. It is thought to have been bubonic plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and spread by fleas on rats. During a typical outbreak, tens of thousands died in London alone. Death (shown here as a skeleton, with London in the background) stands on new coffins, casting arrows at the fleeing people and saying he will follow them. The lightning overhead represents God’s wrath.