My thanks to NetGalley and Yale University Press for a review copy of this excellent telling of the story of London in the 1600s.

London in the seventeenth century was the London of Shakespeare and Francis Bacon, of diarists John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys, of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot, of the popular rebellion against Charles I and the brief period England was without a monarchy, of the great restoration, the ‘Glorious Revolution’, and much more. Margarette Lincoln paints a rich picture of this bustling city—its sights, sounds, and smells (those were not very pleasant). The book opens with the funeral of Elizabeth I—the end of the Tudor era and the Stuarts taking over and continues till the reign of William and Mary (in fact until about Mary’s death, which was about the end of the century). In the various chapters, Lincoln takes us through different aspects of the city’s life—apprentices (who could be very rowdy) to the livery companies’ contributions and pageantry, trade and ship building and the growth of the country’s navy, theatre and fashions, the country’s first coffee houses and newspapers, healthcare and remedies (including ‘powdered mummies’), and the city’s civic identity (its independence and autonomy were prized by its people).

The politics of the day is of course an important theme explored as it was a period that saw so many developments including the monarchy being replaced, in fact, twice. But the book is concerned not only with Monarchs and the well to do, but also the common people—merchants and shipbuilders, physicians and apothecaries, masters and apprentices, and also the poor. In fact, even in its discussion of politics, we see the participation of common people, including women who were very active participants, surprisingly so considering the time period and their limited ‘rights’. (In fact even within the limitations of the period, women were in charge of businesses and those within household roles too, had many interests.)

Besides political turmoil, the period had its share of other challenges, notably war (or rather wars for there were many, from those undertaken by the monarch to civil war), the plague and the great fire which caused unforeseen damage and destruction. Many had to struggle for survival, work at times was hard to come by, and exceptionally high taxes at various times added to existing pressures.

Charles II, via Wikimedia Commons, By Peter Lely – Collection of Euston Hall, Suffolk (http://www.eustonhall.co.uk/new/index.php), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=391532

But alongside hardships, there was also theatre, pageantry, music and plenty of discussion—the coffee houses provided the platform. There was also trade and new opportunities, attractions like menageries, newspapers being introduced. The Royal Society was established in this period encouraging discovery and curiosity. Many foreigners came into the city, including importantly the Huguenots who brought with them many talents like taffeta and lace work as also weapon-making, dance, and military-schools, adding to the city’s culture and economy. This was indeed a rich century.  

A Coffee House, via Wikimedia Commons, By Rita Greer – The original is an oil painting on board by Rita Greer, history painter, 2008. This was digitized by Rita and sent via email to the Department of Engineering Science, Oxford University, where it was subsequently uploaded to Wikimedia., FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7667217

I found the book to be a really interesting, entertaining and informative read. While I knew some of the history of the period, there was much that I didn’t know (especially may be the flow of events). I liked that the book gave us a fairly detailed look into various facets of everyday life (from things like trade to fashions, furniture, architecture and household activities and planning). I had no idea that coffee houses dated back quite so far or what their precise contributions were to everyday life or that women were quite as active participants in politics and trade, or even of the literacy levels of the period which were much higher than I’d thought.

What stood out to me the most I think was how so little has changed despite so much having changed. London of the seventeenth century saw much of what we are seeing today—popular protest against the government/monarch, quarantine, fake news, and even bioweapons of a sort (well, at least one incident in any case). English goods being placed under embargo in French ports and not being allowed into the country reminded me of the picture of trucks waiting to be let across on the news just a few months ago. What surprised me most was that ‘fat shaming’ of a sort wasn’t unheard of, with poor Mary II herself being a target of comments on her bulk.

William and Mary, via Wikimedia Commons, Painting: Sir James Thornhill; Photo: James Brittain, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I liked the fact that the author gives a peek into so many different facets of life through the various chapters. She tells the story as it was giving us a balanced picture (like the good and the bad in the coffee houses) but leaves us to make our judgments ourselves. I also liked that her account was peppered with extracts from not only diarists like Pepys and Evelyn but others as well—letters from traders and commoners, for instance. And I loved that she retained the original spelling. While I liked the arrangement of the chapters by theme, in some places I felt I wasn’t able to keep track of the chronology of developments through broadly the book is arranged chronologically.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one and recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading history, and English history in particular.

Book info: Yale University Press, 384 pp, 2021. The book released on 23 February 2021!

The author: Margarette Lincoln was director of research and collections and later deputy director of the National Maritime Museum Greenwich. She was also visiting fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London until 2020. She has written several books on history, particularly English maritime history. More about her on her website (here)

This book is on Goodreads here.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: London and the Seventeenth Century by Margarette Lincoln

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