Abundant as is the mass of material for the study of history and manners in the sixteenth century, there is even a greater abundance for the history, political and social, of the century of the Stuarts. There are, however, two difficulties to be faced in such an inquiry. The first is that the history of London is far more closely connected with the history of the nation during the seventeenth than during the sixteenth century. It may, indeed, be advanced that at no time, not even when London deposed Richard II. and set up Henry IV., was the City so closely involved in all the events of the time as in the seventeenth century. The City at that time reached the highest point of its political importance, an importance which vanished in the century that followed.
Therefore the historian of London has before him the broad fact that for sixty years, viz. from the accession of Charles I. to the expulsion of James II., he should be pursuing the history of the country. In this place, however, there is not space for such a history; it has already been well told by many historians; and I have neither the time nor the competence to write the history of this most eventful period. I have therefore found it necessary to assume a certain knowledge of events and to speak of their sequence with reference especially to the attitude of the City; the forces which acted on the people; their ideas; their resolution and tenacity under Charles I.; their servility and obedience under Charles II.; and their final rejection of the doctrines of passivevi resistance, Divine right, and obedience which made the departure of James possible, and opened the door for constitutional government and the liberties of the people.
The second difficulty is, that while the century contains an immense mass of material in the shape of plays, poems, fiction, pamphlets, sermons, travels, sketches, biographies, trials, reports, proclamations, ordinances, speeches, and every other conceivable document for the restoration of the century, the period was sharply divided into two by the Civil Wars and the Protectorate, the latter being at best a stop-gap, while events were following each other and the mind of the nation was developing. It was, in fact, a revolutionary change which took place. The change was deepened by the Great Fire of 1666, after which a new London arose, not so picturesque, perhaps, as the former London, but reflecting the ideas of the time in its churches, which, from Mass houses became preaching rooms; and in its houses, which offered substantial comfort, more light, loftier rooms, standing in wider and better ordered streets, agreeing with the increase of wealth and the improvement in the general conditions of life. The first half of the century is, in fact, a continuation of the Elizabethan period with decay in literature and development in religion; the second half belongs to the eighteenth century, where we find a development of the last forty years of the seventeenth.
I have endeavoured to meet this difficulty by making such a selection from the things belonging to the daily life as have not been dwelt upon in the study of the sixteenth century with those points which, while they were developed or dropped in the eighteenth, have not been in that volume considered at length.
The events of the greatest importance to the City, apart from those which belong to the whole nation, were the repeated visitations of Plague, and the Great Fire. The former came and went; it destroyed the people, chiefly the common people, by thousands; its immediate effect was a dearth of craftsmen and servants, a rise in wages, and an improvement in the standard of life in the lower levels. The lessons which it taught and continually enforced were learned most imperfectly. They were simple—the admission into the courts and lanes of the crowded City of light and air; the invention of some system of viisanitation which would replace the old cesspool and the public latrine; and the introduction of a plentiful supply of water for the washing of the people, as well as for their drink and for the flooding of the streets. Somewhere or other—it must be between Dowgate and Mincing Lane—there is still existing under ground the great Roman Cloaca; it is an additional proof of the desertion and desolation of the City after the Romans went away that the Cloaca was forgotten, choked up, and its mouth covered over; the creation of the foreshore covered it up. Had it been found, say, in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, the whole modern sanitary system might have been invented and developed by its means, and so the Plague would have been stayed. I have attempted to present an adequate account of the Plague from contemporary evidence. As regards the Fire I have essayed a restoration of the City before and after that event.
Turning to events political, I have already stated the difficulties which confront the historian of London in this century. The reader will not look here for a detailed history of the Civil War or the Protectorate. I hope, however, that he will find some indication of the way in which the people of London regarded the events which were working out their redemption for them, in ways which were unexpected, by trials which were hard to bear, and after a time when all seemed lost.
Considering London alone, the Restoration seems to me to have been a natural, a wholesome, and a most fortunate reaction against the successive rule of Presbyterian, Independent, and Captain or Colonel. It must have become quite clear even to men like Milton, who was one of the last to lift his voice against the return of a king, that a Commonwealth was too far in advance of the people, and that a military despotism was intolerable.
In the same way the Revolution was a swing back of the pendulum; it was quite as natural and as salutary as the rebellion against Charles and the Restoration of his son. I read this lesson clearly in the history of London, and I assume it for the history of the country.
Meantime let it be remembered that the seventeenth century secured the country for two hundred years, i.e. to the present day at least, and, so far as can be prophesied, for an indefinite period yet to come, from the personal interferenceviii of the sovereign. That is an enormous gain to the country. We are no longer called upon to discuss the Prerogative. The attempted encroachments of George III. appear as mere trifles compared with the monstrous claims of Charles the First and the almost incredible acts of tyranny recorded of his son and successor. And in the achievement of this great result London in the seventeenth century played a noble part and earned the deepest gratitude of all those who came, or shall come, after.