Samuel Pepys wrote his diary for nearly a decade, until he left off because of his concerns with his failing eyesight. Maybe it’s just as well, because the diary as it is us 1.3 million words long and it’s quite daunting to imagine how long it would be had he gone on. He was uniquely positioned to depict the life of London in the Restoration era, since he rose from rather humble lower-middle-class origins to the post of a high-ranking official in the Navy. So while his family and most of his friends are middle-class, he mixes with aristocracy, visits the court and collects stories from all over London. I imagine it’s quite difficult to choose which fragments from this mass of text to choose, so the editors of the NAEL went for what was surely the most dramatic days not only in the period of Pepys’ life covered by the diary, but also the most dramatic days in London of this era – the Great Fire of 1666. As it is often the case with momentous events, it doesn’t begin with a loud bang but kind of sneaks on Pepys, and I’m sure on many of Londoners. Pepys’ maid wakes him up at 3 am to say there’s a fire nearby, but it doesn’t look very dangerous from his window, so he goes back to sleep. When he wakes up again at 7am, it looks even further away, so he goes to his office to put things in order as he planned. But then Jane comes with a report that above 300 houses have been burned and now it’s burning by the London Bridge, so Pepys dresses himself and goes to the top of the Tower. He sees fires on both ends of the Bridge, which concerns him, because some of his friends live there. The Lieutenant of the Tower tells him it started, as it is now generally assumed, in the bakery in Pudding Lane. Pepys goes down, rents a boat and with a random gentleman who joined him goes to the Bridge. His friend’s house is alrealy burned, people fling their goods out of the windows into the water or into the barges waiting nearby and the fire is spreading rapidly. A touching detail is that poor pigeons keep on hovering near their burning houses, so close that some of them have their wings singed and they fall down. After about an hour Pepys goes to the royal palace at Whitehall and there he explains the situation to the King and the Duke of York. They are very concerned and the King orders pulling down of the houses, as Pepys suggested, to stop the fire from spreading. They tell him to go to the Lord Mayor with this command and say they can send more soldiers if he needs them. Pepys goes now in a coach with several officials in search of the Lord Mayor. Everywhere around him is a mess, especially since nobody does anything to stop the fire and people seem to be mostly concerned to transport their goods safely to their friends’ houses or to churches, while they “themselves should have been there quietly at this time”, as Pepys piously observes. Anyway, all this moving of goods is of no use, since the houses previously thought safe in time also become endangered by fire. Finally they come across the Lord Mayor, who is dead tired. He says he’s been pulling houses all night but it’s no use, because the fire is so fast, and now he needs to go and have some rest. Pepys notices the houses are very dry (it’s 2 September, at the end of a hot and dry summer), full of pitch and tar and there are several houses full of oil and brandy tight in the fire’s direction. It’s now noon and so he comes back home, because they have some previously invited guests. He meant to show one of the gemtlemen some things in his office but they are not in the mood. Nevertheless, as a testimony to the resilience of human spirit (or human short-sightedness?) “we had an extraordinary good dinner, and as merry as at this time we could be.”
“Epigram on Milton” is, as befitting an epigram, a very short poem linking Milton to two great epic poets of the past, Homer and Virgil. The first is unsurpassed in loftiness of thought, the second in majesty, and since Nature could not go any further in any of these qualities, in creating Milton she combined the two.
“Alexander’s Feast” is another of these odes on St Cecilia’s Day, and again it has a musical setting by Handel. It’s a longer poem and so the resulting musical piece is a full-blown oratorio, so it’s more of a time commitment and for this reason I did the unpardonable thing – I broke it in two. So far it’s not as impressive as the previous one, IMHO, but maybe it’s precisely because I didn’t listen it properly from the start till the end. The poem is about Alexander celebrating with his mistress Thais his victory over Persians. There is a big party and the singer Timotheus sings a song about the legendary divine origin of Alexander, who according to an oracle was not the son of Philip but of Zeus himself, who visited his mother as a dragon. The listeners exclaim “A present deity!” and Alexander nods, pleased with the flattery. The next part of Timotheus’ song is about the god of wine Bacchus, who arrives greeted by the sounds of trumpets and hautboys (both instruments, I am sure, unknown in antiquity), but it gives the composer an opportunity for some fine musical effects. Wine-drinking is praised as “the soldier’s pleasure” because “sweet is pleasure after pain”.
This very short text (really, the title makes it significantly longer) is one of the “martyrdom narratives” that early Quakers produced in order to publicize their persecutions. Their enemies accused them of seeking these opportunities for martyrdom on purpose, to excite sympathy and put themselves in victims’ roles, although Quakers probably felt about these texts more like the testimony that they are a handful of saints surrounded by the sinful world. The text can’t really be labelled “literature”, but it’s a very affecting document. Waugh, then probably about twenty, recounts how she felt moved by the Holy Spirit to go and preach at the crossroads in Carlisle (Quakers believed in this kind of direct divine inspiration which could move anybody to preach), from where she is immediately dragged off and thrown into prison. The mayor comes to interrogate her and her answer to his first question about where she came from is “Out of Egypt, where thou lodgest”. The answer implies that the mayor is a sinner, while Waugh has already left the state of sin behind, like the Israelites led by Moses. The mayor becomes very angry and orders a barbaric punishment of putting a bridle in her mouth, the penalty usually meted out to women who scolded their husbands or neighbours in public. The whole thing is made of iron, weighs about a stone (including a steel cap it is attached to) and Waugh is ordered to wear it for three hours, with her hands bound behind her back. People who come to see her are moved to tears by this view, but the mayor scolds them, saying “For foolish pity, one may spoil a whole city”. This is somewhat in contrast with the next sentence, in which Waugh informs us that the doorkeeper charged the visitors two pence, but on second thoughts, people who came just because of idle curiosity, could really be moved by seeing her suffer. Then Waugh is kept at prison “for a little season”, but she cannot be really charged with anything, so the mayor comes again, swears at her, orders to put the bridle back on and to whip her out of town.
James makes it a habit to play every evening after supper hide-and-seek with his servants, and he is so good at hiding sometimes they can’t find him for half an hour. He also asks the gardener for the key to the garden, saying that he forgot his. He and the gardener are the only people who have these keys and I’m not sure what the point of the whole plan is, unless it is to lock the gate behind him and thus hinder the chase. Anyway, on the night of the planned escape James again plays hide-and-seek, and then sneaks out, locking all the doors behind him. On the street Colonel Bamfield is waiting for him and they cross in a boat to the house where Anne and her servant are waiting for them. Anne was very nervous because they were late, and Bamfield himself told her not to wait for them past ten o’clock, because if they are not there by that time, it means they are caught and she mustn’t compromise herself. But she decides to hang on and when she hears the noise on the stairs, she is sure it’s soldiers coming for her. But fortunately it is the young duke and Colonel Bamfield, and relieved Anne embraces the Duke, thanking God for his escape.
After that the Duke is dressed in girl’s clothes, and Halkett says he looked very pretty in them. He has dinner, which she prepared waiting for him, and takes some Wood Street cake, which Anne ordered because she knew he loved it, into the barge with him. I wonder what Wood Street cake was like? The barge carries them to the ship waiting for them, not without some problems with the wind and such, but Halkett believes God’s providence saved them. In the meantime, Anne and her maidservant Miriam drive as fast as they can to the house of Anne’s brothers. The escape remains undetected for some time, because the servants believe the Duke is still playing hide-and-seek with them. But when he doesn’t appear, Earl of Northumberland, in whose care the Duke was, orders a thorough search of the house, and then informs the Speaker about the Duke’s escape. The Speaker orders immediately to block all the ports from which ships leave for the continent, but, as Halkett’s source close to the Speaker at that time claims, the scribes were so confused they prepared ten or twelve versions before they came up with an acceptable document, by which time the Duke was already safe at sea.
When Cromwell imposes a new, particularly high tax on the City, one former follower of his, George Cony, opposes the tax, and when Cromwell tries to argue with him, recalling their former friendship, Cony reminds him about his own earlier words, when Cromwell claimed that one not only has a right to protest against unjust taxes, but should actively oppose them by not paying them. Cony is imprisoned and his lawyer argues that the imprisonment is illegal because the taxes he refused to pay were illegal in the first place. The trial is adjourned till the next day, and in the meantime Cromwell imprisons Cony’s lawyer and gives a good talking-to to the judges – when they try to invoke the Magna Carta and such, he tells them the Magna Carta is irrelevant when he works for the greater good of the Commonwealth; moreover, the judges should remember who they have their power from and what can become of them if Cromwell is not around anymore. In a nutshell, Cromwell tells them it’s in their best interest to uphold his power, regardless of the law. So he managed to control the judiciary branch, although unfortunately Hyde does not choose to tell us what eventually became of poor Coney. He also mentions that in matters which did not touch his jurisdiction, Cromwell had great respect for the law, although it’s a little bit like saying that as long as you didn’t stand in his way, Tony Soprano was a really nice guy. Hyde repeats that despite his rather humble origin, and despite not being a particular favourite either with the people or with the army, Cromwell managed to win an unprecedented control over Britain and to sum up, he calls him “a brave, bad man”.
Clarendon was a supporter of the Stuarts all through the Civil War and after, so it’s small wonder he called the War “the Rebellion”. The excerpted fragment is about the character of Oliver Cromwell, which Clarendon describes following the ancient historians, starting with his death. Cromwell fell ill with the tertiary ague, and until the very last moment he didn’t believe he was going to die because all his preachers assured him God still needs him here on this earth. But he died on September 3, the date which he considered lucky because won two major military victories on that day. On the day of his death a huge storm ravaged both the coasts of England and France. Much as Clarendon dislikes Cromwell, he admits, quoting a Latin saying, that even his enemies could not curse him without praising him and he does give credit to Cromwell’s extraordinary talents, which enabled him to rise to the position of Lord Protector from rather humble (if respectable) beginnings and without any apparent charm or charisma. After he was made Lord Protector, he never asked anybody’s advice and never revealed his plans to anybody but people who executed them and only at the time when it was necessary. Then Clarendon starts telling a long anecdote about how Cromwell dealt with one political enemy of his, but in order not to break it off in the middle, I’ll save it for another post.
Lucy Hutchinson was an exceptionally well-educated woman, the wife of a high-ranking Commonwealth official and a Puritan. Consequently, the excerpt from her memoirs about Charles I and his wife is not very complimentary to them. She can give credit where credit is due and write that the moral tone at the court of Charles I was much higher than that at the court of his father: catamites, bawds and mimics are gone, and even debauched courtiers at least have the decency to practice their debauchery in private. The king himself is a great connoisseur of art. But unfortunately, as in ancient Rome the best emperors were often the bitterest persecutors of Christians, so the king is the enemy of all liberty. Puritans are persecuted and many of them choose emigration to America. At the same time, papists are favoured at the court and many people convert to Catholicism for that reason. The king wants to be an absolute monarch, following the example of the French king, and he supports bishops because they suport him in this notion. His worst instigator is the queen, about whom everything is described by Hutchinson as ominous: her Frenchness (“a French queen never brough any happiness to England” – really? what did Eleanor of Aquitaine or Margaret of France do that was so terrible?), her name Marie, which allegedly her husband prefer to call her by rather than Henrietta, and which reminds Hutchinson of Bloody Mary, and of course her femininity, because women are not fit to rule, and Elizabeth I was a good queen only because she submitted to her male counsellors (yeah, right). The queen starts to plot with the bishops to root out the godly (i.e. Puritans) out of the land, but God in his mercy intervened.