The history of Stuart London almost kicked off with a real bang. Catholic conspirators planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament when they opened on November 5, 1605, hoping to kill the new king, James I.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your sympathies, the plot was discovered, and a conspirator named Guy Fawkes was discovered in cellars beneath Parliament with kegs of explosives. This event, called the Gunpowder Plot, is commemorated each year with the celebration of Bonfire Night on November 5.
London water was pretty foul in those years, so you can imagine the delight of Londoners at the completion in 1613 of the New River Head at Finsbury. This was a massive engineering project collecting clean water from 40 miles away and bringing it to large cisterns at Finsbury before final delivery to the city in "pipes" made of hollowed elm trunks.
In the early Stuart years the landscape of London was changed by the extraordinary work of the self-taught architect, Inigo Jones. In 1631 Jones designed Covent Garden piazza, the first purpose-built square in the city. Jones' other important work in this period was at Queen's House (Greenwich), Banqueting Hall (Whitehall), and Queen's Chapel.
In 1637 Charles I, in one of the few gestures of his life that may have swayed public opinion his way, opened the royal reserve of Hyde Park to the public. This was the first royal park to be made public. More on London's parks here.
If Charles was looking for support, he didn't get it from Londoners. The City helped finance the Parliamentary war efforts in the English Civil War, and Charles was eventually beheaded outside Inigo Jones' Banqueting House in Whitehall.
The Protectorate and Commonwealth that followed Charles' death saw a concerted effort by Puritan extremists to quench Londoner's appetite for the bawdier aspects of life. Theatre was banned, as was dancing and just about anything else enjoyable. Churches had their organs and choirs removed.
But when the Restoration of the Monarchy brought Charles II to the throne in 1660 the pendulum swung back the other way with a vengeance. Riotous entertainment was once more in fashion. Theatre was not only admissible, it even earned royal approval - Theatre Royal Drury Lane gained the royal warrant in 1665.
The city entered on a period of extensive building development, and new residential squares were laid out for the aristocracy to live in. St. James Square was the first of these, and the districts of St. James, Mayfair, and Marylebone became areas for the well-heeled to settle.
The Stuart period is sadly dominated by two disasters, the Great Plague and the Great Fire. In 1665 Plague broke out in the city, brought by ship from Holland. London had been no stranger to the plague since the Middle Ages, but this was something different - a strain so virulent that sufferers could catch it and die within hours. The city descended into a state of panic.
Sufferers were locked in their houses, along with their families. It was thought that dogs and cats spread the disease, so the Lord Mayor ordered them all killed. Thus, with one stroke, the natural enemies of the rats who were the true carriers were decimated.
Throughout the very long, dry summer of 1665 the plague raged in London. The court fled, most doctors and priests followed, and anyone with the means to leave, left quickly. Although the worst of the plague died by autumn, it was not until the next great calamity cleansed the filthy streets of London that the plague was truly over. Estimates of the death toll range from 70,000 to well over 100,000 lives.
The second calamity was the Great Fire. On the night of September 2, 1666 a small fire, perhaps started by the carelessness of a maid, started in the shop of the king's baker in Pudding Lane. Fanned by a strong wind, the fire soon became an inferno. For four days the fire raged through the close-packed streets of wooden houses, until the wind died.
The toll of the fire was immense. Although only 8 lives were lost, fully four-fifths of the city was completely destroyed, including 13,000 buildings, 89 churches, 52 company halls, and old St. Paul's Cathedral.
Within days, Christopher Wren presented a plan for rebuilding the city with broad boulevards and open squares replacing the warren of alleys and byways. Wren's plan, though, was simply too costly, and people being people, new buildings were built along the same street pattern as before.
Wren was, however, given the task of rebuilding the churches, including St. Paul's Cathedral. Most of the churches in London today are Wren's work, and it is difficult to find churches that date to the period before the fire.
What to See:
Queen's House, Greenwich
Banqueting House, Whitehall
St Paul's Cathedral
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