An MP and an Epidemic in Civil War London

As we face challenges unfamiliar in modern times, our director, Dr Stephen Roberts, looks back at one parliamentary diarist’s response to disease in the community around him.

Sir Simonds D’Ewes (1602-50) is now best known for his parliamentary journal. MP for the Suffolk borough of Sudbury, he entered the House of Commons in November 1640 and kept up a diary in English from day one. He fore-grounded himself in his account of proceedings, and so self-regarding is it, replete with his own lofty and successful interventions, that doubt has been cast on whether D’Ewes actually delivered all those speeches: perhaps he merely summarised what he intended to say or wished he had said.  These doubts notwithstanding, D’Ewes’s diary is the fullest and most useful of the Long Parliament. He continued it until a growing antipathy towards the increasingly implacable hostility of the parliamentary leadership towards Charles I, and associated parliamentary faction-fighting , led him first to reduce the size and scope of his daily entries and in November 1645 to abandon them altogether.

However, in January 1644 D’Ewes began a new kind of diary, in Latin. Each day’s entry recorded more of his personal activities, such as his antiquarian pursuits in genealogy, historical research and numismatics. He was a devout puritan, and took notes on sermons he heard at Westminster and occasionally elsewhere. Events in the Commons are noted too, but often in a more cursory fashion than in his English parliamentary diary. His choice of Latin as the medium seems to signal the need for privacy for these more personal notes, and it also provided a structure for his avowed intention of practising and polishing his Latin composition.

In May 1644, five months after he started his Latin diary, he discussed with his wife the rising numbers of deaths from plague in London, where they lived: they decided that she should move to the safer environment of the country, while he would remain at Westminster. Unlike modern influenza, the plague was a disease that intensified in the summer months, not during the winter. Beyond arranging his wife’s removal to Hertfordshire, D’Ewes says no more in his 1644 diary about plague. However, nearly a year later, in August 1645, he suddenly began to note in his diary the statistics for deaths in London in general, and deaths from plague in particular. The deadly disease had returned. In the week ending 21 August, in Westminster and the City of London 141 people died of the plague. D’Ewes began to record the total number of fatalities each week in London, noting always the number of plague deaths. The highest weekly total of London plague deaths in 1645 was 151 during the week ending 4 September; exactly a year later, in the week ending 3 September 1646, a peak weekly total was again reached: 238. From that entry in August 1645 until he abandoned keeping the Latin diary, in September 1647, he made a habit of recording the weekly figure for London deaths overall, and also the plague death numbers.  

Most of D’Ewes’s weekly diary entries about death totals were made on a Thursday, publication day for the official, authoritative statistical source for deaths in London: the so-called ‘bills of mortality’. These were weekly printed bulletins, which had begun to appear in the 1610s, and continued down to the nineteenth century. Each week the bill of mortality was first released to the lord mayor of London and other privileged persons, probably including MPs like D’Ewes, and then, at 10 am, made available to the general public.  D’Ewes became a regular and avid reader of the bills. They provided numbers for all the main causes of death in London, but D’Ewes was only interested in the gross weekly totals and the number of plague deaths, indicating his preoccupation with proportionality. On many Thursdays, his diary entries begin with these statistics, his other daily activities taking a subsidiary place.  D’Ewes was a noted antiquary, who prided himself on his scholarly approach to the past and its application to the present; but we know from other recorded responses to the bills of mortality that he was typical of Londoners in general in how he used these statistics. His interest in them was primarily personal, not academic. He was also typical of other London users in that he usually compared one week’s figures with the previous week’s, and noted the difference, whether an increase or decrease in the numbers. Translated into modern English, his entry in Latin for 3 September 1646, which is typical, begins (my italics):

There died 554 persons in London, 238 from the plague. So the number of deceased was up by 3. Nineteen also died in Westminster, where I live, 5 of the plague. The total number of deceased there and in six other parishes (as they are called) was 112, of whom 58 died of plague.

Twenty years later, a London statistician and actuarial scientist, John Graunt, published a famous critique of the bills of mortality, Natural and Political Observations, which poured scorn on the responses by his fellow-citizens to the bills, writing them off as primitive and unlearned. But for D’Ewes, more learned than most, the bills provided a regular and reliable guide to the patterns of disease, and allowed him to formulate his personal response to it. The prevalence of plague in civil war London, and the death rate from it in Westminster itself, are often overlooked in accounts of the Long Parliament. It was an enemy closer at hand and more deadly than the king’s armies. However, although D’Ewes sent his family away when he thought the evidence of the bills compelling, he himself seems never to have left London or not attended the Commons on account of contagion. For Sir Simonds D’Ewes, epidemic disease was a factor to be considered and assessed but also to be taken to be an accepted part of London life in the 1640s. Lacking a mobile phone or TV, like every other Londoner he turned to the bills of mortality for regular updates on the public health crisis of his own time.   


Further reading:

J. S. McGee, An Industrious Mind. The Worlds of Sir Simonds D’Ewes (Stanford, California, 2015)

P. Slack, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 1985)

S. Porter, The Plagues of London (Stroud, 2008)

A biography of Sir Simonds D’Ewes is being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 section.

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