The English diarist Samuel Pepys noted on Friday 10th April 1663 a visit to the “Royall Oak Tavern, in Lumbard Street… and here drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan (Haut-Brion), that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.”
Two years after Pepys enjoyed drinking Château Haut-Brion at the Royall Oak Tavern, London was ravaged by The Great (Bubonic) Plague, which was transmitted by fleas that lived on rats.
Coronavirus cannot compare to the deadly bubonic plague, but it is possible to see parallels between 1665 and 2020 from Pepys’ diary, as highlighted by Gavin Mortimer in a recent article.
(The 1665 Plague is also chronicled in Daniel Defoe’s 1772 novel A Journal of the Plague Year.)
On 30th April, Pepys wrote in his diary, “Great fears of the sickenesse here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve as all!”
According to the National Archives, “Charles II and his courtiers left in July for Hampton Court and then Oxford. Parliament was postponed and had to sit in October.”
Theatres and courts were closed, all sport shut down, and trade with other cities at home and abroad was suspended.
The Council of Scotland closed its border with England.
“But, Lord!” wrote Pepys on 16th August, “how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the ’Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up..” This could be a description of March 2020.
Pepys maintained his busy work and social life as usual. The next day he went boating on the Thames with four friends, dropping anchor near Gravesend, “to supper mighty merry, and after it, being moonshine, we out of the cabbin to laugh and talk.”
A year after the Plague, the Great Fire of London in September 1666 burned down the city. Pepys noted in his diary entry on 4th September that he had buried his wines and Parmesan cheeses in a garden pit for safekeeping.
By carrying on regardless, and preserving his wines and cheeses, Pepys wasn’t being blasé about the plague or the fire. But he understood that life has to go on even when times are tough.
Stay safe, stay well, and stay prosperous. We’ll get through it.