In 1666, the Great Fire of London erupted, devastating the city and leaving an ‘estimated 70,000 people’ homeless. However, this wasn’t the only noteworthy event of the year, as highlighted by the fascinating narrative of Rebecca Rideal’s 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.
With scenes ranging from an embattled warship to the horrors of plague-stricken graveyards, Rideal expertly crafts a compelling account of one of the most infamous years in British history. Even though 1666 covers a lot, I never once felt lost. Prior to reading, all I knew of the year was that a fire started on Pudding Lane. Whilst the Great Fire, of course, features prominently, the book also covers the destruction of flagship The London, the outbreak of plague in the capital, and the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Threaded throughout are other events such as the completion of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Newton’s discovery of gravity. 1666 is ambitious in scope, and Rideal executes it incredibly well.
One aspect that I particularly enjoyed was the variety of first-hand accounts. Whilst some studying the 17th century might be tempted to rely on the diary of Samuel Pepys, Rideal ensures she is not beholden to him. 1666 is instead a treasure trove of contemporary sources. Though famed figures such as John Milton and Sir Isaac Newton weave in and out of chapters, they are also accompanied by people such as Thomas Vincent, a preacher, and the Mitchell family, who were booksellers. Every source serves to further lead the reader into the events, and I must applaud the depth of Rideal’s research. This is especially notable as I believe it is easy, when studying the past, to sometimes forget the individual nature of people. That is not true in this book. Wider descriptions of events are uplifted by the stories of those who experienced them. I was particularly struck by the tale of one family, who, after losing all but one of their children to the plague, smuggled the sole survivor out of their quarantined home to be cared for by a friend.
1666 strikes a perfect balance between accessible, detailed, and enjoyable. Despite the large cast, the characters are clearly introduced. Context is readily given so that even without grounding in certain areas, it was easy to follow. The pace was brisk, which was a pleasure for me as someone who is easily distracted. Rideal’s greatest strength, however, is the vividness of her descriptions. I don’t believe I’ve ever read a history book that so startingly drops you in the midst of the action. It is compelling, and whilst reading, I found myself telling my parents small tidbits along the way.
If you enjoy the 17th century, or indeed are interested in just learning a little more, I highly recommend you read this. I, in the meanwhile, will eagerly await Rideal’s next book, God’s Throne.
Have you read 1666? I would love to hear your thoughts!