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Home » Uncategorized » The Great Plague and diplomatic news networks, part 1, RBE 37 – TD Jacobs

The Great Plague and diplomatic news networks, part 1, RBE 37 – TD Jacobs

The Great Plague of 1665/66 eventually claimed an estimated 100,000 lives in and around London. The start of the outbreak, caused by Yersinia pestis, can be traced to the spring of 1665 but only became noticeable to the city’s wealthier denizens in June. The famous diarist, Samuel Pepys marked the occasion:

This day [June 7], much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that to my remembrance I ever saw.[1]

On June 10, Pepys noted it had reached London proper, writing that “the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City.)” However, even as Pepys began to put his affairs in order “in case it should please God to call me away,”[2] this momentous event was overshadowed in the capital by other news: a major victory over the Dutch.

War with the United Provinces had begun in March of 1665, following rising tensions and a number of skirmishes over control of maritime commerce and overseas trade. The Second-Anglo Dutch War ended a scant two years later,[3] but while it lasted, it inspired a great deal of propaganda on both sides of the North Sea – some of it pretty ripe. The title of the broadsheet “The Dutch Boare Dissected, or a Description of Hogg-Land” gives some indication as to how the English felt about what they considered Netherlandish greed. The description continues “A Dutch man is a lusty, fat, two legged cheese-worm: A creature, that is so addicted to eating butter, drinking fat drink, and sliding, that all the world knows him for a slippery fellow. An Hollander is not a High-lander, but a Low-lander; for he loves to be down in the dirt, and boar-like, to wallow therein.”[4] One of the pictures has an accompanying verse:

The monstrous pig,
With vipers big,
That seven-headed beast,
Shows how they still,
Pay good with ill
To th’ English and the rest.
The vipers come
Forth of the wombe,
With death of their own mother:
Such are that nation,
A generation,
That rise by fall of other

Dutch MonsterDetail from “The Dutch Boare Dissected, or a Description of Hogg-Land.”

Unsurprisingly, the bitter conflict also affected the diplomatic corps in London, which was already in something of a disordered condition. As the letters of the various Venetian representatives around Europe attest to, the major powers and gossipy players were embroiled in various fights with the English court. When war was officially declared in March of 1665, no ambassador from Venice was present. Spain was in the process of appointing a new resident. The Dutch ambassador was being threatened by mobs. France was planning to send an extraordinary embassy to England, supposedly to mediate. And – as if things were not exciting enough – the Tsar’s envoy had upset Charles II for some obscure reason involving the refusal of a gift, and had “not yet obtained any reception or ceremonial audience, and so far as has been heard as a private individual he is looked on with great disfavour by his Majesty.”[5]

Ambassadors arrived from Spain and France towards the end of April 1665, but the French made little apparent headway. An informant in London wrote the Venetian ambassador in Paris, Alvise Sagredo,

 the ambassadors of the Most Christian have not yet made their public entry, yet they have had many private audiences of King Charles, and it is believed to be with respect to the mediation between England and Holland, but as yet one sees no disposition in his Majesty to consent to an adjustment, as greater preparations for the war are made here daily. Besides this they say that these ambassadors have no instructions to make any considerable proposal to his Majesty with respect to reparation for the injuries done to him and his subjects by the Dutch, without which it seems practically impossible that their mediation can have effect.[6]

Nor did the French mediators have long to work. The aforementioned victory over the Dutch on June 3 (o.s.) at the Battle of Lowestoft only served to convince the English that their triumph was near at hand, despite the escape of most of the Netherlandish fleet. The Venetian correspondence is full of naught but speculation over the further prosecution of the war. Indeed, the first mentions of the outbreak in their letters are sandwiched between passages about Charles II’s younger brother and chief commander, James, Duke of York, and the location of the Dutch fleet. Sagredo’s informant simply wrote on June 19 that “The plague is spreading in several places of this city and its suburbs although there are only forty-three dead of it this week. It is feared that it will increase greatly with the intense heat of the present season.”[7] A week later, Sagredo’s informant penned the news that “The plague continues to spread in this city, 112 having died of it this week according to the bulletins and as the bulletins admit such a number it is feared that the numbers are double, more than fourteen parishes being affected.”[8]

But even as the disease took hold of London over the month of June and the start of July – as attested to by the increased frequency with which Pepys mentions houses being ‘shut up’ and his having sent his wife from the city[9] – the business of diplomacy proceeded with an almost bizarre normalcy against the general backdrop of disease. Sagredo’s informant wrote him that

This week the Count of Molina, ordinary ambassador of his Catholic Majesty made his public entry into London with great splendour and magnificence. He was conducted in his Majesty’s coaches and accompanied by more than sixty others from the Tower of London as far as his house at Chelsea […] The plague is spreading in London, 168 having died this week and nineteen parishes being affected. They say that it is beginning to spread into the country and especially in the neighbourhood of the metropolis.[10]

In fact, it is unclear who would have been present to watch the Spanish ambassador’s big entrance. Pepys’s own entry for the day doesn’t mention it; instead, he wrote “I find all the towne almost going out of towne, the coaches and waggons being all full of people going into the country.”[11] The king and queen had already removed to Hampton Court, only returning to London when necessary.

It is at this point that Sagredo stopped receiving regular letters from England, and appears to have resorted to filling his reports to the Doge and Senate with information gleaned at the French court, where people had begun to speculate as to the impact of the outbreak on the ongoing war. It was believed that the plague might persuade England to finally take advantage of France’s mediation, so as to “avoid the chance of perishing by arms as well.” As such, Louis XIV refused his ambassadors’ requests that the two weakest members of the party should be allowed to return home “in view of the slaughter wrought by the plague.” Even so, the disease finally had an impact on the conduct of business with the dismissal of much of the embassy party, so that the ambassadors could “follow the court with less danger, by limiting communication.”[12]

Unfortunately, the patchiness of Sagredo’s dispatches with regard to English affairs hinders their use as a source of information about the Great Plague. However, the disruption in the flow of information may help to shed some light on an interesting aspect of diplomatic culture: the spread of news between diplomats. Both the extant letters as well as the gaps that appeared as 1665 ran its course reveals that the Venetian’s informant in England was none other than the agent of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Giovanni Salvetti Anterminelli.

Salvetti, who had obtained his father’s diplomatic post upon the latter’s death in 1657, also allotted scant space in his correspondence to the start of the outbreak. His letter home of June 5 was almost entirely devoted to news of the war and the Battle of Lowestoft. A small insertion noted that “La peste [continua] d’aumentusti in queste cittá” – the plague continues to increase in this city – and that people were in doubt about the number of deaths being reported.[13] His letter of July 9, 1665, described the entrance of the Spanish ambassador, before ominously noting that that “il consuggio cresce” – the consumption grows – and that 168 people had died of the disease that week.[14]

The contents of this missive obviously mirror those of July 9 letter sent to Sagredo in Paris. Allen B Hinds, an editor of the Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Vencie,  remarked upon the similarity in the records, writing that “for the whole of the period from November 1664 the advices from England are practically identical with those forwarded by the Tuscan agent, Giovanni Salvetti Anterminelli, to his government” but that the missives Sagredo sent onwards were either in French, “or have been translated from the French.”[15] That may explain why Hinds did not go so far as to definitively state that the agent and informant were one in the same. But a closer look at the July 9 document both supports this identification of the mysterious agent, as well as why Sagredo may have received letters in French despite being a fellow Italian. The copy in Salvetti’s records lacks an addressee. It was not sent to a member of his own government, something he would have had no reason to hide considering that the missive contains no information not contained in the letters that bracket it.

However, the Tuscan agent may very well have wished to obscure his contact with Sagredo in his record keeping, or – even more intriguingly – Salvetti was sending the same letter to more than one individual, and he drafted it in Italian before translating it to French and dispatching it. A more thorough comparison of letters in the Venetian correspondence and addressees (or lack thereof) in Salvetti’s copies is required, as is a search of other collections of correspondence from the period for enclosures with news from London sent on the same days.

Lastly, another aspect of the letters that Hinds overlooked establishes Salvetti as Sagredo’s informant: the locations at which they were written. Just as the Venetian ambassador’s anonymous correspondent moves to Tonbridge in Kent to escape the plague, so does Salvetti. Indeed, this is the first time in his letters that the agent demonstrates some degree of alarm over the unfolding disaster, writing to the grand duke that “Only by the grace of God have I arrived in perfect health at Tonbridge.”[16] But while the Tuscan agent survived to continue reporting from England, it would be some time before the Venetian ambassador received any further news. As Sagredo informed his superiors in Venice on July 31, “Parlement here has forbidden communication with England.”[17]

[1] Samuel Pepys, 7.6.1665. All quotations from the diary come from Samuel Pepys, “The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Daily entries from the 17th century London Diary.” https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary.

[2] Pepys, 10.6.1665.

[3] For the most recent treatise on the topic, see Gijs Rommelse, The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667): raison d’état, mercantilism and maritime strife (Hilversum: Verloren, 2006).

[4] Anon., “The Dutch Boare Dissected, or a Description of Hogg-Land” (London: s.n., 1665).

[5] See Marin Zorzi, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate, 4.3.1665; Alvise Sagredo, Venetian Ambassador in France, to the Doge and Senate, 6.3.1665; Sagredo to the same, 20.3.1665, and enclosure. All Venetian correspondence taken from Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 34, 1664-1666, ed. Allen B Hinds (London: 1933).

[6] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 1.5.1665 and 8.5.1665 and enclosures.

[7] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 23.6.1665, enclosure.

[8] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 3.7.1665, enclosure.

[9] Pepys, 5.7.1665: “I left them going to supper, grieved in my heart to part with my wife, being worse by much without her, though some trouble there is in having the care of a family at home in this plague time, and so took leave […] Late home and to bed, very lonely.”

[10] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 17.7.1665, enclosure. The entry took place on June 21 (o.s.)/July 1 (n.s.). The enclosure itself is dated July 9.

[11] Pepys, 21.6.1665.

[12] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 24.7.1665.

[13] Giovanni Salvetti Anterminelli to Perseo Falconcini, 5.6.1665, 208v-210v, Additional MS 27962 R(1), British Library, London, UK.

[14] Salvetti to anonymous, 9.7.1665, 225v-228v.

[15] Allen B. Hinds, “Preface” in Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 34, 1664-1666, ed. Allen B Hinds (London, 1933).

[16] Salvetti to Ferdinando II de’Medici, 17.7.1665, 228v-233r, Add. MS 27962 R(1).

[17] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 31.7.1665.


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