The Time Traveller's Guide to
Restoration Britain


As you lay down on your feather bed on your first night in Restoration England, you will notice the quiet. If you're visiting during the 1690s, maybe you can hear a longcase clock chiming downstairs, in the parlour. If you're here in the 1660s, probably the only sound will be the creak of the staircase as the maid gently makes her way up to sleep in the attic, or that of a dog outside barking at the night watchmen. The bell in the church tower will ring the hour throughout the night, sounding in the starlit darkness beyond your shuttered window. Otherwise there is silence. Like many people, you may let the nightlight burn down, so there is a glow beyond the bed hangings. If you've left them open, you'll see the candle flame shining on the wooden panelling of your chamber. On a linen-covered table are the looking glass you'll gaze into in the morning, and the combs your maidservant will use to dress your hair in preparation for the day ahead. But therein lies a question: what does the day ahead hold?

The chances are that, even though you come from the modern world and can look back on the period from 1660 to 1700 with the benefit of hindsight, you don't know what destiny awaits you here. These four decades are tumultuous. People experience everything from rapturous enthusiasm for one king to the violent expulsion of his successor. There are wars abroad and riots at home; persecutions of some religious minorities and greater toleration of others; expanding trade in the Far East and the disappearance of the plague from British shores. Most significantly, there is a marked rise of rational, scientific thinking. Professionalism enters many walks of life, the city of London grows into an international capital, and the middle sorts suddenly spring up, with their refined ways of living and fashion-conscious tastes. It is the age of many geniuses. It produces the greatest British architect of all time in Christopher Wren, the greatest British scientist in Isaac Newton and the greatest diarist in Samuel Pepys. It also heralds the greatest composer in Henry Purcell, the greatest woodcarver in Grinling Gibbons and the greatest clockmaker in Thomas Tompion. It sees the heyday of Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller in the world of painting, the apogee of John Milton and John Dryden in poetry, and it applauds a mass of brilliant actors, actresses and dramatists, including Thomas Otway, Aphra Behn and William Congreve. And don't forget those three other geniuses in science, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley, whose achievements would place them in the front rank, if it were not for Newton. It is the age of innovations, of the arrival of tea, coffee and chocolate, exotic fruit, fine wines and new medicines. Great houses are built in the baroque style, their interiors filled with new fashions in Indian fabric and Chinese furniture and porcelain. Last but not least, this is the great age of the English constitution, during which the ideas of John Locke, the most influential philosopher in the English language, come to be espoused in the Bill of Rights, limiting the power of the king. As a result, whichever year in the late seventeenth century you visit Britain, the day ahead is likely to be full of surprises.

All these changes in society are confusing enough for the indigenous inhabitants. You, the modern visitor, will have the additional difficulty of not being familiar with even the basics of life in the seventeenth-century home. What are you going to eat for breakfast? How do you control the itching of nits and the lice in your clothes? What should you use to brush your teeth? As you wake, the noises of the carts and carriages in the cobbled thoroughfare outside sound strange; so too do the calls and greetings of the street vendors and the pedestrians on their way to market or to church. Open the curtains of your chamber and you will look down through the small panes of uneven, slightly distorting glass to see women's bonnets and gentlemen's periwigs as people greet each other in their various stilted or informal fashions. How are you going to get on in this society, which is so unfamiliar to you?

This book will tell you how to live, day by day, in the late seventeenth century. You will learn what to wear and what to eat and drink, which places are the best to stay in, what money can buy you, and how to get around. You will learn about lice control and dental hygiene, even if the seventeenth-century practices cause you to squirm. As you will see, the general approach of a Time Traveller's Guide is that the past is best viewed close up and personally - in contrast to traditional history, which emphasises the value of objectivity and distance. Hence you are very much at the centre of this story. The past might have been 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short' for some, and grandiose and luxurious for others, but simply to be told these things does not compare with seeing life at close hand, albeit in your mind's eye.

Before we travel to the Britain of 1660-1700, however, there are a few key facts you need to have at your disposal. First, you need to understand why we use the term 'Restoration' to describe the period. It refers to the return of the monarchy in 1660, after what the diarist John Evelyn describes as 'a most bloody rebellion of nearly twenty years'. This 'rebellion' breaks out in 1642, when forces loyal to King Charles I gather to oppose those who support Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell. At stake is the matter of who has absolute authority in England. Are the people bound to obey the monarch because he rules by divine right, as a conduit of the will of God? Or do they have a right to self-government, through Parliament? It is one of the most profound questions of political life, and the answer can hardly be decided by a debate. Four years of intermittent warfare ensue. Judgement comes down first on the side of the people, led by Cromwell and Parliament. In April 1646, after a string of military setbacks, the king seeks refuge among his Scottish subjects. A few months later, the Scots give him up and send him as a prisoner to the English Parliament. After a brief second civil war in 1648, which ends in defeat for the royalists, Charles is tried for high treason: he is found guilty and beheaded at Whitehall on 30 January 1649. A few days later the monarchy and the House of Lords are abolished. England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland are collectively declared a republic - a 'Commonwealth and Free State' - and Parliament formally confirms itself as the source of all just power in the British Isles.

Parliament in these years is dominated by a Puritan outlook, characterised by a set of stringent religious and moral concerns that take precedence over the old traditions and customs of the country. The bishops are abolished, as are the church courts. A measure of how extreme things become in these years is the Adultery Act of 1650. Under this law, anyone found guilty of adultery is to be hanged. In 1654, Susan Bounty, the wife of Richard Bounty of Bideford, Devon, falls pregnant with another man's child. She is tried at the Exeter assizes for the crime of adultery and sentenced to death. She pleads her pregnancy and is allowed to remain in gaol until her child is born. Then she is hanged.

The truly frightening thing is that very few people criticise such 'justice'. Indeed, many magistrates up and down the country want more people hanged for moral lapses, not fewer. The 1650s are probably the most religious decade Britain has seen since the Middle Ages - 'most religious' in the sense that society is completely dominated by Christian beliefs and more willing to punish people for ungodly behaviour than at any other time. If you have a choice as to which part of the seventeenth century you would like to visit and are not of a puritanical disposition, I would strongly recommend avoiding the Commonwealth.

Times change, influential men grow old and die, and extreme forms of government sooner or later become unacceptable. The collapse of the Commonwealth is thus perhaps an inevitability. Its demise is helped by economic turbulence, which makes people question whether Puritanism is truly the right and godly path. When Cromwell dies in September 1658, the government is heavily in debt and both royalists and republicans realise they have a common enemy in religious extremism. A period of chaos follows. On 11 October 1659, John Evelyn writes in his diary: 'The army now turned out Parliament. We had now no government in the nation; all in confusion; no magistrate either owned or pretended but the soldiers, and they not agreed. God almighty have mercy on us and settle us!' Others record similar fears. In Essex, Ralph Josselin, the Puritan vicar of Earl's Colne, writes on 14 October: 'Heard . . . that the army . . . interrupted the Parliament. Our sins threaten our ruin.' On 20 November he adds: 'men's minds exceedingly discontent; the soldiers at present give law unto us, God give a law to us all'. The following month, the London barber Thomas Rugg writes of his fellow citizens that 'their minds were very unquiet, and all grieved . . . now to be ruled by the sword and the committee of swordmen, which was called the Committee of Safety'.

Into the midst of this crisis steps George Monck, the army's commander in Scotland. He is widely respected, having proved himself in campaigns in Ireland and Scotland as well as at sea in the First Dutch War (1652-4). He communicates secretly with Charles I's son and heir, Prince Charles, who is in exile in France, and then arranges for the surviving members of the last elected Parliament to gather at Westminster. On 1 May 1660 the MPs unanimously agree to invite the prince to take the throne. Charles II is duly proclaimed on 8 May, and lands at Dover on the 25th. On 29 May 1660, his thirtieth birthday, he rides in procession through the city of London. It is a brave move on both men's parts: General Monck risks being branded a traitor to republicanism, and Prince Charles can hardly feel relaxed about returning to a country whose Parliament cut off his father's head. But there is a general recognition that the Commonwealth has no other possible successor, and that only a man whose acknowledged authority transcends religious and secular factionalism has a chance of reuniting the nation.

To understand the outpouring of joy that greets Charles II's accession you have to bear in mind the fear of another civil war erupting and of law and order breaking down again. You also have to remember the victims of Puritanism like Susan Bounty. The king not only represents stability and unity; he also stands for freedom from oppression (initially, at least) and the end of religious extremism. On the same day that Parliament agrees to ask Prince Charles to return, General Monck reveals that the prince has signed a declaration, now known as the Declaration of Breda. This document promises a pardon to all those who committed crimes against the prince and his father during the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth (except those who signed Charles I's death warrant). The prince also undertakes to honour all sales and purchases of land in that time; to tolerate people of all religious faiths; to pay the army its back-pay and to recommission the troops in the service of the Crown. For the first time in over a decade, there is optimism in Britain.

The return of the king allows people to recover their cherished traditions and pleasures. People can look forward to dancing round the Maypole on Mayday again, going to the theatre, holding horse races and attending other forms of entertainment prohibited by the Puritans. They can expect the swift resurrection of the bishops and the House of Lords. As the proposed king has already acknowledged an illegitimate son of his own, it goes without saying that he will abolish the Adultery Act. Thus the 'Restoration' not only refers to the reintroduction of the royal family; it also denotes the restoration of principles of legislation, age-old institutions and ancient customs. Unlike most key dates that mark the beginning of a new historical period in British history, which often have little real significance except to denote the death of one monarch and the succession of another, 1660 has an enormous impact on daily life. In English history, probably the only year that stands comparison as a turning point is 1066.

So much for the start of the Restoration; when does it end?

Some historians apply the term 'Restoration' only to the 1660s, the period immediately after Charles II returned. The great diarist Samuel Pepys has unwittingly had a part to play in this, for he describes the years 1660-69 so vividly that the decade attracts almost all the attention, distracting people from the later years of the seventeenth century. At the other extreme, literary critics refer to English plays written as late as the 1690s and early 1700s as 'Restoration Comedies': stylistically, they are notable for their sexual innuendo, satirical wit and sense of immoral fun, all of which characterise English society after 1660. Thus the Restoration has no commonly accepted termination. I have chosen the end of the century for several reasons. First, there is a unifying spirit of licentiousness that is noticeable throughout the period, even if it starts to decline in the 1690s. Second, another 'restoration' of sorts takes place when James II's daughter Mary and her husband William become monarchs in 1689. And third, very little has been written about ordinary people in the last three decades of the seventeenth century. Pepys dominates our understanding of the daily life of the period to such an extent that, apart from academic tomes, you won't find many books on late-seventeenth-century England except those dealing with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the biographies of great men. But life after Pepys is fascinating too and deserves greater attention than it has hitherto received.

Geographically, the authority of the king of England expands considerably over this period. In 1660 Charles II reigns over the British Isles, the port of Dunkirk in France and 'the Plantations', which are the British territories in the New World. In that year these include the small colonies of Massachusetts Bay, New Plymouth, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Virginia, Maryland, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland on the eastern seaboard of North America; and Jamaica, the Leeward Islands and Barbados in the West Indies. By 1700 the Plantations have grown to include thirteen greatly enlarged colonies in North America as well as most of the West Indies. In addition, the king now rules stretches of the coast of India (including Bombay and Calcutta) and parts of the coast of West Africa. It is no exaggeration to say that the British Empire dates from this period, even if it does not yet go by that name. This book, however, is intended for those interested in visiting Great Britain, the largest island in the British Isles. It does not touch on Dunkirk, which is sold to the French in 1662; or Tangiers in North Africa, which is ruled by the English from 1660 to 1684. Nor is it intended as a guide for visitors to seventeenth-century Ireland. The emphasis remains on England, by far the most populous country in Great Britain, but elements of late-seventeenth-century Scottish and Welsh culture are also included. In this respect it is important to remember that the United Kingdom has yet to become a political reality: Wales has been administered as part of the kingdom of England since 1536, but England and Scotland will not become one state until 1707, even though both kingdoms are ruled by the same king. For the period covered in this book, Scotland remains a separate political entity, with its own legal system, Parliament, currency, language and culture.

A last general point you need to bear in mind before stepping into Restoration Britain concerns the weather. Do wrap up warm. Britain is still experiencing the Little Ice Age of the seventeenth century, which leads to some bitterly cold winters, harvest failures and food shortages. 1675 is known as a 'year without a summer', for obvious reasons. The Long Frost of December 1683 to February 1684 remains the coldest three-month period ever recorded. The River Thames remains frozen from 2 January to 20 February; the ground is frozen to the depth of three feet in Kent, and at the Downs 'the sea is frozen above a mile about the shore,' as the London Gazette reports. Gentlemen with thermometers busily measure the temperatures in the staircases and libraries of their country houses and find that even indoor temperatures are well below freezing. Water freezes in ewers in the corners of bedchambers, as does the milk in dairies and the ink in shopkeepers' inkwells. Across the country, snow lies in glistening stillness. Water wheels stand still. Ships remain motionless in their harbours, their rigging sparkling uselessly in the cold sunlight.

As you snuggle down in your feather bed in Restoration England and stare at the light of a guttering candle, trying to keep warm, you will probably start to wonder what you have let yourself in for. I want to add something else for you to think about. A well-respected historian once declared that 'the changes in English society that affected England between the reign of Elizabeth and the reign of Anne were not revolutionary'. I suspect that reading this book and perhaps comparing it with The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England will make you think otherwise. Elizabeth died in 1603, Anne ascends the throne in 1702, and the years in between those two dates see many dramatic changes. We may think of the 'bloody rebellion of nearly twenty years' as the 'English Revolution', but in truth the decades that follow are just as revolutionary. In terms of the decline of superstition, enhanced individualism, greater professionalism and clearer scientific understanding, this is truly an age of radical development. In fact, some of the most profound changes the British people have ever experienced take place between 1660 and 1700. It is a time when the last dying notes of the medieval world are drowned out by the rising trumpet fanfare of modernity, and the rationalism that you take for granted comes to be the dominant way of thinking.

But don't take my word for it. Read on. See for yourself.