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Back in Time to an Ice Age and a Great Fire

Front cover of The Time Traveller's Guide to Restoration Britain.
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain
Ian Mortimer
The Bodley Head
440pp  £20

Coffee, chocolate, balcony, draper and yacht are words that entered the English language during the Restoration, as Ian Mortimer points out in this thoroughly entertaining guide to life in Restoration Britain. It was, he suggests, a turbulent time: an age of revolutions, experimentation and genius. Those familiar with Mortimer’s earlier traveller’s guides to Medieval and Elizabethan England will recognise his informal and conversational style, which draws the reader into the history of the period. It is crammed with insights, facts and enjoyable anecdotes, which create a sense of the experience of living in Britain between 1660 and 1700.

The book shows that some modern preoccupations were also a source of anxiety in the past. There was climate change, since Restoration Britain experienced the ‘little ice age’, including, in 1675, ‘the year without a summer’. There was the familiar sense that Britain was dominated by London, but, as Mortimer points out, between 1670 and 1700 London was over four times the size of all the other cities in the country combined. This justifies his engaging account of London, which captures the sights and sounds of the burgeoning city. It was a landscape that dramatically changed as a result of the Great Fire of London. While history treats the fire as an event, Mortimer points out that it was one from which the city took decades to recover. More than six months after the fire, Pepys saw smoke still rising from cellars in the city. Other towns were also devastated by fire, including Bungay, Newmarket, Rolvenden, St Ives, Morpeth, Builth, Northampton and Warwick.

Such a book has to try to avoid anachronism and, generally, Mortimer is successful. In an important and moving section on grief, he poses the question of whether the scale of infant mortality led people to be inured to death, or whether lives were just consumed by greater quantities of bereavement? In either case, life in the past was very different from that in 2017. 

The same is true of communications. Not only would modern visitors to Restoration Britain find transport and postage frustratingly slow, they would have found the dialects difficult to follow, as Celia Fiennes did in her travels. Foreign languages were also a problem: when the Grand Duke Cosimo of Tuscany visited Cambridge in 1669 he found the professors’ pronunciation of Latin incomprehensible.

The foreignness of the past is revealed in attitudes to hygiene. Thousands of cattle and sheep were driven into London to be slaughtered for food, which left the streets splattered with blood and manure. Woollen workers and servants trying to remove stains used urine as a cloth treatment. Few people had clothes – or bodies – as clean as in 2017. Dysentery and flux were common consequences of poor diet or badly cooked food, so keeping clean was often a losing battle for the poor. Disease was also a constant aspect of life in the period and medical advice was variable: the Bishop of Worcester was advised to drink a pint of cow’s urine as a treatment for gout. Pain, cruelty, prejudice and hardship were everyday experiences. Yet, as Mortimer points out, despite how ghastly the past could sometimes be, suicide was extremely rare, at least compared with today. Perhaps the youthful nature of society (30 per cent of the population was under 15 years of age and only 10 per cent over 60) and active piety made it more optimistic.

Some will find quibbles, of course. Where Mortimer’s account is weakest is in his discussion of religion. He acknowledges its influence in Restoration Britain, but tends to link it with superstition and magic. This might be the modern, secular attitude, but was not how people at the time saw it. Mortimer’s account of James II’s reign is also incomplete; the claim that James’ commitment to religious toleration ‘was heartfelt’ remains contested by many of his fellow historians.

Nevertheless, this is a compelling book and one of considerable erudition. Mortimer quotes from familiar sources like Pepys, Evelyn, Fiennes and Thoresby, but he has also undertaken impressive research in more obscure archives and sources. For the general reader interested in the world of Wren and Newton this is the book that will provide the most richly colourful account of Britain in this period.

William Gibson is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford Brookes University; he is author (with Joanne Begiato) of Sex and the Church in the Long Eighteenth Century (I.B. Tauris, 2017).

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