[Review] 1666 by Rebecca Rideal


1666 was a watershed year for England. An outbreak of the Great Plague, the eruption of the second Dutch War, and the devastating Great Fire of London all struck the country in rapid succession and with devastating repercussions.

Shedding light on these dramatic events and their context, historian Rebecca Rideal reveals an unprecedented period of terror and triumph. Based in original archival research drawing on little-known sources, 1666 opens with the fiery destruction of London before taking readers on a thrilling journey through a crucial turning point in English history as seen through the eyes of an extraordinary cast of historical characters.

While the central events of this significant year were ones of devastation and defeat, 1666 also offers a glimpse of the incredible scientific and artistic progress being made at that time, from Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity to the establishment of The London Gazette. It was in this year that John Milton completed Paradise Lost, Frances Stewart posed for the iconic image of Britannia, and a young architect named Christopher Wren proposed a plan for a new London—a stone phoenix to rise from the charred ashes of the old city.

With flair and style, 1666 exposes readers to a city and a country on the cusp of modernity and a series of events that altered the course of history.

I’d been meaning to pick this book up for a while, being incredibly interested in the Restoration and the reign of Charles II. And when I eventually did download it on my kindle and started reading. I was not disappointed. I must admit now to having a bit of a historical crush on Charles II and John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, and (sadly) I’m a bit of a fangirl over Samuel Pepys. So the moment I loaded the book up and saw the name ‘Samuel Pepys’, there was a bit (a lot) of a fangirl moment.

This book tells the story of 1666, a year of turmoil for England. It started with the plague, killing thousands of people and sending those who could scurrying for the countryside and ended with the Great Fire of London, an event that destroyed swathes of the city and ruined the lives of many. In between times the English were at War with the Dutch. It was a rough year – and a year that affected nearly everyone.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book was that you got to know the people – I mean the real people. This wasn’t just the story of the nobility at the time, but local traders and families. It was heartbreaking to read about how the lives of these ordinary people were ruined by plague and fire, and you really do end up feeling for them. Quite often in historical biographies you don’t get that level of understanding with the characters, characters who lived and worked, so it was a pleasant change to read a book that allowed for this.

Rideal’s writing style in this work made it accessible – it is a great read for someone new to seventeenth century history and wanting to know about this particularly infamous year. It’s also a fantastic resource for those more ‘in the know’, as it were. I must admit, after a bit of a break from Seventeenth Century History, this book reignited my love for it – I feel a research party coming on regarding Rochester…

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