The King's City: A History of London during the Restoration: The City that Transformed a Nation
by Don Jordan
Pegasus Books, 2018
Historian Don Jordan follows up The King's Revenge and The King's Bed (both written with Michael Walsh, who bowed out of the co-writing of this third volume) with the final volume about the reign of King Charles II; The King's City tells the story of Charles' reign from his entrance into London in 1660 to his death in 1685 – an incredibly dramatic quarter-century featuring war, the Great Fire, and the Great Plague, plus palace intrigue, governmental upheavals, and social changes across a wide spectrum, and all of it was chronicled in a profusion that leaves most older eras in the shade. Restoration London not only reveled in a boisterous sense of order reaffirmed; it also indulged in a deep self-fascination – and it wrote everything down. It's a banquet for historians.
Before he proceeds to the high-technicolor peaks of the so-called Merry Monarch's reign, Jordan grounds his readers with some explicit reminders that this was still very much a barbaric cesspool of an age:
Londoners emptied their chamber pots into the open sewers that ran down the sides of the streets and sometimes through the middle. The contents routinely spilled out across the cobbles, covering them with a vile mixture of pig and horse manure mixed with rotting vegetables, animals entrails and human urine. Only rain could improve conditions, temporarily cleansing the air and washing away the hideous slush, sluicing it down to the choked rivers and culverts that ran under the streets into the Thames.
But the signature events and personalities of the Restoration are the main attractions in this or any other book about the period, and it's a familiar enough procession from which Jordan hardly deviates a step. There's the great plague that decimated London and, in the words of Samuel Pepys, made people “cruel as dogs to one another.” There's the Great Fire with all of its drama. There are dramatic actors strutting across the city stage: John Dryden, Nell Gwynn, the King and his fractious brother and his many mistresses, there are poets and playwrights and scientists and political theorists, all mixing in streets and theaters and taverns, and Jordan tells their stories in a marvelous blend of scholarship and accessibility, winding up the main crises of the period with the infamous Popish Plot of 1678, when a dimwitted conspiracy nut named Titus Oates managed through the sheer energy of his bald-faced lies about secret plots to assassinate the king and overthrow the country (lies that fooled virtually everybody in the government except their main intended target; Charles was by a wide margin the biggest liar in his kingdom and could and did spot an amateur instantly) to create an atmosphere of national paranoia.
By its very nature, The King's City adds strength to its main narrative by withdrawing focus from the important events happening elsewhere in the realm of King Charles, but it's a calculated choice, and Jordan indisputably makes it work: this is the most readable and stimulating study of the time since Jenny Uglow's A Gambling Man nearly a decade ago.
Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.