Bartholomew Stovall at One Year – Reflections With Joan
One year and two months after the death of her husband, George, Joan Stovall no longer felt the heart aches of loneliness. On this day she gave thanks for a healthy fifteen month old son who had become her life’s focus. She also gave thanks for the family of William and Faith Gentry, who helped enable her so she wouldn’t become impoverished.
On December 31, 1666, Joan Stovall reflected and realized that she had experienced sorrow during the year past, but also understood that her life could be much worse. All of England was suffering and she feared that, eventually the political, social, and economic conditions could prove ruinous for a person in her vulnerable position.
But on this evening, she closed out the year in the comfort of the rocking chair her husband had built. As she nursed her son Bartholomew, she gave thanks for all God’s blessings, and she prayed for those who were less fortunate.
When Bartholomew’s eyes closed, Joan allowed her mind drift. She recalled the short span God had given her and her husband; sharing the blessing of their son. She could feel her husband’s closeness as she looked down at his image in Bartholomew’s face. Joan Stovall prayed for courage and continued good fortune, but she would not allow herself to cry.
Samuel Pepys – December 31, 1666
On December 31, Samuel Pepys sat at his desk and made the final entry into a personal diary for the year of 1666. Mr. Pepys, a naval administrator and Member of Parliament was one of England’s most notable personalities, but history shows his most significant contribution was his daily recordings, preserving small details of life in London for the decade beginning 1660 and ending 1669.
Pepys lowered his pen and rubbed his eyes attempting to relieve the tiredness from working with poor light. Before filing away the journal he did a quick survey of the final paragraph and chuckled to himself, “Tis true I could have neglected my writings and concluded the year with this summation.”
Rising forward in his chair he pulled two candles closer, and read:
Our healths all well, only my eyes with overworking them are sore as candlelight comes to them, and not else; publick matters in a most sad condition; seamen discouraged for want of pay, and are become not to be governed: nor, as matters are now, can any fleete go out next year. Our enemies, French and Dutch, great, and grow more by our poverty. The Parliament backward in raising, because jealous of the spending of the money; the City less and less likely to be built again, every body settling elsewhere, and nobody encouraged to trade. A sad, vicious, negligent Court, and all sober men there fearful of the ruin of the whole kingdom this next year; from which, good God deliver us! One thing I reckon remarkable in my owne condition is, that I am come to abound in good plate, so as at all entertainments to be served wholly with silver plates, having two dozen and a half.
As England purged the most horrid year in its history, one needs to do a careful analysis on Pepys’s entry to understand its significance.
The great plague of 1665 was lessening its grip on London, but body carts could still be spotted in the streets ready to remove a corpse for cremation. All told, the plague had claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people in a two year period. Fragmented families shared the streets when King Charles II reasoned that residences ‘leave the city to lessen the spread’.
The Second Anglo-Dutch war ravaged through the year, but by the end of 1666 it was apparent that the Dutch would continue their domination of world trade. England’s navy had been soundly defeated and its economy was so short of cash it was barely able to block a land invasion at the mouth of the River Thames.
By the end of 1666 English and French relations had eroded to the point that those in France wondered if the English’s demise would be by fire or the Dutch. Fearing another French/English war was emanating, the power mongers of England questioned where the funds would be found to defend themselves.
On September 2, England was shaken to its foundation when the Great Fire of London consumed over 13,000 homes, 87 parish churches, and displaced 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 residence. Spared was the Westminster district and the King’s Palace at Whitehall, but the damage was so extensive, many thought the city would never be rebuilt.
Charles II again encouraged the homeless to move away from London, insisting that neighboring cities and townships accept those, “whatsoever shall without any contradiction receive the said distressed persons and permit them the free exercise of their manual trades”.
In short, London was crumbling. The nation of England pleaded for guidance from a monarchy that knew little of conditions outside its closed walls.
But Samuel Pepys final entry for the year 1666 concluded with a tone of optimism. He spoke of prosperity among the ruins and seemed amazed that his accumulation of silver plates was more a sign of good times ahead. As selfish as it sounded, Samuel Pepys spoke of hope and prosperity. King Charles II, who was handed the task of restoring the city to greatness after the fire, understood that hope would be instilled by evidence of optimism and prosperity and could be attained only if that attitude prevailed.
It’s unfortunate that the staggering populace of England couldn’t view conditions through the eyes of Joan Stovall, for if they did they would see evidence of optimism and prosperity that would lift their spirits and, indeed, allow that attitude to prevail.
It was the worst of times in England’s history, but for anyone who found themselves in Joan Stovall’s position, worst of times was ambiguous.