Plague Cultures: The Peste of Provence and the Glorious Revolution

By Cindy Ermus

From May 1720 through 1722, the French region of Provence experienced one of the last great outbreaks of bubonic plague on the European continent — the Great Plague of Marseille, or more appropriately, the Peste or Plague of Provence.[1] In the end, the pestilence would take as many as 126,000 lives in the region, approximately 45,000 of whom perished in Marseille alone. Despite its virulence, strict centralized control and regulations, both in France and abroad, successfully prevented the epidemic from spreading beyond southeastern France. Upon receiving word of the scourge in France, governments all over Europe — including Spain, Great Britain, Portugal, Genoa, the Papal States, and the Dutch Republic — imposed tight measures that extended as far as the Atlantic and Pacific colonies to prevent the spread of the infection. And nowhere was resistance to these measures more forcefully expressed than in England, where clerics, lords, merchants, ship owners, shopkeepers, and grocers came together to denounce what they perceived as an overstepping of government authority and a great violation of civil liberties. This resistance to centralization is directly linked to the legacy of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw the centralizing James II overthrown in favor of William of Orange, and resulted in the creation of the English Bill of Rights.

Painting of a death scene in front of the town hall during the plague of Marseille.
A representation of the plague in Marseille by Michel Serre. It depicts the city’s hôtel de ville with scenes of death and dying in the foreground.

Beginning in August 1720, a few weeks after news arrived in London that a “contagious distemper” was present in Marseille, new proclamations in Great Britain declared a mandatory quarantine for all ships and persons arriving from the Mediterranean according to the terms of the Queen Anne’s Quarantine Act of 1710.”[2] In December 1720, however, King George I and his supporters found these measures to be “defective and insufficient,” and a new Quarantine Act of 1721, which greatly expanded upon the earlier set of measures, was passed on January 25.[3]

New provisions saw the significant expansion and tightening of existing quarantine regulations, the expanded use of makeshift lazarets, and the burning or sinking of ships suspected of having passed through an infected port. The king could also draw lines of armed guards (military cordons) around towns suspected of infection, and strict regulations were imposed upon the sale of alcohol, the keeping of animals, the maintenance of streets, and the movements of beggars and vagrants. Orders in London likewise prohibited plays and feasting, and demanded that alehouses close by nine o’clock in the evening. High constables, petty constables, and head-boroughs would now make regular visits around their assigned divisions to make sure that inhabitants were keeping to new regulations, and punishments for violations became much more severe.[4] Moreover, in the autumn of 1721, another controversial act allowed the king “effectually to prohibit Commerce (for the Space of One Year) with any Country that is, or shall be, infected with the Plague.”[5] 

However, as a result of fierce resistance on the part of English traders and shopkeepers, neither this clause, nor any of the other sections of the Quarantine Act, was in effect by March 1723. Critics argued that the regulations smacked of arbitrary government and an abuse of power. The reactions of the opposition in England, as evidenced by the temper and language of contemporary documents from merchants, shopkeepers, nobles, and others, were the result of a growing sense of national identity and the robust ideas of liberty and fears of “popery and arbitrary power” that followed the Glorious Revolution and the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1689 — which remained more fresh in the minds of English men and women than the plague of 1665.[6]

Engraving of a busy port in London.
“Imports from France” by Louis Philippe Boitard (1757) showing the Legal Quays between Billingsgate Dock and the Tower of London. Meant as a satirical look at English tastes for all things French, it nevertheless provides an excellent view of London’s port activity in the eighteenth century.

Directing their anger primarily at King George I and the Privy Council, various groups quickly arose in opposition, claiming that the measures would not only prove completely useless in the face of an actual epidemic, but that these regulations, modeled after the practices of tyrannical France, represented nothing more than a clear attempt on the part of the Crown to rip from Great Britain the very freedoms that made it exceptional. Such measures were deemed part of a conspiracy and a blatant abuse of power.

One opponent, for example, who published under the name Philanthropos, wrote a strongly worded letter to the London Journal in November 1721.[7] In it, the writer condemned the proposed forced removal of infected persons and their families into pest houses as a scheme “said to be contriv’d for the Suppressing of the Plague,” that would “expose every one’s Life and Liberty to the mercy of Officers.” The author invoked patriotic language to dispute what was deemed a great infringement of English civil liberties under the pretext of public health: “The Cruelty and Inhumanity of these Methods are so obvious, as not to need Animadversion…A Scheme so barbarous, and so destructive of their Civil Liberties, can never be receiv’d by a Free People…suppose our Fears were well-grounded, we ought to consider the Matter very carefully, before we give up so essential a Part of our Liberty; for Liberty once parted with, is with great Difficulty if ever afterwards regain’d.”[8] To some, the Quarantine Act of 1721 seemed simply a conspiracy to take away the freedoms that they believed made Britain exceptional — freedoms fought for in 1688.

Taking place in the wake of the financial ruin that followed the South Sea Scheme of 1720, and only one generation after the Glorious Revolution and its notions of limited government and ancient rights and liberties, royal attempts to maintain significant quarantines, or to further regulate or supervise British commercial activity proved short-lived. By early 1722, a bill to repeal various clauses of the Quarantine Act had received royal assent, and a year later, it was entirely shelved.

Cindy Ermus is a historian of the eighteenth century and an assistant professor of history at the University of Lethbridge. You can tweet her @CindyErmus.

Title image: Scène de la peste de 1720 à la Tourette (Marseille) by Catalan-born French painter Michel Serre (1658-1733). Kept in the Musée Atger in Montpellier, it depicts the burying of the dead by Chevalier Roze (Nicolas Roze, 1675-1733), a nobleman who became well known for various acts during the plague, among them, the clearing La Tourette (along the port) of its corpses.

[1] This piece is derived from an article on British responses to the 1720 epidemic that is currently in preparation. For more on responses to the Plague of Provence outside France, see: Cindy Ermus, “The Spanish Plague That Never Was: Crisis and Exploitation in Cádiz During the Peste of Provence,” Special issue on Humans and the Environment in the Long Eighteenth Century, Eighteenth-Century Studies 49, no. 2 (January 2016): 167-93.

[2] “By the Lords Justices…A Proclamation, Requiring Quarentine [sic] to be performed by Ships coming from the Mediterranean,” London Gazette, 23-27 Aug. 1720, Issue 5880. Word of the pestilence in Marseille began to appear in British newspapers in the first week of August, when letters from Paris and Genoa were printed in the London Journal, the London Gazette, the Weekly Packet, and the Post Man and the Historical Account.  London Journal, 30 July–6 Aug. 1720, Issue LIV. Weekly Packet (London), 30 July–6 Aug. 1720, Issue 422.  London Gazette, 2-6 Aug. 1720, Issue 5874. Post Man and the Historical Account (London), 9-11 Aug. 1720, Issue 1842.

[3] John Booker, Maritime Quarantine: The British Experience, c. 1650-1900 (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 95. Charles Mullett, The Bubonic Plague and England: An Essay in the History of Preventive Medicine (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1956), 269. For a more detailed discussion of the legal process that saw the passing of this Act, see chapter four in John Booker’s Maritime Quarantine.

[4] Charles Mullett, “The English Plague Scare of 1720-23,” Osiris 2 (1936), 496.

[5] Journal of the House of Lords, Vol. 21, Nov.-Dec. 1721.

[6] English Bill of Rights, 1689, An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown, (accessed July 7, 2013).

[7] London Journal, 11 Nov. 1721, Issue CXX.

[8] Ibid.

Recommended Readings:

Booker, John. Maritime Quarantine: The British Experience, c. 1650-1900. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2007.

Harrison, Mark. Contagion: How Commerce has Spread Disease. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Mullet, Charles F. “The English Plague Scare of 1720-23.” Osiris, Vol. 2 (1936): 484-516. 

Pincus, Steven. 1688: The First Modern Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

3 thoughts on “Plague Cultures: The Peste of Provence and the Glorious Revolution

  1. “This resistance to centralization is directly linked to the legacy of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw the centralizing James II overthrown in favor of William of Orange, and resulted in the creation of the English Bill of Rights.”

    This argument doesn’t stand up. The Tories were the backbone of the resistance to the Glorious Revolution but Tory authors were the ones who were complaining that quarantines led to French “despotism.” The Court Whigs were the main supporters of quarantine in 1720 because they supported the Hanoverian administration that had created them. Richard Mead, author of the classic Discourse on the Plague was Walpole’s physician. Thus supporters of the Glorious Revolution were also likely to be supporters of quarantine, if they lived that long. Among the Anglicans, the “Clerics” were divided between a mostly Tory lower clergy and a mostly Whig upper clergy (because the bishops were chosen by the administration). Merchants, of course, were always unhappy with quarantines, but not because of 1688.


    1. Thank you for your comment. Please note that this post is based on a much larger study that addresses some of the debates/nuances you reference above. That said, the sources I used for this part of the study make very direct references to England’s recent revolutionary history. Indeed, the responses to England’s handling of the plague threat (which go far beyond only questions of quarantine) link themselves to the events of 1688 through their rhetoric and language. The larger study also places all of this within the context of the “South Sea scheme men,” etc. Thank you again.
      Cindy Ermus


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