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a tale of Restoration intrigue by

Molly Brown

Covent Garden

coffee house

The last decades of the 17th century were the heyday of the Covent Garden Coffee House. The most famous was Will's, at the northern corner of Russell Street and Bow Street. It became known as a meeting place of wits and poets; while most of the customers were seated in groups at small tables, John Dryden had a special place of honour, next to the fire in winter and on the balcony overlooking the street in summer. Everyone wanted to sit as close to Dryden as possible - to speak to him was considered a privilege. (Women were not allowed in the coffee-houses, though an exception seems to have been made in the case of Aphra Behn, who was, according to Maureen Duffy's The Passionate Shepherdess, an occasional customer at Will's.)

The coffee houses became a source of concern to Charles II's government. Beer was concerned a loyalist drink, while coffee (described by Tories as the "syrop of soot and old shoes), by keeping men awake, was supposed to make them seditious. One of the earliest accusations against the Whigs was that they were too sober: "And better it is to be honestly sotting Than live to be hanged for caballing and plotting."

In 1675, an order for the suppression of the coffee-houses was issued, but it was never enforced. Instead the government directed its energies to keeping newspapers out of the coffee houses. In September 1677, twenty coffee-house keepers were summoned before the Council for having admitted newspapers into their premises; their licenses were not renewed. The king was said to be highly incensed against these "sordid mechanick wretches who, to gain a little money had the impudence and folly to prostitute affairs of state indifferently to the views of those that frequent such houses, some of them of lewd principles, and some of mean birth and education".

From John Chamberlayne, The Manner of Making Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate... with their Vertues, 1685.

Theatres returned to London with the Restoration. Two theatre companies were given patents: The King's Company, managed by Thomas Killigrew; and The Duke's Company, managed by William Davenant. Permission was also given for women to appear on stage, which had never been allowed before.

Killigrew's company was based at The Theatre Royal (also known as The King's Theatre or The King's House) in Drury Lane, which opened in May 1663. (The first Theatre Royal burned down in January 1671; its replacement opened on 26 March 1674.)

Count Lorenzo Magalotti wrote of the Theatre Royal: The Theatre is nearly of a circular form, surrounded, in the inside, by boxes separated from each other, and divided into several rows of seats, for the greater accomodation of the ladies and gentlemen, who in conformity with the freedom of the country, sit together indiscrimately... The scenery is very light, capable of a great many changes, and embellished with beautiful landscapes.

Conditions were less salubrious in the pit, where people sat on backless benches covered in matting.

An orchestra played muted music from a recess below the stage before the play began. Performances began at three in the afternoon with the stage illuminated by a combination of light from a glazed cupola in the roof and wax candles on sconces.

The fact the performance had begun meant little to the audience. Restoration theatres were noisy and raucous places; conversations would carry on long after the play had started, masked prostitutes known as "vizards" would openly ply their trade in the pit, self-styled critics would shout out their commentary on the action and sometimes fights broke out. With all that going on, the actors had to work hard to gain the audience's attention, and sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they didn't.

Mrs. Mary Meggs - known as Orange Moll - was in charge of the orange girls at The King's Theatre. She lived in the parish of St. Paul's, Covent Garden, and had a license to sell "oranges, lemons, fruit, sweetmeats and all manners of fruiterer's and confectioner's wares". For the privilege of selling inside the theatre, she paid the theatre six shillings and eightpence every acting day. (The price of oranges was sixpence each, and a gentleman never haggled over the price.)

The most famous of Mary Meggs's employees was Nell Gwyn, who began working as an orange seller in the theatre when she was thirteen. In 1665, Hart and Lacey, two of the leading actors of the company, decided she was wasted selling oranges and trained her for the stage. She made her debut in Dryden's The Indian Emperor; a few weeks later, the theatre was closed because of the plague and didn't re-open for eighteen months.

7 June 1665: This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and 'Lord have mercy upon us' writ there, which was a sad sight to me... Pepys's diary

A Bill of Mortality was published every week by the Parish Clerks' Company, giving the details of deaths from all causes. Here is a typical Bill of Mortality for one week during the Plague:

Covent Garden during the Plague was like a ghost town; its wealthy inhabitants had fled to the country. Even when the plague began to abate in the autumn and winter, the residents of Westminster and Covent Garden were among the last to return.

Pepys's Diary, 5 January 1666:

19 January 1666:

In 1667, the seventeen-year-old actress Nell Gwyn ran off to Epsom with Sir Charles Buckhurst. They were accompanied by Buckhurst's friend, Charles Sedley.

Five years earlier, Sedley, Buckhurst, and Sir Thomas Ogle had stripped naked on the balcony of the Cock Tavern. Sedley preached a "blasphemous sermon", then recommended a powder "as should make all the women of the town run after him." They were pelted with stones by the crowd below, then arrested. The three appeared before Sir Robert Foster, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, who later ordered Sedley to be fined 2,000 marks, imprisoned for a week without bail and bound over for good behaviour for three years. Buckhurst was severely reprimanded.

On 23rd October 1668, Pepys recorded that Sedley and Buckhurst were discovered "running up and down all the night almost naked, through the streets and at last fighting, and being beat by the watch and clapped up all night."

william wycherley The playwright William Wycherley and his first wife, the Countess of Drogheda, lodged near the Cock tavern. The Countess was so jealous of him that whenever he went to the Cock for a drink, he had to sit by an open window so his wife would be able to see there were no women with him.

Wycherley's wife probably had every reason to be jealous. The success of his first play, Love in a Wood or St James's Park, led - at least indirectly - to a scandalous affair with none other than Barbara Castlemaine, Charles II's favourite mistress until she had been supplanted by Nell Gwyn.

Wycherley was riding in his coach down Pall Mall toward St. James's, when he happened to pass the Duchess of Castlemaine in hers, going the other way. She leaned out of her coach window and called to him: "You, Wycherley, you are the son of a whore."

At first he was astounded, then he realised she was referring to a verse from his play:

He ordered his coachman to turn around and overtake the Duchess. When he'd caught up with the duchess, he asked her if she would be coming to his play later that afternoon.

She asked him what would happen if she came, and he replied: "Then I will be there to wait on your Ladyship, tho' I disappoint a very fine woman, who has made me an assignation."

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(c) 1996 Molly Brown