Does history repeat itself? Yes, endlessly. Today, anxiety about “foreign infections” causes panics, school closings, and disrupts commerce. The “plague” served a similar societal function 400 years ago. 1609 was a plague year in London; the fear, and the plague itself, affected all strata of society. Back then, the word, “plague” was something of a catch-all. Any epidemic might be called the plague.
On May 6, 1609, Richard Neile (1562-1640) Bishop of Rochester and Dean of Westminster, wrote to Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, asking to be excused from attending King James on the following day. In the words of the official summary, “Though he and all his people stand without suspicion of infection, yet in the house of one Chaunter, who has his dwelling within the College walls, two young gentlemen who boarded with him are sick; and he is enforced by fear of the inconvenience that might ensue to the 140 or rather 160 children who have daily concourse to the School, to dismiss all the Oppidalls and to send away all the foundation scholars to the College house at Cheswicke, where they shall remain all this summer. He desires to take a week of airing, either at Cheswicke or at Bromeley, before he again attends his Majesty. At Westminster College, May 6, 1609.”
Richard Neile became Royal Chaplain to King James in July1603. On his way to the top, Neile had powerful patrons, chiefly Lord Burghley, to whom he was household chaplain in the 1590s. After Burghley’s death in 1598, Neile continued to serve as household chaplain to his son, Robert Cecil, along with Samuel Harsnet, whose book: A Declaration of egregious Popish Imposture (to with-draw the harts of her Maiesties Subiects from their allegeance, and from the truth of Christian Religion professed in England, under the pretence of casting out deuils. Pracised by Edmunds, alias Weston a Iesuit, and diuers Romish Priests his wicked associates. Whereunto are annexed the Copies of the Confessions, and Examinations of the parties themselves, taken upon oath before her Maiesties Commissioners, for causes Ecclesiasticall, James Roberts, Barbican, 1603) serves as a link between the text of King Lear, and the Hackney household of the 17th Earl of Oxford.