“On this day in 1675, Charles II ordered his subjects to close all coffeehouses across England, labelling them “”seminaries of sedition.”” Some three thousand coffeehouses existed at the time, a somewhat impressive fact considering that coffee was only available since the previous century.
Coffee first came to Europe in the 16th century from the Arab-dominated regions of North Africa and Asia—where it had been a popular beverage for centuries before. Venetian traders are said to have convinced their neighbours of the drink’s benefits, and charged them considerable amounts for it. However, upon reaching Rome, the drink was declared an invention of Satan, and it wasn’t until Pope Clement VIII intervened in 1600 that coffee was deemed a beverage worthy of Christian consumption. Now blessed by the Vatican, coffee beans began pouring into Europe.
Coffee came to England around this time, and with it came coffeehouses. Opinions differed greatly on the role of the coffeehouse in 17th century English society, some considered them hugely influential, and others thought them utterly superfluous. Regardless of where one stood, feelings where strong. Fuelled by caffeine, the coffeehouse became a place to banter, discuss business and debate ideas. But perhaps most importantly, it was a place that welcomed people of all walks of life. It was an oasis outside England’s strict social hierarchy. Coffeehouses became symbols of equality–although women were not yet accepted.
In 1675, Charles II declared that England’s coffeehouses were “”places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers.”” In other words, they were hotbeds of subversive activity and he ordered them shut. The public outcry was such that the king was forced to immediately backtrack. Coffeehouses trumped the king, and their influence continued to rise.
England’s coffeehouses—unlike those of Paris where Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau chewed over the Enlightenment—were also places of business. The insurance market Lloyd’s of London was originally formed in Lloyd’s coffeehouse in the late 17th century. Furthermore, individual coffeehouses became associated with certain areas of business. As such, relevant traders would frequent the Virginia and Baltic Coffeehouse, or the Jamaican Coffeehouse, and so on.
In the 18th century, London became known for its Penny University coffeehouses. These establishments charged visitors a penny for entry, and once inside they had access to witty banter, news, social debate and, of course, coffee. Reporters with the latest news would run from one such coffeehouse to the next, on occasion spreading the types of scandalous reports that so offended Charles II. The affordable entrance fee, activity, and lack of social convention meant that many people received their education in such establishments—for a just penny a day.
A resurgence of coffeehouses across the UK in recent years suggests that coffee is once again fuelling the country’s active minds. However, there is little sign of skinny lattes covered with whipped cream leading to subversive debate. Perhaps thoughts are only just beginning to brew.”
Credit: Getty Images
Caption: A woodcut depicting a heated debate in a coffee house on Bride Lane, Fleet Street in London.