ROBERT OF AVESBURY said the Black Death first reached England On the Dorset coast in August, 1348: “It began in England, in the neighbourhood of Dorchester, about the Feast of St. Peter ad Vinculas, 1348, immediately spreading rapidly from place to place, and many persons who were healthy in the early morning, before midday were snatched from human affairs. It permitted none whom it marked down to live more than three or four days, without choice of persons, save only in the case of a few rich people. On the same day of their death, the bodies of twenty, forty, sixty, and many times more persons were delivered to the Church’s burial in the same pit (35).”
The Chronicle of the Greyfriars at Lynn was more explicit and put the start of the plague earlier, in June: “In this year 1348, in Melcombe, in the county of Dorset, a little before the Feast of St. John the Baptist [24th June], two ships, one of them from Bristol, came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of the terrible pestilence and, through him, the men of that town of Melcombe were the first in England to be infected (36).”
The ship may have sailed from the Channel Islands. The plague was already raging there so violently that King Edward III wrote to the Governor of Jersey: “By reason of the mortality among the people and fishing folk of these islands, which here as elsewhere has been so great, our rent for the fishing which has been yearly paid us, cannot be now obtained without the impoverishing and excessive oppression of those fishermen still left (37).”
According to Knighton, the two great ports of Southampton and Bristol were soon struck by the plague, which travelled perhaps by both land and water: “Then the dreadful pestilence made its way through the coast land by Southampton, and reached Bristol, and there perished almost the whole strength of the town, as it were surprised by sudden death; for few kept their beds more than two or three days, or even half day. Then this cruel death spread on all sides, following the course of the sun (38).”
From the south coast Geoffrey le Baker recorded, the plague spread eastwards into the rest of the kingdom. It “deprived first the sea ports in Dorset, and then the whole district of almost all their inhabitants, and spreading thence it raged so violently throughout Devon and Somerset as far as Bristol that the people of Gloucester would not let those of Bristol come into their parts, for they all thought that the breath of persons who lived among those who were thus dying was infected. But at length it invaded Gloucester, yea Oxford, London, and at last the whole of England, with such violence that scarcely one person in ten of either sex survived (39).”
So began the terrible year of 1349. As a chronicler grimly remembered, hardly any town or village was unaffected. Between a quarter and a third of the people died from the Black Death in England: “Of which twenty-second year and the next of the King’s reign is little to be written, nothing being done abroad, in effect, through the great mortality of the plague that raged all over the land; which as the historiographers of that time deliver, consumed nine parts in ten of the men through England, scarce leaving a tenth man alive (40).”
In January, 1349, Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, wrote to all the priests in his diocese. His letter reveals vividly the devastation already caused by the plague in Somerset: “The contagious pestilence of the present day, which is spreading far and wide, has left many parish churches and other livings in our diocese without parson or priest to care for their parishioners. Since no priests can be found who are willing . . . to take on the pastoral care of these aforesaid places, nor to visit the sick and administer to them the Sacraments of the Church (perhaps for fear of infection and contagion), we understand that many people are dying without the Sacrament of Penance. These people have no idea what resources are open to them in such a case of need and believe that, whatever the straits they may be in, no confession of their sins is useful or meritorious unless it is made to a duly ordained priest.
“We therefore, [wish] to provide for the salvation of souls and to bring back from their paths of error those who have wandered [and] do strictly enjoin and command. . . the rectors, vicars and parish priests in all your churches, and you, the deans elsewhere in your deaneries where the comfort of a priest is denied the people, that… you should at once publicly command and persuade all men. . that, if they are on the point of death and cannot secure the services of a priest, then they should make confession to each other . . whether to a layman or, if no man is present, then even to a woman.
“We urge you, by these present letters, in the bowels of Jesus Christ, to do this… And, in case anyone might fear that a lay confessor would make public the confessions which they heard and, for this reason, might hesitate to confess himself to such a person even in time of need, you should announce to all . . . who might hear confessions in this way, that they are bound by the laws of the Church to conceal and keep secret such confessions, and that they are prohibited by sacred canonical decrees from betraying such confessions by word, sign, or any other means, except at the wish of those who have made such confession. If they break this law then they should know that they commit a most grievous sin and, in so doing, incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the whole Church (41).”
The Bishop showed how serious he felt things were by greatly relaxing the usual rules of the medieval Church: “The Sacrament of the Eucharist, when no priest is available, may be administered by a deacon. If, however, there is no priest to adminster the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, then, as in other matters, faith must suffice (42).”
Further northward, Bishop Wuistan Bransford of Worcester had Dead threaten to forbid, for health reasons, all further burials in the cathedral the living churchyard. He opened a new graveyard in the city to receive the numerous dead: “The burials have in these days, to our sorrow, increased . . . (for the great number of the dead in our days has never been equalled) ; and, on this account, both for our brethren in the said church . . . for the citizens of the said city and others dwelling therein, and for all others coming to the place, because of the various dangers which may probably await them from the corruption of the bodies, we desire, as far as God shall grant us, to provide the best remedy (43).”
By now the plague had reached London, the largest city in London: the land. It was also the dirtiest, despite efforts made to clean it, a f//thy city such as this proclamation issued by Edward II in 1309: “Seeing that the people in the town do cause the ordure that has been collected in their houses, to be carried and placed in the streets, and in the lanes of the City, whereas they ought to have it carried to the Thames, or elsewhere out of the town; and that thereby the streets and lanes are more encumbered than they used to be, we do forbid, on the King’s behalf, that from henceforth any person shall have the ordure that has been collected in his house, carried into the King’s highways; but let them cause the same to be carried to the Thames, or elsewhere out of the City, whither it used to be carried.
“And if any one shall do so, he shall be amerced [fined], the first time, in forty pence, and afterwards, in half a mark each time; and nevertheless, he shall have the same removed at his own charges. And the same penalty shall be incurred by those before whose houses dung shall be found, if, after the dung has been placed there, they shall not immediately have their Alderman told by whom such dung has been so brought there. Also, no person shall have any dung raked or removed to the front of the houses of others (44).”
According to Robert of Avesbury, the Black Death raged in London from late autumn, 1348, to the early summer of 1349 (the Feast of All Saints is 1st November; Michaelmas is 29th September; Whitsunday in 1349 was 31st May) : “Reaching London about the feast of All Saints, it slew many persons daily, and increased so greatly that from the feast of the Purification until just after Easter, in a newly-made cemetery in Smithfield the bodies of more than 200 persons, besides those that were buried in other cemeteries of the same city, were buried every day. But by the intervention of the Grace of the Holy Spirit, it ceased in London on Whitsunday, continuing to spread towards the north, in which parts it also ceased about Michaelmas, 1349 (45).
About 30,000 out of a total population of some 70,000 died from the Black Death in London. Geoffrey le Baker described the sufferings of its people. The new cemeteries provided by Ralph Stratford, Bishop of London, and Sir Walter Manny, the soldier and courtier, were both at Smithfield, then an open space outside the City walls: “Since the cemeteries did not suffice, fields were chosen for burying the dead. The Bishop of London bought that croft in London called ‘Nomannes lond’, and the lord Walter Manny the one called ‘the newe chierche hawe’, where he founded a religious house for the burial of the dead. Suits in the King’s Bench and Common pleas came of necessity to a standstill. A few noblemen died, among whom were the Lord John of Montgomery, Captain of Calais and the Lord Clisteles, who both died in Calais and were buried in London…
“But innumerable common people and a multitude of monks and other clerks known to God alone passed away. The pestilence seized especially the young and strong, commonly sparing the elderly and feeble. Scarcely any one ventured to touch the sick, and healthy persons shunned the once, and still, precious possessions of the dead, as infectious. People perfectly well on one day were found dead on the next.
“Some were tormented with abscesses in various parts of their body, and from these many, by means of lancing, or with long suffering, recovered. Others had small black pustules scattered over the whole surface of their body, from which very few, nay, scarcely a single person, returned to life and health. This great pestilence, which began at Bristol about the Feast of the Assumption [15th August], and at London about Michaelmas, raged in England for a whole year and more, so that many villages were utterly emptied of every human being (46).”
The Flagellants came to London when the plague was waning. Knighton told how they held their ceremonies on an open plot before St. Paul’s Cathedral. But they were soon deported as undesirable aliens: “In the year 1349, about Michaelmas, more than six score men, natives, for the greater part, of Holland and Zeeland, came to London from Flanders. And twice a day, sometimes in the Church of St. Paul, sometimes in other places of the City, in sight of all the people, covered with a linen cloth from the thighs to the heels, the rest of the body being bare, and each wearing a cap marked before and behind with a red cross, and holding a scourge with three thongs having each a knot through which sharp points were fixed, went barefoot in procession one after another, scourging their bare and bleeding bodies.
“Four of them would sing in their own tongue, all the others making response, in the manner of litanies sung by Christians. Three times in their procession all together would fling themselves upon the ground, their hands outspread in the form of a cross, continually singing. And beginning with the last, one after another, as they lay, each in turn struck the man before him once with his flail; and so from one to another, each performed the same rite to the last. Then each resumed his usual garments, and still wearing their caps and holding their flails, they returned to their lodging. And it was said that they performed the same penance every evening (47).”