THE BLACK DEATH spread both from London and the Channel ports across south-eastern England. William of Dene, a monk of Rochester, described the problems facing his bishop in administering the Church as it was decimated by death: “In this year, a plague of a kind which had never been met with before ravaged our land of England. The Bishop of Rochester, who maintained only a small household, lost four priests, five esquires, ten attendants, seven young clerics and six pages, so that nobody was left to serve him in any capacity. At Malling he consecrated two abbesses but both died almost immediately, leaving only four established nuns and four novices. One of these the Bishop put in the charge of the lay members and the other of the religious, for it proved impossible to find anyone suitable to act as abbess (48).”
William was dismayed by the desolation caused by the plague in the Kentish countryside, though his suggestion that a third of in the land of the whole kingdom lay idle is an exaggeration: “To our great grief, the plague carried off so vast a multitude of people of both sexes that nobody could be found who would bear the corpses to the grave. Men and women carried their own children on their shoulders to the church and threw them into a common pit. From these pits such an appalling stench was given off that scarcely anyone dared even to walk beside the cemeteries.
“There was so marked a deficiency of labourers and workmen of every kind at this period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was let lie idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them. . . (49)”
Haymo de Hythe, who had been Bishop of Rochester since 1319, survived the Black Death, but his household died all around him: “During the whole of that winter and the following spring, the Bishop of Rochester, aged and infirm, remained at Trottiscliffe [his country manor between Sevenoaks and Rochester], bewailing the terrible changes which had overcome the world. In every manor of his diocese buildings were falling into decay and there was hardly one manor which returned as much as £100. In the monastery of Rochester supplies ran short and the brethren had great difficulty in getting enough to eat; to such a point that the monks were obliged either to grind their own bread or to go without. The prior, however, ate everything of the best (50).”
The summoning of Parliament was twice postponed in 1349. The reasons were given in this writ issued to sheriffs and others summoned to attend at Westminster on 10th March: “Whereas lately, by reason of the deadly pestilence then prevailing, we caused the Parliament that was summoned to meet at Westminster on the Monday after the Feast of St. Hilary [13th January] to be prorogued until the quinzaine of Easter next—and because the aforesaid pestilence is increasing with more than its usual severity, in Westminster and in the City of London and the surrounding districts, whereby the coming of the magnates and other our faithful lieges to that place at this time, would probably be too dangerous—for this, and for certain other obvious reasons, we have thought fit to postpone the said Parliament until we shall issue further summons (51).”
North of London, the plague was at its worst in Hertfordshire An abbot dies during the spring of 1349. St. Albans Abbey suffered badly; its Abbot, Michael de Mentmore, was one of the first to die. The Abbey’s records tell us: “Being the first to suffer from the dread disease which was later to carry off his monks. He began to feel the first symptoms on Maundy Thursday, but out of reverence for the festival and remembering our Lord’s humility, he celebrated High Mass and then, before taking his dinner, humbly and devoutly washed the feet of the poor. After he had taken his dinner he proceeded to wash and kiss the feet of all the brethren and to carry out all the offices of the day alone and without assistance. The next day when his sickness became worse, he took to his bed and, as a true Catholic, made his confession with a contrite heart and received the sacrament of extreme unction. Amidst the sorrow of all who surrounded him he endured until noon on Easter Day . . . And there died at that time forty-seven monks . . . (52)”
The Chronicon Angliae by Thomas of Walsingham, a monk who also was at St. Albans, spoke of the especially high losses inside the monasteries. The plague often spread rapidly there, as might be expected in communities of men living closely together: “A great mortality spread throughout the world, starting from the northern and western regions, and raging with such great slaughter that scarcely the half of mankind survived. And towns that were formerly very thickly populated were left destitute of inhabitants, the plague being so violent that the living were scarce able to bury the dead. For in some religious houses, of twenty monks, scarce two survived. For, to say nothing of other monasteries, in the monastery of St. Albans more than forty monks died in a short space of time. And it was estimated that scarcely a tenth part of the people had been left alive. The pestilence was immediately followed by a murrain [epidemic] among beasts. At that time revenues wasted away, and for want of husbandmen, who were nowhere to be found, lands remained uncultivated. And such misery followed these misfortunes that the world never afterwards had the opportunity of returning to its former condition (53).”
The common clerk of Grimsby in Lincolnshire told how the Black Death raged for over a year in the great diocese of Lincoln’, which then stretched from the River Humber to the River Thames: “In 1349 there was that great pestilence in Lincoln which spread all over parts of the world, beginning on Palm Sunday [16th April] in the year aforesaid and enduring until the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist next following [24th June], when it ceased, God be praised who reigns for ever and ever, Amen (54).”
The terror of the plague was increased because medieval people had no idea of statistics, and exaggerated its toll. Thus, Knighton wrote of heavy deaths in Leicester, but since the town probably had only 3,000 inhabitants, his numbers must be too large: “And there died at Leicester, in the small parish of St. Leonard more than 380 persons, in the parish of Holy Cross, 400, in the parish of St. Margaret’s, Leicester, 700; and so in every parish, in a great multitude (55).”
John Gynwell, Bishop of Lincoln, tried to protect both religion and trade by making emergency provisions for the absolution of sinners and the recovery of debts: “The Bishop of Lincoln sent notice throughout his whole diocese giving general power to all priests, as well regulars as seculars, of hearing confessions and giving absolution to all persons with full episcopal authority, except only in case of debt. And in this case, the debtor was to pay the debt, if he were able, while he lived, or others were to be appointed to do so from his property after his death. In the same way the Pope gave plenary [full] remission of all offences to all receiving absolution at the point of death, and granted that this power should endure until Easter next following, and that every one might choose his own confessor at will (56).”
Further north, William de la Zouche, Archbishop of York, issued a call to repentance. Two years earlier he had led the English army to victory against the Scots in the Battle of Neville’s Cross, and his call to repentance began in a typically martial strain: “In so far as the life of men upon earth is warfare, it is no wonder that those who battle amidst the wickedness of the world are sometimes disturbed by uncertain events; on one occasion favourable, on another adverse. For almighty God sometimes allows those whom he loves to be chastened so that their strength can be made complete by the outpouring of spiritual grace in their time of infirmity. Everybody knows, since the news is now widely spread, what great pestilence, mortality and infection of the air there are in divers parts of the world and which, at this moment, are threatening in particular the land of England. This, surely, must be caused by the sins of men who, made complacent by their prosperity, forget the bounty of the most high Giver (57).”
As the Black Death overtook the north of England, the Scots decided to avenge themselves on the English for their recent defeat. But their army was itself struck by the plague: “The Scots, hearing of the dreadful pestilence in England, surmised that it had come about at the hand of an avenging God, and it became an oath among them, so that, according to the common report, they were accustomed to swear ‘be the foul death of England’. Thus, believing that a terrible vengeance of God had overtaken the English, they came together in Selkirk forest with the intention of invading the realm of England, when the fierce mortality overtook them and their ranks were thinned by sudden and terrible death, so that in a short time some 5,000 perished. And as the rest, the strong and the feeble, were making ready to return to their own country, they were pursued and surprised by the English, who killed a very great number of them (58).”
Carried partly by the fleeing Scottish soldiers, the Black Death moved remorsely across the River Tweed with results described by John of Fordun: “In the year 1350, there was, in the kingdom of Scotland, so great a pestilence and plague among men . . . as, from the beginning of the world even unto modern times, had never been heard of by man, nor is found in books, for the enlightenment of those who come after. For, to such a pitch did that plague wreak its cruel spite, that nearly a third of mankind were thereby made to pay the debt of nature.
“Moreover, by God’s will, this evil led to a strange and unwonted kind of death, insomuch that the flesh of the sick was somehow puffed out and swollen, and they dragged out their earthly life for barely two days. Now this everywhere attacked especially the meaner sort and common people—seldom the magnates. Men shrank from it so much that, through fear of contagion, sons, fleeing as from the face of leprosy or from an adder, durst not go and see their parents in the throes of death (59).”
By the end of 1350 there was scarcely anywhere in Britain that had remained untouched by the plague. Families were broken; communities shattered. English society itself had been shaken to its very foundations.