Life after the Black Death: how plague opened up new horizons for a Suffolk widow

“Why should people study the Black Death?” I asked historian John Hatcher. “Because,” he laughed, “it’ll make you feel better about coronavirus. ”When the bubonic plague swept through England in 1348–49, it wiped out something like half of the population. Giovanni Boccaccio’s classic account of plague symptoms describes how first “swellings in the groin or under the armpits, some egg-shaped, others the size of an apple” would appear. Victims then “began to find dark blotches on their arms and thighs. These were signs that someone would die.”

Miniature depicting a couple suffering from the Black Death, the bubonic plague that swept Europe in the Middle Ages. (VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Miniature depicting a couple suffering from the Black Death, the bubonic plague that swept Europe in the Middle Ages. (VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

The rich were more likely to survive, hiding away on country estates where the risk of infection was lower. Priests, however, had terrible survival rates because, as they heard the confessions of the dying, they were in the direct line of fire.

Professor Hatcher has studied the Black Death’s rampage through one particular Suffolk village, Walsham le Willows, and led me to the story of one particular woman, Olivia Cranmer, which had rather a surprising ending.
In the Suffolk Archives in Bury St Edmunds, the records of the court of Walsham le Willows survive in an astonishing state of preservation. They allow us to track the effects of the pandemic on Olivia’s family, whose name still survives in the part of the village called Cranmer Green.

With her husband, father and brother dead, Olivia became a farmer and businesswoman in her own right

The Cranmers were serfs, with the right to cultivate assigned land. In return, they had to pay their lord for all sorts of basic things, such as getting married. Though luckier than many people who had no access to land at all, the Cranmers still lived on the edge. Life in England in 1348 was precarious because the agricultural techniques available couldn’t really support the population. And a history of hunger made a body less able to resist and survive the Black Death.

The court records of Walsham, a village of around 1,200 souls, register an astonishing 119 men dying just between the court sessions of May and June 1349. But these deaths were recorded only because the customary death duty – often a cow – would now be payable to the lord of the manor. And the court rolls don’t mention the deaths of women or children, because they were economically irrelevant.

That’s why it’s so surprising that Olivia Cranmer appears in the rolls enough times for us to track her life story. The Cranmer family were not infrequent law-breakers: they were fined for having more sheep than they were permitted to, for example. Olivia first pops up in the records when she had to pay a penalty for having an illegitimate child. When she did later marry, the absence of the usual payment due suggests that it might have been a forced marriage – a union seen to “put right” her position as an unmarried mother. Life then seems to have treated her well until 1349 when her grandfather William, her father and her two brothers died. Next, her husband, Robert, was taken.

Shifting dynamics

The deaths of so many men all over England completely changed social dynamics. Some labourers refused to work altogether, thinking that life was too short. Others demanded higher wages. And there were women, like Olivia, who became important in an unprecedented way.

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With so many of her closest relatives dead, Olivia was allowed to take over the family plot of land. Like some other widows and female plague survivors, she became a farmer and businesswoman in her own right. In later life, she even sublet her land so that she could live off a pension. The Black Death perhaps brought Olivia Cranmer a life she could never had dreamed of. Remarkably, she survived into her seventh decade as a relatively rich, independent woman.

And I like to think it’s significant that she never remarried.

A one-way ticket to Bedlam: the "madhouse" awaited a seamstress who tried to kill the king

Portrait of King George III
Portrait of King George III (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

The 18th century’s most high-profile patient with a mental illness was, of course, George III. But intertwined with his life story is that of a woman whose experiences of mental ill health show how a person’s rank dramatically changed the treatment they received as a patient in Georgian England.

There was always something a bit different about Margaret Nicholson, according to witnesses who spoke at the investigation into her actions. She couldn’t seem to hold down a job – she’d been a housemaid and a seamstress – and strange fits of laughter were heard at night ringing from the rented room in which Margaret lived alone.

Margaret believed that the king, father of his people, had a responsibility to make her rickety life better. She wrote to him no fewer than 20 times, asking for money and other help. When he failed to answer, she arrived at St James’s Palace on 2 August 1786 – and tried to kill him.

Margaret’s attempt on George’s life wasn’t particularly serious: she used a dessert knife, more useful for cutting up fruit than attacking people. And the king himself, perhaps recognising someone who was experiencing something akin to his own episodic illnesses, called out to his guards not to hurt her.

But Margaret now presented Georgian society with a problem. She was ill, clearly, but she was also a criminal. In France she might well have been executed in a barbarous fashion, but the British prided themselves on doing things differently. Instead, she was committed to hospital.

This hospital, though, was the dreaded “Bedlam”: the Bethlehem Hospital, where patients were sometimes chained to the walls. Its authorities decided that Margaret should be placed in the wing for “incurables” – people who they considered were never going to get well. And there poor Margaret remained, year after year. She was probably treated with leeches and emetics, just as George III had been, until the royal doctors panicked and brought in physicians with slightly more up-to-date tools for treating mental illness. The king’s doctors, operating at the forefront of medical practice, began to prescribe calm, quiet and fresh air, instead of the old methods: blood-letting and violent purging.

The authorities decided that Margaret no longer needed to be restrained with a chain, but no one was ever going to free this 'dangerous' woman

After five years, the hospital authorities decided that Margaret no longer needed to be restrained with a chain, but no one was ever going to let this “dangerous” woman go free. Partly because of the king’s illness, treatment and temporary recovery, Georgian society grew gradually more interested in what was going on its “mad- houses”, and in 1815 parliament heard about the barbaric conditions in the Bethlehem Hospital.

A new regime of reporting and inspecting was introduced, and the hospital’s record-keeping was vastly improved. These records reveal that Margaret was, by the late 1810s, a very elderly woman, quiet in her ways and in good health, albeit hard of hearing. They also tell us that she enjoyed tea, snuff and gingerbread.

Margaret died in 1828, having spent 42 years in the system. The reforms came too late to bring about any major improvement in her life, but at least these records allow us to see her for herself at last: not as a criminal or a patient, but simply as an old lady.

Burning injustice: the grim fate of a healer in the wrong job at the wrong time

Wendy Seager as Agnes Sampson in 'Lucy Worsley Investigates, The Witch Hunts'.
Wendy Seager as Agnes Sampson in 'Lucy Worsley Investigates, The Witch Hunts'. (Photo by BBC Pictures)

In the 1590s, one midwife and “wise wife” (or healer) gained a good reputation among the patients she helped from her home in the Scottish village of Keith, East Lothian. Yet Agnes Sampson also had the terrible misfortune to be in the wrong job at the wrong time. Scots of Agnes’s generation were fearful of witchcraft, and the majority of those accused of this crime were women. Witch scares frequently erupted at times when standards of living declined, as happened in the 1590s. Thanks to a prolonged spell of poor weather and increased pressure on the land, people were going hungry – and society needed someone to blame.

Shaving all the hair off her naked body, Agnes’s accusers searched it for the 'devil’s mark'

“Witches” were thought to be people who’d made a terrible pact with the devil, promising to do his bidding in return for a long life. Europe’s “experts” on witchcraft proclaimed in scholarly books that, though men could be seduced into witchcraft, women were particularly vulnerable to the devil’s blandishments. On top of that, the religious changes of the 16th century – particularly the coming of the Reformation to Scotland – led people to take more extreme religious positions. This was true for both Protestants and Catholics, but was particularly true of King James VI of Scotland. Hoping to position himself as a good and godly heir to the Protestant throne of England, he thought his credentials would be improved by getting tough on witchcraft.

Remarkable discovery

It was in this climate that someone made an accusation against the local midwife in Keith, Agnes Sampson, who found herself investigated by the church. It’s quite remarkable to be able to discover anything at all about a woman living a quiet rural life at this level in society. But, through records of the investigation, we learn that Agnes was a widow, that she had children, and that she’d learned her craft as a healer from her father. We also know she had a lot of clients, both satisfied and dissatisfied, who now came forward with their opinions.

It’s hard for us to understand that, even though it may sound cool today, there was simply no such thing as a “good” or “white” witch. Rather, Agnes was someone you might employ to protect you from the malign consequences of witchcraft: sickness in your family or your cattle.

In Agnes’s case, the accusations mounted up, finally coming to the attention of the king himself. She was brought to his palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh to be interrogated. Those questioning her used torture, causing her “pain most grievous”. Shaving all the hair off her naked body, they searched it for the “devil’s mark”: this involved pricking a suspect’s body with a pin until a spot was found which the devil had made insensate. Agnes was stabbed all over.

The record of what Agnes said under these terrible conditions survives, but it’s a tricksy document. Today we understand that a person “confessing” under duress will say anything to make the pain stop, guessing at whatever it is that the questioners want to hear. So when Agnes tells us that she took part in a meeting of witches, or cooked up a storm at sea, she was probably saying more about the fantasies of her interrogators than telling anything remotely like the truth. But Agnes’s “confession” made her, under the law, into a witch. Her fate was then inevitable. And on 28 January 1591, she was strangled then burned on Edinburgh’s Castle Hill.

Walking on that hill today, watching the tourists enjoying themselves, it’s chilling to think of the injustices carried out there on women such as Agnes Sampson. The only glimmer of good in this whole story is that, unlike so many others, in this case we know and can commemorate her name.


Lucy Worsley is an author, broadcaster and chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces. She is the presenter of a new four-part series Lucy Worsley Investigates, airing on BBC Two an available on iPlayer


Lucy WorsleyAuthor, historian, joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces

Lucy Worsley is a historian, author and broadcaster, and is also joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. A familiar face on British TV screens, she has presented a host of history programmes including Royal History’s Biggest Fibs, Blitz Spirit with Lucy Worsley, Suffragettes with Lucy Worsley and Victoria & Albert: The Royal Wedding.