This article first appeared in the February 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
The Black Death, which swept across Europe during the 14th century, was responsible for the death of more than one third of Britain’s population. Entering England in 1348, it had a devastating effect on the demographic and psychological shape of the British Isles.
Referred to by contemporaries as the ‘pestilence’ or ‘plague’, it is generally accepted that the Black Death arrived in Europe from central Asia in 1347. It spread rapidly across the continent from the Mediterranean ports, crossing the English Channel in the summer of the following year. Within months it had ravaged communities across the British Isles, transforming the their social and economic fabric for good.
Historians still debate what made the disease such a consummate killer, and influenza, smallpox, typhus and even anthrax are all offered as possible culprits. However, the conventional theory is one of a virulent outbreak of bubonic plague, most likely combined with a strain of pneumonic plague. The bubonic plague, a disease still present in some areas of the world, is now known to have spread via fleas living on rats, and was identified by the appearance of black swellings in the armpit and groin, the size of which could vary from that of a small egg to an apple. Once buboes appeared on the body, the victim would probably have had around three days left to live – as few as three in ten sufferers are thought to have survived the disease.
The pneumonic plague was even more deadly, with virtually everyone contracting it succumbing in a matter of days. Unlike the bubonic form of the disease, the pneumonic variant was spread through direct contact with the afflicted.
Understandably, the arrival of the plague terrified a population that lived in constant fear of God’s wrath and the end of the world. As entire communities were wiped out, the populace was thrown into psychological crisis, viewing the plague as a mark of God’s displeasure. On the continent in particular, people made attempts to purge society of sin and many bore witness to dramatic penitential performances such as self-flagellation.
However, while some retreated to religion as their only hope against the disease, there were other groups who adopted a more hedonistic attitude, taking advantage of the general disruption to make merry and enjoy their final days. Of great anxiety to all, though, was the suddenness of death, which left little time for a person to be absolved of sin and guaranteed their soul’s safe delivery to heaven.
Spooked by a disease that steadfastly refused to distinguish between rich and poor, the upper classes – including King Edward III – retreated to the country, fleeing the unhygienic living conditions they believed to be the source of the malady. As dead bodies piled up in the streets of the cities the wealthy left behind, some civic and church authorities attempted to dispose of the dead to minimise the risk of contagion. This led to the opening of plague pits in some urban areas.
Yet despite the shocking death toll and growing panic, there is evidence, says Mark Ormrod, co-editor of The Black Death in England, that medieval society was more resilient to natural disasters like the plague than would be the case today. “Famine and starvation were regular occurrences, as were diseases related to malnutrition,” he says. “In fact, the country had already suffered a famine during the early 14th century that had reduced the population by between 10 and 15 per cent. Medieval society was arguably far more conditioned than us to the fact that natural disasters and diseases could have a profound impact on the population.”
Yet, there was one consequence of the Black Death that medieval England couldn’t possibly be prepared for, and that was its catastrophic impact on trade and the economy. With thousands dying and many more fleeing their lands, there was, in many cases, no one left to tend the land and crops. As a result, in 1348 and 1349, international trade plummeted.
This presented the wealthy with a nightmare scenario: fewer luxury goods and fewer workers alive to produce them. Meanwhile, the poor who had survived the plague suddenly found themselves in a position of power: they could, and would, demand higher wages and better working conditions in return for their labour.
In response, during the summer of 1349, the ruling classes attempted to turn the clock back to the eve of the Black Death by making it illegal for employers to pay wages above the level offered in 1346. Harsh penalties were issued to those who refused to work. Further legislation in the 1350s and 1360s reinforced this new form of social control, yet it also contributed to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 when a later generation of workers became aware that they could command more for their labour and enjoy a better standard of living if only the economy was allowed to develop naturally.
One of the greatest tragedies of the Black Death was that once it had arrived in the British Isles, it was here to stay, aided by climatic conditions. After lying dormant during the early 1350s following several wet summers and harsh winters, the disease reared its head once more between 1360 and 1361.
Although the death rate for this second outbreak was significantly less than the first – mainly due to a degree of immunity in the generation that had lived through the first epidemic – a significant proportion of the new population, which had tentatively blossomed in the 1350s, succumbed to the disease. The fact that contemporary chroniclers named this second outbreak the ‘Children’s Plague’ gives an indication of who it hit hardest. As a result, there was virtually no rise in the country’s population for a century after the Black Death – a fact that had enormous long-term consequences for an already struggling island.
Where the Black Death happened
Cosmeston Medieval Village, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan
Where a once-thriving settlement was abandoned
Located a few miles south of Cardiff, the once inhabited medieval village of Cosmeston was rediscovered in the 1970s and has since been partially reconstructed and opened to the public. Little is known about the original settlement but the excavated buildings date back to the 14th century and were built around a manor house belonging originally to the de Costentin family and then, from 1316, the de Cavershams.
As with many deserted medieval villages, we do not know exactly why Cosmeston was abandoned, but it would appear that the village had started to decline by the end of the 14th century, and there is evidence to show that by 1437 the manor had fallen into ruin.
As well as plague, many factors could have influenced the abandonment of Cosmeston, including the location of the village, which is low-lying and therefore subject to frequent flooding. What’s more, Britain’s population grew significantly throughout the 13th century, and it’s possible that, by 1300, it had outgrown the resources available to support it.
Cosmeston may also have fallen victim to the Great Famine that struck Europe between 1315 and 1317, increasing the price of grain and starving thousands to death. Villages in medieval Britain were permanently ‘calamity sensitive’, making them particularly susceptible to natural catastrophes such as disease and famine. Today, visitors to Cosmeston can experience life in what was once a real medieval village.
St Mary’s church, Ashwell, Hertfordshire
Where the fears of a village were carved in stone
Despite surviving documentation, it is often hard to gain a sense of what it was really like to have lived through, and died in, the Black Death. One of the most remarkable pieces of documentation remaining is the medieval graffiti scratched into the walls of St Mary’s church, most likely by a member of the clergy, although nothing is known about its author.
The translated graffiti reads: “There was a plague, 1000, three times 100, five times 10, a pitiable, fierce violent [plague departed]; a wretched populace survives to witness and in the end a mighty wind, Maurus, thunders in this year in the world, 1361.”
As well as mentioning the coming of the plague to the village in 1350, the writing also makes reference to another natural disaster, which occurred early in 1362: the ‘St Maurus Wind’, or ‘Great Storm’. As the storm wreaked havoc on the country, contemporaries would have witnessed the destruction of many medieval structures, including church buildings – seen as yet more proof of God’s divine wrath. Visitors to St Mary’s church can find the graffiti on the north wall of the nave.
Charterhouse Square, London
Where plague victims shared a mass grave
As the Black Death swept across the country, the numbers of dead rose too quickly for traditional funerary rites to be observed. In London, at the height of the initial outbreak between 1348 and 1349, hundreds of people were succumbing to the disease every week. This forced parish authorities to find a practical and economical way of disposing of the bodies – and, for many parishes, this took the form of mass graves known as plague pits. Plague bearers collected the dead at night to avoid the risk of further contamination, and the bodies were buried by morning.
The plague pit at Charterhouse Square was one of London’s largest. In 1371, the courtier Sir Walter de Manny founded a Carthusian monastery near the site to offer prayers for the souls of the victims of the disease. Such gestures were commonplace in the aftermath of the plague, as a penitent nation sought to reconnect itself with God. The remaining Tudor buildings stand on the site of the original monastery.
St Pega’s church, Peakirk, Cambridgeshire
Where the living and the dead stand side by side
The Black Death was a disease that struck both rich and poor, and so had a profound cultural impact on the country. The legend of the three living and the three dead was one that dated back to the 13th century, but artistic representations of the story became especially popular with the generation born after the first plague outbreak in 1348. The legend tells of three kings who meet three decaying corpses while hunting, who warn them that wealth, honour and power mean nothing after death and urge them to repent.
In the wake of this horrific disease, survivors developed a fascination with the macabre and sought to live a more virtuous, godly life. Paintings depicting the legend, such as the ones found at Peakirk, became common across the country and served as visual reminders that death was just around the corner, regardless of wealth and status.
The wall paintings at St Pega’s church portray the three kings, once decked in crowns and rich finery. Next to them stand three gruesome corpses, one still partially clothed in a burial shroud. The images can be viewed on the church’s interior walls.
St Mary’s parish church, Ewelme, Oxfordshire
Where the tomb of Chaucer’s granddaughter lies
As well as displaying a newfound piety through wall art, the people’s grisly new fascination with death and decomposition also found expression on tombs constructed after the Black Death, conveying the message memento mori (remember you will/must die). From the 1440s onwards, cadaver-tombs became popular among the upper classes, displaying the deceased as they had been in their worldly glory but also including an effigy of a decaying corpse, usually placed in an openwork tomb chest below.
Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk and granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, survived all three of her husbands and eventually died in 1475. Her tomb is housed within St Mary’s church and is an excellent example of the new fashion for cadaver-tombs following the Black Death. Alice is portrayed in all her finery – a widow and a pious woman – and the effigy of her decaying body was designed to invoke the contemplation of death among those viewing the tomb. The message to the living was clear: prepare your soul for a good death while you still can.
Bolton Castle, North Yorkshire
Where a castle was built as a statement of authority
In the aftermath of the first outbreak of plague in 1348, the working classes, reduced in numbers but in high demand, found themselves in a position of power, able to command higher wages and better working conditions. Anxious to restore the social order, the crown and upper classes introduced a series of laws that reverted the country’s economy to conditions before the arrival of the Black Death.
The upper classes then sought to reassert their status through a spate of castle building, many taking over land belonging to those who had died of the plague. These new castles, although offering security, also represented outward displays of wealth, rank and power.
The construction of Castle Bolton was started by Sir Richard le Scrope, lord chancellor to Richard II, in 1379 and was finally finished some 20 years later.
The building is a fine example of a quadrangular castle, enclosing a central quadrangle with angle towers. It was described by Sir Francis Knollys as having “the highest walls of any house he had seen”. The Scrope family themselves were one of the big success stories of aristocratic Yorkshire during the 14th century. Bolton Castle can still be visited by the public.
Rochester Castle, Kent
Where peasants took matters into their own hands
Most historians agree that the Statute of Labourers in 1351, designed to freeze wages for the working classes at their pre-plague levels, contributed directly to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The Black Death had greatly reduced the numbers of labourers who, during the 1350s, began to demand better wages and shorter working hours. Unrest eventually turned into rebellion when a group of workers from Kent and Essex marched on London. The rebels captured Rochester Castle in Kent in June 1381 and freed the castle’s prisoners; it was here that a peasant worker by the name of Wat Tyler was selected as one of the rebel leaders.
After hearing of the rebellion, King Richard II agreed to meet with the insurgents in an attempt to subdue the unrest, and subsequently agreed to their demands for freedom. In the meantime, however, a group of rebels had marched on the Tower of London and beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury and the king’s treasurer.
It was during a second meeting with the king that Tyler was killed – some sources say that he was making drunken demands, or that he drew arms against the king. Ultimately, the rebels were dispersed and the king retracted all his promises.
Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire
Where a new style of architecture was displayed
As attitudes changed in the wake of the Black Death, so too did displays of wealth and status. During the early 14th century, English architecture was both intricate and labour-intensive, not to mention expensive. Known as the English decorated style, buildings were defined by their pointed arches, large windows and elegant spires.
From the 1360s, however, English architecture became simpler, moving to the more perpendicular style seen in Winchester Cathedral, which saw work on its west gate begin in 1360. The flamboyant masonry of major buildings was replaced by straight lines, partly due to the new shift towards austerity, but also because of the depleted workforce available.
Many important figures from the period are buried in the nave of Winchester Cathedral, including William Edington, bishop of Winchester and the king’s chief minister, who was a leading member of government through the first outbreak of the Black Death before his death in 1366. Also entombed is William Wykeham, a 14th-century bishop, royal minster and patron of the arts and learning, who died in 1404.
Within sight of the west gate is a stone obelisk, erected in 1759 to commemorate the last occurrence of plague in Winchester – a serious outbreak in 1666 that claimed around 25 per cent of the population.
The Great Hall, Westminster Palace, London
Where the country’s recovery was displayed
By the end of the 14th century, the trend for straight lines and plain architecture had shifted again and buildings now began to exude the feelings of confidence felt across the country. A host of craftsmen were keen to make their mark and the Great Hall at Westminster Palace is an example of how a new generation sought to celebrate life through architectural accomplishments.
Built in 1097, the Great Hall is the oldest part of Westminster Palace. Further additions, begun by Henry III in 1245, were abandoned as plague struck the country. However, by the late 14th century, the building had become one of Richard II’s main architectural projects – a meeting place for royal government and a sumptuous display of the king’s majesty. Fifteen life-size statues of kings were placed in niches on the walls, and a huge hammer-beam roof, created by the royal carpenter Hugh Herland, replaced the original three Romanesque aisles with a single huge open space.
Westminster Palace forms part of the Houses of Parliament and is one of London’s most popular tourist attractions. Tours of the building can be arranged via the website.
Mark Ormrod is professor of history at the University of York and co-editor of The Black Death in England (Paul Watkins, 1996).