The Black Death in Dorset

Black Death in Dorset From the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 43 1923, an article written by the Rev. Canon J. M. J. Fletcher, M.A. entitled ‘The Black Death in Dorset (1348 – 1349)’

It has frequently been pointed out that the middle of the fourteenth century appeared to be the time of England’s greatest glory. France had suffered a crushing and unexpected defeat at Crecy in 1346. In the following year Calais was taken. And when Edward III, in the height of his triumph, landed at Sandwich on October the 14th, 1347, the whole country seemed to be carried away with excitement at the success of their King. To all appearance an era of glory, of peace, and of plenty had arisen. It was the golden age of chivalry. And, in various parts of the country, tournaments were held to celebrate the establishment of the Order of the Garter, which appears to have been instituted by the King in order to hand down to posterity the memory of his martial prowess.

Such was the England upon which the great pestilence fell in the summer of 1348. It has been described as having been

“a turning point in the national life. It formed the real close of the mediaeval period and the beginning of our modern age. It produced a break with the past and was the beginning of a new era. The sudden sweeping away of the population and the subsequent scarcity of labourers raised, it is well recognised, new and extravagant expectations in the minds of what are called the lower classes; or, to use a modern expression, labour began then to understand its value and assert its power.” (F. A. Gasquet, The Great Pestilence, p. xvi.)

For two years or more, previously, there had been rumours of a mysterious disease which had been raging in the distant east, and by which, in a brief space of time, whole districts were depopulated. China and India more especially suffered. Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria and Armenia were depopulated. Cairo lost daily, while the plague was at its height, from 10,000 to 12,000 persons. (Hecker, Epidemics of the Middle Ages (translated by Babington) 2nd Edit., 1835, p. 21.)

Its specific causes are unknown. The opinion of the time connected its appearance with contemporary physical phenomena of a remarkable kind. Parching droughts were
succeeded by convulsions of the earth and crackings of its surface from which a fetid and poisonous vapour was projected into the atmosphere, the corruption of which was afterwards increased by malarious exhalations from swamps caused by incessant deluges of rain. To the panic-stricken imagination of the people, the pestilence seemed to be advancing to their destruction in the palpable form of a thick stinking mist.

The Death CartThe pestilence found its way to Europe along the great trade routes, being carried by the trading caravans which brought spices and gums and silks and other produce of the eastern markets. An Italian writer (|Gabriele de Mussi, Ystoria de Morbo. quoted by Gasquet, Op. cit.. pp. 4, 17, &c.) tells how the infection was brought to Genoa. Some number of Italian merchants had resorted to a place called Tana, north of Constantinople and under the rule of the Tartars. Tana was besieged and taken by the Tartars; and the Christian merchants, who were violently expelled from that city, were then received, for the protection of their persons and property, within the walls of Caffa, which had been built by the Genoese in the Crimea. This, too, was attacked by the Tartars, and the inhabitants were hard pressed. Suddenly the plague broke out amongst the Tartar host. At first they were paralysed with fear; and then, turning their vengeance on the besieged, and, in the hope of communicating the infection to their Christian enemies, by the aid of the engines of war they projected the bodies of the dead over the walls into the city. As far as possible the plague-infected bodies were committed to the sea. Before long, however, the air became tainted, and the wells of water poisoned. In this way the disease spread so rapidly in the city that few of the inhabitants had strength to fly from it. From the Crimea the plague seems to have found its way to Constantinople, which, at that time, was the great centre of communication between the Asiatic and European countries. It reached Italy in the early days of 1348, being brought from the Crimea to Genoa and to Venice. Boccaccio (Boccaccio, Decameron, Introduction) tells us graphically of what happened at Florence. All classes were affected. Magnificent dwellings were rendered desolate, sometimes to the last inhabitant. Riches were left with no known heir to inherit them. People of both sexes dined, apparently, in the best of health, and at supper time were lying dead. Stricken children were forsaken by their parents. The poor languished on the highways, in the fields, or in their own cottages, and were dying like animals. Flocks and herds wandered unwatched through the forsaken harvest fields.

The pestilence reached France about the same time that it reached Italy. From Genoa it was brought to Marseilles, where in a month 57,000 were carried off by the sickness. It reached Avignon, where Pope Clement VI held his court, in the early days of January, 1348. Here, in the first three days, 1,800 people are said to have died ; and in the seven months that the plague lasted no less than 150,000 persons in the surrounding territory died. The Pope found it necessary to consecrate the Rhone, that bodies might he thrown into the river without delay, as the churchyards would no longer hold them. He himself lived in seclusion in his palace at Avignon, keeping up constant fires and allowing no one to approach him.

Weymouth Harbour

A view of the harbour as it appears today. At the time of the Black Death Melcombe Regis Harbour was to the right and Weymouth Harbour to the left

The pestilence first attacked England in the summer of 1348. It was probably brought from Calais, being conveyed by fugitives who came to England in hopes of escaping from it. It appears certain that the first place attacked was Melcombe Regis, or Weymouth, which at that time was apparently almost as important a port as Bristol or London.

” In the year of our Lord 1348, about the feast of the translation of S. Thomas (July 7th),” writes the Author of the Eulogium Historiarum, (Eulogium Historiantm, Vol. Ill, p. 213.) a contemporary monk of Malmesbury, ” the cruel pestilence, terrible to all future ages, came from parts over the sea to the south coast of England into a port called Melcombe, in Dorsetshire. This plague, sweeping over the southern districts, destroyed numberless people in Dorset, Devon and Somerset.”

The plaque on Custom House Quay which records the part that Melcombe Regis played in the story of the Black Death

The plaque near ‘The George Inn’, Custom House Quay which commemorates the event when the Black Death entered Dorset

Bristol more especially suffered. Other dates given for its first appearance in this country are July 25th and August 1st, while another contemporary monkish chronicler (Henry Knighton, Chronicon Ltyccstrcusis (Rolls Series), Vol. II, pp. 58, &c.) states that it began in the autumn of the year 1348. News of its actual presence had not apparently reached the Bishop of Bath and Wells (Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop, 1329-1363.) on August 17th, for on that date he sent letters throughout his diocese ordering processions and stations every Friday, in each collegiate, regular, and parish church, to beg that Almighty God would protect the people from the pestilence which had come from the east into the neighbouring kingdom. The same bishop, a little later, issued a mandate which he ordered to be read clearly and distinctly in the cathedral on the 10th of January, 1348-9. (Wilkins, Concilia Magn. Brit, 1737, Vol. II, pp. 745-746 (Ex reg. Wellen., fol. 333). In it he speaks of the pestilence having left many parishes destitute of spiritual care and without a priest. Numbers of people were dying without the Sacrament of Penance, in consequence of the infection, and through dread of the disease. And he directs that it shall be made generally known that, if a priest cannot be found, confession of sin may be made to a layman, or even in case of necessity to a woman; though, if the penitent recovers his health, confession is again to be made to a priest. Moreover, in the absence of a priest, the Sacrament of the Eucharist may be administered by a deacon. And if no priest can be found to administer the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, then, as in other cases, faith in the sacrament ought to suffice.

It is said that from June 24th until Christmas it rained either by day or by night almost without exception. And no doubt the abnormally wet season,’ unhealthy as it naturally was, would aid the development of the sickness.

Black Death VictimThe Pestilence appears to have been some form of the ordinary Eastern, or bubonic, plague (Gasquet, The Great Pestilence, p. y; Hecker, Epidemics of the Middle Ages, pp. 4-27; Villani, quoted by Dr. Jessopp in The Black Death in East Anglia; Chronicon GalfricU le Baker de Swyhebroke, Oxford 1889, pp. 98-100). It showed itself in swellings and carbuncles under the arm and in the groin – sometimes in size as large as a hen’s egg, at others smaller and distributed over the body; but in addition there were special symptoms, from one or more of which the patient suffered, which seemed to differentiate it from the common type, viz.:

  1. gangrenous inflammation of the throat and lungs,
  2. violent pains in the region of the chest,
  3. the vomiting and spitting of blood,
  4. the pestilential odour coming from the bodies and breath of those affected.

Though many recovered from the carbuncles and glandular swellings, it is stated that none did from the blood spitting. Sometimes the patient died within a few hours, though more usually the sickness lasted from three to rive days before death.

From the absence of contemporary statistics it is impossible to tell what proportion of the population was swept away by the plague. Platina, of Cremona, (B. Platina, Lives of the Popes (Clement VI) who lived about a century later, conjectures that, during the three years that it raged in Italy, ” scarce one man in ten escaped.” The same proportion is given for England by some of the Chroniclers,( Galfridus le Baker, Op. cit., p. 98; T. Walsingham, Historia Anglicana (Rolls Series), Vol. I, p. 273; Annales Monastici (Rolls Series), Vol. Ill, p. 475. ) who are followed by Stow and Barnes. (Barnes, History of Edward III (Cambridge, 1688), p. 435; Stow, Survey of the City of London, Vol. I, p. 129, Vol. II, 61. 62.) This must of course be an exaggerated conjecture. But, in all probability, the population of the whole country before the plague was somewhere approaching rive millions, of whom perhaps the half perished in the fatal year. A certain amount of evidence, however, can be obtained from various ecclesiastical documents, such as the records of institutions to vacant benefices, lists of ordinations, &c. And, if I seem to deal mainly with ecclesiastics, I would point out that it is because such statistics are to a certain extent available; and, what is more, that they are practically the only ones that are, with the exception of what may be surmised from the Court Rolls. I propose for the most part to confine myself to the county of Dorset, merely stating beforehand that, in January, 1349, Parliament, which was to have met at Westminster, was prorogued until April, (Rymer, Fcedera, Vol. V. p. 655.) in consequence of the deadly pestilence having broken out and daily increasing in severity, so that grave fears were entertained for the safety of those attending. In the early spring it was again found necessary that it should be prorogued indefinitely. (Ibid, p. 658.)

A scene from the former Weymouth attraction 'The Timewalk' shows a plague victim receiving the last rites from a priest while his distraught family look on

A scene from the former Weymouth attraction ‘The Timewalk’ shows a plague victim receiving the last rites from a priest while his distraught family look on

Dr. Gasquet gives the number of Institutions in the county of Dorset during the seven months from October 1348 until April 1349, as 5, 15, 17, 16, 14, 10, and 4, or a total of 81, whereas the previous average had been only one a month. That is to say that during those months there were more than eleven times the usual number of Institutions. The learned Doctor must have dealt, I think, only with Institutions to benefices conferred by the King or by some monastic or other quasi-public body; for from the episcopal registers, which are preserved amongst the muniments of our own Cathedral at Salisbury, and which I have examined carefully, the number of actual Institutions to Dorset benefices will be found to be 4, 17, 28, 21, 12, 12, and 6 – making a total of 100. And furthermore in these numbers are not included Institutions due to vacancies which had been caused by resignation or exchange. The pestilence still lingered on during the next four months, May to August, when the Institutions, owing to death, numbered 9, 3, 11, and 5.

West Chickerell appears to have been the first parish to be deprived of its Incumbent, for his successor was instituted on September 30th, 1348. His oversight of the parish, however, was but a short one, for another Institution to West Chickerell was necessary on the 6th of the following March. During October, 1348, there were Institutions to Warmwell on the 9th, and to Wool, Combe Keynes (Wool and Combe Keynes, however, were held in plurality by John Glanvill in succession to Richard Palmere. Consequently the loss by death was only one and not two.) and Holy Trinity, Dorchester, on the 19th. From then the deaths of Dorset clergy followed one another in quick succession. The parts of the county most affected were the districts within a short distance of the coast, and the villages through which the Winterbourne passes before emptying itself into the Stour. Bincombe changed its Incumbent both in November and in March; Worth Matravers lost both Rector and Vicar; at East Ringstead (Osmington) there were two changes in a short space of time; Tyneham suffered early in November ; Warmwell, Combe Keynes and Wool have already been alluded to; Winterbourne Monkton, Winterbourne Houghton, Winterbourne Came, and Radipole doubtless caught the infection from Weymouth or from Dorchester. At Wareham the Incumbents of Lady S. Mary, S. Martin, S. Michael, and S. Peter (two ?), as well as the Prior of the alien Priory, (Onginalia Roll, 22 Edw. Ill, m. 4.) were amongst the victims; There were new Incumbents at Milborne S. Andrew in November and again in February. Between November 17th and November 20th there were eight Institutions, seven of which apparently were due to the death of previous Incumbents, viz.: — on the 17th at Kingston Russell, (Here, as elsewhere at implies for, or on behalf of . Xo doubt the clergy were usually instituted at Salisbury, or wherever the Bishop might be at the time.) on the 18th at Cerne Abbas, East Lulworth, and East Morden (as well as one at Catherston Leweston, through resignation), on the following day at Toller Porcorum and Winterbourne Zelston, and on the 20th at Langton Long, Blandford, of the Chantry Priest. At Langton, although the Rector lived through the visitation, another Institution to the Chantry followed in June. Then there were Owermoigne, Aff puddle, Chalbury (twice), West Chaldon (now united to Chaldon Herring) both in December and May, West Knighton, and Stafford. Along the Valley of of the Winterbournes, Clenston S. Nicholas suffered most severely, there being fresh Institutions on December 7th, March 6th, April 8th, and yet again on May 3rd; while Winterbourne Houghton had three changes, viz. : on December 18th, March 5th, and June 7th. The Winterbournes Steepleton, Stickland, Whitchurch, and Zelston all lost their clergy, as, too, did Sturminster Marshall, which lies near the junction of the Winterbourne and the Stour. Not far away is Spetisbury, which lost two of its Rectors as well as two Vicars. Lytchett Matravers and Hilton, two other sufferers, are in the same neighbourhood. Lower down the Stour from Sturminster Marshall we come to Wimborne Minster, (Close Rolls, 23 Edw. III. January 31 and June 17.) two of whose Deans died in quick succession. Here the Win, or Allen, joins the Stour; and along the Win there were fatal cases amongst the clergy at Witchampton, Wimborne S. Giles, and Wimborne All Saints.

Blandford Forum, on the Stour, so far as its clergy were concerned, seems to have escaped the ravages of the disease; but Blandford S. Mary, Pimperne, Tarrant Monkton, Tarrant Rushton, Okeford Fitzpaine, Shillingstone, Farnham, Iwerne Courtney, Hammoon, Fontmell Magna, Iwerne Minster, Ibberton, Marnhull, Thornton (early in December and again in the middle of April), and Stour Provost all were bereft of their parish priests.

On the other side of Dorchester, of the coast towns, Bridport was one of the first to suffer, the institution taking place on November 9th, 1348, while the new Incumbent
himself succumbed just three months later. From the Bridport Corporation Records (Historical MSS. Commission. Appendix to Report, p. 475) we find that there were two Bailiffs of the town in each year; but in the 23rd year of Edward III (1349-50) four bailiffs are named, as having held office, Edward Stone, John Grey, William Hichecoke and Richard Laurenz in tempore P&stilcntice. The Abbot of Abbotsbury fell a victim quite early to the ravages of the disease, and, before his successor was appointed, the Vicar also died. Portesham, Puncknowle, Litton Cheney, Askerswell, Compton Valence, Allington, Bradpole (twice in the space of three months), Pilsdon and North Poorton were deprived of their clergy, as were Maiden Newton, South Perrott, Hooke, Toller Porqorum, Chelborough, Chilcombe, Chilfrome, Broadwinsor and Buckland Newton.

The northern part of the county was not nearly so much affected, though Gillingham lost one of its Chantry Priests at the beginning of December, 1348. Shaftesbury, however, suffered most severely. The Abbess herself, fell victim to the terrible disease, which also proved fatal to the Incumbents of S. Peter and S. Andrew, S. Martin, S. Laurence (both in November and in May), S. Mary and S. John, and later in the year S. Ronald. In addition to these, the Monastery lost its Chaplains, both at the altar of S. Nicholas and at that of S. Curas, while the House of S. Thomas was bereft of its Custodian.

For Sherborne, there were Institutions for the Free Chapel of S. Thomas on January 12th; and on the 18th of the same month a new Abbot was elected. Castleton, hard by, had previously lost its Vicar before December 21st. At Bradford Abbas, not far away, a new Vicar was instituted on December 1st. He can but have lived for a few days, for just twelve days later, on December 13th, in consequence of his death a successor was instituted; and about eight months afterwards, on the 20th of August, 1349, the death of this successor is noted, and there was yet a third Institution. Chardstock, farther S.W., on the borders of Devon, saw changes of Incumbents on March 8th and on December 8th.

Enough has been said to show how widely spread the ravages of this terrible disease were in the County of Dorset.

Although our own Bishop, Robert Wyvil, was spared, for his episcopate lasted from 1330 until 1375, yet two of our Metropolitans died of the plague. John de Ufford was elected Archbishop of Canterbury upon the death of John Stratford, and received the temporalties on December 14th, 1348; but he died of the plague before his consecration, on the 20th of May, 1349. He was succeeded by Thomas. Bradwardine, who was consecrated on the 19th of July, 1349. This great and good prelate, writes Dean Hook, (W. F. Hook, Lives of the Arclibisliops of Canterbury, Vol. IV; p. 106.) who had known how to administer

“the consolations of religion to the wounded in camp, and to the dying on the field of battle, regarded the post of danger as the post of honour. He hastened to England, prepared to lead the way to the abodes of sickness, sorrow, and death.”

He landed at Dover on the 19th of August, and after doing homage to the King, who held his court at Eltham, on the 22nd, he proceeded to London. At once he sickened of the plague, and died on the 26th of August.

There was a return of the plague in 1361, and, great as had been the mortality amongst the clergy of Dorset in 1348-49, at this later visitation it was, if anything, greater. Amongst the victims of this second pestilence was Thomas de Brembre, Dean of Wimborne Minster, and founder of a chantry in that Collegiate Church. Wimborne had lost two Deans during the time of the preceding visitation. And this was not all, for the Bishop of Worcester, Reginald de Bryan, who had formerly been Dean of Wimborne, died in his Cathedral City of the plague. Amongst other Dorset Incumbents who died were those of Canford, Lytchet Matravers, Moor Crichel, Hinton Martel, Chalbury, Gussage All Saints (two), West Aimer, Iwerne Minster, West Parley (two, viz. on August 27th and on September 6th), Pentridge, Edmondsham, Tarrant Gunville (two), Long Crichel, Belchalwell, Pulham, and Buckland Newton; and at Shaftesbury, S. Peter (two), S. Martin, and S. John.

It will be interesting just to look at the comparative numbers of deaths amongst the clergy in the neighbouring counties of Wilts and of Hants.

In Wilts, the Institutions, according to the Registers of the Bishop of Salisbury, in 1343 were 15; in 1347, 29, which number would be above the annual average. In 1348 they had risen to 72, and in the following year to 103. In 1361, during the second visitation of the plague, they were 128. At Ivychurch Priory, in Wilts, a house of Augustinian Canons, the ruins of whose abode are still to be seen some three miles or so to the east of Salisbury, the whole community was carried off with one single exception.

In Hants, the number of Institutions in December 1348 was 7; in January, 12; in February, 19; March, 33; April, 46; May, 29; June, 24; July, 18; August, 11 ; and in September 12; or during the ten months, 211, which would be about ten times the annual average.

What has been said of the mortality amongst the clergy will imply that there must also have been a terrible mortality amongst the people in general; although no doubt, in the exercise of their office amongst the sick and dying and with the dead, the clergy would be more especially exposed to the risk of infection. It is quite evident that the ranks of the clergy must have been very seriously diminished. And consequently, steps had to be taken to supply the places of the parish priests and chaplains of the religious houses who had died in such great numbers. The regular times of Ordination, at the Ember Seasons, had to be disregarded; and not infrequently men who had only attained to the minor orders — deacons, and even acolytes — were instituted to vacant benefices before being raised to the priesthood. Over and over again we read of permission being given for considerable numbers of men to be ordained priest who were under the canonical age. And sometimes they were passed very quickly through the various orders to the priesthood. It has generally been considered that it was partly due to this that there was a marked decline in the spirituality, as most certainly there was a deterioration in the intellectual attainments, of the clergy.

“So great,” writes the chronicler, (Henry Knighton, Chronicon Leyceslrensis, Vol. II, p. 63.) “was the dearth of clergy that many churches were deprived, and were wanting in divine offices, masses, mattins, vespers, sacraments, and sacramentals. It was difficult to get a chaplain for less than £10, or 10 marks, to minister in a church, instead of for four or live marks, or two marks with board (cum mensa), as before the pestilence when there were plenty of priests. It was difficult to get anyone to accept a Vicarage for 20 marks or £20. But in a short time a great multitude whose wives had died of the plague, many illiterate and mere lay- men, barely able to read, still less to understand, became candidates for orders (conjiuabant ad ordines).”

There was a natural reaction upon the religious life of the nation. One good result, however, was the foundation of Winchester College, of which the plague was the proximate cause, the ultimate cause being the wish to have a learned clergy to carry on the duties of the church and the business of the state. And in the first clause of the Statutes of New College, Oxford, William of Wykeham’s other great foundation, the munificent Founder sets forth with great clearness the objects of his foundation, and shows that what he intended was to provide educated clergy, who were not monks, but seculars, to fill up the gaps caused by the Black Death.

And the recurrence of the pestilence, in some places at any rate, drew attention to the advisability of better sanitary conditions. In one of the Close Rolls (Lit. Clans, 35 Edward III, Feb. 25, quoted in Stow’s Survey of the City of London (1720), Vol. I, p. 129.) is a King’s letter relative to Butchers’ Hall Lane, or Stinking Lane, London (25th February, 1361).

“Order that all Bulls, Oxen, Hogs, &c., should be led as far as to Stratford or Knightsbridge to be slain, instead of being killed in the city, and the putrified blood running down the streets, and the bowels cast into the Thames, whereby the air is corrupted and sickness and other evils have happened.”

Although at first the scourge fell most heavily upon the labouring classes, it was not long before it produced a marked improvement in their social status, and eventually a general enfranchisement of servile labour. In numberless manors so many of the peasants had been swept away that the land could not be tilled, but lay fallow and neglected. The old method of farming by bailiff gave way firstly to the system of stock and land lease, (Thorold Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages, pp. 277-280, &c,) and gradually to that of ordinary tenant farming. And, partly from lack of labourers, and partly because it was found to be more profitable to “grow” wool than corn, large tracts of land which had formerly been cultivated were converted into pasture. And, indeed, labour was in such request that it could make its own terms; and, in spite of statutes and enactments and branding and fines and imprisonments, men were not content to be bound down as in past days to reside always in their old neighbourhood and to work for a mere pittance. The Statute of Labourers was passed in 1349, immediately after the first visitation of the plague, with the idea of compelling labourers to work for the wages formerly accustomed to be paid, and confining them to their own counties. This and subsequent laws passed were but imperfectly obeyed, and eventually,

“under the dread of servile war, the abolition of compulsory service and all the other demands of the populace were tacitly but surely accorded. Thus, within fifty years of the visitation of the Black Death, serfdom and villainage were practically abolished in England, and the labourer, released from his bondage to the land, was free to carry his thews and sinews to the best market” (W. Warburton, Edivard III, p. 144.).

In addition to the authorities noted, the following works may be consulted.

  • Seebohm, Articles in Fortnightly Review, Sept. 1, and 15, 1865.
  • Creighton, History of Epidemics in Britain, Vol. I.
  • Victoria History of Dorset, Vol. II, pp. 20, 21.
  • English Historical Rcvieiv, July, 1890, p. 524.
  • Stubbs, Constitutional History ,1875), Vol. II, p. 434.
  • Dr. Jessopp, Nineteenth Century, Vols. XVI, p. 915, and XVII, p. 599.
  • Stow, Annates, 384.
  • Thucydides. History of the Peloponesian War, Bk. II. sect. 47 — 57.

Related Sources:

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