In English history the Plague is associated with the spread of the Black Death in the 1340’s or Great Plague of 1665. Rarely is there discussion of Plague in the Wars of the Roses. References may be found to similar infections such as the Sweating Sickness. Plague, however, was never far away in the later medieval era. Though less devastating than the most famous outbreaks, it was still a deadly and feared disease.
Plague: Myths and Misconceptions
There are many myths and misconceptions regarding the Plague. Forget about beak wearing doctors treating the infected of England. They simply did not exist anywhere during the Black Death, and when they did appear, it was after the medieval period, and not in England. Also forget the notion of total ignorance. Plague had been noted in medical texts from ancient times. Whilst understanding was limited in comparison to today, there were things that were known to limit transmission.
Legacy of the Black Death
The Plague, or Pestilence as it was termed in medieval texts, had devastated England in the 1348 pandemic we know as the Black Death. Huge numbers died. The economy was transformed. Some villages were wiped out, others abandoned. It rocked all levels of society, and influenced philosophy, religious beliefs, political attitudes, social mobility as well as policies on war, taxation, and at times public health.
Plague and the 1439 Parliament
’a sickness called the pestilence was then more commonly reigning universally through the realm than had been usual before’
Petition to the Crown from the Commons of Parliament, 1439.
By the 15th century some parts of Europe had introduced what we would know as Quarantine. From Dubrovnik this concept spread into the Italian City States of Venice, Genoa, then Milan. Not utilised in England until the 16th century, its basic premise of reducing risk by staying apart was known to English administrators.
This was evident in the response to petitions to attend parliament called for 1439. Though not the first parliament of the reign of King Henry VI, it was the first called since he had reached his majority. As such it would be the norm for the King to receive homage from his parliamentarians in the form of a kiss. With Plague at large, the Commons petitioned the Crown to plead for this form of paying homage to be set aside, ‘considering the health and welfare of your noble person‘.
‘…[the] pestilence is a most infective infirmity, and the presence of those so infected should be greatly avoided, as it plainly has been determined by noble physicians and wise philosophers before this time, and as experience daily shows. Wherefore we, your poor true liege people, considering and desiring the health and welfare of your most noble person above all earthly things, … beseech your most noble grace, in conserving of your most noble person, … in avoiding any such infection to fall on you, God forbid, graciously to conceive that whereas any of your said Commons who hold of you by knight’s service, in doing homage to you… ought to kiss you, to ordain and grant, by the authority of this present Parliament, that each of your lieges in the doing of their said homage may omit the said kissing of you and be excused thereof at your will, the homage being of the same force as though they kissed you, and have their letters of doing of their homage, notwithstanding the omitted kissing of you…’
Petition to the Crown from the Commons of Parliament, 1439.
Plague as a cause of unrest in the north
When looking at the political clashes, the shows of force, diplomatic and military failures it is very easy to forget about the situation in the country as a whole. Amid the chaotic events that led up to the Wars of the Roses, large parts of the country were suffering from things way beyond the control of magnates. Poor weather, accidental fires, storms, and disease presented problems. And it is against the background of the economic problems that these, that the local clashes between rival lords took place.
Richmond, owing to its position between the pastoral highlands and the agricultural lowlands, was an important market for corn (VCH fn. 200) and wool; there was also some traffic in lead from the mines up Swaledale. (VCH fn. 201) As a corn market it appears to have been most prosperous in the early Middle Ages, and by the middle of the 15th century this prosperity had already begun to wane. Its trade in corn had suffered through the establishment of neighbouring markets and the reclamation of waste lands in Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland, and its population had been reduced by pestilence
This is Richmond, North Yorkshire. It is at the heart of the areas in which the Percy and Neville families and their retainers were clashing. Trade in some places was waning. Population had been reduced by disease, and migration to more prosperous areas. In a situation like this all of the local landholders are in a scenario where they can see their wealth diminished or raised incredibly quickly by external factors such as an outbreak of the plague. Here, it has quite literally happened to some of the most powerful and wealthy families in the north of the country. And it has happened as they, and the Prince-Bishop of Durham, are already at loggerheads about rights to manors. The economic consequences of this ongoing drift in population and the emergence of stronger economies elsewhere will no doubt weigh heavily on the shoulders of those involved. Pollard’s North-Eastern England during the Wars of the Roses explores the economy of the region. It clearly influences decisions, and plague clearly affected the places that these magnates squabbled over.
Pestilence and Parliamentary Problems
Plague continued to appear in England’s major towns and ports. In the 1440’s and 1450’s Plague struck Oxford almost every year. Gloucester reported depopulation due to the plague in 1447. it caused Parliament to be moved or suspended four times in 1449/50 due to insalubrity of the air. 1452 saw Parliament again moved, this time to Reading. And it had to be suspended there due to the Plague. 1454 saw further outbreaks of the Plague, the Paston Letters telling us that Here is great pestilence. I purpose to flee into the country.
These repeat outbreaks of the Plague make it clear that systems that were in place were limited in their effectiveness. Instead of taking the proactive approach of the Italian ports, England imposed restrictions after the event. So, it kept on coming back and wreaking havoc. And it is notable that the outbreaks in which mortality rates increased the most happen just before and during times of great unrest or political upheaval.
Late 1440’s: Dealing with the French whilst Proroguing Parliaments due to Plague
The disruption to Parliament came as England was attempting to deal with a resurgent French army in Normandy. Whilst there was a record of reluctance to fund improvements to garrisons, the absence of a sitting Parliament interferes with the debates and decision making that might have resulted in military measures being agreed. The actual intervention was minimal. Whilst Plague was not the only reason for this, it played a part by restricting discussion and making movement around the country and through ports a far from desirable option.
Politically the ramifications are also notable. The repeated interruption to Parliament increased the influence of the king’s closest counsellors. This happened as the military situation in Normandy worsened. It also happened as a currency crisis hampered international trade. The South East, Kent in particular, was affected by all of these matters. And the uprisings of Cheyne then Cade in 1450 are the result of that combination.
Plague then was a cause of uprisings. So too did it shoulder some of the blame for the increased tensions between senior magnates. The likes of the Duke of Suffolk rose in importance to the king when his parliament could not sit. It made a tense situation untenable. The social and economic situation, heightened by plague outbreaks, increases divisions in court and leads to the events that surround the murders of the Duke of Suffolk and Adam Moleyns.
Politics was plagued by the pestilence!
In simple terms, the perfect storm of political division, radical thinking, economic concerns, military costs, and pestilence that had caused the Peasants Revolt of 1381 returned over and over again. The difference being the relative weighting of the factors in that cycle of disruption. Plague is still there, still causing depopulation on a year by year rolling average, but not highlighted as such by popular histories of the 15th century.
The Plague of 1467
Plague returned in 1467. This time, it was noted as being particularly virulent in London, Hull, and Southwark being noted frequently. The outbreak is noted in town records and monastic chronicles. The timing was far from helpful for King Edward IV. Like 1439, it affected Parliament. In this case the commons were in session. For the safety of all concerned, the Parliament was prorogued [suspended].
[the] plague was beginning to hold sway to such an extent that some luminaries of the commons house had caught that plague and died, to the manifest danger of the lord king himself and of the lords and commons who should be present in the said parliament
Proroguing of Parliament, 1st July 1467
The means of limiting the impact on parliament was simply halting proceedings and relocating the session to a safer location. This shows that the authorities were not ignorant of the way in which the Plague spread. The proroguing was intended to limit contact and move to a less populous, less infected area. Whilst not understanding the science, they understood that contact with those inflicted with Plague was a means of transmitting the disease.
For parliamentarians this meant moving to Reading. Even with the swift decision to suspend parliament and later move it, members of the commons became infected and died as a consequence of their travel to Westminster: John Filoll [d 29 June 1467] and Sir William Vernon [d 30 June 1467].
Public Health Orders
Most people had little reason to travel beyond the confines of the place in which they lived or worked. Infection would be hard to stop entering towns simply because of the need to transport foodstuffs, or via the import/export of goods. As noted above the concept of Quarantine was in existence in Europe and would have been witnessed or experienced by merchants, pilgrims, or diplomats in the century or so since their first use. The method hadn’t been adopted by England by this stage, but the principle of preventing the spread of infection did find its way into local administrative orders. In Rochester, for example, officials were instructed to:
every night diligently search within their several boroughs for all new comers and such as may prove infectious persons whereby the city may be in danger of infection by the plague or any other noisome disease.’
Civil Authorities of Rochester issuing orders to local leaders
Such was the impact of this outbreak of Plague that the Croyland Chronicle notes ‘Divine indignation’ raging with ‘uncontrollable violence’. Interestingly, it suggests that the Plague hit the monastic orders quite hard, as well as towns and villages. This isn’t particularly borne out by other sources though.
However, in these times, the Divine long-suffering was so wrought upon by our transgressions, was so provoked, I say, by our unrighteousness, that the whole of England was most severely chastised by each of the elements, like so many scourges prepared by the Divine vengeance for the punishment of a heedless generation. For an infection prevailed in the pestilent air over the dwellers in the land, to such a degree, that
a sudden death consigned to a wretched doom many thousands of people of all ages, just like so many sheep destined for the slaughter. In like manner too, fires of unusual severity, caused both by lightning, as well as very often by carelessness, like a sort of prognostic of the Divine indignation, raged with uncontrollable violence throughout the various districts of the kingdom in its villages and towns; but more especially, in the
principal monasteries of our order, the devouring flames consumed to ashes the churches and bell-towers, as well as the rest of the buildings and offices appurtenant thereto.
Data relating to the 1467 Outbreak
Statistics for the 1467 outbreak and others of the Wars of the Roses are rather piecemeal. There have been studies into mortality rates of the period in several parts of the country. Norfolk, for example, has been academically studied and has a mortality rate that has a large spike in a period in which fighting was not taking place. This research does not show any peaks at the time that the Croyland Chronicle is suggesting thousands died. Rather, it shows spikes at different times within the era of the Wars of the Roses. These indicate higher than normal, non-military, spikes in mortality. This could be resultant of the Plague, or other diseases.
Regardless of the inaccuracy of the Croyland account, it is clear that Plague impacted. Edward IV was unable to make full use of the 1467 parliament. It was sitting, then prorogued. This was done at a time when Edward IV was overseeing the suppression of unrest.
Plague’s impact on the political scenario 1467-68
The impact on society was limited when compared to the Plagues of 1348 or 1665. But, the 1467 pestilence affected key cities, at key times. London and Hull were both affected, and this had a consequence not only for parliamentary process but also on trade. It also limited the scope of diplomats to engage in the development of relationships that had been mooted. There was, for example, a delay in following up diplomatic talks that had taken place between Edward IV’s diplomats and the Duchy of Brittany. Whilst it is impossible to say what might have been, the lack of any diplomatic agreements had consequences in 1470-71 and again in 1483-85.
Similar outbreaks of Plague hindered the reestablishment of a Yorkist regime following the defeat of the Lancastrians in 1471. Plague hit again in 1471 and 1473. The mortality rate in East Anglia in these two outbreaks is recorded as having been high. With much of England’s trade sailing from ports in the region there is an economic impact. That economic impact is not limited to overseas trade though. England’s population simply was not growing and that was partly due to virulent diseases.
The problem of depopulation
London was probably the only town in eastern England as large in 1480 as it had been in 1430. Despite the increases in replacement ratios [rural to urban migration] from the 1470’s on, no single geographical or occupational group including the gentry and London merchants had a modal number of sons greater than zero.
Gottfried, Robert. The Journal of Economic History, 1976.
A stagnant or diminishing population has a profound impact on the economy of any nation. Over a fifty year period, covering all but the final clashes of the Wars of the Roses, the research suggests that this was the case. Plague is clearly not the only factor in that decline. War and reproduction rates also play a part. Also, the research does not and cannot provide an entirely accurate view as not all births and deaths from the era can be tracked: those that are traceable in large numbers are done through the records of proven wills. These typically show the number of children that a testate person had, whether or not the children are alive, and details of spouse and any previous marriages.
loss through plague was a national experience and many towns suffered from changes in the wool and cloth trades
Victoria County History (Medieval Oxford)
The price of Plague for the survivors
That reduction in population means fewer people to tax. That number had not recovered from the Black Death and the massive fall in population of the 1340’s. Productivity and wages are impacted. So, each recurrence of the Plague, be that on a national or local level, is going to severely hinder the plans of anybody with a stake in land, production, or trade. It also affects the plans of the authorities at every level of society. If a specific cost is attached to parliaments plans, it needs raising from whatever the population is. In very simple terms, the price per person rises as population falls. Combine the impact of wars, poor harvests, fluctuations in foreign trade, and outbreaks of diseases such as the Plague and you have a political system that is stretched to the limit.
You see the impact of this combination of factors throughout the majority rule of King Henry VI and throughout the two reigns of Edward IV. The factors combine over and over to produce sparks of discontent. These can be politicised relatively easily by nobles who are disgruntled, or by an organised leader of an uprising. So, each time the Plague adds to the socio-political scenario, the prospect of unrest is heightened.
Plague in the 1470’s, a forgotten disaster
Plague remained a problem throughout the 1470’s. Indeed, it is this decade that has the highest mortality rate of any in the 15th century. The 1471 outbreak was soon followed by another in 1473. It hinders planning for politically important matters. For example, note the gap between Edward IV first mooting an invasion of France and it being raised again. The prospect of planning for such an invasion was hampered by three matters. Two get lots of coverage in political or military analysis of the period. The third is almost an anonymous partner.
War and financial constraints are those issues that are well documented. You cannot seriously contemplate invading France if you are fighting a civil war and have no money. The missing factor is the plague. You also cannot plan an invasion if your Council and Parliament cannot sit because of the pestilence. Similarly, you cannot expect a large fleet, its sailors and support teams, and a full campaign army to muster together when Plague is at large. Given the close proximity of the soldiers, fleet, supporting personnel, you would be putting around 30,000 people at immediate risk of catching the disease. It is perhaps no surprise that the negotiations with Burgundy and Brittany opened as Plague mortality rates dropped. Or that the invasion took place in a year when Plague was not presenting a significant problem in England or France.
Plaque overshadowed by political events
The latter part of the reign of King Edward IV is generally covered by historians of the Wars of the Roses from a viewpoint of Edward’s household spending, the issues with the Hanse, trade agreements, and the general lack of having a fully agreed and publicised succession policy should he have an early death. Rarely does the exploration of the period look at society in general and the implications that this has for governance, diplomacy, or the future.
Take 1478 as an example. The general picture for this year is that George Duke of Clarence pushed things too far. He had lost his wife, subjected her midwife to an illegal trial and summary execution, defended a member of his household in a matter that was treasonable, and had set his sights on a marriage that would elevate himself to being one of Europe’s most powerful men. It all ended badly, with the duke being found guilty of treason and executed in private in the Tower of London. And there the story of 1478 comes to an end. And it’s only February of that year.
Mortality rates at four times the normal level
The story of 1478 for most of the country was totally different. For the 2.8 million or so people who were not parliamentarians or members of a noble house, 1478 was a story of suffering and plague. The return of the pestilence is recorded across the country. At its peak in the summer months Plague saw mortality rates in some places reach four times the normal rate. London, Exeter, Oxford, Newcastle, York, Bristol and Hull all had major outbreaks that had dire consequences.
Plague in Hull in 1478
[Hull] In 1476 it broke out afresh, causing a great mortality. In 1478 it was more violent than ever, the number of its victims being given as 1580, including the mayor and all his family; the people fled the town, the church was shut up, and the streets deserted and grass-grown
A History of Epidemics in Britain (Volume I of II) from A.D. 664 to the Extinction of Plague, Charles Creighton, Page 231
Plague in London in 1478
In London the Greyfriars suspended their work:
a term deferred from Ester to Michaelmas because of the grete pestylens
The Tudor Chronicler Richard Grafton is a good example of how the events of 1478 are generally recorded. His recount of 1478 goes into depth on the trial and execution of the Duke of Clarence. It explores the marriage of Margaret of York and the surrounding diplomatic issues. And tucked in the middle of those reasonably long accounts is this:
After the death of this Duke, by reason of great A greate heate and vntemperate aire, happened so fierce and so quicke a Pestilence , that fiftene yeres warre past, consumed not the thirde part of the people , that onely foure monethes miserably and pitifully dispatched, and brought to their sepulture . You laue heard not long before, howe the Frenche king not on
Grafton’s Chronicle, page 64
Plague in Norwich in 1478
Norwich too saw a resurgence of the Plague. Francis Blomefield’s Topographical History of the County of Norfolk notes that the ‘violent pestilence’ returned to the town in September of 1478. It then reappeared the following year, again with high rates of mortality.
1478, another violent pestilence brake out in the latter end of September, and continued till November, (Blomefield footnote fn. 18)
1479, in which time, Nevile says, there died an incredible number in this city. (Blomefield footnote fn. 19)
Plague in Bristol in 1478
Bristol too suffered. The Bristol Record’s Society book ‘The Overseas Trade Volume VII‘ shows that dating is a little confused. They have an entry showing that in either 1475-80, or 1483-85 the Plague was a stated reason for a slump in business:
Petition to the Chancellor by John Ley, merchant of Bristol, alleging that a debt which he owed to John Gawge had been discharged at Bordeaux through Ley’s apprentice, and that Gawge had promised to hand over
the bond when he was next in England.
John Gawge, who had dealings with Bordeaux and Bayonne, was later plaintiff in a case of trespass before the Staple and Tolzey Courts at Bristol [in 1486?] concerning his own apprentice, Richard Benton. Benton, a Worcestershire boy, had been bound as an apprentice by his father for seven years, but had run away home, giving as his excuse an outbreak of plague and a slump in business.
‘The Overseas Trade Volume VII‘, page 158
Great Plague of 1478?
This outbreak of Plague in 1478 was widespread. It was virulent, a ‘great pestilence’ and it was lethal, killing, according to Grafton. as many in four months as war had taken in 15 years. There are issues surrounding the chroniclers’ views on the number of dead in battles of the Wars of the Roses. But Grafton doesn’t cite a number, he simply says in 4 months the death toll matches 15 years of warfare. Even allowing for him to have overstated the deaths due to Plague, or underestimated those due to warfare, his statement is incredibly powerful. As a minimum he is making it clear that the rate of mortality was significantly higher than normal.
The consequence is clear. A Bristol merchant has seen profits slump due to the plague. Hull has been all but abandoned due to the disease. London had things being cancelled. Norwich suffered greatly. These are all hugely important places in terms of England’s economy. London, Hull and Bristol are among the most important of English ports. Norwich has a huge bearing on the smaller ports on the East Anglian coast. Trade is going to be massively affected, as is the ability to recover. If the rate of mortality was much higher than normal who is going to replace the skilled sailors, miners, farmers, lawyers, merchants that are key to the basics of supply and demand? Who is going to replace experienced customs officials who know ports and merchants? The impact is an economic downturn. It has a knock on effect for the treasury. The seeds of instability and unrest are sowed quite quickly in such circumstances.
Did the Plague affect the Bosworth Campaign?
That the Bristol account may be from the reign of Richard III is a distinct possibility. Victoria County History relates that York had an outbreak of the Plague in 1485. That is confirmed in the York House Books which has an entry for June of 1485 referring to Plague being a problem. Richard III is trying to organise the defence of his realm in the summer of 1485. He potentially needs to move many men around the country. The nobles and towns to whom commissions of array are sent to have a dilemma. Do they act on the presence of the plague in England and limit the chances of their lands or towns being affected? Do they ignore the threat of disease and respond rapidly? Both are duties, and they conflict. The presence of the plague slows down the communication of messages, then slows the movement of armies.
The general suspicion of strangers and caution that towns had in times of pestilence simply meant that travel and obtaining victuals would not always be as easy as it would be in times when there was no outbreak. It’s another of the factors that hinders the defence of the country.
Lord Stanley and Sweating Sickness
In the case of 1485 disease is a well-known factor for the decisive battle. Thomas, Lord Stanley sent his apologies to King Richard III saying that he had the Sweating Sickness. Some histories say that this disease was first brought to England by Henry Tudor’s army. It wasn’t, Stanley’s excuse makes no sense if the disease was unheard of before, the King would not know what he meant for one thing. There are pre 1485 references to this condition in England. [Which will be the subject of a later post].
How did Plague influence war and society in the Wars of the Roses?
- Added cause for discontent. It simply makes existing divisions widen as the burden of Plague increases.
- Economically. You cannot adequately fund campaigns, defences, invasions etc if the income of lords and the treasury is significantly reduced.
- Diplomatically. Limits travel and opportunity to broker agreements.
- Trade. Quarantine existed in parts of Europe, making trade with those markets much harder.
- Superstition. The Croyland Chronicle, quoted towards the beginning of this article, notes that the Plague is a Divine Indignation. Many people viewed the Plague as being sent by God as a punishment. If they were being punished for the wrongs done in war, they’d be much less enthusiastic about contributing in any way to the waging of the war.
Plague and the Wars of Roses
1407 – ¶”The following year a destructive plague carried off 30,000 inhabitants, and reduced the price of corn to three shillings and four-pence a quarter” [New History of London]
1438-39 Pestilence recorded in Exeter. The city of Exeter’, in Magna Britannia: Volume 6, Devonshire (London, 1822)
1447 – Gloucester depopulated by the Plague. An issue possibly recurring in 1483 [Link].
1448-63 – The University of Oxford and the towns authorities maintained records of plague deaths that have survived. Plagues or epidemics were reported in most years between 1448 and 1463. Victoria County History
1449 – Parliament moved from Westminster to Winchester because of the ‘the corrupt and infected airs‘
1449 – November, Parliament moved from Westminster to Ludgate, again because of the infected airs.
1449 -December “it has been sufficiently decreed as to avoiding and extinguishing the said corrupt and infectious air“.
1450 – March. Parliament moved to Leicester from Westminster due to the ‘insalubrity of the air’.
1452 – Widespread. parliament moved from Westminster to Reading. Then the sitting in Reading brought to an end because of ‘de magna mortalitate in dicta villa de Redyng jam regnante’. The Plague was now affecting Reading as well.
1454. Paston Letters show that the Plague was a concern: “Sergeant-at-law Billing came to London this week. He sent for me and asked me how I fared. I told him, here is pestilence, and said I fared the better he was in good hele, for it was noised that he was dead…. Here is great pestilence. I purpose to flee into the country”
1462 [Poxy epidemic, possibly Smallpox]
1464 – A grete drought, for it never reyned from the myddys of Marche tyl the morow after Mydsomer day. Also this yere was a grete pestilence thorowe all the realme. A Short English Chronicle: London under Edward IV (1461-83) Pages 78-80.
1464 – Some Venetian merchants have arrived from London, which they left on the 26th September. They say that the plague is at work there at the rate of two hundred a day, and Carlo Ziglio writes the same. They also say that the marriage of King Edward will be celebrated shortly, but without stating where… Milan State Papers. Bruges, the 5th October, 1464 [Also noted in the Venetian State Papers]
1473 “Sir Thomas Hill. He died when Mayor, and his successor in the Mayoralty (Sir W. Stokker) five days later, four other Aldermen (J. Stokker, T. Breteyn, T. Northland and R. Rawson) also dying within the space of a month. (fn. 2) They were victims of an epidemic called the ‘Sweating Sickness.'” The Aldermen of the City of London Temp. Henry III – 1912.
1477 –“…that this year the plague raged so in England, that the 15 years war past did not consume one-third part of the people, that 4 months only brought to their graves…” The city of Norwich, chapter 20: Of the city in the time of Edward IV
1478, …another violent pestilence brake out in the latter end of September, and continued till November. The city of Norwich, chapter 20: Of the city in the time of Edward IV
1478 – Newcastle seems to have been visited by the plague, of which great numbers died. Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead.
1478 – Plague recorded in Oxford. “…the outbreak of 1478, when the university proctors were paid extra for the danger they had undergone, (VCN fn. 214) was particularly serious; in 1478 there were 117 deaths in the two parishes, nearly four times the usual number…” Victoria County History
1478, 5th July – because it may be probably estimated that the dire pestilential affliction in the town of Southwell will continue, and because the venerable men, with their domestics, have a just fear of incurring the infection of the said pestiferous affliction… Visitations and Memorials of Southwell Minster, Camden Society. ed AF Leach
1478 – This year was great mortality and death in London and many other parts of this realm, the which began in the latter end of Senii [September] in the preceding year and continued in this year till the beginning of November, in the which passed time died innumerable people in the said city and many places elsewhere… Robert Fabyan, quoted here [Page 232]
1479-80 – “The plague attacked the city of London in September 1479, and continued to November in the following year, during which unhappy visitation incredible numbers of people perished”. [New History of London]
1479 – Pestilence recorded in Exeter. The city of Exeter’, in Magna Britannia: Volume 6, Devonshire (London, 1822)
1479 – In April, 1479, the Letter-Book records an ordinance by the Mayor and Aldermen adjourning the sessions of all Courts held before the Mayor and Sheriffs until after Trinity Sunday. (Letter Books fn. 53) We are not told the reason for this ordinance, but it was probably due to a pestilence that ravaged the City and the country between September, 1478, and November, 1479. Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London: L, Edward IV-Henry VII
1479 – Adjurnament’ omnium Cur’ London’ pro tempore causa pestilencie. 27 April, 19 Edward IV. [A. D. 1479], ordinance by Richard Gardyner, the Mayor, and the Aldermen adjourning the sessions of all Courts in the City before the Mayor or Sheriffs until after Trinity [on account of pestilence. (fn. 4) ] London Letter Books
1479 – I have ben heer at London a xiiij nyght, wheroff the first iiij days I was in suche feere off the syknesse, and also my chambre and stuffe nott so clene as I demyd, whyche troblyd me soore
Sir John Paston, 29th October 1479
Note: Sir John then caught and died of the Plague, his death being two weeks after this letter was written.
1485 – “April 1485, however, the king was writing about those who threatened the peace he had sought to establish; in June he reported rumours of invasion, and the [York] city council ordered all defensible men to be arrayed on 8 July; and on 16 August news of Henry Tudor’s invasion reached York. Despite a plague which was raging, the city council sent to Richard at Nottingham for instructions and began to levy troops. Word came back from Richard on 19 August, and on the same afternoon 80 men went off to join his army.” [Victoria County History]
1485-86 – Plague recorded in Oxford Victoria County History
*Final quarter of 1479 had a mortality rate 400% higher than at any point in the previous 5 years.
Links and references on the Plague in the Wars of the Roses
History of Parliament – ‘Without any worldly pompe’: the burial of a 15th-century royal consort at Windsor. Elizabeth Woodville’s hastily arranged and incredibly low key burial, prompting speculation that she had died of the plague.
History of Parliament – Social Distancing – Medieval Style: a Petition of the Commons in the Parliament of 1439.
A History of Epidemics in Britain (Volume I of II) from A.D. 664 to the Extinction of Plague. Charles Creighton. Cambridge University Press. 1891.
‘The borough of Richmond’, in A History of the County of York North Riding: Volume 1, ed. William Page (London, 1914), pp. 17-35. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/north/vol1/pp17-35 [accessed 1 April 2022].
Francis Blomefield, ‘The city of Norwich, chapter 20: Of the city in the time of Edward IV’, in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 3, the History of the City and County of Norwich, Part I (London, 1806), pp. 165-171. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol3/pp165-171 [accessed 3 April 2022].
Plague in the Wars of the Roses: Image Credits
Featured Image: Lead mortuary crosses, England, 1300s and 1600s. Science Museum via Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0
How did graveyards and cemeteries cope with the vast number of burials during epidemics such as the Black Death? Most often bodies were piled in mass burial pits deep underground. Found during the excavation of a London cemetery, these lead crosses were said to have lain with victims of the Black Death outbreak of 1348-53. What were they for? Do they represent faith at a time of fear and crisis? Or were they used simply as markers? Experts say that medieval burial crosses were believed to protect the bodily remains. These ones are pretty basic in design and production – undecorated, with irregular edges and a battered surface. Were they made in a hurry because of the rapid burial of plague victims? Archaeologists Barney Sloane and Bruce Watson offer another explanation. Reviewing the evidence, they observed that the crosses were not found in mass burial pits but in smaller shafts suggestive of an institutional system of burial. They concluded that the bodies were most likely prisoners from nearby Newgate Gaol who had died of ‘gaol distemper’, or typhus, in the 1700s. And the crosses? Since no other lead burial crosses of this date have been reported, and documentary evidence is not yet found, Sloane and Watson can only speculate. Made by unskilled hands, perhaps the prisoners produced them for dying inmates, or themselves? We may never know the details of the makers or the recipients, but it’s certain that each cross will have its own unique story. maker: Unknown maker Place made: England, United Kingdom
Sacrament Dispenser, Europe 1500’s. Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0
This rather odd instrument was used to give out Holy Communion while keeping those with plague literally at arm’s length. It is just over a metre long. One prong at the end of the fork has a slit to take the communion wafer, and the other prong has five small holes from which wine can be drunk.
Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy c1500 Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0
Mercury compounds were traditional treatments for syphilis – a once very common, potentially deadly venereal disease. But this toxic treatment slowly poisoned the patient. Sublimate of Mercury, if soaked into a piece of cloth and carried next to the heart, was also believed to protect against plague. The earthenware drug jar has a badge painted on the side, probably referring to an Italian pharmacy. maker: Unknown maker Place made: Deruta, Perugia, Umbria, Italy
Penitent’s Belt 15th century. Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0
The metal teeth attached to this leather belt are worn around the thigh as a type of penance. Penance in the form of prayers is carried out by some Christians in the hope of being forgiven for their sins. Christian belief during 1501-1800 taught that illness and disease were the result of sin. Penance was carried out by fasting and, in some cases, by inflicting physical harm on one’s self. At the time of the Black Death – and during later outbreaks of plague – groups of fanatical penitents would travel from town to town, beating themselves, wearing such spiked devices and flagellating their skin. These deeds were presented as acts of repentance for the world’s sins – the penitents believed God was punishing these sins by means of the plague. maker: Unknown maker Place made: Europe
Saint Roch. Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0
St Roch is the Catholic saint who has traditionally been invoked against the plague. He was said to be a Christian, born in the late 1200s, who went on a pilgrimage at the time of a plague epidemic. He helped nurse those with the disease and was believed to cure them of plague until he caught the disease himself. To prevent the spread of the disease, he went to the woods alone. The story describes how a dog looked after him and brought him bread. As such, St Roch is almost always shown accompanied by a dog and pointing towards a plague bubo, which is clearly visible on his own leg. maker: Unknown maker Place made: German
Lazaretto. Wellcome Collection via Wikipedia. Public Domain.
J. Howard, An account of the principal lazarettos.