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THE PESTILENCE IN LONDON

The City Infected, November 1348

THERE SEEMS little reason to doubt that Avesbury’s date for the beginning of the nightmare was quite accurate. The making of wills suggests a significant increase at the very end of October: of the six wills drawn up in that month, four were dated to the last five days. Within three weeks, on 14 November, a papal indult was issued to all the clergy and people of both sexes of the city of London to permit them to choose confessors to give them plenary remission at the hour of death until Whitsuntide (31 May) 1349.75 Such broad permissions as much as admit that the ability for the existing clergy to service the last rites of the populace would shortly be (or indeed already was) compromised beyond any capacity for regular management. It may, therefore, have been with some measure of relief to Edward that on 13 November his mission met with success in extending the French truce to 1 September 1349. The agreement was signed by the representatives of the two countries, including on England’s side one Walter de Mauny, in Edward’s tents just outside Calais.76 Edward himself was not a signatory, but he was nearby and may have been present: in what has been described as a prominent propaganda exercise in the face of the oncoming pestilence, he had set sail for Calais on 29 October to see for himself what lay in store for his kingdom and his capital.77 Having seen the appalling impact of the pestilence, he headed back from France for Sandwich on 17 November. The scale of the threat to his kingdom must now have been starkly clear and decisive action was needed.

On 20 November he issued a summons to Parliament to all the archbishops, twenty-one principal bishops, twenty-eight abbots of the larger monastic houses, and three priors, to discuss ‘various urgent business (urgentis negotiis) and the state of our realm of England’. The summons to the Bishop of London warned that the dean and chapter of St Paul’s, and the archdeacons and clergy of his diocese, should also be present; the dean and archdeacons in person, the others by proxy. On the same day, he issued orders for sheriffs in Cornwall, Somerset, Devon, Dorset, Southampton, Essex, London, Surrey, Sussex, Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincoln and Kent not to attempt to leave the country. These included the majority of southern and eastern coastal counties.

Three days later, on his return to Westminster, he issued orders effectively closing the ports of London, Dover, the warden of the Cinque Ports, Southampton, Newcastle, Harwich, Lynn, Ipswich, Rye, Boston, Shoreham, Great Yarmouth, Sandwich, Winchelsea and Kingston-upon-Hull; forbidding the crossing from England of any earl, baron, knight, squire or man-at-arms.78 It is true that the news regarding France would have been of considerable import to those concerned with the management of the spiritual and temporal needs of the realm, and there would have been an urgent need to ensure no inadvertent truce-breaking by over-zealous commanders. However, the measures taken to ensure that peacekeepers and arms-bearers could not leave the country also point to a major internal issue. It seems highly likely that these commandments and convocations were focused as much on what the kingdom could do about the pestilence, and that the restriction of movement was intended to ensure that a solid command and control structure remained in place in the realm, and in particular at the great ports such as London, during the crisis.

If such were the king’s plans, they were almost immediately confounded. The plague overwhelmed any intentions and, as will be seen shortly, the intended Parliament was never held. One man who might have expected to attend such a Parliament was Aleyn Ferthing, six-times Member of Parliament for the Borough of Southwark. His name is last mentioned in connection with a Parliament in 1348, and it seems certain that he perished in the epidemic. By chance, in 1832, workmen digging for a sewer on the site of the medieval church of St Margaret in Southwark found his Purbeck marble grave slab, inscribed aleyn ferthing gist [ici dieu de son] alme eit merci amen. It has been relaid in Southwark Cathedral,79 and is probably therefore the only extant funerary monument in London made at the time of the plague.

The king was, of course, not alone in his preparations against the unseen killer now rampant in the kingdom. The number of Husting wills drawn up increased to ten in the month of November, and included several city worthies. Sir John de Pulteney, four times mayor and founder in the 1330s of the college of priests attached to the church of St Lawrence (afterwards called Pountney), willed on 14 November the establishment of a chantry in St Paul’s Cathedral, and made arrangements for the sale of his great mansion called ‘Coldharbour’ for a price of £1,000. John de Kelleseye, a goldsmith from the parish of St Mary Aldermary, by his will dated 11 November, instructed his wife to distribute every month for her lifetime seventeen silver pennies, one each to twelve poor men, three pence to a poor infirm man, and two pence to a poor woman. John de Hicchen, a pepperer and the rector of the church of St Antonin since at least 1345, willed on 28 November that a fraternity called the wardens of the Honour of St Anne should celebrate anniversaries for his soul, presumably in the chapel of St Anne in his church.80

Hicchen’s will is particularly important. It was formally enrolled on 2 March 1349, but an addition on the will itself reveals that the actual date of his death was 2 December 1348, just four days after the will was drawn up, showing that enrolment could occur after a very considerable lag, and thus that many Londoners were very probably dying much earlier than the Husting enrolment evidence suggests. This lag explains why only three wills were enrolled in November, and none whatsoever in December. Indeed, it is only the dramatic rise in the number of wills made in December that indicate a catastrophe at all. The need for probate in the ecclesiastical courts prior to enrolment at Husting provides one reason for the lag, but it was almost certainly exacerbated by the plague itself: panic, death and confusion all would have led to changed priorities for survivors and a reduction in the operating efficiency of the courts. The significance of this lag relates clearly to our understanding of the actual speed of the plague’s transmission within the city.

Another possible indicator of sudden death is a ‘cluster’ of three presentations of guardianship to the courts between late October and the beginning of December. The children of John Broun of Fleet Street were entered formally into the guardianship of his widow Elena on 23 October; Alice, widow of John de Lauvare, acknowledged the receipt of certain sums of money in trust for their children Robert, Simon and Richard on 14 November; and on 5 December Nicholas Bole, a skinner, acknowledged guardianship of the daughter of Simon de Pulham, whose widow Katherine he had married.81 Wills do not survive for the three dead men, so we cannot be sure how recently they had perished, and furthermore such acknowledgements were not uncommon business in the courts. A cluster of three cases in seven weeks is, however, unusual.

The court of the Bishop of London’s own manor of Stepney, lying immediately to the north-east of the city, convened on 9 December and provides clear evidence of rising mortality. Six deaths of customary tenants, all living in the parish of Hackney, had occurred since 30 October. They included three siblings of a single family, Sarra, Thomas and Richard Pymme, holding between them one cottage, a third of a toft and 3 rods of land. That they were poor is demonstrated by the fact that they had no animals to offer as heriot (a kind of death tax) to the bishop as their lord.82 Bishop Edington took steps to save the souls of those who might die. On 17 November he wrote from his Southwark palace to his archdeacon in Winchester, granting to all rectors, vicars and chaplains across his diocese the right to hear confessions on account of the pestilence, requesting that they ‘encourage recourse to the sacrament of penance on account of unexpected death’.83 His diocese, of course, encompassed all of Surrey and thus numerous villages on the south bank of the Thames near London.

It is difficult to imagine what Londoners were facing during these first weeks of the plague. The disease and winter arrived in the city together, in a year already renowned for its storms and constant rain. John of Reading, a monk at Westminster during the plague (and another London eyewitness), wrote that rain had covered the south and west of England ‘from Midsummer to Christmas, scarcely stopping by day or night’.84 Short grim days and long dark nights set the scene for the unfolding horror. The knowledge that the plague was at hand would have sharpened a general fear into outright terror; every cough or twinge of pain a potential sign that a foul end was at hand. Reports would have spread through the city of the first deaths, perhaps down by the waterfront, or near the city gates; people may have tried to flee infected quarters or streets, before new deaths in previously untouched places set aside any thought of escape.

London’s experiences cannot have been too much different from other European cities, so we can envisage household after household ripped apart by the appearance of the symptoms on husband, wife, mother, sibling or child. Realising that the contagion had settled on them, did each, as in Piacenza,85 call out to friends and neighbours, ‘Have pity, have pity, my friends … say something, now that the hand of God has touched me’? Did they reach out to relatives drawing away in fear of becoming infected themselves? Did they call for water, and plead not to be abandoned for dead; plead for someone to hold them tight and comfort their wracked bodies?

Few who contracted the disease would survive for long. The symptoms as described in Piacenza in early 1348 must have been truly terrifying to witness. First a chilly stiffness and tingling spread through the body, then, often, the buboes, up to the size of an apple, made their appearance in the armpit or the groin, growing, hardening and burning with a fiercely intense pain. Fever consumed the victim, accompanied by an intolerable stench. Vomiting or spitting of blood and further swellings or blotches of dark blood on the skin surfaces were followed by collapse and a final coma. Geoffrey le Baker noted of English victims that, rather than developing buboes, some ‘had little black pustules scattered over the skin of the whole body’, and observed that of these very few indeed survived.86 The rapidity of the disease meant that the fate of the victim was decided in five days or less, most commonly three, a period confirmed by the Lambeth Palace clerk Robert of Avesbury, and another London eye-witness, Westminster monk John of Reading, who noted that ‘ulcers broke out in the groin or armpit which tortured the dying for three days’. The disaster chiefly overwhelmed the young and the strong, according to le Baker, ‘and hardly anyone dared to have anything to do with the sick’.87

In Florence a range of responses to the plague were observed in the citizens.88 Some stockpiled food and water and closed themselves off in their homes, refusing to speak with anyone and hoping perhaps to wait out the onslaught. Some, unable to take in the enormity of what was happening, turned to drinking and carousing, often making use of deserted private homes as much as taverns. Other citizens tried to continue their lives as normally as possible, but equipped themselves with posies of flowers or herbs to ward off the evil humours of the disease. A final group abandoned everything and attempted to flee the disease by leaving the city. No doubt Londoners reacted in very similar ways but, just as in Florence, no matter what course they took, the awful harvest continued to grow.

There seems to have been no issue of any formal ordinances by the London authorities to attempt to stem or hinder the path of the plague, despite the strict instructions issued in several European towns earlier in the year. In Pistoia, strict ordinances were issued in the spring of 1348. No one was to travel to or from neighbouring towns such as Lucca or Pisa. No one was to transport or trade in used cloth of any sort. The bodies of the dead were to be placed in a wooden casket covered by a lid secured with nails, so that no stench could issue forth, before being moved; that casket was also to serve as the burial coffin. No one was to move the dead into or out of the city under any circumstances, and funerals were to be strictly limited in scale. Men from each quarter of the city were to be selected to move the dead – no one else was to undertake this; such men were to be paid out of city funds on production of a written receipt from the monastery, church or hospital to which the body was delivered for burial. The ordinances also set strict limits on butchery and tanning.89

At Tournai, in August 1349, city ordinances were issued, according to the Abbot of St Giles, as a result of the ineffectiveness of the secular clergy. They set out the following: concubines should either be married or put away under threat of banishment. The dead should be coffined and the grave dug immediately, regardless of the hour, but Masses should be saved up until Sundays; graves should be at least 6ft deep and the coffins not stacked up, and there should always be three graves ready per parish. Funeral feasts should be curtailed and gatherings at the house of the dead avoided. Finally, there were restrictions on trading after noon on Saturday until the following Monday.

By 21 September, further restrictions were imposed at Tournai, limiting the number of mourners to two per funeral.90 Why London did not impose such constraints is not easy to establish, although it may relate to the more communal nature of civic government at this time. There is a level of archaeological evidence that wooden coffins were used more frequently for the burial of plague dead, suggesting that some guiding strategy may have been implemented (see Chapter 3).

Just one document hints at a public information system during plague outbreaks. A medieval parchment, found tucked into the wall of a rectory in Sherborne in the middle of the nineteenth century, provides a glimpse of the advice Londoners were given during the plague, communicated through a proclamation at the churchyard preaching cross at St Paul’s Cathedral:

Be it known to all Christian men and women that our Holy Father the Pope has true knowledge by revelation what medicine is for the sickness that reigneth now among the people. In any wise, when that you hear of this bull, first say in the worship of God, of Our Lady, and St Martin iii paternosters, iii aves, and i credo, and the morrow after immediately hear you the mass of St Martin and the mass while say ye the psalter of Our Lady and give one offering to St Martin, whatever that ye will, and promise to fast once a year in bread and water while you live, or else get another to do it for you. And he that believeth not of this stands in the sentence of Holy Church for it hath been preached at Paul’s Cross.91

December 1348

The plague’s impact on the city in December 1348 is quite clear from the twenty-seven Husting wills prepared during this one month (four written on a single day alone – 13 December). This represents a dramatic increase, nearly three times the rate of November and equivalent to an average year’s total. This steep rise in mortality is also reflected in the one court roll for the year that we have from the suburbs – in this case the Bishop of London’s manor at Stepney. In December 1348 four members of one family (mother, daughter and two sons) had died, and at the court held there on 20 January 1349, nine entire tenements were reported vacant and in the lord’s hands owing to the death of the tenants.92 To the south of the city, sudden clerical vacancies were filled by Bishop Edington at the churches of St Mary Magdalen, Southwark and Wandsworth in January, and in February at Clapham, Camberwell and St George the Martyr, Southwark, all less than 5 miles from Westminster. The Wandsworth institution recognised that, ‘with the present increasing mortality, the bishop must provide for the needs of his flock’.93 The deaths leaving these vacancies probably occurred in December and January, a conclusion strengthened by evidence from the court rolls for the manor of Vauxhall, a little more than half a mile from Lambeth Palace and probably held by Edward the Black Prince. The roll for the court held on 31 December 1348 recorded four deaths of customary tenants.94

Preferred burial locations and details of bequests set out in the wills indicate that the will-makers came from all different areas of the city, and from a wide range of professions. For example, Henry Iddesworth, canon of St Paul’s and Archdeacon of Middlesex, made arrangements to leave his house in Wood Street and shops in the parish of St John Zachary towards the founding of a perpetual chantry in St Paul’s Cathedral. Edmund de Hemenhale, a former sheriff of London and wealthy mercer, arranged for two executors to receive his estate in the ‘great seld’, or market, of Cheapside during the minority of John and Thomas, his sons, with a house in Lothbury set aside for John.95 Edmund’s family was still young: Thomas was 5 years old at this time, and a daughter, Margaret, was just 1.96 Edmund was probably buried in St Martin-le-Grand, since his wife established there a chantry to them both when she died in 1361.

Geoffrey Penthogg, a waterbearer, willed on 30 December to be buried in the church of St Botolph Aldgate. He left his wife Johanna a messuage and a garden in the Portsoken ward, and his son John a garden in East Smithfield. He was dead within ten days, as Johanna’s will, written on 9 January 1349, requested burial near her husband. Against this backdrop, and despite the (time-limited) blanket indulgence issued in November, some citizens continued to apply for papal permission to choose their confessors. Adam Pikeman and his wife Constance received permission in December, and Alexander de Bacland and his wife in January.

The wealthier were able to plan, afford and implement such arrangements for their goods and properties. They were able to choose the location of their graves, with at least some chance of getting their wishes even during the plague. This, however, did not apply to the vast majority of London’s population. Being poor, they might normally expect a modest plot in one of the many small external cemeteries attached to parish churches in the city. But with mortality spiralling, it became clear to Ralph Stratford, the Bishop of London, that these, fairly numerous though they were, might not suffice for the disaster. Whether the concept of emergency cemeteries was due to have been discussed at the Parliament planned in November is unknown, but it is certain that between the outbreak of the plague in London and the end of December, Stratford had arranged for a new cemetery to be established on the city outskirts.

The chronicler Geoffrey le Baker described how the bishop bought the croft called by Londoners ‘Nomanneslond’. This field lay south of another field called Whitewellbeck in the late thirteenth century, between modern St John Street and Goswell Road, and was apparently the site of executions from at least the early fourteenth century.97 It measured some 3 acres, according to the sixteenth-century historian John Stow, and acquired the name of Pardon churchyard. It was apparently walled round and provided with a chapel.98 This chapel is shown in remarkable detail on a sixteenth-century map of the water supply of the London Charterhouse; a three-bay, externally buttressed building with windows in each bay and a gabled roof surmounted by a small, steepled lantern or bellcote (see Fig. 2). By the early fifteenth century, the close had earned the name of ‘Deademannescroft’.99 This burial ground is known to lie between what is now Great Sutton Street on the north, and Clerkenwell Road on the south (see also Fig. 3 on p. 48).100

The principal route out of the city to this new cemetery was through Aldersgate, up past St Bartholomew’s priory and along what is now Goswell Road. The dead could also have been taken via Newgate and Smithfield, and thence up St John Street. It is not clear when the cemetery first began to take burials, but an argument can be made that, despite its considerable extent, it was approaching capacity in the early weeks of 1349. The carts removing the dead from the city must have been numerous indeed. As we shall see, a later emergency cemetery of comparable size at East Smithfield was able easily to contain 2,400 burials, a figure which could have been achieved by a rate of some forty burials each day in November and December. Such a rate accords well with the situation described at the beginning of the plague by Robert of Avesbury, who noted that ‘on the same day, 20, 40 or 60 bodies, and on many occasions many more, might be committed for burial together in the same pit’.101 The figure also corresponds with the (later) events described in Tournai when the plague hit that city in 1349. There, ‘every day the dead were carried into churches, now five, now ten, now fifteen. And in the church of St Brice, sometimes 20 or 30.’102 Placing such figures in context, if London did have 60,000 souls within its walls, in an untroubled year we might expect six burials or less per day across the entire city.103 This, however, was just the beginning: things were going to get much, much worse.

The king and his treasurer, Bishop William Edington, both remained in London for much of December. They were in the royal chamber in the Tower of London on 14 December, when the ‘infirm and paralysed’ John Offord, Archbishop-elect of Canterbury, took the oath of fealty for the temporalities of the Archbishopric,104 and the king was in Westminster from before 28 December through to January. They were therefore very well placed to witness the unfolding catastrophe. On 1 January 1349 Edward was compelled to write to Edington, cancelling the planned Parliament formally. The letter addressed a ‘certain parliament of ours concerning great and weighty matters … and the state of our realm, at Westminster on Monday after St Hilary [19 January]’, to which it was intended that the bishop would appear in person with the other prelates and magnates. It explained:

since a sudden and deadly plague has arisen there and round about, and has so grown in strength that men are fearful to go there safely during this time, we have, for these and other obvious reasons, ordered that the said parliament be prorogued [until 27th April 1349], and for this reason, you should not come there on the Monday.

The letter reiterated instruction that when Parliament did reconvene, the prior of Winchester and the archdeacon were to attend in person, the chapter to send one procurator and the diocesan clergy to send two, and that no excuses would be allowed.105 The king then left for the Augustinian priory of Merton, 8 miles south-west of the city, to celebrate the Epiphany on 6 January for jousting and games, some of which may have involved a funereal aspect.106

It may have been at around this time that accusations of poisoning the water supply of the city were made. Fear of well-poisoning by ‘foreigners’ and Jews had already gripped European cities and contributed to the dreadful massacres of Jews. England, of course, had no permanent Jewish communities at this time, but it seems probable that other scapegoats were targeted. The Conduit, the principal piped water supply situated in Cheapside, was under the administration of two masters, at this time Robert Fundour and William de St Albans. They raised money from the lease of tankards for collecting the water, and from certain local properties whose rent contributed to the upkeep of leaden pipes extending as far as Westminster and to the conduit house itself. Their accounts, covering a two-year period from November 1348, show that at one specific time, the hefty sum of 32s 2d was spent ‘examining the Conduit when it was slandered for poison, by command of the Mayor’.107 Clearly the supply was found to be clean, and in any event, it would soon become abundantly obvious that the water from the west of the city was not carrying this particular scourge.

The Depths of Despair, January 1349

And there was in those days death without sorrow, marriage without affection, self-imposed penance, want without poverty, and flight without escape.108

These words were written by John of Reading, the Westminster monk who witnessed the calamity first-hand, and their brevity exposes the helplessness and horror in the face of the catastrophe far better than could any extended description. The sheer scale of the disaster, becoming clear now to king and commoner alike, must truly have felt like the end of the world. The number of Husting wills, both drawn up and enrolled in January and February, leave no doubt on this. Thirty-eight new wills were compiled in January and a further fifty in February, a monthly rate eighteen times greater than that prior to the outbreak; and four more citizens received personal papal permission to choose confessors,109 as the wealthier now scrambled to secure and safeguard their inheritances, estates and souls.

One striking aspect of these will-makers is their favouring of the church or churchyard of St Giles Cripplegate as a place of burial at this time. St Giles was the single most popular location within the list of Husting wills written between October 1348 and the end of 1350, with no fewer than thirteen wills specifying burial there (four more even than at St Paul’s Cathedral, the next most popular place).110 All were drawn up between the end of November 1348 and the first week of April 1349, eight being written in the days between 8 January and 8 February 1349; and while this reflects to some degree the cluster of will-making in general in the first three months of the year, the concentration remains very significant. This was not a trade gild concentration, and neither were all the testators parishioners – they came from all across the city. St Giles’ power as the patron saint of lepers, beggars, cripples, and of those struck by sudden misery, was surely what drew so many frightened citizens to request their final resting places there. The church clearly had a special recognition in the minds of the beseiged citizens.

An illustration of how suddenly this misery could strike may be provided by a few examples from the wills. On 7 January John Palmer, a shipwright living in an area called Petit Wales on the waterfront near the Tower of London, made his will bequeathing his tenements to his wife Amy, and requesting burial in the churchyard of All Hallows Barking. Within twenty-four hours Amy had drawn up her own will, describing her as ‘relict’ of John and requesting that her tenements received ‘of her late husband’ be sold to pay her debts and maintain her son Alan:111 John had evidently made his will and died within the day. Enrolment of his will was delayed until Amy herself had perished, some time before the end of July 1349.

Stephen de Waltham, a girdler, made his will on 2 February, desiring burial in the churchyard of St Lawrence Jewry and leaving his tenement to his wife Margery, with the remainder of his estate bequeathed to his executor, Ralph Abraham. In the event, it was only Ralph who came to court on 9 February for the probate: Margery had succumbed within a week of her husband’s death.112 Johanna Amyel, daughter of a chandler, made her will on 8 February, wishing burial in the churchyard of St Botolph Aldgate and leaving part of her estate to her sister Cristina. By the time Cristina had drawn up her own will on 13 February, Johanna was already dead, and Cristina was to outlast her sister by less than three days; her will was enrolled on 16 February.113

The preparations that people made, most likely in the knowledge that they had already contracted the disease and were doomed to die, are also poignantly visible in the records. Johanna Elys, whose husband had already died, set out her will on 5 February, probably even as she suffered the first agonies of the disease. In it, she attempted to secure the financial future of her son and daughter, Richard and Johanna. She set out a share of tenements in St Bride Fleet Street and St Dunstan in the West between them, and made specific bequests of beds, pots and pans that each child was to receive. Finally, given their minority, she placed them under the guardianship of her own mother. Having done her best for her children, she died less than seventy-two hours later.114

In total, eighteen wills were enrolled in the Court of Husting between 20 and 26 January: a figure we might expect to represent a year’s sum had been reached in a week. By the end of February a further twenty-two wills had been added to the rolls. Among the dead were the Archdeacon of London, Henry Iddesworth; the rectors of St Margaret Friday Street and of St Mary Woolnoth; Thomas Crosse, the recently appointed dean of St Stephen’s Westminster; John Kelleseye, whose wife was to distribute the silver to the poor; and many others. Across the Thames, Lambeth lost its rector, John de Colonia, in February or early March.115

As with rich, so with poor. The bishop’s manorial court at Stepney sat again on 20 January, some seven weeks after the last session. In those weeks, twenty-seven of the bishop’s tenants had died, a rate of two deaths every three days from a single manor. The following court, held just three weeks later, confirmed that a further sixty-one tenant deaths had occurred, indicating that the mortality rate had doubled. Once again, families were hit by multiple deaths, such as the Bischops who lost John, the father, and two of his sons, John and Peter, leaving a sole heir, William.116 It is clear that by the end of January the toll was becoming unmanageable, even with the new Pardon cemetery set aside by Bishop Stratford. Boccaccio’s Decameron provides us with a vivid picture of the nightmare; Florence might easily be London in this passage:

the majority of [the poor] were constrained, either by their poverty or the hope of survival, to remain in their houses. Being confined to their own parts of the city, they fell ill in their thousands, and since they had no one to assist them or attend to their needs, they inevitably perished almost without exception. Many dropped dead in the open streets, both by day and by night, whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses, drew their neighbours’ attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses than by any other means.117

London has no such record, but the Register of Charterhouse, an early sixteenth-century document building on fourteenth-century records, describes how the ‘violent pestilence killed such a great multitude that the existing cemeteries were insufficient for which reason very many were compelled to bury their dead in places unseemly and not hallowed or blessed; for some, it was said, cast corpses into the river’.118 There is corroboration for such desperate acts as this: at Avignon early in 1348, so great were the numbers of dead that the Pope blessed the waters of the Rhone so that bodies carried by the river might receive at least a minimal religious ceremony.119

Some sort of solution to the problem posed by unburied corpses was urgently required, and it came from one of the king’s most valued servants and military men during the French campaigns in the 1340s, Sir Walter de Mauny, who was in the city at this time. As well as conducting the truce on behalf of the king, he had been a prominent knight on the field, an admiral of the king’s fleet, and a trusted servant of Edward in many other matters. For his services he had been summoned to Parliament as a baron from 1347. He was, in addition, the marshal of the Marshalsea prison throughout spring and summer 1349.120

Whether through piety or through recognition of the peril arising from numerous unburied corpses, de Mauny determined in January to greatly increase the size of Stratford’s cemetery to the north of the city. His first action was to obtain some land, undertaken between the foundation of the bishop’s cemetery in December 1348 and January 1349. He leased from St Bartholomew’s hospital ‘an enclosed space for the purpose of a burying ground for those who had died of pestilence, called the Spitell Croft at 12 marks per year’, with the understanding that he should be granted full possession when he could provide the hospital with property of equal value in exchange.121 Later, in de Mauny’s own words to the Pope in August 1352, evidence that the cemetery was assigned a specific role comes to light. The knight stated that ‘during the epidemic in England, he dedicated a place near London for a cemetery of poor strangers (peregrinorum) and others … and built there a chapel with the licence of the ordinary [Bishop Stratford]’.122The use of the term peregrinorum is significant, since it indicates that the people for which this cemetery was established were not citizens, but were more likely the poor who had flocked to the city out of desperation or false hope, or were traders and visitors caught up in the nightmare.

The Register of Charterhouse describes how Bishop Stratford ‘assembled a great multitude and with solemn procession came to the cemetery site, dedicating it in the honour of the Holy and Undivided Trinity and the Annunciation of Our Lady’.123 The precise date of this consecration is unclear, but the cemetery was already functioning by 26 January 1349, when de Mauny obtained a licence from the king to provide support for its religious oversight. The licence allowed him to pass properties to the value of £100 yearly to a proposed chapel, ‘within the place newly dedicated for the burial of the dead by the city of London’.124 Geoffrey le Baker’s chronicle tells us that the name of the cemetery was Newchurchehawe and that the house of religion to be founded there was specifically for the burial of the dead.125 In Robert of Avesbury’s eyes, the cemetery was of considerable importance for the management of the plague victims. He reported that between Candlemas (2 February) and Easter (12 April), ‘more than 200 bodies were carried to the cemetery for burial almost every day’,126 perhaps some 14,000 over the seventy-day period described. How such numbers were transported to the cemetery is not specified in any document, but the chronicler William of Dene’s graphic account of matters at Rochester no doubt stood for London too. He reported:

this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no-one could be found to carry the corpses of the dead to burial but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard.127

Aldersgate must have witnessed a grim procession indeed passing beneath its arch, with a new corpse emerging from the stricken city on average every five minutes. The cemetery now lies under Charterhouse Square and the site of Charterhouse (see Fig. 3).128

The enormity of the disaster meant that some breakdown in administration was inevitable. On 26 January the King’s Bench, the principal court delivering the king’s justice and held in Westminster Palace, was suspended. Edward wrote to his justices in no uncertain terms:

Mindful of the terrible pestilence of vast deadliness, daily increasing in the city of London and neighbouring parts, we do not wish any danger to threaten you, your serjeants, clerks and the other officers of the said bench, nor the people transacting their business there. With the assent of bishops, earls, barons and others of our council staying at Langley, we have given instruction that all … pleas before you at the bench are to be held over from now until the quindene of [the fortnight following] Easter [27 April] … We wish you to institute a procedure regarding these writs to be returned at the bench so that hearings may take place without discontinuation or delay.129

In fact, the King’s Bench was not to meet again until Michaelmas 1349.

February 1349

If administration was under pressure, the evidence is very scant for any resultant breakdown of law and order. The only direct example arises from a case before the court of Possessory Assizes, itself closed after August 1348 until late 1349. This court, whose purpose was to investigate allegations of unlawful dispossession of property, heard a case on 7 November 1349 relating to events in February. One Robert de Walcote claimed that on 23 February five men had ejected him from his rightful hold of three tenements in the parish of St Leonard Candlewick Street by force of arms. The case proceeded until May 1350 when the court found for Robert; the defendants were imprisoned and forced to pay 100s damages. Two further cases of dispossession during the plague months (on 30 April and 25 May) were also heard, but these did not involve allegations of violence.130

In contrast to this meagre evidence, it is quite clear that attempts were made to continue the normal business of managing city and realm as far as was possible. The mayor and city aldermen did continue to meet, to hear pleas and to enrol charters and wills at Husting (see Chapter 3). On 14 February eight of the elected shearmen brought the ordinances for the government of their guild before the mayor, though six of those eight were dead or missing within weeks, as noted on the Letter Book itself.131 The infirm Archbishop-elect of Canterbury, John de Offord, had put before the city new ordinances, dated 13 January, for the future management of the leper hospital of St Giles to the west of the city.132 Manorial courts within the vicinity of London were not abandoned. The court at Stepney met on 10 February and reported a further sixty-one deaths in the three weeks since 20 January. The manor’s estimated toll for the whole of February – an extraordinary seventy-five deaths – was to be the highest during the outbreak, the plague peaking in the smaller vills making up the manor as much as six weeks earlier than in the city itself. Similarly, in the much smaller manor of Vauxhall, the court recorded eleven deaths between 1 January and 11 February.133

Commerce also continued at significant levels; for example, between 28 January and 5 February, the collectors in the Port of London paid, on behalf of the king, a total of £517 7s 9½d for 388 sacks and I stone (over 63 tons) of wool shipped from King’s Lynn to the city by the men of nine different merchants, several of them London woolmongers.134 Wine too continued to flow through the city. A curious case illustrates both the trade and the continuing determination to regulate it despite the plague. Guilliottus de Gaignebien and Anthony Macenoie, Basque wine merchants from Placencia, had set out from Lisbon with 261 tuns of wine in late January or early February. While awaiting fair weather in a port in Brittany, their ships had been impounded illegally by Thomas Dagworth, Edward’s administrator for that region. Dagworth confiscated the wine and had it shipped to English ports, including London, for sale for his own profit. The outraged merchants appealed to the king, who on 12 February commanded the sheriffs of London to organise a search of all wine cellars and other wine stores in the city to locate any of the missing wine.135

The property market remained active, doubtless buoyed up to some degree by the implementation by executors of enrolled wills or the reorganisation of rental arrangements within families. For example, the cartulary of St John Clerkenwell, the Hospitaller priory adjacent to the Pardon cemetery, recorded among land transactions between its tenants an instance of property-swapping between relatives. A charter dated 19 February 1349 records a grant by Peter atte Gate to his relative, Robert atte Gate, of a tenement worth 12d in rental, lying west of St John Street adjacent to the priory, in the parish of St Sepulchre Newgate. Two days later, Robert re-granted to Peter the same tenement, to hold for life, for nominal payment to Robert and his heirs. Should Peter die, the tenement would revert to Robert.136 Similarly, on 20 July 1349 Thomas de Salisbury and Alice, his wife, granted houses and a quay on the ‘Stonewharf’ between Bere Lane and Thames Street (near the Custom House) to John Nott, Peter de Gilnefford and Thomas de Bonwode. On 22 July Nott and Bonewode handed the property back.137 It may have been the death of Gilnefford, who is absent from the re-grant, that triggered this.

March 1349

In March, the rate at which Londoners were preparing wills increased again: no fewer than eighty-nine were drawn up this month, twelve of them on a single day, the 12th. Over one-quarter of this total were dead before the month was out, and a total of sixty-one wills were enrolled at the Husting court’s four dated meetings: 2, 9, 16 and 23 March. However, it is clear that the system for enrolling the wills was beginning to show some sign of strain. Two enrolments, those of Roger Carpenter, a pepperer in St Benet Sherehog parish, and Stephen atte Holte, a timber-monger in St Michael Cornhill, show that the dates they were drawn up actually post-dated, by five and one day respectively, the court at which they were enrolled – an obvious impossibility.138 It is possible that the will scribes got the dates wrong, it is also possible that there was in fact an additional court held on 30 March, but that the separate dates were not formally entered into the roll as such. Perhaps as experienced clerical staff became victims, they were being replaced by those unused to the standard procedure.

Among the poor tenants of Stepney, the court roll for 19 March 1349 indicates that a total of ninety-two further tenants had died since the previous court on 10 February, bringing the total death toll for the manor to 185 since November. The estimated toll for the whole of March was sixty-six deaths, so while the peak in the manor may have been reached by the end of February, the plague was still almost as deadly through to the beginning of spring.

The impact on families is obvious: victims included five of the atte Walle family, four of the Pod family, three members of the Pentecost family, and a further two Pymmes who had all died in the previous seven weeks. Two of the Cobbe family included one Alexander Cobbe, who was probably the same man as had been elected to represent Portsoken ward on the first Common Council of the city in 1347.139 The date of death of his colleague on the council, farrier Alexander Mareschal, can be narrowed down by a rare crossover between tenancy records from the manor and Husting will enrolments. Mareschal’s Stepney holding was put into the hands of the bishop after 19 March, and his will was enrolled on 23 March, so he must have died between the two dates.140 No relevant Vauxhall court rolls survive.

With such an elevated mortality rate in the city, the deaths of members from more than one generation within individual free families made the arrangements for passing on inheritances complex. Richard de Shordych had drawn up his will on 10 February and was dead by the beginning of March. We do not know what his profession was, but in the will he left a tenement in St Olave Jewry to his son John, and goods and money to Benedict and Margaret, his other children. Richard’s wife Margery had died earlier (at an unknown date) and her family had already inherited property from her; son Benedict had received land in the parish of St Stephen Coleman Street. In the grip of plague, Benedict drew up his own will on 6 March 1349, and was himself dead by the 16th. Father and son appear on the Husting roll almost adjacent. Benedict was obviously one of the executors of his father’s will, but had no time at all to accomplish the execution; in his own will he is able only to set aside the land his mother left him for a chantry in St Olave, and to request his master, John Lacer, to act in his stead as executor for his father’s undischarged will.141 John Lacer, in his turn, may well be the man of that name whose own will was drawn up in April 1349, and who died by the beginning of May.142 If so, property was passing within days from father to son to executor to executor’s nominee(s); the risks in maintaining a clear trail of ownership are obvious.

The emergency cemeteries founded by Bishop Stratford and Walter de Mauny also feature for the first time in the wills of Londoners in March 1349: they had very rapidly become incorporated into the civic landscape. That of Gerard Larmurer was drawn up on 3 March. He probably lived in the parish of St Bride Fleet Street, and made arrangements to leave his estate to his wife Eustacia, and Ralph and Isabella, his children, with a clause that if no heir was forthcoming from them, he would:

leave and ordain that the said possession shall descend to the new chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary outside Aldersgate, to have and to hold in perpetuity, on condition that the … chapel be required … to maintain a priest who shall celebrate mass in perpetuity for the souls of my father and mother, my ancestors and all the faithful departed.143

This is the earliest reference to the chapel that Walter de Mauny had set out to build in his extended cemetery for poor strangers, and indicates that, at the least, groundwork or other preparatory activities for the chapel, such as stockpiling building materials, were under way, and that some citizens at least were aware of de Mauny’s project. The formal foundation ceremony for the chapel took place some three weeks after this will was made, according to the Charterhouse Register. On the Annunciation of Our Lady (25 March) 1349, the Bishop of London:

with the Mayor of the City and the sheriffs, as well as the more eminent citizens who are called aldermen, and many others, nearly all barefooted and with a most devout procession, went to the said cemetery, and there the bishop celebrated and preached a solemn sermon to the people … On the same day the Mayor laid the foundation of the chapel.144

Such a procession, leading as it would have done from the Guildhall itself, via the cathedral and then out through Aldersgate towards the cemetery, would have been quite an occasion at the height of the crisis, and would certainly have served to give hope to the beleaguered citizens. The chapel survived to become the church of the later Carthusian monastery of Charterhouse and its site was excavated in the early 1950s. It was originally a stone building set out on a rectangular plan of four or possibly five bays, measuring approximately 30m in length by 10m wide. Evidence for a dais was found at its eastern end. The walls were of chalk and ragstone, common building materials at this time.145

The West Smithfield cemeteries were evidently still insufficient to cope with the numbers of dead; more space for burial was required and consequently a third cemetery was established, again just beyond the walls, on the eastern side of the city at Tower Hill. The origin of this cemetery is somewhat less clear than that in West Smithfield, but it must have been founded just a little after. The story begins several years prior to the plague’s appearance, with the decision of one John Cory to acquire land on Tower Hill. John Cory was a royal servant with particular skills in numbers and accounts. He was collecting debts for the Crown in Exeter in 1341, and became surveyor of weights and measures for Devon, Somerset and Dorset between 1342 and 1344. By May 1346 he was working for the Black Prince in Devon, and in 1349 he was appointed as the prince’s Attorney General in Chancery, the Exchequer and before the justices of both Benches. He had a house in the parish of St Michael Queenhithe by 1353.

There may be reason to believe that Cory was acquiring land on Tower Hill on behalf of the king for the foundation of a monastery on the site. The earliest such acquisition was in May 1346, of a brewery owned by Richard le Botoner, a London pepperer.146 The brewery was situated between the road on Tower Hill on the west and a field called ‘Horselegfurlong’ on the east. Acquisition of similar tenements and lands on Tower Hill, between Hog Street and East Smithfield, continued throughout 1348. However, in 1349, ‘at the urging of substantial men of the City’, and with the agreement of Nicholas, prior of Holy Trinity priory, Aldgate, Cory asked Bishop Stratford to consecrate part of his holdings, probably the Horselegfurlong field, as a burial ground.147 The cartulary of the priory indicates that it is this connection that provided the cemetery with its name: the churchyard of the Holy Trinity.

The scale of the cemetery was not that of de Mauny’s (see Fig. 4). It measured initially 147 ells by 93 ells on its longest sides – roughly 170m by 107m or about 4 acres in all – and was walled around with an earthen bank. Exactly when it was consecrated is not stated, but a priory document of the mid-1360s cites the inadequacy of existing space for the burial of victims as the reason,148 so it was most probably after November 1348, and the best guess is January or February 1349, immediately after Cory obtained the field, and perhaps just a few weeks later than de Mauny’s cemetery.

By Easter Sunday, 12 April, a chapel was either planned or being built, since the will of Andrew Cros, a fishmonger, drawn up on that date, specified his wish to ‘leave my body to be buried in the cemetery of Holy Trinity next to the Tower of London … [with] 5s for the works of the chapel there [operi capelle ibidem]’. Similarly, the will of Johanna, wife of John de Colchester, also a fishmonger, requested her body ‘to be buried in the new cemetery of Holy Trinity next to the Tower of London … [leaving] 20s for the works of the chapel of the said cemetery’. This will was made out on 22 April.149

The identity of the ‘substantial men of the City’ who saw the need for additional burial space is something of a mystery. The term does not suggest the mayor and aldermen, who would have been easy to define, but rather a syndicate of influential citizens. One of the parcels of land acquired by Cory came from Thomas de Cotyngham,150 perhaps the same Thomas Cotyngham who was one of the king’s advisers and who would receive the great seal on the order of the king following the death of John de Offord in May 1349. Other prominent Londoners with links to the site include Andrew Cros, who willed burial in the cemetery and whose kinswoman, Helena Cros, was to pass further adjacent lands to Cory in 1350151 suggesting family connections; Johanna de Colcestre, among the earliest recorded to have willed burial in April; and finally, William de Shordych, a goldsmith, whose will, made in May 1349, named Prior Nicholas as the guardian of his son.152 In any event, the first three months of the year thus saw two new churches rising to serve the city over the coming months, specifically dedicated to the salvation of the souls of plague victims through the intercession on the one hand of the Virgin Mary, with her particular power to avert the wrath of God, and on the other the Holy Trinity.

The scale of the pestilence continued to interfere with the business of running the kingdom and the city. On 10 March the king accepted the fact that his postponement of the January Parliament would effectively have to be indefinite. He wrote:

Whereas lately, by reason of the deadly pestilence then prevailing, we caused the Parliament that was summoned to meet at Westminster on the Monday after the Feast of St Hilary to be prorogued until the quinzaine of Easter next – and because the aforesaid pestilence is increasing with more than its usual severity, in Westminster and in the City of London and the surrounding districts, whereby the coming of the magnates and other of our faithful lieges to that place at this time would probably be too dangerous – for this, and for certain other obvious reasons we have thought fit to postpone the said Parliament until we shall issue further summons.153

What the king meant by ‘usual severity’ is unclear. It may indicate the frequency with which late winter or spring pestilences occurred in London, or it may indicate that London was considered to be especially hard hit in the current outbreak. Royal business that did carry on in London at this time included the undertaking of Inquisitions Post Mortem, surveys undertaken after the death of a tenant in chief to establish the estates held and the rightful successor(s). The pestilence dramatically increased this workload nationally, and at least one survey, of the Middlesex lands of one Roger Bedyngfield, was held at West Smithfield on 11 March. Later examples included that of Hugh le Despenser on 22 April 1349, conducted by John Lovekyn as mayor and escheator for the city.154

Evidence of the need to replace royal officials (though not categorically due to plague losses) can be seen in the king’s grant for life to Richard de Hame of the position of surveyor of the Thames between the city and Staines,155 and the appointment of a new clerk of works and a new controller of works at Westminster and the Tower.156 The work of the mint did not cease during the crisis; indeed work on Edward’s new coin types remained an important priority. On 24 March, the day before the commonalty of London were to go barefoot to de Mauny’s new chapel site, Edward issued an indenture to three Italians – John Donati, Philip John de Neir of Florence and Benedict Isbare of Lucca – to make three types of gold coin in the Tower of London. The largest was the gold noble, then worth 6s 8d and calculated at 42 pieces to each pound weight of gold; there was also a half and a quarter gold piece, and a range of silver coins.157 The indenture agreement was witnessed by several London merchants, who clearly had a direct interest in the issue of this new coin, including John de Colewell, a wealthy mercer, and Robert de Shordich, a goldsmith.

The mayor and sheriffs, who had not met to consider pleas since September 1348, met once in March, showing that the business of justice continued at least in some form in the city despite the severity of the crisis. One John Shonke of Lesnes in Kent had been confined in Newgate prison in connection with an unpaid debt to Robert Cros, a fishmonger’s son (and presumably a relative of the Cros family involved in the land transfers for the East Smithfield cemetery). Claiming that he had already paid off the debt, Shonke sought justice in the court. Cros denied that payment had been made but a jury found for the plaintiff, who received 100s damages, while his creditor replaced him in gaol.158 The civic authorities, like the king, found need to replace lost officers, and on 20 March Thomas de Neuport was admitted serjeant of the chamber of the Guildhall by the mayor, aldermen and commonalty. He was dead within a month.159 The trade guilds, too, must have been very badly hit; certainly of three bailiffs of the Weavers’ Company elected in November 1348, Richard Horewode was dead by 4 March, and John de Whitefeld’s will, dated 19 March, was proved just a few weeks later.160

April 1349

In the city, the plague undoubtedly reached its height in April, some six weeks after it peaked in the nearby manor of Stepney. No fewer than 104 wills were drawn up during this one month, seven on Easter Sunday alone (12 April), suggesting that many, if not most, wealthy Londoners were now convinced that they could no longer expect to survive and thus had to make preparations for their death; it also implies that perhaps spoken (or nuncupative) wills were now considered of little use since those to whom they were addressed had just as much chance of perishing. Insights into the development of contingency tactics can be gained from these wills. Many citizens were now not only worried about their own survival, but also that of those who they may appoint to look after their offspring should the worst happen.

David de Kyngestone, in his will of 3 April, bequeathed his properties in the parish of St Margaret Lothbury to his children, Simon and Johanna. He appointed as guardians two men, John Lucas for his son and John de Herlawe for his daughter. Colewell (also known as Coterel), the mercer who witnessed the indenture of the Italian coiners, made his will on the same date, and in it appointed two other mercers as guardians of his children, Adam Fraunceys to Thomas and Hugh de Wychyngham for his daughter Johanna, leaving his wife as guardian of his second son John. Isabella Godchep, in her will drawn up on Easter Sunday, appointed multiple guardians for her grandson.161 By such tactics, the chances of at least one child retaining an adult carer of the parents’ choice must have been greatly enhanced.

Such care was not necessarily confined to immediate family. John de Mymmes, an image-maker (ymaginour), in his will on 19 March 1349, left properties in St Mildred Poultry to his wife Matilda and two daughters, Alice and Isabella, and appointed Roger Osekyn, a pepperer of Bread Street, to guard Isabella (presumably the younger of the two) should his wife die before the girl reached maturity. John was dead by 10 April, when Matilda drew up her own will, but neither Matilda’s will nor that of Osekyn (dated 13 April) makes any mention of the daughters. Isabella certainly was alive (and survived to full age162), but Matilda chose instead to leave a bequest to one William, her apprentice image-maker. He was to receive the best third of the tools and copies for picture-making, and was to be sent to work under Brother Thomas de Alsham at Bermondsey Abbey near Southwark for three years,163 presumably to further his skills. We do not know how William fared, although it would be satisfying to discover that the convent at Bermondsey had delighted in some of his images; Matilda herself followed her husband, probably one daughter and Osekyn to the grave in May.

Forced to take account of an extraordinary, rapidly evolving situation, some of these wealthier families looked to a central system of security to act as a safety net should their best-laid plans falter. Adam Aspal was a wealthy skinner with properties in Bread Street, Cornhill and Billingsgate. He left these to his wife Auncillia in his will dated 15 April, with some additional estate to his sons John and Richard and his daughter Juliana, probably knowing he was dying. The will contained the prescient clause that Auncillia’s property should be sold after her death to pay Adam’s debts: Auncillia wrote her own will just six days later, and she too was dead days after making it. The key fact in her will is that she had previously agreed to act as guardian for the children of a fishmonger, John de Neuport, but wished now to pass money received for this purpose (presumably from Neuport) into the care of the Chamberlain of the Guildhall, at this time one Thomas de Maryns, until the children came of age.164 Such wards of the city could then be passed on to suitable guardians chosen by the mayor and aldermen, and an example of this is to be found in the City Letter Books. On 22 April the mayor and aldermen committed to one William Oyldebeof of Colmworth, Bedfordshire, the guardianship of three sons of Londoner Hugh le Plasterer. Possibly this meant that the young boys, Robert aged 12, John aged 9 and Thomas aged 6, started a new life away from the city.165

Some who had appointed guardians returned to wills drawn up earlier to make amendments in the light of the disaster, and one in particular provides a sense of pessimism about the likely outcome. William Hanhampsted, a pepperer in the parish of St Antonin, had drawn up his will in January 1349, appointing his wife and eldest son as guardians over the other five children. On 28 April, however, he added a codicil to the will stating that should his wife and children all die within one year of his own death, the Church was to inherit his entire estate for pious uses.166

His pessimism was only partly realised: we learn from the City Letter Books that the plague claimed him, his wife and one daughter, but all three sons and two other daughters survived at least as far as 1353. His wife, Agnes, provides evidence of wills made and proved before an ecclesiastical court, but not subsequently enrolled in Husting. Her will was dated 29 May (by which time William was already dead) and endorsed before Roger de Kempele, commissary-general of Ralph, Bishop of London. Her pessimism is also apparent, as she bequeaths a sum to Alice, her servant, ‘or whoever else shall nurse her son John until he is weaned’.167

Even unborn children were remembered within bequests, such as that of Thomas atte Vyne, who left ‘to John, Thomas, Geoffrey, and Andrew his sons, and to his child en ventre sa mere, bequests of money, silver cups and brass pots … [and] … the reversion of all rents within and without the gate where his aforementioned mother resides’.168 This was not an exclusive feature of the pestilence, but of a total of fifty-five examples from all Husting wills between 1259 and 1688, five fell within the months of November 1348 through to April 1349 (see Fig. 15 on p. 163).

Guardians might be used to attempt to safeguard establishments as well as people. In 1329 the very wealthy mercer William of Elsing had founded near Cripplegate a new hospital of St Mary for 100 blind men, and the project was still in development when the plague struck, since Augustinian canons had yet to be installed to run it. Elsing made his will on 23 March 1349 and in it extended the remit to include the ‘poor, blind and indigent of both sexes’, quite probably recognising a de facto change to the intended foundation situation. For their support he left to the hospital considerable properties in at least eight parishes. Both the hospital and these properties were placed under the guardianship of Elsing’s executors until such time as a prior and canons could be elected to take charge.169

An increasingly popular form of defence against the effects of plague that comes to light in the wills drawn up in April was that of membership of a religious fraternity. Fraternities were essentially religious societies, more often than not associated with a single trade or craft, and usually focused on a specific church. Their members were drawn from the same middle and upper strata of the city as the Husting will-makers. Membership ensured, among other things, that upon death the affairs of the deceased would be discharged and a suitable funeral would be held with mourners drawn from the fraternity itself. Although a small number existed before 1348, the attractiveness of membership of such bodies at this time of crisis was clear.170 Thus John de Shenefeld, a tanner, left in his will of 1 April a tenement to the fraternity of the Light of St Mary in the church of St Sepulchre Newgate; William de Flete, a mercer, on 5 April, and Nicholas de Rothe, a salter, on 12 April, left property to the fraternity of Corpus Christi in All Hallows Bread Street. Also on 12 April, Andrew Cros, the fishmonger who willed burial in the new plague cemetery on Tower Hill, left money to the fraternity of St Magnus on Bridge Street. Some bequests were more specific in their aims to support the fraternity’s activities. The wealthy goldsmith Simon de Berkyng made his will in January 1349, leaving a mansion to help provide income for the almonry of the fraternity of St Dunstan in the Goldsmithery, presumably a safety net for the fraternity members and their families.171

Other notable wills drawn up in April include that of Matilda atte Vigne (dated the 22nd), the widow who had blocked out the light of the queen’s tailor the previous September. Matilda had separately applied for papal permission to choose her own confessor in April, or perhaps a little earlier, possibly with her eye on Sir Thomas, chaplain of her own chantry chapel in St Edmund Lombard Street which she had founded over twenty years earlier,172 to whom she bequeathed 100s and a substantial £20 for him to purchase a ‘convenient house’. The remainder of her estate was to go to kinsmen and friends, and especially to her executors Matilda Ram, her niece, and John Charteney. Her plans for departing this life appear to have been compromised by the plague in both the short and the longer term. She was dead by 4 May (when the will was proved), just days before papal permission for a confessor arrived on the 7th.173 Her will remained unexecuted for at least three years, since Charteney was, in his own will of August 1352, forced to admit that he had not discharged his duty as executor, passing the entire burden of administration over to Matilda Ram.174

Geoffrey Chaucer’s family, living in a tenement in Thames Street, was also caught up in the plague in April. Chaucer himself would have been about 9 when the plague struck and, while he survived, Thomas Hayron, half-brother to Geoffrey’s father John, made his will on 7 April and was dead before 4 May. John was Hayron’s executor, so the two must have been close. Richard Chaucer, his step-grandfather, wrote his will on 12 April, and died in July 1349.175 Finally, William de Thorneye, John Chaucer’s other halfbrother, was also dead before the end of July 1349 (see below). It is therefore unsurprising that the plague had a significant impact on the youngster and would resurface in his writing: it is in The Pardoner’s Tale that Death is characterised as a ‘secretive thief, a pestilence who hath a thousand slayn’.

In a rare exception to the norm, one set of wills indicates where a victim died. John Dallyngge was a mercer living in the parish of St Michael Bassishawe. He made his will on 6 April, leaving his tenement to his son, also called John. The father died before 20 May, the date that the son made his own will. In the latter, John requested that the tenement ‘in which his father died’ be sold to pay his debts and for pious purposes. Neither will was proved in Husting until November, again illustrating the lag between death and enrolment.176

Though no will survives, we know that the prior of Westminster Abbey, one Simon de Harmondesham, also perished at the beginning of April. A hitherto-unknown monk called Simon de Langham was swiftly elected in his place, but was to spend less than seven weeks in office before being elevated to the position of abbot – such were the opportunities that accompanied this extraordinary death rate.177 Similar events were occurring in St Paul’s Cathedral as canons succumbed and were replaced. On 7 May John Cok was granted the prebendary of Finsbury on account of the death of Thomas de Asteley, notwithstanding Cok’s existing position of treasurer of the cathedral.178

While so many wills were being drawn up in April, none were enrolled in the Husting as the court did not sit in this month. Ecclesiastical probates were being heard, however. John de Warefeld, a corn-dealer, made his will on 13 March. On it appears a memorandum showing that it was proved on 17 April before the Archdeacon of London.179 Similarly, the will of William of Elsing, the hospital founder already mentioned (mislabelled Thomas180), has a note indicating probate by William Bordesleye, the Bishop of London’s commissary-general, on 3 April 1349; both enrolments had also to wait until 4 May for enrolment in Husting.

Many wills made during the plague were, of course, not presented to the court of Husting. Only a few of these survive, such as that of Walter Cobbe, a citizen and butcher, dated probably 5 December 1348 and proved at the Commissary Court on 6 April 1349, requesting burial in the churchyard of St Botolph Aldgate.181 Incidental references confirm the former existence of others. On 24 August 1350, during a guardianship hearing for William, son of William Bendebowe, an extract was presented of the father’s will dated 21 April 1349 and proved in the court of the Archdeacon of London on 18 May.182

To gauge how many people were dying at this appalling height of the disaster, we must look forward to those wills that were enrolled in May, once this backlog had been cleared. The total, 121, was the highest at any time during the 1349 plague. Examining the distribution curve of enrolments through the duration of the plague, we may reasonably presume that a majority of those wills, perhaps seventy, were of April’s victims alone. This figure represented over forty times the average monthly death rate recorded by enrolments across the decade before 1348. If extended to all inhabitants of a city of 60,000 souls, this would produce a mortality rate very much in line with the claims made by Robert of Avesbury of over 200 burials daily between February and April in the West Smithfield cemetery alone.

Outside the city walls, in the manor of Stepney, the number of deaths was now diminishing, albeit slowly. On 22 April deaths recorded in the court rolls numbered sixty since 19 March,183 with a resulting estimated toll of forty-five for the whole of April, among whom were four members of the Hemmyngs family.

The dead and their resting places had already achieved prominence in the minds of the living, references to the new cemeteries near Aldersgate and on Tower Hill appearing in wills as often as most parish churches. However, the scale of the mortality continued to impact on Londoners, and a new name was coined for part of the cemetery at St Paul’s Cathedral. William de Blithe, a saddler, willed on 16 April to be buried in the ‘Pardonchurchehawe’ (or Pardon churchyard) above the ‘tumulus’ of Ralph, his father.184Later wills stipulating the same graveyard make it entirely clear that this was directly north of the cathedral church and not a confusion with the new Pardon churchyard in Clerkenwell. The great cathedral cemetery had been used for the burial of Londoners for centuries, but had never before been so referred, and so a link to the pestilence seems certain. How it had gained this new name is not clear, but it may be that the pardons offered to citizens as reward for their involvement in the weekly processions instigated at the start of the plague provided the basis for it. Elsewhere in villages near to London, some parish cemeteries were enlarged, no doubt to accommodate the dead of these rural hinterland settlements; one of these was Chiswick (about 9 miles to the west of the city), where on 22 April the king licensed John de Bray, a Chiswick resident, to provide half an acre of land to the dean and chapter of St Paul’s in their capacity as parsons.185

Such a death rate cannot but have impacted on daily life in the city. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that on 8 April the king wrote to John Lovekyn, Mayor of London, about the state of the streets, in unequivocal language. He ordered that ‘human faeces and other filth lying in the streets and lanes of that city and its suburbs should be removed with all speed to places far distant’, and that the mayor should ‘cause the city and suburbs to be cleaned from all odour and to be kept clean as it used to be in the time of preceding mayors, so that no greater cause of mortality may arise from such smells’. The city and suburbs, ‘under the mayor’s care and rule, are so foul by the filth thrown out of the houses by day and night into the streets and lanes … that the air is infected, and the city is poisoned’ – a situation which in the king’s eyes clearly aggravated the ‘mortality by the contagious sickness which increases daily’.186 Carters and rakers, those whose job it was to clean rubbish and ordure off the streets, did not make enough money to claim an enrolment of their wills in the Husting; there is therefore no indication of the numbers killed off by the plague. But it is clear from the complaint that the service they provided was one which plague had swept aside.

Sanitation remained important to the citizens themselves, even at this dire time. The will of goldsmith John de Walpol, drawn up just a few days before the king’s commandment, left his daughter Margery a fine house in the parish of All Hallows Bread Street, but specified that when the latrine situated between the house and a neighbour’s dwelling became full, the soil should be carried to the Thames for disposal.187

Not only were the carters decimated, but the court roll from Stepney manor indicates that by Easter 1349, the ale-tasters (effectively responsible for the quality control of ale sold in the city) in Stratford, Aldgate Street and Holywell Street were reported to be dead,188 and we can readily imagine the impact on other trades, crafts and services vital to the basic functioning of the city. April was to prove difficult for city administration in other ways, too. Thomas Maryns, the long-serving chamberlain of London, became a victim of the plague. He made his will on 22 April, then on the 23rd, and with the assent of the mayor and city recorder, took care of outstanding business while he still could; certainly farming out the office of bailiff of Southwark to Harlewyn de Honyngtone for a term of two years at an annual payment to the city of £10 10s. His death was recorded two days later.189 A new serjeant of the chamber at the Guildhall, Antony de Grenewych, was admitted on 20 April, indicating that the previous incumbent had lasted less than a month.190 The royal infrastructure sustained losses, too: Thomas de Clopton, keeper of the Great Wardrobe, was certainly alive in March 1349, and equally certainly dead by June.191 He was an elderly man, but plague was the probable cause.

The Onslaught Weakens, May 1349

During May there were a number of indications that the potency of the plague had begun to diminish. Firstly, the number of wills being drawn up dropped considerably to fifty-six, still a very high rate but just over half the previous month’s tally and the beginning of a downward trend which was to continue through into the following year. Secondly, it seems that the number of enrolments was also dropping. While May actually saw the greatest number of enrolments (121), this, as has been stated, covered both April and May deaths: the actual figure for May itself was probably in the region of fifty. This diminution of the plague’s effects may have been apparent to eyewitnesses and chroniclers of the time. Certainly Robert of Avesbury considered that the ‘plague ceased in London with the coming of the grace of the Holy Spirit [31 May]’,192 and while a complete cessation cannot be substantiated through analysis of the evidence from wills for subsequent months, a clear change in language in reference to the plague can be detected from mid-June onwards.

The plague’s impact on the churches and religious houses of London was becoming quite clear by this time, both through records of the houses themselves and through the numerous presentations made to churches to fill vacancies left by deaths. Of the monasteries in the London region, Westminster Abbey was particularly sorely affected. Between March and May 1349, Abbot Simon Bircheston, probably the infirmarer John de Ryngestede, and as many as twenty-six other monks were killed. Bircheston, who died in the abbey’s manor house at Hampstead on 15 May, was buried in the cloister near the chapter house door with the epitaph:

Simon of Bercheston, venerable abbot,
His merits forever proclaiming his name:
Now supported by the prayers of his brethren,

May this blessed father now flourish with the kind Fathers in the presence of God.193

A large black slab in the cloister walk is reputed to cover the remains of the other plague victims, though neither memorial can now be identified on the ground. The religious were, of course, not the only victims. William Isyldon made his will on 24 April in his ‘hostel within the close of St Bartholomew the Great’, so presumably he was a corrodian or guest; he perished by the beginning of June.194

The secular clergy were perhaps even more at risk. Westminster Abbey (along with other religious houses) had a right to present rectors and vicars to a number of churches in the city and surrounding area, but since Abbot Langham’s election was not to be confirmed by the Pope until July, this responsibility fell instead to the king. Thus, at St James Garlickhythe, Rector John de Carshalton’s will was enrolled on 4 May, and a week later the king presented William de Appleton to the church as his replacement. He further presented John de Methelwold at St Clement Eastcheap on 8 May, and Peter Grevet at St Bride Fleet Street a day later.195

Another great Benedictine house which had rights of presentation to London churches, St Albans, had suffered losses on a similar scale to those of Westminster, its abbot having died on 12 April. The king was obliged to present on the abbey’s behalf John de Colston to the city church of St Michael Wood Street on 11 May, and William de Kelm to St Peter Westcheap on 1 June.196 Other parish losses are indicated by the king’s presentation on 13 May of John Jevcok to the vicarage of St Alphege, Greenwich, just down the Thames, and the will of John Sonday, rector of St Mary Woolchurch, enrolled on 4 May.197 St Paul’s Cathedral was also hit, as shown by the Pope’s appointment of at least two replacement canons: on 13 April Roger Holm replaced Henry Iddesworth as a prebendary (though of which prebend is not clear); and on 7 May, at Edward’s request, John Cok, the treasurer of London, replaced Thomas de Astelle.198 Andrew de Offord was also granted papal confirmation of his role as the new Archdeacon of Middlesex replacing Iddesworth.199

All of London’s hospitals are likely to have been badly affected by the plague, given their particular responsibilities towards the poor and the sick of the city. Certainly at St Thomas, Southwark, so many brethren had been killed by the end of May that William Edington, Bishop of Winchester, appealed to the Pope for his permit for the house to elect Walter de Marlow as prior, despite the fact that the latter was illegitimate. The permission was granted on 14 June.200 At the leper house of St James Westminster, the warden and all the brothers and sisters were killed except for William de Weston, who was made master in May and his position ratified by the king in July.201

Bequests in wills to hospitals, though common prior to the arrival of the pestilence, must have taken on an increased importance during its visitation, as a result of the combination of high mortality among the staff and hugely increased loading of the destitute, displaced and sick, and are numerous in the Husting will rolls for the months of the crisis. Examples include William de Rothyng (will dated 1 May), who left money for keeping lamps burning before the sick at St Thomas, Southwark; a substantial tenement in the parish of St Martin Vintry, left by John Foxton (will of 8 May), to provide support for the weak and infirm lying in St Mary Spital; and intriguingly, the will of Joanna Youn (dated 11 May), leaving property in the parish of St Botolph Billingsgate to the priory of Holy Trinity Aldgate specifically for medicines.202 This is the only specific reference to medicinal care during the plague so far located, underscoring the reliance on spiritual protection that prevailed at the time.

That medicines continued to be used within the infirmary at Westminster Abbey seems certain. Thomas de Walden, a city apothecary and sometime Chamberlain of the Guildhall, was successful in chasing debts incurred by the abbey infirmarer for prescription before September 1349 and again in 1350. Indeed, the infirmarer who received these payments was none other than John of Reading, the chronicler of the plague itself. The infirmarers’ accounts for the years 1348–50 sadly do not survive, so we do not know what kinds of medicines were brought to bear on the plague.203 London citizens did not, however, found any hospices or hospitals specifically to cater for the plague victims, as did some in European cities. For example, in June 1348, when the plague entered Sansepolcro, in Tuscany, Italy, the lay fraternity of Santa Maria della Misericordia founded a hospital for the victims just beyond the city walls.204

Other notable wills made at this time included that of Geoffrey Wychingham, a former mayor of the city and current alderman of the Aldersgate ward. He made his will on 30 April and was dead before 8 June; the register of the Franciscan friary records that his wife’s tomb lay in the friary church, but not where he was himself buried.205 Thomas de Herlawe, an armourer, made his will on 19 May specifying his ‘body to be buried in the new burial ground outside Aldersgate in London’, and leaving 40d to prepare his burial, along with 13s 4d to the fraternity of the chapel of the church there. He was dead within six days.206 The will confirms that de Mauny’s original aim to establish a college of chaplains within a church in the burial ground had come to fruition, and in a quite extraordinarily short period of four months.

In Stepney, no courts met between 22 April and 6 July, so the measure of mortality can only be inferred from the number of new deaths reported at the latter date. From this, the monthly toll was probably in the region of nineteen deaths, less than half what it had been the previous month, although still significantly high.207

It was not just the diminishing rate of both will-making and will enrolment that gave the city a sense that perhaps the worst had passed; a small number of documents refer again to construction work. Following a formal inquisition by John Lovekyn, Mayor of London, and the required payment of 10s, the king on 6 May licensed John de Hurleye, Walter de Tyffeld and Matthew le Barbour to assign to Nicholas de Rothewell, parson of All Hallows Bread Street, a plot of land 12ft by 27ft valued at £40 yearly, for the enlargement of the church chancel. Similarly, but on a grander scale, the Carmelite friars of London were licensed to enclose Croker’s Lane, running down the entire western side of the friary, from Fleet Street to the river. The plot, measuring 660ft by 12ft, and described as ‘of no value’, was for the enlargement of their precinct. The licence included permission to sink a well for those living on the lane.208

Construction of new houses possibly during, but probably immediately following, the plague is also exemplified by the vivid case brought to court by a tenant of one such house which backed onto a forge and metalworker’s workshop. In answer to the tenant’s complaints over the height of the forge chimney (12ft lower than customary), the blows of the great hammer (which threatened to shake party walls and buildings down), and the stench of the smoke from seacoal used to fire the furnaces (which penetrated halls and chambers alike), the forge owners sought to dismiss the action, ‘because their messuage was built as recently as 1349 [thus later than the original workshop], is much higher than the house it replaced, and has windows facing the forge, which its predecessors had not’.209

Another indicator in support of a gradual amelioration of the crisis may be the evidence of those coming forward to reclaim debts. On 5 May the king’s steward, Philip de Weston, ordered the sheriffs of London to seize the assets of the late Henry Wymond, a plague victim, who was in debt to the Crown. The unfortunate Wymond, a woolmonger, had made his will just a week earlier, on 28 April, and had died on the same day as the steward’s notice. While he was beyond worry, the mayor and commons of London were perhaps not; by this order, they were cheated of Wymond’s bequest to them of a new house in Tower Street, not yet fully completed, near the mansion of Sir John de Cobham.210 They were, however, also chasing debts themselves, and on 22 May they issued their own order to their serjeant, William de Greyngham, to summon John Anketel, woolman, over a debt of 100 marks due to John Oweyn. Oweyn had died in the plague, but his executors were now wishing to settle matters.

John Anketel could not reply to the summons, having also perished, so his heirs and tenants were called upon to assist in the case. They, in their turn, failed to appear (perhaps as a result of their deaths too), so the court granted execution of the debt and an inquisition was made of the Anketel property. The jurors found that he possessed houses, a brewhouse and shops in the parish of St Mildred Poultry, as well as shops, a brewhouse, solars and warehouses in the parishes of All Hallows Bread Street and St Mary Magdalene Milk Street, the latter occupied by his widow Agnes.211 Both cases indicate the level of administrative confusion that must have mired most, if not all, claims for justice and rulings over property ownership and debts during, and immediately following, the plague.

Perhaps more significantly, the Assize of Nuisance, suspended since September 1348, was revived on 28 May and the first case heard is reassuringly domestic in nature. One John de Hardyngham, resident of the parish of St Mary Axe, complained that a couple, Henry and Joan atte Wode, and Alice Powel, the widow of a bell-founder, were refusing to rebuild a ruinous earthen wall, 80ft long and running along their garden northward to Hardyngham’s. Summonsed by the court, Henry and Joan did not appear, but Alice explained that the late Ralph de Blithe, the previous owner of the tenement on which the wall stood (and former husband of Joan atte Wood), leased it in 1332 for twenty years to Alice Powel and her bell-founder husband, John. The condition was that the lessor should repair the wall when necessary, or, if he failed to do so, should deduct from the Powels’ rent their reasonable expenses to sort the repairs. The court agreed that this was appropriate, and gave Alice forty days to repair the wall, recovering the costs from her rent to Henry and Joan.212

Both the fact that the court met at all and the nature of the dispute would seem to suggest that people now believed that the world might indeed go on. Meetings of some of the London guilds were also resumed at this time. The mercers’ guild certainly met in June and July, perhaps for the first time that year.213 The resumption of more normal business can be detected in evidence from early June of the rearrangement of matters of private debt. One example was that of Simon Rote, a London skinner, who had in 1348 borrowed £200 from the wealthy money-lender David Wollore (Wooller), adding to a prior debt of £100. Rote died at some point in 1349, probably of the plague, but between 10 and 16 June 1349 his widow Isabel, and son Arnold (with his wife), bound themselves for this debt, thus taking on the dead man’s obligations.214

A final piece of evidence that matters were improving can be seen in the accounts of payments for construction work at the Tower of London and Westminster Palace in the year between September 1348 and 1349.215 The Cradle Tower foundation stones were delivered on 8 September 1348, so the period covers a specific new building (see Fig. 5). Construction wages were sustained at an average level of £17 per month until late November, when the figure dips sharply during the height of the plague to around £I 12s per month across March, April and May 1349. It rises again in June and July to an average of £15 until December of that year. While this could represent simple variations in the work level required, the timing looks very significant.

If all this evidence points to a lessening of the plague, it was not a cessation, and dark days were set to continue for some time yet. The king’s own surgeon, Roger de Heyton, perished on 13 May, a date preserved as a result of an inquisition following dispute over ownership of his house by the gate of the Palace of Westminster.216 By 18 May, Thomas le Boter, surveyor of the king’s works at Windsor and the royal palace at Kennington (near Lambeth), had died, being replaced by John le Peyntour, and by 20 May, John de Sancto Albano, the king’s falconer, had also died and been replaced.217 Late in May, John de Offord, Chancellor of England and Archbishop-elect of Canterbury, was stricken by plague at Tottenham Court. He had been confirmed as archbishop by the Pope, had taken the oaths necessary to serve his king, and was on the cusp of obtaining the additional extensive power and wealth that would flow following his official consecration, despite his age and infirmity. A memorandum to the king recorded his death: ‘Be it recorded that Master John de Offord, elect and confirmed to the see of Canterbury, king’s chancellor, on 20th May, namely the vigil of the Ascension in this present year, after sunset, departed this life at Totenhall next to London.’218

While the Assize of Nuisance had resumed, hearings of Possessory Assizes by the Husting court did not, and would have to wait until 7 November. One of the very first cases to be dealt with referred to events during this period of the plague. One Philip de Herlawe complained that on 25 May four men (Robert de Hatfeld, burreler; Nicholas Hotot, woolman; Roger Hotot and Solomon Faunt) dispossessed him of two messuages in St Mary Woolnoth and St Swithin London Stone. The men denied the charge, Roger and Solomon being represented by an appellant, Alan de Horwode.219 The date of this is significant, since Philip may well be the son and beneficiary of Thomas de Herlawe, the armourer buried in de Mauny’s cemetery in West Smithfield, whose will was proved on the same day as the alleged dispossession.

Of those accused, we do know that Robert de Hatfeld left in his own will in October 1356 a messuage in St Swithin, and that a Nicholas Hotot, woolman, willed to be buried in the church of St Swithin in 1361 during the second pestilence.220 When the case came to court, it is clear that the confusion lay in the fact that intermediary heirs had also died, and that subsequent holders had potentially disposed of the properties illegally.

June 1349

So began the summer. Will-making in June dropped to levels not seen since the very beginning of the plague: just nine people drew up wills for enrolment in Husting. A dip is also evident in the number enrolled, thirty-one, in the Husting court, but this is due simply to the fact that for one month, from 17 June to 17 July, the court was suspended to permit citizens to attend the Boston fair221 and, as will be seen, the July figures reflect this.

Of the nine drawn up, the most interesting is that of William de Thorneye. He was a very wealthy pepperer who had held the position of sheriff of London in 1339 and was an alderman in 1342; he was also a half-brother to Geoffrey Chaucer’s father, John. He wrote a will and testament, both on 20 June.222 The will established the disposal of his lands and properties, leaving his young son, John, a shop and tenements in St Mary Aldermary parish, with the remainder going to the nunnery of St Helen’s Bishopsgate. The nuns he bound with a complex agreement to establish a chantry for the souls of himself, his family and his kith and kin, requiring them to give security that his bequest would not be used for anything else before both the mayor and aldermen of London, and the justiciar of the King’s Bench, Common Pleas or similar. This will was enrolled on 27 July.

The testament set out his wish to be buried in the nunnery church of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, near to the tomb of his wife Joanna, and then established the distribution of his moveable goods. He left further money to support perpetual chantries in his parish church, and for a remarkable 10,000 masses to be sung for his soul in various religious houses across the city. Money was also set aside to support the chantries of family and friends in the nunnery church, and to go to numerous religious houses. Among those mentioned in London were: St Helen’s Bishopsgate, whose church, dormitory, cloister and other buildings were evidently in need of repair; St Paul’s Cathedral; Holy Trinity priory, Aldgate; St Bartholomew Smithfield; St Mary Clerkenwell; and the various hospitals and leper houses around the city.

The will also clearly indicates the level of wealth William was disbursing. No less than £400 in land and tenements was set aside to maintain the chantries, a very considerable sum at the time. Away from London, he left money to the Augustinian houses of Tanridge and Newark in Surrey, and to Thorney Abbey, near his family home in Lincolnshire. At Thorney Abbey he left money to the paupers called ‘bedesmen’, who dwelled within the monastery, and also to the poor and maim living on the waste ground around its walls. This latter is suggestive of the situation many rural monasteries may have found themselves in as peasants deserted their plague-ridden villages.

Visitors and refugees to London were just as much at risk as the residents. In April 1350 one William de Swynford, accused of ‘felonies and trespasses’ in Lincoln, was summonsed by the sheriff to give account. On his failure to show, he was threatened with outlawry, but his wife Eleanor pleaded the case, stating that William had died in mid-summer 1349 while visiting William del Chastel in a house in West Smithfield, so could not answer the charges. Investigations by the sheriffs of London revealed that William had indeed died on 24 June in London, and had been buried promptly the following day in the city’s Franciscan friary.223 A charter of Edward III probably increased the risk of contamination, since from 1337 to at least 1350, it compelled merchant strangers to board with a citizen and not keep their own households or societies while in the city,224 thus ensuring a complete mixing of residents and aliens.

Continuing fatalities among Londoners are implied elsewhere by the replacement by the king of two of his officers in June. On the 1st, Robert de Mildenhale was appointed keeper of the changes (the mint) of the Tower of London and Canterbury with the same conditions of work as his predecessor, John de Horton; and on the 8th, he granted for life to Hankin de Braban, one of his falconers, the keeping of his mews at Charing (Cross) by Westminster, ‘in the same manner as John de Sancto Albano, deceased, held it’.225The king was also obliged to replace clergy in two further city churches, presenting John de Fakenham, chaplain, to St Matthew Friday Street on 20 June, and Simon de Brantyngham to St Alphege Cripplegate on 27 June.226 The latter presentation was on account of the fact that the dean of St Martin-le-Grand (the religious house which normally had rights of presentation) had also died. On 19 June Edward had selected William de Cusantia, a canon of St Paul’s, as the new dean,227 but his position was yet to be confirmed.

Plague stalked the city and guilds, too. At a Court of Pleas held on 11 June, members of the woolmongers elected Peter Sterre to replace William Dyry, deceased, to the office of tronage of wools in the city and suburbs; on 24 June William Raven, mercer, was elected to the office of the Small Balance, paying 50s yearly to the chamberlain. He was to last at the most a fortnight before he too succumbed, and was replaced in his turn on 7 July by Simon de Reynham.228

The most significant event of the month was without doubt Edward’s issue of the Ordinance of Labourers, on 18 June. The king presented a writ to every sheriff and bishop in the land, setting out a response to what he saw as an alarming rise in inflation driven by spiralling wages. A ‘great part of the population has now died in this pestilence’, he noted, and as a consequence, contracted workers were refusing to work unless they were paid an excessive salary. He also concluded that many ‘prefer to beg in idleness rather than work for their living’. Having taken counsel from his nobles and prelates, he had ordained the following:

– All those below 60 years, fit, having neither trade, professional craft or private lands and means, and currently unemployed, must take up employment if it is offered, but for wages at the levels they were in 1346.

– Any proven to have refused such work should be jailed until they recant.

– No employers should offer remuneration greater than 1346 levels, and any who do, should be tried in appropriate courts, with a forfeiture of twice or triple the offered wage to anyone adversely affected by the offer.

– Those who have already workers on at a higher salary than 1346 levels must revert the salary on pain of penalties.

– Reapers and mowers cannot leave their current employment before the agreed term is completed, on pain of imprisonment.

– Saddlers, skinners, tawyers, cobblers, tailors, smiths, carpenters, masons, tilers, shipwrights, carters, and all other artisans and labourers are bound to work for 1346 wages levels.

– Butchers, fishmongers, innkeepers, brewers, bakers, poulterers, and all other dealers in foodstuffs, are bound to sell produce at a reasonable price. Those charging higher will pay twice the sum charged in recompense, if proven (bailiffs not enforcing the ordinance will be liable to pay triple the charge if proven).

– Beggars who are able to work should not receive alms, with contravention punishable by prison, so that they will be forced to work for a living.

– The bishops were also to moderate the income of stipendiary chaplains many of whom it seemed were refusing to serve without an excessive salary, under pain of suspension and interdict.

– This ordinance was to be proclaimed by sheriffs in all cities, boroughs, market towns and ports, and wherever else the sheriffs deem appropriate.

– The bishops were further exhorted to publish the ordinance in every church, and direct the clergy to exhort every parishioner to obey the ordinances.229

This extraordinary and draconian attempt to deny the inevitable effects of a diminished labour pool must have seemed like the ultimate punishment for a population reeling from the principal effects of the plague, and indeed still dying in considerable numbers from it. The very fact that the king considered it necessary illustrates the extent to which that labour pool must have been reduced by the plague.

July 1349

The implementation of the ordinance in London, recorded in the City Letter Books in July 1349, provides us with some indirect evidence for the passage of the plague itself: while the king’s writ spoke of the population that have ‘now’ died in this pestilence, the Letter Book records that the ordinance is in consequence of the ‘recent’ pestilence.230 The plague had been spreading into the northern parts of the country as the writ was sent out, and so was indeed current in some parts, but in London, the wording clearly signals that the plague was considered to be abating.

Almost immediately, cases were brought to court under the new ordinances. On 18 July William de Osprenge, Ralph atte Hoke, John Chaumpeneys, William de Bergeveny, John de la Maneys, Martin le Mynour of Holborn and other bakers’ servants were indicted for forming a conspiracy among themselves that they would not work for their masters except at double or treble the wages formerly given. They pleaded not guilty and demanded a jury. The employers were also obviously affected by the ordinances, and the bakers asked the mayor to clarify the terms of service under which such servants as the alleged conspirators represented might be taken on. It was determined that no servant should contract for less than three months, and that wages should be paid in arrears at the end of each period, as with other guilds. A fine of 40s, payable to the city chamberlain, was appointed for any infraction of these rules.231

Truly this must have been a miserable time for the low-paid: their income had been capped despite the price rises permitted (so their puchasing power must have dipped dangerously), and compounding matters, they were required to cover their costs for months before any payment would come in. It can only have been bitterly unpopular, and ‘occasioned greater hardships than even the pestilence, for whilst the latter made labour scarce and had conduced to higher wages, the [ordinance] offered wages to the labourer that it was worse than slavery to accept’.232

July brought a further drop in mortality, and in the expectation of mortality. Of the wills enrolled in Husting, only six were drawn up in the month. Significantly, of these, three were written for people who did not wish burial in a London location: Conwy, Hertfordshire and Kent were the places mentioned.233 If these were people who simply had a particular interest in the city, but did not dwell there, then the will-making rate had effectively returned to normal levels. One notable Londoner who drew his will up was John de Gildesburgh,234 the fishmonger who had developed Desebourne Lane near Queenhithe in the previous September. His will requested burial in his chantry chapel in the parish church of St Mary Somerset, and additionally left a bequest of 60s to the service of a charnel in the church.235 It may be expected that the charnel functions of many parish churches had been considerably expanded as a result of the plague, given the intensive use of cemetery space required. Gildesburgh’s will was enrolled in October, but since the Husting court was suspended for August and September, it is possible he died shortly after making it.

While will-making had dropped away, enrolments in July actually increased on the previous month to a total of fifty-one, up by twenty wills on the June figure. This substantial increase simply represents a lag in the presentation of the wills during the period of the Boston fair between 17 June and 16 July, so many of these, probably over half, would normally have been enrolled up to four weeks earlier.

Wills of note enrolled in July include that of Walter Bole, the master mason at Westminster Abbey, who requested burial at St Andrew Castle Baynard; Jordan Habraham, the distinctively named rector of St Mary Magdalen Fish Street; John de Toppesfeld, a goldsmith, and his mother Johanna, whose wills were enrolled within a week of each other; and John Palmer, the shipwright, and his wife Amy, whose wills were enrolled on the same day (despite the fact that John had perished some time earlier – good evidence that the plague was still at large).236 Other deaths are implied or recorded in this month and in early August.

On 20 July the king presented William de Whiten as chaplain to St James Garlickhythe (the abbot’s seat at Westminster still technically vacant), but was forced to appoint another chaplain, Roger de Stretford, just three weeks later.237 Further royal appointments included John de Brampton, replacing the deceased Richard Yenge, to manage the supply of glass and glaziers for the chapel at Westminster Palace; and John Styrop as keeper of the king’s lions at the Tower of London, replacing Robert de Doncastre, deceased.238How many of these could be blamed on plague is not clear (and we have especially to wonder about the lion-keeper), but the emphasis on the deaths of officers is probably significant. It may be this obstinate refusal of the plague to die down completely that prompted King Edward to transport his varied and extensive collection of religious relics from the Tower to the palace at King’s Langley (Bucks) on 4 July 1349.239

Mortality was certainly still in evidence in the manor of Stepney, where the court had not sat for more than two months since April. Two sessions were held: one on 6 July recorded forty-five deaths (presumably relating to May and June in the main); but another, three weeks later on 30 July, mentions a further twenty-nine deaths, suggesting that the epidemic was still at large.240

August 1349

The number of wills drawn up in August (three) and September (two) approached normal pre-plague levels, and the language contained in one clearly indicates that the focus of attention was the consequence of the plague for others, not personal preservation and salvation. Hugh de Robury, a wealthy glover described in his will as a ‘brother’ of the Augustinian houses of Holy Trinity, Aldgate and St Mary Overie, Southwark, left considerable sums to several religious houses and many of London’s hospitals. The remainder he set aside to be divided among ‘those who, having been reduced from affluence to poverty, are ashamed to get a livelihood by begging; and those poor men who come up from the rural districts to the City of London to get a living by selling brushwood, timber, heather and other things’.241 This is perhaps our clearest evidence of the immediate human consequences in the city both of the plague itself and of the Ordinance of Labourers. A similarly pathetic image is conjured by the imprisonment on 20 August of John de Goldstone of Barking, John de Clayhurst and Walter Sprot of Greenwich for using ‘false’ nets in the Thames on the east side of London Bridge, to catch ‘three bushels of small fish … which fish, by reason of their smallness, could be of no use to any one’.242 Such economic distress is evident from north of the city in Hertfordshire as early as August, where some refused to pay their taxes; resisting collectors by force of arms and by appropriating the assets of the plague dead. The king’s response was uncompromising, threatening prison to all defaulters.243

Another immediate consequence of the fading of the plague’s virulence was the increase in the number of guardianships of orphaned children being ratified in the mayor’s court. Goldsmith Richard de Basyngstoke had died of plague in early May. At the end of July his son, aged just 1 ½ years, was committed to the care of John de Depleye and his wife Johanna, described as the child’s mother: Johanna, having lost her husband, had evidently remarried within two months,244 a situation that may well have been repeated frequently throughout the city. The effect of this coping strategy on the social network in the city must have been profound.

Trade networks also played a significant part in redistributing the responsibilities of care for orphans of wealthier citizens. Roger Syward, a pewterer, made a will on 30 October 1348 (enrolled on 20 July 1349) which mentioned a wife and six children. Roger, his wife and three of the children were dead by August, when guardianship of the surviving offspring – William, 6, Mary, 5, and Thomas, aged 1½ years – was committed to John Syward, also a pewterer. The necessary sureties to underpin the commitment were offered by three other pewterers, undoubtedly members of the craft guild.245 Such mechanisms for social care of the wealthier families serve also to remind us how very vulnerable the surviving poor of the city must have been – there is no written evidence for the strategies they employed, but it has to be assumed that the weakest members of society, those children, disabled and elderly who had lost their principal supporting family, must have been in very dire straits.

The guardianship strategy itself did not always work well; economic exigencies and human greed combined to tempt at least some guardians into keeping for themselves goods and estates that had been entrusted to children of plague victims. In September such cases began to come before the mayor and aldermen. On 7 September Robert de Wodham, executor of the original executor of one John le Parmenter, was summoned to answer a complaint from le Parmenter’s close friends, William Spershore and his wife Joan. Spershore claimed that Wodham was withholding goods meant for the children of le Parmenter. In court he agreed he was holding ‘£30, a signet ring and other goods and chattels’ for them. He was made to pay 27s 2d for the goods and the £30 in gold nobles to the city chamberlain, who in turn paid it to Spershore for Elena, the sole surviving child. This transfer of guardianship to the friends of the family was formalised in a later court in December.246

Goods and money were also at risk of theft until a formal handover could take place. On 26 August 1349 friends of a dead draper, John de Sellyng, came to plead at court that John de Cantebrigge, a chaplain, was withholding from Sellyng’s daughters, Margery and Juliana, £10 left to them by their father. The money had been passed to Sellyng’s executor, Henry de Asshebourn, and on his death into the hands of his executor, de Cantebrigge. The latter pleaded that he had duly administered de Asshebourn’s estate and only 5 marks were left. However, the jury found that he still had in his possession sufficient goods belonging to the testator to pay the £10 due to the children, and judgement was given that he pay up. On 2 September, Chaplain John de Pampesworth and Amy de Rokesbourgh came to court. They were further executors of Henry de Asshebourn and accused two men, Robert de Hyngeston and Simon de Chikesond, of stealing ‘a sack of wool, 13 silver spoons, and silver rings, buckles and cups, belonging to the children of the said John de Sellyng’. The jury found for the plaintiffs and the defendants were imprisoned. Two weeks later the court received the £10 from John de Cantebrigge.247

It was not just the goods and money that were at risk in this turbulent time – the orphans themselves might be abducted. The will of John de Leche, ironmonger, left his daughter Alice in the guardianship of his wife Matilda. It also made provision for a chantry in St Michael Cornhill, and for pious uses for the souls of his family and of a friend, Thomas de Northerne, who had died in January 1349. De Leche died before 2 March, the date of probate. However, over seven years later, in May 1356, a case was brought before the mayor and aldermen by the rector of St Michael’s, reporting that de Leche’s wife had died in mid-Lent 1349 (less than three weeks after her husband), and Stephen de Northerne, Thomas’ brother, had assumed guardianship of Alice, de Leche’s now-orphaned daughter. The rector alleged that Stephen ‘had seized and wasted the property of the said Alice, to the prejudice of certain chantries, and had eloigned the said Alice, aged eight years, out of the City’.248

The transfer of goods and bequests could be highly complex, even when no guardians were involved, due simply to the rate of death among beneficiaries. In March 1349 Peter Nayere, an armourer, bequeathed to Nicholas Blake, his son, £88 6s 8d for the support of Blake’s four sisters. Blake, who died before 31 October 1349, in turn left the money in trust to John de Gildeforde. De Gildeforde also died before the end of November, leaving the money to his own executors, who in turn presented the money to the chamberlain of the city in trust. On 1 December three surviving Blake sisters claimed the money from the chamberlain.249

It is difficult to estimate how many Londoners actually died in August and September, for these were closed months as far as the Husting was concerned, allowing for the management of harvest and attendance at fairs; no wills for this period were therefore enrolled. However, some key individuals certainly did perish in the city, and probably of the plague. Most notable was the Archbishop-elect of Canterbury, Thomas Bradwardine. Following his election to replace John de Offord in July 1349, he ‘hurried to London, but died [on 26 August 1349] in the hostel of the Bishop of Rochester at La Place [near Lambeth] where he had lain sick for four days’.250 He was replaced immediately by Simon Islip, who was consecrated unusually at St Paul’s not Canterbury, much to the discontent of the monks at the latter seat. One month later, on 30 September, John Shenche, the keeper of Westminster Palace and the Fleet prison, also died.251 The fear of further mortality at Westminster Abbey must surely be the reason why no fewer than seven senior monks there, including the abbot, infirmarer, precentor and cellarer, nearly one-third of the surviving convent, all sought, and on 11 August received, papal dispensation to seek their own confessors.252 So the plague lurked throughout the summer, but there appears to be no basis for the assertion made by some that the period between June and September was the most virulent.253

The fact that the plague had not yet died out may also explain a remarkable event reported by the eye-witness Robert of Avesbury. Around Michaelmas, he reported:

more than 120 men, for the most part from Zeeland or Holland, arrived in London from Flanders. They went barefoot in procession twice a day in the sight of the people, sometimes in St Paul’s church, sometimes elsewhere in the city, their bodies naked except for a linen cloth from loins to ankle. Each wore a hood painted with a red cross at front and back and carried in his right hand a whip with three thongs.254

These were the Flagellants, religious zealots who scourged themselves in reparation for the sins of the world, and who had appeared as a movement nearly a century before. They had emerged as early as 1348 in response to the arrival of pestilence in mainland Europe, and had again attracted the disfavour of the Pope who saw in them a threat to the stability of the Church. Evidently, the perceived threat from these religious fanatics continued to manifest itself at least until the end of the year, for in October and again in December, the Pope felt compelled to write to the king: ‘on the superstitious and vain society [of Flagellants] in Almain and elsewhere, against whom a papal constitution has been sent to all prelates, a copy of which is enclosed, and requesting the king, should any of them enter his kingdom, to drive them out of it’.255

The Plague Withers

Naturally, a backlog of will enrolments was created by the two-month hiatus in the Husting court of August and September,256 and we must jump to the months of October and November to see the level of mortality occurring among the richer classes across later summer and autumn. In total, eighteen wills were enrolled in October, increasing to twenty-seven in November. Taking all four months into account, there was clearly a downward trend, averaging out at about ten enrolments per month – a very considerable drop from the July figure. Furthermore, in October four of the eighteen wills related to those wishing burial away from London.

Nonetheless, mortality was still elevated, each month accounting for half of a normal year’s enrolment. Several wills of note appear in the rolls. That of the great merchant and financier, and four times mayor of the city, John de Pulteney (d. 6 June 1349), was proved on 19 October; he wished to be buried in St Paul’s Cathedral and left among his great estate his mansion called Coldharbour, valued at £1000. Family tragedies continued to strike, with the wills of William Haunsard made in August, and of his son, also called William, dated in October, both being enrolled on the same day, 9 November.

Families also made attempts to be rejoined in death: Richard de Monoye, a cook, wished burial in a tomb in the church of St Thomas Acon beside the bones of his son; Johanna Werlyngworth near those of her husband in the churchyard of St Paul’s; William Passefeld near his wife in the same cemetery; and William de Bernes at the head of his father’s tomb in St Peter-the-Less. De Bernes, a fishmonger whose will was enrolled on 26 October, left his three children in the guardianship of another fishmonger, William de Hedrisham. However, he too was dead within two weeks and the children found themselves transferred into the care of the chaplain of St Peter-the-Less.257 This strongly suggests the continuing menace of the plague.

Other, less spiritual matters were in the minds of some testators. Gilbert le Palmer’s will left, among other things, money to repair the principal highways within 20 miles of the city, and it would appear that they were in some need of attention, since on 4 December the king issued a commission to determine who should repair ‘many bridges on the highways between the city of London and Croydon and Kyngeston, and other places’ described as ‘broken down and dangerous’.258 Whether this was as a result of neglect during the plague, or a more general campaign to restore the communication and transport infrastructure, is unclear.

Infrastructure of a different sort was being addressed within the guilds. The plague had carried off many elected representatives and attempts are visible to restore order and management. In November 1349 an election was held to replace the nine wardens of the cutlers’ guild named in 1344. It is noteworthy that only six new wardens are named – either the need for, or the availability of, suitable candidates had diminished by one-third.259

The impact of the mortality on Husting court business can be gauged by a report from sheriffs that twelve out of sixteen witnesses to one particular deed had died in the pestilence.260 The hearing of Possessory Assizes began again on 7 November, and began to deal with cases arising from property disputes during the plague.261 One case gives us a taste of the dislocation created by the disaster at first hand. William de Newenham had complained that in April 1347 he had been dispossessed of a shop in the parish of St Gregory, near the cathedral, by three men – a tailor, a baker and a plasterer. The case was suspended first in July 1347 since no jury could be assembled, and then three more times during the summer of 1348 at the agreement of both parties. The case was reviewed in November 1349 and a fine issued to de Newenham for not prosecuting his case; but the unfortunate plaintiff was beyond caring – he had perished of the plague at least six months earlier.262

December 1349 saw deaths and will-making both at a level that was almost normal for pre-plague years. Just seven wills were enrolled, including those of the wives of two bell-founders (termed ‘potters’ in the documents). Agnes de Romeneye was the wife of bell-founder John, who had died in April 1349.263 Matilda was the wife of Peter de Weston and mother of Thomas, both of whom were significant bell-founders. Peter had died before the plague in 1347; Thomas succumbed in April 1349. Remarkably, several of their bells still ring across the English countryside, cast by Peter at Tattenhoe in Buckinghamshire (c. 1330); Bethersden in Kent (c. 1335); Whitwell on the Isle of Wight; Kingsbury in Middlesex (c. 1347); and Thomas at Chalk in Kent. The inscription on this bell reads ‘xpe:pie: flos: marie’, urging the Blessed Virgin’s mercy to flow from its ringing. It is noteworthy that the annals of Dunstable priory record that in the year of the plague the townspeople made themselves a bell and called it Maria.264 While many bells were doubtless given this name, the Virgin’s intercessory powers against God’s wrath carried great weight and it might well be one example of a spiritual response to the plague.

The Ordinance of Labourers continued to cause trouble among London workers, and on 21 November, and again on 8 December, the king felt compelled to issue another writ to the mayor and sheriffs to forbid ‘artificers and others’ demanding higher wages than before the pestilence, on pain of imprisonment.265 Examples are frequent in the Pleas and Memoranda rolls of continued attempts to subvert this hugely unpopular edict over the second half of 1349. In September, two bakers in St Botolph’s Lane pleaded guilty to the charge of paying their men part of their wages during the quarter (rather than at the end), contrary to the ordinance. In October, butchers were sworn to see that their colleagues did not charge more for meat than was customary before the plague; a considerable number of wine-sellers were thrown temporarily into Newgate gaol for charging double the appropriate sums for their wares; and leather-sellers and shoemakers were prosecuted for overpricing their goods. In November, William Amery, mason, was imprisoned for refusing to do work valued at 12d at St Christopher’s church for less than 5s, and a ‘conspiracy’ of over sixty cordwainers’ servants to fix wage levels was unmasked – an early experiment at unionisation perhaps.266

The economic upheaval created by the plague appears to have led to much wider population movements. On 1 December the king issued a writ to the mayor and sheriffs of London that they proclaim none should leave the kingdom ‘except well-known merchants, inasmuch as the country had become so much depopulated by the pestilence and the Treasury exhausted’.267 The city itself appears to have become a magnet for migrants, ‘a great concourse of aliens and denizens’, many armed and seemingly oblivious of any curfew. City authorities were already making arrests when, on 29 December, Edward placed full royal support behind those attempting to keep the king’s peace, demanding punishment of all transgressors, ‘now that the pestilence is stayed’.268What part the Ordinance of Labourers might have played in any civil unrest at this time is unclear, but it cannot have helped matters as surviving families and businesses tried to return to something like a normal footing. Confirmation that the plague had run its course, at least in the south of the country, came from a letter written by Simon Islip, Archbishop of Canterbury, on 28 December to the Bishop of London. In it, urging public expressions of gratitude to God, he recalled ‘the amazing pestilence which lately attacked these parts and which took from us by far the best and worthiest men’.269

Just three wills were drawn up and four wills enrolled in Husting during January 1350, apparently confirming the conclusion of the pestilence. However, there is circumstantial evidence that either late in that month, or in February, the city was visited with either a fresh outbreak or an entirely different disease, something which lasted through March and into April or even May. The evidence shows up in the Husting wills for spring: while there was no change in the number of wills drawn up (zero in February, three in March and two in April), a spike of seventeen were enrolled in February, falling to eight in March and six in April. Of the wills enrolled in February, those of John Miles of Hosier Lane in West Smithfield, and his wife Matilda, were both enrolled on the same day;270 while the will of Alice de Hakeneye, wife of Richard, a former alderman, was proved on the same day that her son Richard was confirmed legal guardian of his little sister, Isabella.271 Both examples provide plausible indicators of sudden death.

The increase in rates of enrolment appears to coincide with a curious hiatus in the account rolls for construction work at the Tower of London.272 Between February and May 1350 almost no wages were paid out to the crews who were working right through the plague months, and who, from June onwards, resumed work at very nearly pre-plague levels (over £14 per month until September). The roll on which these blank months show up is complete, and work certainly was not finished. It is conceivable that the workers were moved to a different royal construction project, though there is no evidence for this; it may therefore be more likely that the labourers, along with a number of other Londoners, were affected by disease.

Matters were clearly also worrying the city authorities at this time, since before February they attempted to ensure that blanket absolution for the city was available. One Nicholas de Hethe (then a canon of St Paul’s, Salisbury and Hereford273), recommended by John Worthin, a Dominican friar in London, having exceptional influence with the Pope, had taken more than £40 from former mayor Andrew Aubrey with which to procure bulls of absolution for the whole city. De Hethe had subsequently confirmed that the bulls had been purchased, but by 6 February there was no sign of them. The mayor thus wrote, stating plainly that unless the bulls appeared, de Hethe would be prosecuted and the Pope made fully aware of his deception.274 It is clear that de Hethe could not produce the bulls, for on 2 April 1350 the mayor petitioned the Pope directly to request that the friar, John Worthin, be given the power of absolution that the bulls were intended to furnish. In rich language, the letter explained that:

a dreadful mortality has so cut off our merchants, that our citizens who … are no longer able in person to visit your most Holy See, even though they should be involved in cases which are reserved for your Court, without a ruinous expense, while the present wars are going on. With one accord therefore, with weeping does your congregation here entreat the most exalted highness of your Holiness, that the same your Holiness will deign graciously to grant unto the venerable and religious man, Brother John de Worthyn, your Chaplain, a man of honour, of approved life, manners, and learning, sprung from the high blood of our realm, who alone, of all others, strengthens us with the word of Christ … that he, and he only within our city, may be able to absolve our people, being penitent; and to enjoin salutary penances upon them according to the nature of their fault.

The letter further requested that in the event of Worthin’s death, another Dominican friar might be appointed in his place.275

The development of the East Smithfield emergency cemetery took a fresh turn in March 1350. John Cory, the clerk who had been acquiring lands around the site of the cemetery since before the plague, granted to the king ‘all his messuages at Tourhulle adjoining the new churchyard of Holy Trinity by the Tower of London’. This was no small land transaction: its witnesses included the Chancellor of England, the treasurer, the king’s chamberlain and two knights. Two days later, on 20 March, Edward granted the land on to the ‘president and monks of the house of the Cistercian order, to be called the royal free chapel of St Mary Graces’, which he had decided to found and endow ‘in the new graveyard of the Holy Trinity by the Tower of London’.276 A new Cistercian abbey was in the making in the shadow of the Tower, and its proposed site was the plague cemetery. Edward’s motivation for founding an abbey was complex, but the establishment of a permanent memorial to his late confessor, Thomas Bradwardine, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had died in Lambeth of the pestilence, may have been one catalyst and may have influenced his choice of location.277 Within a year, Walter de Mauny would consider an enlargement of the college of priests in the West Smithfield plague cemetery. Just how wise the monks and priests thought these plans were is not recorded, but the founding of two new religious houses in immediate proximity to the plague dead marks a clear reconciliation process: the emergency was over and the spiritual reconfiguration of the mass burial sites was under way.

By April 1350, therefore, the immediate events connected with the first, greatest outbreak of the pestilence had concluded. The core of the epidemic had lasted in the city for nine months from November through to the end of July, with an intermittently spiking level of mortality from then until March 1350. The survivors and the newcomers faced a very different city to that of eighteen months earlier.

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