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THE GREAT MORTALITY

LONDON SUFFERED the plague for nine months, from the beginning of November 1348 to the end of July 1349, with some less convincing evidence of spikes of mortality through to March 1350. The evidence presented provides a monthly snapshot of the developing plague, but an overview of the anatomy of the disaster is also to some extent possible. This chapter examines the speed of spread, the impact on administration, the evidence for dealing with the dead, the final death toll, and some immediate impacts on the survivors.

Coping with the Pestilence

The way in which the city and its residents were able to cope, as a body rather than individually, was dependent on the speed and scale of the disaster. Fig. 6 shows the rate at which Husting wills were drawn up compared with the rate of their subsequent enrolment. It includes the monthly averages of reported deaths from the adjacent manor of Stepney.

The early November start date is confirmed by an increase in mortality and will-making at precisely this time. Monthly death rates indicated by the Stepney evidence track the will-making curve very closely, suggesting that the latter may accurately represent the mortality curve for the city. The known dates for the founding of the three emergency cemeteries – December for Stratford’s Pardon churchyard, January for Walter de Mauny’s

Newchirchehaw, and probably February for the Cemetery of the Holy Trinity near the Tower – fit this accelerating death curve perfectly. The speed with which the plague spread and infected the citizens was undoubtedly greater than is implied by the evidence of the will enrolments, the curve of which lags considerably behind both of the others. This can be tested using a sample of cases where additional evidence for the date of death is available from supplementary sources.

For eighteen wills made during the plague months, the date of death can be narrowed down to a terminus ante quem, lying between the date the will was drawn up and that of its enrolment (see Table 1). In several instances the exact day of death is known. The sources which provide us with this information most frequently are the subsequent wills of family members drawn up after the deaths of the individual concerned, but before enrolment; but others include chance references to obits or court cases regarding estates brought by survivors.

The sample (4.6 per cent) is small, but it suggests that the period between will-making and probate was just under one-quarter (23.7 per cent) of the period between will-making and enrolment.278 If true, of the 392 wills made in the plague months, 60 per cent of the will-makers would have died within twenty-one days of making their wills, and 20 per cent within five days. This suggests that death took place much closer to the date that the will was drawn up than the Husting enrolments imply. Using only the seven (1.8 per cent) individuals whose exact death dates are known, these figures would be even higher, at 33.7 per cent of will-makers dead within five days, and 68.1 per cent within three weeks. The chroniclers’ tales of few surviving beyond five days appears to be supported. Using this crude model of likely death date for all 392 wills, the mortality rate for the city reached its peak in early April, probably around Easter time (which fell on the 12th that year), and about six weeks later than the Stepney manor vills. The plague had come to the city at the beginning of winter and had peaked by early spring.

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Table 1. Husting will-makers whose dates of death are known. Bold entries indicate exact dates of death; others are dates by which we know the individual had died.

There are no documents which establish the day-to-day experiences of Londoners as the plague took hold. How the city coped is visible only in its administrative accounts, contained in the Letter Books and court proceedings. It is clear that the administrative structures of the city remained functioning throughout the entire outbreak, and that the mayor, aldermen and other officials continued to conduct business as required. A summary analysis (see Table 2) of the evidence indicates that on average, officials met in some capacity almost five times each month, with a barely perceptible reduction in frequency in January and February 1349. Administrative work focused on the enrolment of wills and deeds relating to property but also covered such matters as guardianship, the swearing-in of officials and guild representatives, and, from July 1349, the prosecution of cases arising from the Ordinance of Labourers. The single longest break in the year was for twenty-five days from late March to late April which, while it coincided with the highest rate of will-making, was probably more to do with the normal break in sessions for Pleas than the effects of the pestilence.

 

NO OF MEETINGS

DATE RANGE

BUSINESS COVERED

November 1348

6

10th–27th

Wills, Common Pleas, Pleas of Land, sureties for children, swearing-in of Sheathers’ and Weavers’ bailiffs

December 1348

3

5th–22nd

Guardianship case; two property assignments

January 1349

3

13th–26th

Wills, Common Pleas, Pleas of Land, two property assignments

February 1349

3

3rd–16th

Wills, Common Pleas (x 2), Pleas of Land

March 1349

7

2nd–26th

Wills, Common Pleas (x 2), Pleas of Land (x 2), false imprisonment case, demise of Bailiff of Southwark, swearing-in of Serjeant of Chamber, guardianship case

April 1349

2

20th–22nd

Swearing-in of Serjeant of Chamber, guardianship case

May 1349

6

4th–29th

Wills, Common Pleas (x 2), Pleas of Land, witness money for apprenticeship, enquiry into unpaid debt, election of Chamberlain, enquiry into boundary dispute

June 1349

3

8th–17th

Wills, Common Pleas, election of officer of tronage of wool, enquiry into unpaid debt

July 1349

7

1st–30th

Wills, Common Pleas, Pleas of Land, swearing-in of officer of Small Balance, indictment for wages conspiracy, election of brokers and measures of woad, two guardianship cases

August 1349

3

13th–26th

Certification of salt measure and carriage, guardianship case, suit over money held for minors

September 1349

6

1st–18th

Case contravening Ordinance of Labourers, plaint of intrusion into property, Assize of Nuisance on property, acknowledgement of money for guardianship, theft/withholding of minors’ bequest (x 2), charge of illegal fishnets

October 1349

6

3rd–26th

Wills, Common Pleas, Pleas of Land, receipt of exChamberlain’s account, proclamation of king’s alnager of cloth and deputy, Butchers on oath to sell at correct prices, charges of breaking Ordinance of Labourers against Winedrawers and Cordwainers, charge of overpricing against Curriers

Table 2. Summary of the frequency of civic administrative business recorded during the first outbreak. (Source: CLB, CAN, CPMR, CHW, Husting Deeds). It is not always clear how many aldermen and other officials attended the meetings, but each one mentioned above had at least two officials in attendance.

The (almost) regular weekly sessions for Common Pleas and Pleas of Land dealt with the enrolment of all the deeds and wills in the Husting court; the number of enrolments and their purpose provide a snapshot of the changing nature of the business from month to month (see Fig. 7).279

This summary shows the proportions and numbers of enrolments relating to wills, property deeds enrolled specifically by executors of those who had died, and other enrolments concerning property. Several points are clear. First, the increasing number of wills being enrolled as a result of the plague is very obvious (April, August and September were traditionally free of sessions), but there is no consequent reduction in enrolling other deeds. It must be assumed that the sessions sat for longer to conduct the business. Second, the enrolments of deeds (as opposed to wills), and particularly those not apparently associated with the execution of bequests, demonstrate that property transfer continued unabated during the plague. Third, executors came in increased numbers in July and October 1349, a point which supports a general belief that the plague had slowed by July.

National judicial apparatus also had a base close to London. The Court of the Common Pleas (the Common Bench) was based at Westminster Hall and the sessions generated a number of rolls during the year.280 These were ordered in four terms (Hilary, Easter, Trinity and Michaelmas), in which sessions were conducted, and so the crude level of business of the courts can be established by examining the trends in the number of folios for each term in each year. The folios and the numbers for 1346–53 are set out in Fig. 8. Even allowing for the immediate disruptions to die off in 1349 and 1350, the number of folios entered in the rolls in 1351 was 43 per cent of the average for the three pre-plague years, and had returned to only about 60 per cent of that average by the mid-1350s. While it is clear that a range of factors must have influenced the number of cases being brought before the Bench (and each year after 1349 the numbers are gradually rising), and while it must be remembered that the court dealt with cases from all around the country and not just London, the strong impression is that there were simply far fewer plaintiffs or defendants than there had been before. And so civic and national administration carried on: the city was by no means paralysed.

Burying the Dead

As with the living, no specific description exists of the range of people who died or the manner in which London managed the burial of its dead, but we do have tangible archaeological evidence from which to draw. For the Pardon churchyard and Newchurchehawe cemeteries this is currently limited to traces of burials: in the former, a group of five undated and disturbed burials near Great Sutton Street, and in the latter, a single burial of probable fourteenth-century date within Charterhouse Square, and a possible medieval burial on Glasshouse Yard.281 However, for the east cemetery of the Holy Trinity we have much better evidence. In 1986 a major excavation conducted by the Museum of London revealed a very significant portion of the East Smithfield cemetery founded by those unknown ‘substantial men’ of the city in January or February 1349. The excavation revealed no fewer than 787 burials that could be directly linked to the 1349 outbreak, along with a number of later burials, some of which were related to Edward’s abbey and some of which, it will be argued, were related to later outbreaks of pestilence in the fourteenth century. It remains, worldwide, the only major excavation of an emergency cemetery which was set up during this first (and greatest) outbreak. It provides our only window on the city’s numerous poor, those largely invisible in the story set out in Chapter 2, and sheds important light on the manner in which London’s emergency cemeteries were conceived and operated.

The cemetery of the Holy Trinity lay immediately east of the city wall adjacent to the Tower of London. It was bounded on the north by Hog Street (Hoggestrete), now Royal Mint Street, and on the south by East Smithfield. Two specific areas were set out in this cemetery for burial (see Fig. 4). The western area was rectangular and measured 76m by about 35m. At a distance of some 40m to the east, a second plot consisted of a long, narrow area measuring at least 125m by 12m. The third component of the cemetery was its chapel, a building now known to have been constructed as early as April 1349. A small fragment of a chalk wall foundation was located south of the western burial plot; its later association with the earliest cloister of the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces makes it highly likely that this was part of that chapel, reused as the first, temporary abbey chapel. If so, the cemetery chapel stood in the south-west corner of the cemetery, about 20m south of the western burial plot and 45m west of the eastern plot. In total, then, the cemetery as used comprised an area about 132m by 82m (approximately 2⅔ acres). This sits adequately within the larger footprint defined in the Cartulary of Holy Trinity priory, which had an area of about 170 m by 107m. The cemetery was surrounded by an earthen wall, of which no archaeological trace was found, and was provided with a gatehouse at some point before 1359,282 which opened westward on to Tower Hill itself.

The archaeological evidence that this cemetery provides is very rich. It allows us to consider three key issues in some detail. Firstly, the state of the corpses (whether there was evidence for clothing or a wooden coffin, for example) imparts considerable information about how families and communities prepared the victims for burial before transport to the cemetery. Second, the disposition and character of the graves and mass trenches tell us how the cemetery itself may have been managed. Third, the frequency of burial, and the demographic information revealed through the study of the skeletons themselves, provides us with a novel means of looking at the kinds of people who became victims, and a way of considering the rate at which they died.

The most helpful place to begin the archaeological enquiry is with some general facts and figures about the nature of the people buried. Altogether, the skeletons of 787 men, women and children were excavated from the first, 1349, phase of the cemetery. Of 636 of these, some aspect of the age, sex, or both, could be determined by osteoarchaeological inspection.283 In the remainder of cases, the bone did not survive sufficiently well for study or identification, having been degraded by industrial waste leached from the later Royal Mint works.

Almost 34 per cent (216) of those buried there died before they had reached maturity (before the age of around 16), and we cannot tell their sex from the bones. Of these, a third were infants (below 5 years) and two-thirds children or teenagers. Of the 420 adults, ninety-seven could only be described as adult. The remaining 323 could be grouped into those whose sex we can determine, whose age we can determine, or both. A total of 290 adults were sufficiently well preserved to allow us to establish their sex: 65 per cent were male and 35 per cent female (a ratio of 1.86:1). Of 298 skeletons whose age could be estimated, 22 per cent were young adults (under 26 years); 71 per cent were mature (up to 45 years); and just 7 per cent were considered elderly. Age and sex could be estimated for a group of 268 adults (see Table 3a). If this pattern could be extrapolated for all 420 adult skeletons, and combined with the evidence we have for the 216 infants, children and teenagers, we might attempt a generalised guess at the original age and sex distribution of those buried in the cemetery (see Table 3b).

The difficulties presented in interpretation both of age and sex of individual skeletons emerge when the comparison of separate research programmes is made. Table 3c shows the results of another examination of a sample of 490 skeletons from the East Smithfield cemetery. It is clear that this researcher identified a greater number of children, young adults and older adults present at the expense of the number of mature adults.284 Overall, in this interpretation nearly 40 per cent of the victims were below the age of around 16 years, a significant increase, and the contrast in the male to female ratio is less (1.34:1). Despite the inherent difficulty in arriving at hard facts about the victims which these divergent researches show, we can be reasonably sure that about 35 per cent of the dead were children and roughly half were under 25 years old; and also that more men than women were buried at this cemetery.

The total of 787 burials probably represents about one-third of all those that might originally have taken place in the cemetery, allowing for the destruction of other burials by later development and areas not available for excavation; the original figure has been estimated at some 2,400.285 Assuming the cemetery functioned in its first phase from the end of January 1349 for six months, this would suggest that an average of about thirteen burials were made daily here, although the preceding chapter has clearly demonstrated a very high peak of mortality in March and April, and a probable lessening from the end of May onwards. On that basis (and accepting we may be building surmise on supposition), we might suggest perhaps twenty to thirty burials a day for February to April, and commensurately less subsequently. While still a high figure, this is a fraction of the rate of 200 burials per day recorded by Robert of Avesbury for the much larger West Smithfield cemetery.

Young men (16–25 yrs)

13%

Young women

6%

Mature men (26–45 yrs)

48%

Mature women

26%

Old men (46 yrs +)

4%

Old women

6%

Table 3a. Analysis of the age and sex distribution of 265 adults from the East Smithfield cemetery (site code MIN86, data derived from Grainger et al. 2008, 26).

Infants (0–5 yrs)

10%

   

Children/teens (6–15 yrs)

24%

   

Young men (16–25 yrs)

9%

Young women

4%

Mature men (26–45 yrs)

31%

Mature women

16%

Old men (46 yrs +)

3%

Old women

3%

Table 3b. Reconstructed distribution of age/sex of victims from the East Smithfield cemetery, 1349.

Infants

11%

   

Children/teens

28%

   

Young men

12%

Young women

11%

Mature men

16%

Mature women

10%

Old men

7%

Old women

5%

Table 3c. Reconstructed distribution of age/sex of victims from the East Smithfield cemetery, 1349. (Source: sample of 490 skeletons analysed by S. DeWitte)

The physical remains of the people who were buried at East Smithfield give us a unique insight into the impact of the pestilence on the population of the city and nearby settlements. Who those buried in the cemetery were, and where they came from, is unknown. The adults were, in the main, between the ages of 25 and 45, and while any precise calculation of age at death is now impossible, the average age was probably 30–35 years. This is not dissimilar to the average age at death for the period 1413–1507 calculated for those monks of Christchurch Canterbury whose cause of death was recorded as plague.286 The stature of the dead would seem to indicate that the group as a whole had been subjected to environmental stress during life. The height of some ninety adults (sixty men and thirty women) could be calculated: 1.68m (5ft 6in) for the men and 1.57m (5ft 2in) for the women; they were generally shorter than those of at least twelve other English later medieval cemetery assemblages.287 This would seem to suggest that they were from the poorer segment of society.

The second clear indication from the cemetery figures is that more than one-third of the burials were of sub-adults. The number of children living in London at the outbreak of the epidemic is unknown, but this shows that, as with later plagues, the toll among the young was significant, and apparently evenly spread among infants, children and teenagers, though of course we do not know if there was a sex bias here. Certain families were clearly hit hard, such as that of William Robury, brother to the Hugh who had left funding for those brought to destitution by the plague. In 1353 a wardship hearing before the mayor and aldermen heard ‘evidence having been brought showing that the said William and all his children except one, viz, Robert, aged thirteen, were dead’.288 The pathetic sight of hundreds of small, shrouded forms being carried to the cemeteries would certainly have been sufficient to create the perception among chroniclers that the plague struck the young especially hard.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the apparent mismatch between the numbers of men and women buried. This might be for a number of reasons, some technical and some cultural. The method of establishing the sex of ancient skeletons is not secure, and a bias in identification away from women and towards men is probably present. It has been proposed that as a result of the dangers of pregnancy and birth, a slight predominance of males may have existed in pre-industrial societies until the average age of female menopause, reflected in an overall greater number of men at any one time.289 The cemetery, like West Smithfield, may have been used to bury strangers and travellers to the city and it is perhaps likely (although by no means certain at such a crisis time) that such travellers (such as traders) were rather more likely to be male: a male bias might have been introduced in this way. All of these factors may serve to drive up the proportion of males to females. However, there may be a more significant reason.

The disease itself might have struck males harder than females for some reason. As we will see, later outbreaks of pestilence were clearly reported by chroniclers to affect children and young men more than women, and a modern analysis of nearly 3,000 parish records of St Botolph Bishopsgate, relating to the epidemics of 1603 and 1625 in London, revealed that males outnumbered females between the ages of 15 and 44 by a ratio of 2:1.290 However, such evidence as exists for the fourteenth century is not at all clear-cut. A study of the 1349 pestilence in twenty-eight townships in County Durham revealed that of a total of 718 identified tenants, 362 (almost exactly 50 per cent) died in 1349. Of the total, 155 (22 per cent) were women, and of these eighty-one (52 per cent) died, suggesting that the plague was an even-handed killer.291 The burial register for the Dominican friary in Siena demonstrated that in the 1348 outbreak, which raged from April to July, burials of female plague victims were equal to those of males (of 146 burials which included 19 children, 69 were male, 69 female and 8 were unknown).292 Corroboration from the excavation of other Black Death cemeteries is awaited.

The archaeological evidence also provides some surprising and thought-provoking clues about the immediate state and treatment of the dead. The discovery of buckles and other dress accessories indicates that a significant minority of the dead, 3 per cent (24), were clothed when buried (all adults, of which half were men and one-quarter women). The accessories found varied from small platelets of copper to large paired buckles for breeches or trousers (see Fig. 9). Slightly more than half of this group were placed in one of the mass burial trenches, and the obvious conclusion is that the poor souls perished in their houses or in the street, and were gathered up for burial just as they were found.

However, excavations at the Augustinian friary in Hull recovered a range of burials made in the church during the plague, where clear evidence of clothing was abundant, and where the conclusion reached was that these were the well-to-do buried in their best clothes, and in very carefully crafted coffins.293 Therefore, the temptation to explain the presence of clothing at the London cemetery as a consequence of people being buried in the clothes they died in, should be resisted.

The frequency of coffin use across the whole East Smithfield cemetery contributes further to this issue of preparation and management of the dead. The bodies of more than one-quarter of the dead, 214 (27 per cent), had been placed in wooden coffins before burial, regardless of age or sex. The evidence for this was revealed through the discovery of evenly spaced iron nails around the skeleton, or through the observation of a dark line left by the mainly decayed wood of the coffin sides (so many more coffins may have rotted away entirely). This pattern does not occur anywhere else in excavated medieval Christian cemeteries in Britain,294 and hints at a specific use of coffins for containing the corrupted dead. This overall figure hides an important distinction between burials made in individual graves, where very nearly one-half were in coffins, and those placed in the mass trenches, where figures averaged at about 11 per cent.295 This difference implies a clear distinction between the two groups which will be explored further below.

The use of coffins was absolutely required by some European cities, and while London does not seem to have adopted such a strict approach, some centralised pattern of corporate or civic management of the dead not recorded in documents may be in evidence here. Considering the scale of the mortality and the rates of burial at the other cemeteries, it seems almost certain that a significant temporary industry was required to supply the number of coffins suggested by this figure. Previewing the conclusions on mortality (see Chapter 5), if 27 per cent of all the London dead were buried in coffins, some 285 tons of timber would have been required (based on known medieval coffin sizes, some 9,000 coffins, and a density of oak at around 750kg per m3). It is a great shame that we cannot tell how this massive demand was met, whether through corporate payments to carpenters and joiners, through private purchase, or through the use of crude, homemade structures.

A total of fifteen coffins (7 per cent) were given a dark ashy lining on to which the deceased were laid (see Fig. 10). This group is of national significance, since it represents approximately 30 per cent of all examples of this kind of burial practice in Britain at this time (so far known). The ash, forming a layer perhaps 1cm thick, appears to have been domestic in nature. It contained burned food remains (bone, shell, seeds) and burned pottery fragments. It has been suggested that this was a kind of sponge to absorb putrefaction products and reduce the odour, but the rarity of the rite militates against this; more recently it has been proposed that the material was placed in the coffin at the site of death (usually, therefore, at home) as a symbolic link to the household, and as a means of discouraging the dead from returning home as an undead revenant.296 If this is right, then even at the height of the disaster, some people at least were taking considerable care over funeral preparations.

Some personal items were recovered from the dead. From around the ankle of one man was recovered a slender strip of chainmail, possibly the remnant of a hem, or perhaps more likely a decorative item. Providing a more dramatic snapshot in the context of this study were the discoveries of two small coin hoards buried with victims (see Fig. 11). Remarkably both skeletons were identifiable, as adult women, probably between the ages of 26 and 35, and buried in coffins.297 The larger hoard (181 coins) accompanied a woman buried in one of the ash-lined coffins who was probably wearing a belt. The coins were found in two caches broadly divided into silver pennies, which had been stashed in a pouch slung around the neck or under the shoulder, and farthings (with some larger denominations) possibly in a waist pouch. The numismatic evidence of the coins examined indicates a deposit date of between 1344 and 1351.

The smaller hoard, eight silver pennies, had also been kept in some kind of pouch or purse at the waist of the dead woman, and the latest one issued again dated to 1344–51. Together, these coin groups provide our best empirical evidence of the date of the cemetery, but they do a fair bit more than that. The ashy linings of coffins were found in only 2 per cent of all plague burials, so seem not to represent some manner of general disinfectant policy, but rather indicate some other deliberate ritual. In contrast, given the strenuous efforts by the wealthy to ensure through wills that their estate was passed on, and in light of the fact that the burial of money with the dead was extremely rare in medieval England, it seems inconceivable that relatives would deliberately have buried such considerable sums with their owners. The answer probably lies in a combination of haste (represented by the lack of willingness to search and remove the dead woman’s clothing and possessions), and deliberate respect and veneration (represented by the securing of a wooden coffin and the careful application of ash lining to its base before the burial).

Other evidence does suggest the grimmer side of identifying and collecting burials. One skeleton located in a mass trench was found hunched up in a crouched position, evidence perhaps of rigor mortis and thus of a hurried burial. More telling was the state of the bodies in a small mass burial pit dug towards the eastern edge of the western burial plot. Of eight individuals buried in it, five were adult men, two were teenagers, and one could only be described as adult. At least two of this group were partially disarticulated. This might mean that they had been dug up from elsewhere and transferred here, but far more probably their bodies had lain rotting in deserted buildings or in fields near the city for a considerable time before being found by survivors; their presence in a mass grave hints at some co-ordinated effort to recover bodies.

So we know that in this one cemetery more adults were brought for burial than children, and more men than women; they were, most probably, from the poorer end of the social spectrum; coffins were used for over a quarter of the victims, and some of these show signs both of respect and deliberation, while others suggest haste; and finally, bodies may have come for burial within a single day of death as well as some considerable time afterwards.

How the corpses got to the cemetery is unclear – no London documents describe the day-to-day transport of the dead. Some European cities, such as Florence,298 saw the emergence of paid collectors and gravediggers. From the chronicles of others (such as William of Dene, see above), it is clear that the disaster was such that people carried their own dead to the graveside. If Robert of Avesbury’s figures of up to 200 burials daily in West Smithfield are realistic, one has to consider the involvement of some organising authority capable of ensuring that the flow both of victims and of other city traffic did not become choked. The mass trenches at East Smithfield suggest that there was also an organised collection system not unlike the plague carts of the seventeenth-century outbreaks. The most likely route for the transport of corpses to this was either through Aldgate or by river transport to stairs or jetties east of the Tower; the Postern Gate built some fifty years earlier adjacent to the Tower moat may also have been used, but would not have admitted carts.

The second key aspect of the plague upon which archaeology sheds light is the organisation and use of an emergency cemetery over the plague months. The first thing to note is that two areas were used – the western and eastern plots. Each of the two main burial areas were conspicuously well-ordered. They were split into regular rows (twelve in the west, four in the east) and did not intercut to any significant degree. Within these rows, two principal modes of burial were used: individual graves, and larger, mass burial trenches or pits. We cannot tell from the archaeology whether these areas were used simultaneously or whether when one area was completely filled up, the second was opened, and if so, in which order. We can, however, make some intelligent guesses.

The cemetery was founded in the early months of 1349, probably in February, and was therefore established at a time of high mortality but just before the full height of the plague. It was the last of the three emergency cemeteries to be founded, following the Pardon churchyard and the West Smithfield cemetery, and was thus probably accepting burials which for logistical reasons could be made in neither the local parish or monastic graveyards, nor the two West Smithfield cemeteries. So it is probable that from its first day the cemetery was facing a significant inflow of corpses for burial. The nearest site to the entrance was the western zone, and therefore the earliest burials may have been in the westernmost row of this zone. The first three rows were made up entirely of individual graves, and may thus have been used during February prior to the dramatic spike of mortality implied in March by the wills when will-making doubled and probates tripled. If so, the rate of burial in February might have been about ten per day.

The two mass trenches, one forming the fourth row and the other extending along almost the entire eastern boundary of the cemetery field, are compelling evidence of a step-change in burial rate. The larger, eastern trench probably exceeded 115m in length, while the western one measured about 70m. The latter trench might have contained 600 burials, while that to the east probably held 1,000 or more. Assuming that these trenches were the result of the months of heaviest mortality, March and April, this suggests twenty-five to thirty burials daily, or three per hour in daylight. In the city of Hereford, one parishioner remembered seeing up to twenty bodies buried at the parish church of St Peter in a single day, suggesting such a rate might easily have been reached.299

The trenches, about 1.7m deep and 1.9m wide, were both filled very carefully despite the rate at which bodies were supplied. The burials were all set supine in the trench, each body aligned roughly east–west with the head of each corpse laid to the west in accordance with custom (see Fig. 12). Such care shows a particular deliberation even in the face of profound disaster. Each layer of the dead was, exactly as Boccaccio described, covered with a thin capping of soil, and some five layers filled the trenches. There was no archaeological evidence in the two trenches for any ‘batching’, and it is likely that once the lowest layer was partially complete and sealed in each, further burials were laid down on top, proceeding in sequence until the trenches were full. It seems most likely that ropes were used to lower each corpse into place – the bodies were quite clearly not dumped carelessly out of carts. This same care has been seen in the four mass graves believed to be Black Death graves at the Hospital of the Holy Ghost, Lübeck, Germany, where nearly 700 bodies were found to have been carefully laid, west to east and north to south, in three or four overlapping rows and stacked up to five deep.300

Once each mass trench was filled, rows of individual graves followed, six working eastward in the western zone and four working westward along the eastern boundary. These latter four completed the use of the eastern zone. In what precise order the burials took place cannot be ascertained, but there are some clues found in the western zone to suggest that burial may have continued there until the end of the first outbreak and perhaps slightly beyond. Firstly, rows eight and nine saw a reduction in the use of coffins from above 45 per cent to 35 per cent. Then, a third mass trench, 10m long, was dug forming much of the excavated portion of the tenth, western row. Its base stepped up from south to north, suggesting that that was how it was filled, and it held a minimum of fifty corpses.

The distribution of men, women and children was no different from what had gone before, but only two coffins were recorded, both of children under the age of 10 years. Furthermore, the corpse of a teenager had been placed face down, probably accidentally. This trench stopped short of the northern end of the grave row; the last section was occupied by a sizeable grave pit which contained the remains of eight corpses – five men, two teenagers and an unidentified adult. What sets this group aside is the fact that at least three of them were disarticulated before being buried, indicating that they had probably decomposed before burial. It is possible that by this time, the cemetery was being used to bury corpses lost or dumped in the panic of the main outbreak. The last two rows in the western zone were fragmentary, containing five scattered burials each, suggestive of a tail-off of burial activity. An adult in one of these had been buried face down. This is just one interpretation of the evidence and cannot be corroborated; nevertheless, it fits the available facts. It provides a graphic illustration of the manner in which the citizens dealt with the awful physical reality of the disaster, and it brings us, literally, face to face with just a few of the thousands who were slaughtered by the plague in less than six months.

London could not have been alone in identifying such emergency cemeteries, but surprisingly the evidence for other English towns is rather meagre. At Newark, the Archbishop of York authorised the vicar there to buy a piece of land outside the north gate on account of the pressure on burial space. In other towns, parts of existing hospital or monastery cemeteries seem to have sufficed, such as at Worcester, where the cemetery of the hospital of St Oswald, to the north of the city, was pressed into service to supply the deficiency of the cathedral.301 One curiosity in London is that a huge cemetery already existed outside the walls at St Mary Spital, one of London’s largest hospitals. It had functioned as an emergency cemetery a century earlier and again in the great famine of 1315–21, but while a considerable number (1,392) of individual burials of the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were excavated,302 and while mass burial pits were found dating to the twelfth, mid-thirteenth and fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, no such pits were found which could be ascribed to the major fourteenth-century plague outbreaks in London. Unless these have been destroyed by later development, it would appear that the cemeteries at West and East Smithfield were sufficient to manage any superabundance of burials, allowing the hospital to provide single graves for victims that were its responsibility.

The Death Toll

How many thousands died? In London, previous estimates vary, but are worth recounting. Philip Ziegler considered the sum to be about 20–30,000; Naphy and Spicer report estimates between 12,500 and 25,000. Using a novel means of calculation involving known duration and population size, Olea and Christakos considered it reasonable that 50,000 may have died (based on a pre-plague population of 100,000 and assuming a twelve-month duration).303 We might, in addition, recognise that other historians have entertained the notion of a death toll of 50 per cent or greater in the city,304 without placing a number to the dead. These estimates have been made without the benefit of the detailed evidence presented earlier and a closer approximation can now be attempted.

There are a number of ways into this question. The first is to look at the ratio of wills made during the plague months in comparison with those made in the years preceding the disease. Rates of will-making demonstrate the citizens’ expectation of dying, and, given that large numbers of the wills were probably made at the first sign of infection, it should bear some relevance to the actuality of the mortality. The total of 392 wills drawn up in the nine months from November 1348 to the end of July 1349 (equivalent to a total of 523 wills for a full year), is nineteen times greater than the annual rate of will-making for the twenty years from 1327 prior to the plague. This measure of the expectation of mortality is essentially a measure of the concern of citizens. It might be argued that many more people drew up wills than actually had to, out of fear of a sudden death. This can be checked against the evidence from the other end of the process – the will enrolments of those who definitely did die. Among all those Husting will-makers who encountered the plague and either lived or died, the following categories include:

– Those who made their wills before the outbreak and whose wills were enrolled after its conclusion (n = 16)

– Those who made their wills before the outbreak and whose wills were enrolled during the epidemic months (n = 32)

– Those who made their wills during the epidemic months and whose wills were also enrolled during the epidemic (n = 275)

– Those who made their wills during the epidemic months and whose wills were enrolled after its conclusion (n = 117)

The percentage of people who made their wills during the plague and did not survive it is 70.2 per cent. The percentage of people who made their wills prior to the appearance of the plague but who also did not survive was similar at 68.8 per cent. In other words, there is no apparent surfeit of ‘panic’ wills: the great majority of those who made wills did so because there was a real need to. Therefore, the rate of increase in the number of wills being made has a direct relationship with the mortality rate.

The number of wills enrolled (572) between 1327 and 1347, perhaps unsurprisingly, is about the same as the number made (587), an average of twenty-seven wills each year. The number enrolled during the nine months of the plague was 307, but we must recall that there is strong evidence for a considerable lag between death and probate dates, and that the court itself was closed during August and September; most of the forty-five wills enrolled in October and November 1349 should, therefore, also be attributed to the main period of the plague. Assuming conservatively that 340 wills were enrolled during the nine-month period, the crude death rate was over sixteen times its annual average. A pre-industrial death rate of about 3.5 per cent per annum for adult males over 20 has been suggested by historical demographers,305 so we can assume that this percentage of the will-makers would have died anyway during this period, and a figure of 60,000 for the population of London has been argued. Assuming that children of 14 years or less made up 40 per cent of the population (24,000), and that men and women were roughly equal in numbers, then of 18,000 men, 630 would have died per annum. If this percentage was similar for women and children, about 2,100 deaths would have occurred in a normal year. A crude death rate of over sixteen times greater than the norm would indicate a figure of 33,600 dead, or about 56 per cent of the population.

Another way into the problem lies through prosopographical analysis of a group of people whom we know were alive immediately prior to the plague, and whose fates and fortunes can be charted through the documentary evidence beyond the end of the epidemic. Barbara Megson has done just this for a group of 359 wealthy London citizens who were listed for taxation purposes in 1346, and who were alive in 1348 as the plague approached.306 Her study reveals that some 29 per cent of these richer residents definitely died during the pestilence, and that 38 per cent definitely survived. What is of most interest here is the missing 33 per cent – those who, despite having considerable wealth, simply vanish from the records during the plague and do not, as far as Megson can tell, pick up their businesses and interests once the pestilence had receded. While the simple loss of records is an obvious possibility, the range of documents in which wealthy people might have been named (as witnesses to court cases or transactions, as plaintiffs or defendants in litigation, through wills or receipts of bequests, and so on) is considerable, and so complete disappearance suggests at the least permanent displacement or, more likely, death. If just one-third of the missing group did also die in the epidemic, then the overall implied mortality would be about 40 per cent for the population at large, or about 32,000 dead. If all of the missing perished, then that figure rises to 67 per cent, a level equal to the crude calculation resulting from the rate of will enrolment.

Against another group subject to a similar analysis, a very high death rate may be indicated. Of 118 apprentices enrolled in the Goldsmiths’ Company between 1342 and 1346, 106, a frightening 90 per cent, had disappeared from the company records by 1350, many undoubtedly victims of the Black Death.307 Such a figure requires further examination and research. If substantiated by other apprenticeship records, it would provide a reasonable basis to conclude that the plague was more deadly to the young than to the old.

A further approach is to look at the mortality of the clergy in London. Despite the problems caused by the absence of Bishop Ralph de Stratford’s register for the period, there is enough evidence from alternative sources to build a partial picture of this outbreak and indeed subsequent ones (see Chapter 4).308 Of 111 city churches studied (including St Leonard Shoreditch just beyond the bars), the outcome for sixteen (14.4 per cent) incumbents who were alive at the outbreak are certain. Of this small sample, nine (56.3 per cent) died during the outbreak and seven (43.7 per cent) survived. Some churches lost their incumbents more than once, including St James Garlickehythe and St Mary Woolnoth. A further twenty-one churches display a suspiciously timed change of incumbent in the period 1348–50, which may also have been due to deaths, while at another two the incumbents probably survived. If we were to include these, the death rate for city clergy would rise to 73 per cent. For seventy-two churches we simply do not know who the incumbent was at this particular time. The evidence from this small sample leans towards a mortality rate of above 55 per cent.

Further sources for estimating the death toll is contained in the evidence from the chroniclers and from other contemporary documents. In this regard, Robert of Avesbury’s account of the dead being buried in Walter de Mauny’s cemetery near West Smithfield is useful. If it is anything more than a proxy for ‘a large number’, his suggestion of around 200 per day between 2 February and 12 April 1349 implies about 14,000 may have been buried there. In this same period, 192 wills were made. Using the distribution of these wills across the period to establish a ratio, as a means of slanting this average, this figure would produce about 130 burials daily in February, about 210 burials in March, and about 260 burials per day in April. Extrapolating beyond Avesbury’s timescale, using this ratio, the number of burials would have dropped to 130 per day in May, 20 in June and below 15 per day in July. These figures would suggest a total of just under 23,000 burials in this cemetery alone. To this needs to be added the victims buried in December and January in the bishop’s Pardon churchyard, up to 2,400 buried in the East Smithfield cemetery from February onwards, and all the victims buried in the dozens of parish and monastic cemeteries across the city. A reasonable estimate might be 35,000 dead – about 58 per cent of a population of 60,000. Of course, we have no idea how many non-residents had fled from the surrounding counties towards London (and indeed vice versa), or how many traders and visitors were trapped and engulfed by the disaster.

For the West Smithfield cemetery there is correspondence between de Mauny himself and the Pope suggesting a very large death toll. In early 1352, de Mauny petitioned the Pope, signifying that:

he, during the epidemic in England, dedicated a place near London for a cemetery of poor strangers (peregrinorum) and others in which sixty thousand bodies are buried, and built there a chapel with the licence of the ordinary. He prays for an indulgence of a year and forty days to those who visit the said place on the feasts of Whitsunday, Corpus Christi, and SS Mary Magdalene and Margaret, or who give something to the support of the said chapel and the poor who flock there.

This petition is evidently a replacement for an even earlier one, perhaps of 1351, which appears to have been lost in transit. The papal reply granted on 14 March 1352 gave him licence to endow the chapel and to erect a college of twelve or more chaplains, according to the ordination of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, and granted the indulgence as requested.309 However, this letter may also have gone astray on its way back to de Mauny, for the Pope issued a second licence on 12 August 1352, referring in it back to the same huge figure stated by de Mauny, offering ‘relaxation … of one year and forty days of enjoined penance to penitents who visit the chapel of the cemetery founded by Walter near London in which are buried more than sixty thousand bodies of those who died of the epidemic – and who give alms for the same’.310

The same papal writings were quoted in the early sixteenth century in the Register of the Charterhouse, where the whole basis for the foundation of the cemetery, and after it the monastery, was set out; a figure on a similar scale was quoted by John Stow nearly 250 years after the event, which he read from a stone cross which once stood in the churchyard:

Anno Domini 1349. Regnante magna pestilentia consecratum huit hoc coemiterium in quo et infra septa presentis monasterii sepulta fuerunt mortuorum corpora plusquam quinquaginta millia, praeter alia multa abhinc usque presens quorum animabus proprietur deus Amen.311

This translates as: ‘The year 1349. A great pestilence reigning, this cemetery was consecrated in which, and within the bounds of the present monastery, were buried more than 50,000 bodies of the dead, as well as many others since then to the present day.’ The reference to the monastery (Charterhouse) would date the now-lost cross to at least 1372. A later numerical reference to the dead in this cemetery dates to 1384. A Bull of Urban VI was issued, addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, on a petition of Simon, Bishop of London, and Walter de Mauny (who had by this date died). It signalled that the cemetery, in which ‘twenty thousand and more dead are buried, in which de Mauny built a chapel, in which certain chaplains were instituted, be transferred to monks of Carthusian order’.312 While suggesting a more modest figure than de Mauny’s own, it still implies a very large cemetery indeed.

What then are we to make of these varying accounts? First, Avesbury has shown himself to be a fairly reliable source on the date of the outbreak in London, and we should therefore not dismiss his claims for burial rates lightly. Second, the issue of de Mauny’s claim must be taken still more seriously. De Mauny was a superlative organiser, a seasoned veteran of the French campaigns and, most importantly, someone who had no need of an exaggeration to attract papal support for a new religious foundation. The specification of the cemetery for the use of peregrinorum could lie at the heart of this – if the city population was sufficiently bloated by refugees from the surrounding counties, we could entertain such carnage without direct reference to static population estimates for residents alone. Third, we nonetheless acknowledge that while the figures are confused, subject to some change across the later decades of the fourteenth century, they were honoured in an unusual and permanent manner suggesting something quite unique. So fourth, while the figures of 50,000 or 60,000 (equal to up to 100 per cent of our suggested resident population) in one cemetery appears entirely implausible, and while such ‘rounded’ numbers are often used as a cipher for ‘a very large number’ in medieval texts, the possibility must be entertained that many thousands, perhaps over 20,000, buried victims still lie somewhere underneath the green spaces of Charterhouse Square and the Charterhouse itself. This is a figure far in excess of previous estimates.313

Remarkably, Londoners themselves only ever mention the impact of the plague on the city once in surviving documents. In April 1357, seven years after the event, they petitioned the king for relief from taxation in recognition of the huge sums that the city had lent him to fund his military campaigns in Scotland and France. In the petition they stated that, ‘whereas by reason of the death of the richer inhabitants of the City at the time of the pestilence, and their property having fallen into the hand of Holy Church, the City had become impoverished and more than one-third of it empty’.314 While it is obvious that it would have benefited the civic authorities to enhance any claims of poverty, such a claim as this could quite easily have been checked or challenged – the king’s systems for taxation had proved effective at determining who could afford levies such as that of 1346, and the effects of abandonment should have been quite visible – but it was not. If more than one-third of the city was empty in 1357, despite the opportunities provided by seven years of recovery and immigration, the scale of the depopulation could only have been greater. Some evidence of this may exist. Of the ten tenements mentioned as paying for the maintenance of the Great Conduit in Cheapside, when the two-yearly accounts were delivered in November 1350, three were specifically described as empty, and four of the remainder paid rent during 1348–9 only. Just three were accounted as having returned a rent in the second year (from October 1349 to October 1350).315

If more than a third of the city property was indeed empty, the death toll implied is at least equal as a percentage, but probably very much higher, since it would not account for families in other tenements who were reduced but not eradicated by the plague. The smaller villages outside the city were equally badly affected. In the manor and village of Kingsbury, a few miles north-west of the city, there were twelve holdings in the early fourteenth century. In 1350 the manor court learned of the deaths of thirteen people ‘at the time of the pestilence’; the holdings were divided among the few survivors, leaving the excess properties empty.316

Some later reports managed to exaggerate the impact quite wonderfully. An Icelandic annal of c. 1430 claimed that only fourteen persons survived in London after the Great Pestilence of 1349.317 Written, perhaps, for narrative impact, it is also conceivable that the annal confused general mortality with that among the city’s ‘ruling’ body of the mayor and aldermen of whom there were normally twenty-four. Eight aldermen definitely or probably died during the pestilence, and eighteen were in office at some point during 1349.318 The overlap caused by new aldermen replacing plague victims is not clear, but the numbers would be about right. The indication is around 40 per cent mortality.

Drawing on the grounds of the wills, documentary evidence and pro-sopographical evidence, this analysis makes a solid case that over 50 per cent, and possibly more than 60 per cent, of the will-makers and tax-payers of the citizenry perished. Such figures seem extraordinary, but similarly catastrophic levels are suggested both within other English urban centres, in rural localities, and in Continental towns and cities. In Oxford, an average of 1.6 wills per annum was enrolled between 1320 and 1348, a figure which jumped to fifty-seven (thus thirty-six times greater) in 1349; in Colchester, 110 wills were enrolled during 1348–9, almost twenty-five times the annual average for the previous twenty years; and in Lincoln, 105 wills enrolled in 1349 represented a figure of thirty times the average for fifty-three other years between 1315 and 1376. In York and Norwich in 1349, over three times more entries to the freedom of each city were recorded than the average number for previous decades which, while not providing a ratio, certainly indicates the opportunities and needs presented by severe mortality.319 At Canterbury, about two-thirds of the taxable population included in returns for 1346–9 disappeared from the records by 1351–2.320

In rural localities previous syntheses have identified mortality rates of over 50 per cent on twenty-eight Durham priory manors with a range of 30–78 per cent;321 40–46 per cent on Halesowen manor, Worcestershire; 50–60 per cent in Coltishall, Norfolk; 49 per cent on Cottenham manor, Cambridgeshire; 45 per cent in mid-Essex communities; and 45–55 per cent in Walsham-le-Willows, Suffolk.322 Manorial tenants of the Bishop of Worcester in the West Midlands suffered losses ranging from 19 to 80 per cent. Analyses of eleven of the Bishop of Winchester’s manors in Hampshire show a loss of tenants ranging from 59 to 100 per cent, with an average of 76 per cent. An innovative study of landless men working seventeen manors of the Abbot of Glastonbury in the West Country found an average mortality rate of 57 per cent.323 Contemporary manorial assessments made as part of inquisitions post mortem of major landholders include eight survivors of fourteen cottars (43 per cent mortality) at Kidlington (Oxon); four of eight bond tenants (50 per cent) at Titchmarsh (Northants); six of thirteen villeins (54 per cent) at Stanton Harcourt (Oxon); six of twenty-four bondsmen (75 per cent) at Ashby David (Northants); and 100 per cent losses at East Morden (Dorset), Basildon (Berks), Ampthill (Beds) and Todworth (Wilts).324

Further afield, some Continental examples offer similar evidence. In France, the town of Givry has a superb set of burial registers which run through the plague (July to October 1348). Annual burial rates pre-plague were twenty-three per annum on average. At 3.5 per cent male deaths per annum, this would have yielded a population of around 650–700 adults, so a population of perhaps 1,100 including children. In the four months of the plague, a total of 626 burials were made in the town’s cemetery, or about 57 per cent of the population. The lay confraternity of San Francesco in Orvieto, Italy, also has an excellent burial register backed up by a matriculation list of entries. From this it has been calculated that nearly two-thirds of the community, dwelling in all parts of the city, perished. In Siena, Italy, perhaps just a little smaller than London’s population (c. 50,000 in the city itself), the death rate was probably as much as 50 per cent; while the much smaller town of San Gimignano probably saw 58.7 per cent. Perpignan suffered between 58 and 68 per cent mortality based on the analysis of the deaths of notaries in that town.325

While the value of these assessments is limited by the nature of the evidence, the range of approaches, the variety of the sources and the general consistency of the outcomes all appear to indicate that a mortality rate of 55 or even 60 per cent or more in London seems quite defensible. However, such a death rate begs basic questions: how could the city regain its feet so quickly and carry on functioning if nearly two in three residents were dead? What, therefore, needs consideration is the immediate impact that the 1348–9 disaster had on the city and survivors.

Some Immediate Impacts: 1350–60

The 1348–9 pestilence was the greatest of a succession of outbreaks of disease that rocked the city during Edward III’s reign and contributed to an extended and very significant reduction in the population. Studies elsewhere have tended to consider the broader impact of events across this period, especially on the national economy and London’s place within it, but there were other impacts that might be viewed as a specific legacy of this first catastrophe. Medieval Londoners (indeed people across Europe) had never suffered a cataclysm even remotely on this scale before, and certainly not one whose origin was placed by their own church leaders in the hands of their God and in response to their sins. Under the circumstances, we should be able to detect some kind of communal reaction, in public and private life, in social spheres and in people’s attitudes, to religion and death. An in-depth review of all the available evidence for the decade lies beyond the reach of this volume, but we can identify some key impacts.

The impact with the greatest publicity was the effect of the huge death toll on the nation’s economic fortunes. At the first Parliament held since the outbreak of the plague, in February 1351, the king himself acknowledged the visible signs of this impact:

he is informed that the peace of the land is not well kept, and that there are very many other crimes and faults which need to be redressed and amended, as shown by maintenance of parties and complaints in the localities, and also … servants and labourers who are not willing to work and labour as they are accustomed.326

The commons were more forthright still. In their petition, they noted:

how his commonalty is greatly ruined and destroyed by this pestilence, because of which cities, boroughs and other vills and hamlets throughout the land have decayed … and many which used to pay the tax of the tenth and fifteenth and other charges granted to him in aid of his war are completely depopulated. And now, because of their deaths, this new conditional tax, which is assessed at the same sum on those who have survived, destroys and ruins them to such an extent that they can scarcely stay alive.327

There were other, more subtle issues triggered by the plague, national in scope, but certainly of interest to the city’s survivors. One such was the matter of the legal status of children born overseas, and it is surely no coincidence that this was again on the parliamentary agenda. It no doubt reflects the high level of mobility and migration that ensued as survivors of the epidemic began to assert their rights to estates, or to take advantage of new opportunities. Edward himself was sensitive to the potential impact, and sought to close loopholes:

some people were in doubt whether the children born in overseas parts outside the allegiance of England should be able to demand inheritance within the same allegiance or not, on account of which a petition was formerly put in the parliament held at Westminster in the seventeenth year of our lord the king [1343–4] and was not at such time completely agreed, our said lord the king, wishing that all doubts and uncertainties were removed and the law in this case declared and clarified.328

That London experienced a considerable influx of people immediately following the plague is in little doubt – we have already seen the king’s empowerment in late December 1349 of the city sheriffs to keep the peace amid the ‘great concourse of aliens and denizens to the city and suburbs, now that the pestilence is stayed’. Despite this inward migration, however, many of its buildings – as many as one-third – remained empty for several years, as claimed in the parliamentary petition for tax relief in 1357. The opportunity for survivors and migrants to improve, or obtain for the first time, landholding and especially trading sites by entering such empty properties may have proved too great a temptation for some. Examination of the Possessory Assizes, the court that dealt with disputes over property ownership, between the years 1340 and 1348, shows an average of about eight cases per year. Fifteen cases were held in the three months alone following the resumption of the court in November 1349 and (following a further break between February 1350 and October 1351) a further thirty-three were held in the nine months to July 1352. Clearly the legal complexities of establishing true title led to considerable argument and arbitration.

The shortage of labour in the city had already led to the Ordinance of Labourers being issued in 1349; this was repeated in 1350 as a result of ‘the damages and grievances which the good folks of the City, rich and poor, have suffered and received within the past year, by reason of masons, carpenters, tilers and all manner of labourers, who take immeasurably more than they have been wont to take’.329 In 1351 the wages pressure remained sufficiently high for the commons to take their grievance to the king:

since the pestilence labourers are unwilling to work, to the great misfortune of the people, and to take for their labour what was agreed by our lord the king and his council, and they have no regard for fines or redemptions, but go day to day from bad to worse. May it please our lord the king that corporal punishment with redemptions shall be imposed on them when they shall be attainted in due manner.330

The ordinance was enshrined in law, becoming the Statute of Labourers. However, London was, for the king at least, far from efficient in enforcing the statute. Following further complaints to Parliament about prices in London in 1354, suggestions for administrative remedies omitted mention of those supposedly appointed to enforce the statute, the justices of labourers. A year later, enquiry by the Exchequer revealed that no one in London knew whether or not there were any such justices. Pressure forced the mayor to act and by 1357 the Letter Book provides significant details of those being prosecuted under the statute. Between 1 August 1357 and 29 September 1359, the City Letter Books record that seventy-four men, almost all apparently in the construction industry (carpenters, tilers, masons etc.), were fined an average of nearly 1s 6d each for a total of £5 7s 4d.331

There are numerous examples of the extreme pressure exerted on the artificial wages ceiling. Among the swiftest and more extreme changes in wages were the costs of the harvest. The manorial accounts survive for the Westminster Abbey manors of Knightsbridge, Hyde (now covered by Hyde Park) and Ebury (modern Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico), and from these, the costs of managing the harvest have been calculated.332 Reaping and binding 1 acre was charged at 8.39 pence on average across the three London manors before the plague; immediately afterwards, this figure had rocketed to 14.28 pence, an increase of 70 per cent. Threshing and winnowing one-quarter each of wheat, barley and oats before the plague cost 7.41 pence; immediately afterwards this had risen to 13.02 pence, a 75 per cent rise. Day-wages on the three manors also increased in the ten years up to 1359. Notwithstanding the Statute of Labourers, skilled craftsmen such as carpenters, thatchers and tilers saw their wages rise between 26 and 38 per cent, while general labourers enjoyed a 97 per cent rise.333

The four servants of the church receiving board-wages at Westminster Abbey (wages in lieu of food and board) collected 8d per week before the plague and for four years afterwards, but their wage rose to 1s in 1354, up 50 per cent, while the annual stipend paid to the chandler for transporting candle wax and sconces from London to the abbey rose from 6s 8d to 10s.334 It has been suggested that London may have been exceptional in its response to the statute in comparison to the rest of the kingdom, possibly as a result of a generally higher cost of living, and that the civic authorities effectively ignored both ordinance and statute.335

Prices of basic commodities rose sharply as a result of disruption to the established markets. Wool prices were the least affected, rising by about 10 per cent over the decade, but prices for one-quarter of wheat rose as high as 16s in 1352 with an average of over 7s across the decade, as compared with 4s 4d in the previous decade.336 The price of salt more than doubled from 3s 3d to 6s 7d a quarter, and iron was claimed in 1354 to be four times its pre-plague price, prompting loud calls to the king in Parliament for a cap on exports and pricing:

his commons pray: that whereas he has a great scarcity of iron in the land because he has not put any definite price on the same, and a great part of the same is exported out of England; and whereas a stone of iron used to be sold for 3d before the pestilence, it is now sold for 12d, to the great damage and impoverishment of the said commonalty; may it please his lordship to ordain that no iron shall be exported out of the realm on penalty of forfeiture of the same, and that a definite price shall be put on iron, in alleviation of the aforesaid misfortunes.337

Labourers were not the only kind of manpower that was thin on the ground. In the guilds, eight wardens of the Cutlers’ Company, six of the Hatters and four of the Goldsmiths were swept away, indicative of the impact on the skilled trades in the city. The pepperers lost an estimated 34 per cent of their fraternity.338 The effect was therefore likely to have been very apparent as migrants or semi-skilled apprentices filled the gaps, and it may have been this which prompted several guilds to issue (or re-issue) their articles and ordinances in 1350.339 One case readily demonstrates the squeezes of simultaneous skill loss and price rises during this period. On 28 June 1350 a bill of complaint issued by the Saddlers’ Company was read in which the company of Fusters of the City (makers of wooden saddle-frames) were charged with price-fixing and agreeing not to sell a saddle-tree:

[formerly] costing 6d or 7d, for less than 2s or 30d, although the wood of which it was made cost only 3d. They complained further that the Fusters had agreed not to take any apprentices, with the intention of restricting the number of their mistery, so that they could control prices. They also agreed to sell their saddle-bows to foreigners, if they could not obtain their price among citizens, and they were about to buy a charter from the King restricting the trade to those persons who were now confederated, which would result in the decrease of the mistery. A similar confederacy had formerly existed among the lorimers in copper, of whom there were now only two left to serve the whole people.

The claim was denied and in early July it came to court. William Pykerel, on behalf of the saddlers, proposed that due to the impact of the pestilence during the last two years, a new scale of charges for goods supplied by the fusters to the saddlers should be adopted, ‘that all saddle-trees should be of good material, that the Fusters should take apprentices, and that they should not sell to foreigners so long as there was a sale among citizens’. The fusters prepared a counter-proposal, in which they said:

that they could not find apprentices or serving men to help them, and that at a time when they needed more comfort in the matter of food and clothing, conditions were so evil that the gallon of beer cost 2d instead of 1d, and other necessaries had also risen in like proportion. Consequently they could not sell at the prices suggested by the Saddlers, since they would be spending more in a year than they could earn in three … They prayed the Mayor and Aldermen to accept a schedule of prices for certain kinds of saddle-trees.

The upshot was an (increased) arbitrated price structure agreed by both sides.340 It is significant that the case refers to just two lorimers (coppersmiths) remaining.

Clergy, too, were charging high stipends to serve, and many were exchanging their current livings for better paid ones. Senior clergy were outraged at this development, and on 28 May 1350 the Archbishop of Canterbury issued the decree Effrenata seeking to cap the level of stipends. It was sent first to Ralph Stratford, Bishop of London, as dean of the province with a request to enforce it in his own diocese, to make a list of runaway priests and to inform the other bishops of its provisions – he was to report back before 8 September. This measure clearly had less effect than was intended, for on 18 February 1352, the archbishop had again to write to Stratford complaining that priests cared more for money than for the safety of their souls, and that in the diocese of London there were a large number of runaway clergy who were under ecclesiastical sentences for disobedience to the Effrenata.341

The problem was not one to be solved easily, although several surviving bishops’ registers attest to increased recruitment and promotion (sadly we have no London evidence for this activity until 1362, since the bishops’ registers for the relevant years are missing). Henry Knighton’s chronicle makes a scathing attack on the quality of the replacements, noting that ‘within a short time a very great multitude whose wives had died of the plague rushed into holy orders. Of these many were illiterate and, it seemed, simply laymen who knew nothing except how to read to some extent.’ Many of those ordained jockeyed both during and after the plague for better livings. William Langland spelled out his oft-quoted commentary on the rush to ‘sing for simony’ in London at the expense of impoverished rural parishes.342 However exaggerated this may have been for poetic impact, examples such as a vicar indicted under the Statute of Labourers for attempting to charge the extortionate price of 5s or 6s to perform a marriage indicate that profiteering was taking place.343

The pestilence had a profound effect on religious orders as well as secular clergy, and while specific numbers for London’s religious houses are unclear in this post-plague decade, it is apparent that many monks and canons fled their convents. Apostasy peaked dramatically in the middle decades of the fourteenth century, probably as a result of ‘unimaginable stresses and strains experienced in many religious communities, especially perhaps the small ones, as a consequence of catastrophic mortality’.344

Westminster Abbey is better documented than any other religious house in the London area, and we can gain a glimpse of the impact of the plague on its fortunes. By September 1353 the community stood at just twenty-nine monks and the abbot, compared with a pre-plague total of fifty or more monks.345 The infirmarer’s office was significantly affected by the plague, his income being halved immediately. His responsibilities included the management of day-patients (those who continued to sleep in the dormitory but were excused from their normal daily duties for a period of a few days to come to the infirmary for rest and treatment) and in-patients (those who entered the infirmary long term on account of their debilitation). Partial and intermittent accounts surviving from before the plague can be compared with those in the years immediately after, and it has been suggested that the plague brought about a significant shift in the frequency of each type of patient.

In the half-century before the plague, 602 instances of day care were recorded along with 263 in-patients; in the three years from September 1350 to August 1353, sixteen day-patients were treated, compared with twenty-one in-patients. The former also now visited the infirmary as day-patients for consecutive periods lasting nearly twice as long as before (a median of 7.5 days per event as opposed to 4 previously). This has been interpreted as a squeeze on day-patient care, with the bar for admission being set higher than previously, either by the impact of the plague itself in leaving behind only the fitter monks who had less need of access to day-patient care, or perhaps more likely as a result of the severe shortage of manpower available to treat the day-patients, along with the reduction in available funding to do so.346 If such a shift in practice embedded itself following this and later plague outbreaks, it may have had a direct influence on evolving arrangements of monastic infirmaries, a subject to which we will return in the concluding chapter.

The sacrist’s office at Westminster was probably least affected by the plague. By 1354–5 the income had recovered to over £224, of which £30 came from St Edward’s shrine and £15 from the old altar of St Mary by the north door. This speaks of a very significant popular desire to make offerings within the church, and some special indulgence had probably been obtained in connection with the abbey’s relics, since criers of London were employed to advertise the terms (although what these were is not known). The specific sum offered to St Mary’s altar seems especially significant in this regard: the Virgin’s role in the salvation of the Christian congregation was believed to be vitally important during the plague. The loss of religious persons from the convent did have clear impacts on the liturgical cycle despite this income: from the accounts of the wardens of the Lady Chapel and altars, it is clear that in 1351 only three of the five principal feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary were marked by a High Mass, and it was not until a decade later that the full five were reinstated.347

The impact of the plague may also be seen in the approach of the abbey in discharging its charitable obligations to the poor. When on 28 November 1290 Eleanor of Castile was buried at Westminster Abbey, a foundation was set up to provide penny doles to the poor coming on each anniversary of her death to the gates. Until the 1340s, the total sum often exceeded £100 annually, providing for a minimum of 12,000–15,000 (and conceivably above 24,000) poor people gathering at the abbey gates in late November. However, for a century after the plague, the largest sum was to be £25 3s 4d. This change is underlined by an analysis of the sums distributed through the abbey’s almonry, lying to the west of the abbey church alongside Tothill Street. Here, a minimum average of £177 per annum was distributed to the poor up to 1349, while the figure for the second half of the fourteenth century was down 43.5 per cent to around £100. There were clearly fewer of the poor around, but we may also detect the impact of the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers. In addition, there was a change in ideology which focused far more on the ‘deserving’ poor, and a linked shift in charitable emphasis away from the casual poor towards residential recipients, not just at Westminster but in an increasing number of hospitals across the country.348

Measuring the impact on other religious houses is difficult as, by and large, good documentary evidence does not survive. The house of the Crutched Friars had thirteen inmates in December 1350, compared with a maximum of twenty in the first half of the fourteenth century. The Franciscan friary near Newgate held ninety friars in 1336, and while there is no direct evidence for the immediate post-plague figures, by the last decade of the fourteenth century, resident numbers may have been as low as forty-three.349Hospitals, perhaps inevitably, fared the worst and we have already noted the almost complete depopulation of St James Westminster and St Thomas Southwark. The leper hospital of St Giles lost its warden, Thomas de Kirkeby, and three of the sisters, Cecilia de Shobyndon, Edith de Ispania and Christina Sencler,350 and the plague may have been the catalyst for a detailed examination of the hospital just a few years later. In March 1354 the mayor and commonalty petitioned the king and council regarding its purpose and management. Reminding the king that the hospital had been founded, generously endowed and effectively managed by elected London citizens from the twelfth century, they noted that Edward I had handed the hospital over to the order of leper knights of St Lazarus, based in Burton Lazars, and complained that since then, the lepers had been ousted from the hospital to be replaced by brothers and sisters of the order, ‘who were not diseased, contrary to the will of the donors aforesaid and to the great danger of healthy persons intermingling with the said lepers’. The petition requested that ‘poor diseased folk of the city be restored to the said hospital’.

The house, comprising one warden, three brothers, two sisters, two secular priests and fourteen poor lepers at the end of 1354, is said to have suffered ‘by fire and by pestilence’.351 Other matters of health and sanitation were raised in 1354, this time by the king over the area of the Fleet prison and its neighbourhood. Edward complained to the city authorities about the potential harm of the stench from butchery and the cleaning of entrails on a wharf near to the prison, drawing strength from an earlier petition by the prior of St John Clerkenwell, who also considered the threat to be potentially injurious to the health of the prisoners (and who coincidentally had land interests nearby). A year later, the king commissioned an inquiry into the construction of unlicensed privies over the Fleet Ditch surrounding the prison, and the filth accumulating from these and several tanneries discharging into it. The city authorities conceded the issue and in 1355 provided another place for the butchers near the wall of the Dominican friary on the bank of the Thames.352

The problem persisted, however, and in 1357 the king issued a further order to the city, stating that in past times the city’s streets and lanes had been accustomed to regular cleaning but that now, filth accumulated there and on the banks of the Thames, ‘which, if tolerated, great peril, as well to the persons dwelling within the said city, as to the nobles and others passing along the said river, will, it is feared, ensue’. The mayor was therefore to ensure that the city was kept clean on ‘pain of heavy forfeiture’.353 The link between these concerns and the pestilence itself is not explicit, but the ‘great peril’ would have raised but one spectre in the minds of those hearing the king’s words. We have already seen Edward’s concern over the filth in the city streets at the height of the first plague, and we will see once more worries about the stench of rotting refuse during the second and third outbreaks. It does seem likely that a new sensitivity to the urban environment was engendered through fear of the disease recurring.

If there was a suspicion that the threat to life had not fully receded, it was probably correct. It looks as if there was a significant dip in fertility, with families becoming smaller, and at the same time an increase in the likelihood of childhood mortality, neither of which was conducive to a rapid replenishment of the population. There is, of course, no census data, but a partial idea of family sizes in the fourteenth century in general has been advanced, based on the information contained in wardship cases brought before the city courts.354 From 1309 to 1348, the average number of children per family suggested by this calculation was 1.79. In the first decade after the Black Death, this figure dropped to just 1.5 and remained significantly lower throughout the fourteenth century. This pattern is generally supported (but with rather lower figures) through an examination of the number of direct offspring mentioned in the Husting wills. Between 1 January and 31 October 1348, a total of thirty-four will-makers identified forty-nine children as beneficiaries, an average of 1.44 per testator. The male-to-female ratio was 1.08 for these children.

During the key plague months, from 1 November 1348 until 31 July 1349, a further 392 wills were drawn up which identified a total of 428 child beneficiaries, an average of 0.92 children per will-maker. The male-to-female ratio had increased to 1.12. For the decade from August 1349 to July 1359, 132 will-makers made bequests to 125 children, an increase to 1.05 per will-maker. The male-to-female ratio increased to 1.27. These figures show just a partial picture, but it does seem likely that the trend was downward. In terms of increasing mortality, analysis of the wardships shows that between 1309 and 1348, 18 per cent of orphans of both sexes who were entered into wardship (between 7 and 10 years old) did not survive to come of age (at 21). This rose very significantly to 27 per cent between 1349 and 1398.355

Examination of the male heirs of wealthier merchant families shows a similar pattern but suggests a slightly greater risk for this group. Between 1318 and 1347, 23 per cent of merchant sons orphaned as youngsters died before coming of age. Between 1348 and 1377, this figure rose sharply to 33 per cent.356 While the sex ratio of the children mentioned in the Husting wills is not a reliable indicator of the wider demographic structure of the city, it is of interest because it hints at one of two things: either there were more male children surviving the plague (or being born) than female, or there was an increase in the desire to name boys as beneficiaries at the expense of girls.

The pattern of will-making changed in other immediate ways. At a basic level, the number of people both making and enrolling wills at the Husting court fell from a pre-plague level of around twenty-eight wills per annum to half that figure – an annual average of 12.4 wills were drawn up and 15.6 enrolled between 1351 and 1360. While obviously indicative of the mortality level, it may also reflect the concentration of property into fewer hands. The nature of the wills also changed. People began to specify their burial locations in much greater detail, selecting not only the church or monastery, but often specifying the churchyard, chancel, porch or chapel that they desired as their resting place. Although known from as early as 1275, the specification of burial location was very rare in the wills until the 1330s, and the first plague seemed not to have made much of a difference to this initially. For the period January 1347 to the end of October 1348, thirty of sixty-six (about 45 per cent) Husting wills drawn up expressed a preference. Of 392 wills which were made in the key plague months, between 1 November 1348 and 1 August 1349, 182 (a comparable 46 per cent) did so. The first plague, therefore, did not seem to have instantly modified Londoners’ approach to their own resting places. Once survivors had had a chance to take stock, however, the frequency increased dramatically. In the period from 1 September 1349 to 31 December 1359, nearly 74 per cent of citizens specified their choice of burial location (99 out of 134 wills made). Examples include John atte Bataylle, a weaver, who specified burial in the processional way within the church of St Giles Cripplegate in 1352; and John Edward, a butcher, who chose the chapel of St Mary within the church of St Leonard Eastcheap.357 It seems entirely probable that this upsurge occurred in response to the chilling memories of vast plague pits, lost relatives and uncounted, unmarked graves.

London’s pool of intellectual and artistic skill must have been dealt a severe blow. The city’s administrators and elected officials had suffered with at least thirteen aldermen known to have died in the first outbreak358 leaving both a requirement and an opportunity for new blood to prove itself in the complex political and economic world of the city. Adam Fraunceys rose from alderman to mayor within one year (1352) without holding office as sheriff first, and this speed of promotion was partly due to the effect of the pestilence.359 Architects and designers were killed, such as William Ramsey, who designed St Paul’s chapter house and cloisters; his successor, John atte Greene; and Walter le Bole, master mason at Westminster.360 Metalsmiths clearly suffered and a quick scan of the occupations noted in the Husting wills shows that fifteen goldsmiths, two bell-founders and two pewterers perished, alongside numerous craftsmen working and trading leather, wood and cloth. It has been suggested that the king’s decision to impress glaziers to complete the windows at St Stephen’s chapel Westminster may have been because of the dearth of skilled craftsmen.361

Almost certainly, more than half of London’s resident population had been killed or displaced, buildings stood empty, trade was affected, and social and economic networks had been transformed. The psychological scars of such a profoundly shocking experience are not easy to establish, but we can detect immediate shifts in approaches to bequests through wills, suggesting that the way people saw the world had fundamentally altered. These changes were to be more deeply embedded in the city (and indeed the country) as it was rocked by no fewer than three further outbreaks before 1377, each one amplifying the impact of the last. The most significant of these later visitations was the pestis secunda of 1361, but chroniclers also pointed out widespread outbreaks in 1368–9 and 1375, and it is to these subsequent and less well known pestilences that we now turn.

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