Post-classical history



SUSSEX and Kent were assailed from every side as the Black Death moved across from the West, spread south from London and made its independent entry at half a dozen Channel ports. In Sussex the absence of episcopal registers makes any generalization difficult. A few details, selected more or less at random, show that the county did not escape more lightly than its neighbours. Only five brethren survived out of a total strength of thirteen at the Priory of Michelham.1 The Abbot of Battle had secured permission to fortify his Abbey only ten years before, but no moat or ramparts could save him from the plague which carried him off with more than half his monks.2 At Appledram, almost in Hampshire, the number of customary reapers was reduced from two hundred and thirty-four to one hundred and sixty-eight, a drop of 28 per cent; at Warding, right at the other end of the county, twelve freemen and villeins died in March 1349, and a further sixty had perished by October, twenty-five leaving no direct heir.3

For the Black Death in Kent there has fortunately survived the account of William of Dene, a monk of Rochester, one of the few English chroniclers who handles the events of the day with anything like the impressionistic brio of his continental counterparts.4

‘In this year,’ he recorded,

a plague of a kind which had never been met with before ravaged our land of England. The Bishop of Rochester, who maintained only a small household, lost four priests, five esquires, ten attendants, seven young clerics and six pages, so that nobody was left to serve him in any capacity. At Mailing he consecrated two abbesses but both died almost immediately, leaving only four established nuns and four novices. One of these the Bishop put in the charge of the lay members and the other of the religious, for it proved impossible to find anyone suitable to act as abbess.

‘To our great grief,’ went on the monk,

the plague carried off so vast a multitude of people of both sexes that nobody could be found who would bear the corpses to the grave. Men and women carried their own children on their shoulders to the church and threw them into a common pit. From these pits such an appalling stench was given off that scarcely anyone dared even to walk beside the cemeteries.

There was so marked a deficiency of labourers and workmen of every kind at this period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was let lie idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them …

During the whole of that winter and the following spring, the Bishop of Rochester, aged and infirm, remained at Trottiscliffe [his country manor between Sevenoaks and Rochester], bewailing the terrible changes which had overcome the world. In every manor of his diocese buildings were falling into decay and there was hardly one manor which returned as much as £100. In the monastery of Rochester supplies ran short and the brethren had great difficulty in getting enough to eat; to such a point that the monks were obliged either to grind their own bread or to go without. The prior, however, ate everything of the best.

The chronicler probably had his facts right so far as the details of the Bishop’s establishment were concerned but his qualifications are less impressive as an observer of the agricultural scene in Kent or, still more, ‘the whole realm’. The reference to ‘more than a third of the land’ lying idle had as little statistical significance as similar statements that half or three-quarters of the population were dead. It was certainly exaggerated; but quite as certainly it was a tribute to the very real dislocation which had afflicted the farming lands of Kent and the forlorn and unkempt air which they must often have presented.

The priory and convent of Christ Church, Canterbury, suffered little in the epidemic, only four inmates dying. Thorold Rogers attributes this to the good water supply and efficient drainage system which had been installed by an earlier prior. It is hard to accept any very direct relationship between bubonic plague and pure drinking water,5 but the fact that the establishment was clean and free from rats would certainly have helped to keep infection at bay. It is surprising that the flow of pilgrims to Canterbury hardly slackened even when the plague was at its worst.6 It might have been supposed that the mortality among putative pilgrims and the obvious perils of travel in time of pestilence would have been enough to scare off even the most devout. Presumably those who had already survived an outbreak wished to give thanks for their deliverance while those who were yet to experience one hoped to accumulate merit in advance. In neither case was the result likely to be wholly satisfactory. No doubt their determination was welcome in Canterbury, since every visitor was a source of income, but as each wave of arrivals brought in fresh infection even the most avaricious of citizens must have asked himself whether the blessing was an unmixed one.

Somehow the old and decrepit Bishop Haymo of Rochester managed to survive while all his retinue perished around him. Reference has already been made to the long-established belief that the Black Death struck down the strong in the prime of their life and spared the children and the aged.7 In this, as in all things, it would have been like the Bishop to seek to conform to tradition. But such evidence as exists does not support the theory. Analysing five hundred and five inquisitions post-mortem, Professor Russell found that by far the heaviest mortality, 46 per cent, occurred in one of the most senior age-groups, those between fifty-six and sixty.8 The oldest age group of all, those above sixty, suffered next most badly, with mortality of almost 40 per cent. It is, of course, true that a higher proportion of this group would anyhow be likely to die within any given period even without the Black Death to help them on their way. But the incidence of mortality is still strikingly higher than among those in the prime of their life: only 20 per cent for those between twenty-one and twenty-five; 19 per cent for the twenty-six to thirties; and 28 per cent for the thirty to thirty-fives. Tradition does seem to be right, however, in maintaining that the children were spared. Only 7 per cent died of those between six and ten and 15 per cent between eleven and fifteen.

By these rules the Bishop was fortunate to have outlived his priests and outstandingly lucky to have survived his pages. After such hazards one might think that he had earned a tranquil old age. But new troubles beset him. Even when the worst of the plague was over he found that his clergy hesitated to do their duty in their parishes; preferring either to remain prudently at home or to abandon their flock to their fate and retreat to what they hoped might prove a safer area. The phenomenon was by no means peculiar to Kent but it seems to have been particularly remarked on there. Stephen Birchington of Canterbury also referred to the fact that ‘… parish churches remained altogether unserved, and beneficed parsons turned away from the care of their benefices for fear of death …’9

Dene of Rochester in his turn commented on the decadence which had overtaken the country under the stress of the Black Death. His strictures on workmen possessed by the spirit of revolt have already been noted but worse was to follow: ‘The entire population, or the greater part of it, has become even more depraved, more prone to every kind of vice, more ready to indulge in evil and sinfulness, without a thought of death, or of the plague which is just over, or even of their own salvation … So, day by day, the peril in which the souls of clergy as well as people are to be found has grown more dangerous …’

One sees Dene of Rochester as a crabbed, reactionary figure, passed over for promotion, embittered, filled with the darkest doubts about the younger generation. But there are too many similar reports to leave room for doubt that he had grounds for his grumblings.


There is not much to delay one in the other counties of the south. In Hertfordshire, March and April were the worst months. But many cases occurred even when the summer was over and there seems to have been a second, milder outbreak in the course of 1350. In certain manors, where the ravages of the plague had been particularly ferocious, it became the custom to head future schedules of expenditure with ‘an enumeration of the lives which were lost and the tenancies which were vacated after the great death of 1348.’10 The archdeaconry, an area considerably larger than that of the county, does not seem to have suffered particularly badly. In the low-lying fen district, St Ives lost only 23 per cent, Holland 24 per cent and Peterborough 27 per cent of the beneficed clergy.11 Marshes and fens, perhaps because of their association with mosquitoes, are generally linked in the popular mind with fever and disease. In the case of the Black Death they belied their reputation. One possible explanation is that they were often remote from the sea and the main lines of communications and therefore to some extent sheltered from infection. Another is that such damp and sparsely inhabited areas held little appeal for the wandering rat. But the impact of the plague was too spasmodic to allow even exceptions to the general rule to be defined exactly and certain areas of fen country suffered as badly as any in the country.

To quote statistics which show that Hertfordshire suffered less severely than other counties is not to detract from the agonies which the inhabitants endured: to the victims it mattered remarkably little whether the mortality was 37 per cent or a mere 34 per cent, the risk and the pain of death seemed much the same. A scrawl on the wall of the church of St Mary, Ash well, somehow catches the black horror of the plague. ‘Wretched, terrible, destructive year …’ the unknown scratched in the stone sometime in 1350, ‘… the remnants of the people alone remain …’12 There are plenty of examples in the county of almost complete disaster. At Standon, six miles north of Ware, thirty-two customary tenants were supposed to mow the lord’s hay. In 1349 no men went to mow, went to mow a meadow and the hay was left to rot in the fields.

But where an analysis has been made of a group of manors big enough to provide a reasonable sample, one is once again struck with the amazing speed of the countryside’s recovery. Dr Levett, whose individual contribution to the history of the Black Death, though in some respects now seen to be too extreme in its conclusions, has done so much to bring sanity and cool scientific reasoning into a sphere peculiarly rich in ill-supported fantasy, has studied, inter alia, the manors of the great abbey of St Albans.13 The plague, it is true, was at its worst on these manors in April and May, which was the least dangerous period from the point of view of the rural economy. The corn crops could safely be left to take care of themselves until what was left of the population had time to attend to them, and weeding and ploughing dispensed with for one year without serious consequences. But, granted this minor stroke of luck, a serious setback to the manors’ economy might have been expected. So indeed there was, but as Dr Levett puts it:

The average historian of the plague period seems to have worked from two assumptions:

(1) that every peasant farmer was occupied to the utmost of his capacity before the pestilence; and (2) that after it the whole remaining population, supine and unalert on their own holdings, tended to rise up and wander about the country in search of high wages. Neither assumption will hold water.

Once the worst of the shock was over, energy, discipline and intelligent administration quickly got the wheels of agriculture turning once again. The St Albans’ manors were well run and prosperous, on good farming land and with the power and wealth of the Abbey to sustain them. They had little difficulty in luring away labour from other, less fortunate estates. It would be a great mistake to assume that what was true of them was true of the majority of English manors but, equally, they were by no means unique.

The Abbey itself suffered rather worse than its manors.14 Michael of Mentmore, one of the greatest of its Abbots, was struck down after thirteen years in office on 2 April 1349:

… being the first to suffer from the dread disease which was later to carry off his monks. He began to feel the first symptoms on Maundy Thursday, but out of reverence for the festival and remembering our Lord’s humility, he celebrated High Mass and then, before taking his dinner, humbly and devoutly washed the feet of the poor. After he had taken his dinner he proceeded to wash and kiss the feet of all the brethren and to carry out all the offices of the day alone and without assistance. The next day when his sickness became worse, he took to his bed and, as a true Catholic, made his confession with a contrite heart and received the sacrament of extreme unction. Amidst the sorrow of all who surrounded him he endured until noon on Easter Day…. And there died at that time forty-seven monks …15

The neighbouring archdeaconry of Bedford lost 38.6 per cent of its beneficed clergy.16 At Millbrook, to the south of the town of Bedford, the lord of the manor Peter de St Croix was among those who died. At the inquisition it was said that all the bondmen and cottars were dead and, a few months later, his son and heir Robert followed his father.17 With incidents such as this a commonplace it is not surprising that Bedford, whose main function was to serve as a centre for the agricultural lands around it, lost drastically in prosperity. Certainly the general decline of the English rural economy began long before 1350 and would probably have continued even if there had been no epidemic but, in the case of Bedford at least, the County History believes the plague to have been the decisive factor. It took the town a hundred and fifty years to recover its former strength.


In East Anglia, arbitrarily defining this somewhat fluid concept to include Cambridgeshire as well as Norfolk, Suffolk and the north of Essex, the Black Death seems to have arrived in March 1349, reached its peak in May, June and July and died out during the autumn.18 A typical case was that of the manor of Cornard Parva where nine deaths were recorded at the Court held on 31 March. By 1 May another fifteen were dead of whom seven left no heir; leaving the presumption, though by no means the certainty, that in such cases an entire family had been exterminated. By 3 November, after a long gap during which, presumably because of the plague, no Court was held, the parson and a further thirty-six tenants were dead, this time twenty leaving no heir. The lasting economic damage done by the Black Death was demonstrated in the market town of Sudbury in Suffolk. In 1340 there were 107 ancient stalls licensed for the weekly market. By 1361 the number had dropped to sixty-two.19

Yarmouth at this period was one of the most flourishing towns and certainly the leading sea-port of East Anglia. Seebohm believed that the population in 1348 must have been more than ten thousand20 and Cardinal Gasquet, pointing out that Yarmouth had two hundred and twenty ships and furnished three times more sailors than London for the attack on Calais, argued that this estimate must be much too low.21 Modern research, which almost always seems to lead to the reduction of earlier estimates, would on the contrary consider it decidedly too high. But the plague certainly wreaked terrible havoc and recovery was slow. At the beginning of the sixteenth century a petition of the burgesses to Henry VIII referred to the great pestilence: ‘by reason whereof the most part of the dwelling places and inhabitants of the said town stood desolate and fell into utter ruin and decay, which at this day are gardens and void grounds …’ The unfinished tower of St Nicholas, begun in the age of prosperity and abandoned when money and labour were alike lacking, pays tribute to the thoroughness with which the Black Death did its work.

The bailiwick of Clare, about fifteen manors belonging to the Earls of March and scattered widely over East Anglia, provide an interesting illustration of the extent to which a great landlord could hold his own in time of trouble.22 The bailiwick on the whole was not very seriously affected: certainly much less so than another group of Mortimer manors around Bridgewater Castle in Somerset. Standon, a village not in East Anglia at all but in Hertfordshire, was the worst hit. The number of labour services was halved and some tenements remained unoccupied for more than twenty years. But even on this battered manor, once the initial shock had been weathered, the total of rents received fell only by some 15 per cent. Wages rose sharply in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death but by the 1360s had been pegged back to little above the level ruling before the plague. For a year or two a large part of the lord’s demesne was left uncultivated but this too was soon put right.

The Mortimers seem to have suffered decidedly less than most of their neighbours. This was, as a generalization, true of the whole class of great territorial magnates who held their own throughout the recession of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Dr Holmes has pointed out in his analysis of the estates of the higher nobility that, by thus retaining their habitual revenues, they were in effect taking a larger share of a decreasing product.23 The damage thus done was blanketed in the middle of the fourteenth century by the reduced pressure on resources which the great mortality of the Black Death produced. But, in the long run, it was a movement against an economic trend which was to weaken the stability of the system which made it possible.

Norfolk in particular is rich in those holes and mounds and crumbled ruins which local historians have painstakingly identified as the lost villages of another era. We have already referred to the tendency to ascribe such disappearances to the baleful effects of the Black Death. In Norfolk this seems even less justified than elsewhere. More than a hundred Norfolk villages existed at the time of the Domesday Survey and have subsequently disappeared. Thirty-four of these had already vanished by 1316 and others almost certainly fell into desolation between that date and 1348. Only one, Ringstead Parva, ceased to exist as a community between then and 1351; the bulk of the remainder lingered on till the second half of the fifteenth century or even later.

‘There can be little doubt’, concluded Mr Allison,24 ‘that the Black Death played no more than a contributory part in village depopulation in Norfolk.’ But though it is easy to exaggerate the destructive power of the plague, it would be far more misleading to minimize it. Great tracts of the county, in particular the barren Brecklands around Brandon, can literally be said never to have recovered. Economically weak and on the decline even before 1348, the blow which the Black Death then inflicted and, more insidious, the opportunities which the plague created for finding better land in other, more prosperous parts of the country, sealed the doom of these unlucky areas. The hold which civilization had established on the border-lands during the great expansion of the thirteenth century was especially weak in East Anglia. Now it was driven inexorably back and the wild took over its own again.

Bishop Bateman was conducting peace negotiations with the French when the plague neared the borders of his diocese. He returned by sea to Yarmouth on 10 June and was told on landing that his brother, Sir Bartholomew Bateman of Gillingham, was already in his grave.25 Hurrying to Norwich, he found the plague raging; his Vicar General, Thomas de Methwold, lurking at Terlyng in Essex; and his palace, next to the new cemetery in the Cathedral Close, made almost intolerable by the stench of the dead. He at once ordered Methwold to return to his duties but barely was the Vicar General back at work than the ‘intrepid Bishop’, as Dr Jessop hopefully called him, was himself on his way to his rural manor at Hoxne nearly twenty miles south of Norwich. He spent three days at Ipswich in the next few months but did not visit the capital of his diocese again till the plague was safely over.

Certainly Norwich was anything but a pleasant place to be in the summer and autumn of 1349. ‘There died’, recorded Blomefield, possibly confusing figures for the city with those for the county or diocese, ‘no less than 57,104 (or more rightly as others have it, 57,374) persons in this city only, besides religious and beggars.’26 He admitted that this figure might seem surprisingly high since the population of Norwich when he wrote in 1806 was still quite a lot less than the casualties of 1349, but explained that the city, in the middle of the fourteenth century, was ‘in the most flourishing state she ever saw, and more populous than she hath been ever since.’ Given about a thousand inhabitants to each of the sixty-odd parishes and throwing in an allowance for the suburbs and the religious houses, Blomefield calculated that the total population of 1348 must have been a minimum of seventy thousand. Seebohm accepts that the death rate may have been in the neighbourhood of fifty-seven thousand but reduced the total population to sixty thousand; evidently feeling that a death rate of 95 per cent called for no special explanation.27 Basing himself on the Leet Rolls Professor Russell estimates that the population of Norwich was some thirteen thousand in 1311.28 Subtracting the poll tax figure for 1377 of 5,928, the figure for the population which remains to be accounted for comes remarkably close to 7,104; the last four figures of Blomefield’s total. Russell ingeniously surmises that the five at the beginning was added by some careless transcriber and that the ancient record to which Blomefield referred should in fact have been read as a broadly accurate seven thousand dead. He could be right but since, as he himself frequently points out, medieval statistics were invariably grossly over-stated, it seems easier to believe that the usual rule applied in the case of Norwich. What at all events seems certain is that Norwich, the second city of the kingdom, lost more than half its population and not only never recovered its position in relation to the rest of England but, in absolute terms, had barely regained its vanished citizens by the end of the sixteenth century.

Though the whole of Bishop Bateman’s diocese may not have suffered as much as its capital there is no doubt that mortality among the clergy was unusually high. In the years before the Black Death the average annual figure for episcopal institutions was eighty-one. In the year between 25 March 1349 and 25 March 1350 the total rose to 831.29 For the population as a whole, Jessop remarked: ‘If any one should suggest that many more than half died, I should not be disposed to quarrel with him.’30 It is unlikely that he would go so far if he were writing today but at least it seems certain that the death rate in East Anglia was well above the national average.


The Bishop of the neighbouring diocese of Ely was in Avignon when the plague reached his territories. He seems to have made no effort to return. He had already appointed five Vicars General to look after the diocese in his absence and, on 9 April, appointed an additional three ‘to exercise their duties until death’.31 In his letter he referred to ‘the epidemic, as it is called, wondrously increasing in the diocese’,32 a phrase soon to be fully justified but at the time a little premature since it was not till April that the plague took a serious grip in Cambridgeshire. He specified which of the Vicars General was to dispose of vacant benefices in his absence and carefully listed the order of succession to this attractive prerogative.

In the whole diocese there were eighteen times as many institutions as in a normal year, a far higher ratio even than in Norfolk and Suffolk. Only one of these institutions is known to have been due to the resignation rather than the death of the previous incumbent though there are other cases in which details are lacking.33 But the incidence of the plague seems to have been even more erratic than in other parts of England. Within a radius of ten miles of Cambridge thirty-five out of fifty tenants died on the Crowland manors at Oakington, twenty out of forty-two at Dry Drayton, thirty-three out of fifty-eight at Cottenham and yet at the manors of Great Shelford and of Elsworth, though there may have been deaths which were not recorded in the Court Rolls, there is no evidence that the Black Death had any effects at all. All these communities were in broadly similar country with populations of between two and four hundred. Their inhabitants suffered the same weather, farmed the same land, ate the same food. No one, be he epidemiologist or historian, has yet been able to suggest plausible reasons why one manor should have lost half its tenants while another seems to have suffered little if any ill effects.

There is remarkably little to show how severely the plague affected the University at Cambridge. The only College which furnishes any useful material is King’s Hall where sixteen out of forty resident scholars died between April and August. But one can deduce that the losses among students must have been severe by what is known of events in the town of Cambridge. Though some of the damage may have been done by the second epidemic of 1361, an idea of the devastation is given by a letter from the Bishop of Ely written in 1366 which suggested the amalgamation of two of the city parishes on the grounds that there were not enough people left to fill even one of the churches. Practically the whole of the town on the Castle side of the river, ‘The Ward beyond the Bridge’, seems to have been wiped out. Most people in All Saints in Castro also died and the few parishioners left alive moved out. The nave of All Saints’ Church fell into ruins, leaving ‘the bones of the dead exposed to the beasts.’34

If eight hundred beneficed clergy died in East Anglia, well over twice as many priests must in all have perished. Taking into account subsequent desertions there must have been at least two thousand vacancies; nearly two thousand five hundred if Cambridgeshire be included. Given that this was a national and not a local problem and that all the other dioceses were in competition for the limited intake of new priests and remembering the diminished appeal of a priest’s métier when he could not even be guaranteed a living wage, it will be obvious that the task of replacing the dead was prodigious. That it was not altogether impossible is because the Church in 1348, like agriculture, seems to have been a decidedly over-manned profession. Far more of the land-owning families had unloaded their younger sons on the Church than the available parishes could comfortably accommodate and there was therefore a surplus of clergy in search of benefices which could be drawn on at least to plug the more attractive gaps.

But even allowing for this, it was more than the Bishops of Norwich and Ely could do to build up the numbers of their clerics without some loss of standard. Jessop denies that there was any serious decadence in the East Anglian church after the Black Death35but certainly the educational level of the new priests was lower than that of their predecessors and, even when they were literate, they were often middle-aged men with little sense of vocation but widowed by the plague and looking for some way to fill the rest of their lives.

Nor were all the new recruits as estimable as this. The Rev. William, priest of the manor of Waltham, was appointed early in 1350. His extra-parochial activities earned him the nickname of ‘William the One-day priest’, a title which he amply justified when he held up Matilda, the wife of John Clement de Gody-chester, and robbed her of her purse. For this offence he was arrested and, one must fear, eventually hanged. The Rev. William was certainly exceptional and such exceptions were not uniquely to be found in the mid-fourteenth century. Delinquent priests cropped up in every generation. But in the conditions of 1350 and 1351 it came as less of a surprise when priests behaved with a striking degree of impropriety. In East Anglia at least the reputation of the clergy stood lower after the plague than before it.


1 V.C.H. Sussex, Vol. II, p.77.

2 ibid., Vol. II, p.54.

3 ibid., Vol. II, p.182.

4 Willelmi de Dene, ‘Historia Rossensis’, Wharton, Anglia Sacra, Vol. I, pp.375–6.

5 J. E. T. Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages, London, 1906, p.221.

6 C. E. Woodruff and W. Danks, Memorials of Canterbury Cathedral, London, 1912, p.148.

7 See p.79 above.

8 J.C. Russell, op. cit., p.216.

9 Stephani Birchington, op. cit., p.42.

10 J. E. T. Rogers, op. cat., p.225.

11 A. Hamilton Thompson, ‘Registers of John Gynewell’, op. cit., p.322.

12 C. R. Haines, Dover Priory, Cambridge, 1930, p.267n.

13 A.E.Levett, Studies in Manorial History, Oxford, 1938, p.251 et seq.

14 E. Toms, The Story of St Albans, St Albans, 1962, pp.50–51.

15 Gesta Abbatum S. Albani, R.S. 28, Vol. ii, p.369, cf. L. F. R. Williams, History of the Abbey of St Albans, London, 1917, p.166.

16 A. Hamilton Thompson, op. cit., p.324.

17 V.C.H. Bedford, Vol. III, p.318.

18 A. Jessop, ‘The Black Death in East Anglia’, The Coming of the Friars and other Historic Essays, London, 1894, pp.200–201.

19 C. G. Grimwood, History of Sudbury. Sudbury 1952, p.86.

20 F. Seebohm, ‘The Black Death and its place in English History’, Fortnightly Review, Vol. II, 1865, p.155.

21 Gasquet, op. cit., p.153.

22 G. A. Holmes, The Estates of the Higher Nobility …, op. cit., p.90 et seq.

23 ibid, p.115.

24 K. J. Allison, ‘The Lost Villages of Norfolk’, Norfolk Archaeology, Vol. XXXI, 1955, p.131.

25 V.C.H. Suffolk, Vol. 11, p.19.

26 F. Blomefield, History of the County of Norfolk, Vol. III, London, 1806.

27 F. Seebohm, ‘The Black Death and its place in English History’, Fortnightly Review, Vol. II, 1865, pp.157–8.

28 J. C. Russell, British Mediaeval Population, op. cit., p.293.

29 V.C.H. Suffolk, Vol. II, p.19.

30 op. cit., p.206.

31 F. R. Chapman, Sacrist Rolls of Ely, Cambridge, 1907, p.107.

32 Gasquet, op. cit., p.154.

33 V.C.H. Cambridgeshire, Vol. II, p.158.

34 Hist. MSS. Comm., 6th Report, App., p.299.

35 Jessop, op. cit., p.220.

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