From Old Church Lore by William Andrews; William Andrews & Co., The Hull Press; London, 1891; pp. 152-173.

stylized border engraving of flowers and interlacing vines [152]

Plagues and Pestilences

manuscript letter THE graphic pages of Daniel Defoe have made the reader familiar with the terrible story of the Great Plague of London, which began in December, 1664, and carried off 68,596 persons, some say even a larger number. To give a detailed account of that visitation would be to relate an oft-told tale. Some important facts, not generally known, respecting old-time plagues and pestilences may be gleaned from parish registers and churchwardens’ accounts, and it is from such records that we propose mainly to draw materials for this chapter.

When a town was infected with the plague, business was suspended, and the inhabitants isolated from the neighbouring places. If a person desired to travel at large, he made application to the Mayor or Chief Magistrate, and 153 obtained a certificate to the effect that he was not suspected of the plague.

In many towns, great wisdom was displayed by erecting huts on breezy moors and other places away from the busy haunts of men, for the reception of the plague-stricken persons, and to which they were removed. The inmates of a house were not suffered to leave the homes from whence the patients had been removed. An order passed in London, in 1570, states: “Howses, having some sicke, though none die, or from whence some sicke have been removed, are infected houses, and such are to be shutt upp for a moneth. The whole family to tarrie xxviii daies.” Round the houses, watch and ward were constantly kept to prevent egress. Certain boundaries were defined, and these could not be passed. The watchers provided the inmates of the houses with food, etc., and took messages to their friends. In the churchwardens’ accounts of St. Mary, Woolchurch, Haw, is an entry: —

“1607-8. Paid a warder for warding
        Mr. Clarke’s house, being infected,
        ordered by the Mayor ..................... 4   0.”

On the door of the infected house was the sign of a cross, in a flaming red colour, with the pathetic 154 prayer, “Lord, have mercy on us.” In old churchwardens’ accounts, many items like the following, drawn from the accounts of St. Mary, Woolnoth, London, might be quoted:

“1593-4. Item for setting a crosse
        upon one Allen’s doore in the
        sicknesse time ................................    ijd.
  Item paid for setting two red crosses
        upon Anthony Sound his dore ...... iiijd.

These crosses were about a foot in length. More than one student of the past has suggested that the practice of marking the doors of infected houses with red crosses arose from the injunction given to Moses at the institution of the passover. The crosses served the important purpose for which they were intended, namely, to caution folk against going to infected houses.

Queen Elizabeth, 1563, commanded that the inmates of a house which had been visited by the plague should not go to church for a month.

Orders were given that any dogs found in the streets were to be killed. An order, bearing on this matter, made in May, 1583, at Winchester, may be reproduced: “That if any house wtn this cytie shall happen to be infected with the Plague, that thene evye persone to keepe within 155 his or her house every his or her dogg, and not to suffer them to goo at large: And if any dogg be then founde abroad at large, it shall be lawful for the Beadle or any other person to kill the same dogg: and that any Owner of such Dogg going at large shall lose 6s.” It was believed that dogs conveyed contagion from infected houses. A passage in Homer’s “Iliad” has a reference to man obtaining infection from an animal. It relates to the great pestilence that prevailed in the Grecian army:

“On mules and beasts the infection first began,
  At last, its vengeful arrows fix’d in man;
  Apollo’s wrath the dire disorder spread,
  And heap’d the camp with mountains of the dead.
  For nine long nights throughout the dusky air,
  The funeral torches shed a dismal glare.”

Many remedies were tried to stay the progress of plagues. The ringing of church bells was among the number. “Great ringing of bells in populous cities,” says Bacon, in his “Natural History,” disperseth pestilent air, which may be from the concussion of the air, and not from the sound.” Music, in the Middle Ages, was believed to have a healing power. Large fires were lighted in houses and streets as preventatives. It is not unlikely that the practice may be derived from 156 the fact that, in 1347, during the time of the plague raging at Avignon, Pope Clement VI. caused great fires to be kept in his palace, day and night, and by this means believed he had kept the pestilence from his household. In 1563, we learn from Stow that a commandment came from Queen Elizabeth that “every man in every street and lane should make a bonefire three times a week, in order to the ceasing of the plague, if it so pleased God, and so to continue these fires everywhere, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.”

It is asserted in Rome, in A.D. 195, that for some time, 5,000 persons died daily of a fearful plague. The physicians were unable to check its deadly course. It lasted for three years. The doctors of the day urged upon the people to fill their noses and ears with sweet smelling ointments to prevent contagion. We learn from Defoe’s “Journal of the Plague Year, 1665,” how largely perfumes, aromatics, and essences, were employed to escape contagion at that time. Says Defoe, if you went into a church where any number of people were present, there would be such a mixture of smells at the entrance, that it was much more strong, though, perhaps, not so wholesome, than if you were going into an 157 apothecary’s or druggist’s shop. In a word, the whole church was like a smelling bottle; in one corner, it was all perfumes; in another, aromatics, balsamics, and a variety of drugs and herbs; in another, salts and spirits; as every one was furnished for their own preservation.” The poorer people, who only set open their windows night and day, burnt brimstone, pitch, and gunpowder, and such things in their rooms, did as well as the best.”

The annals of many of the northern English towns contain numerous sad references to plagues. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for example, suffered much. The churchwardens’ accounts of St. Nicolas contain records of payments which bear on this subject. We find, for instance, the following item:

“1699. By cash paid for a tarr barrell
        to burn in ye church ...................... 0   8.”

Fires were made in churches in movable pans. A year later, we read:

“1700. For hearbs for tubing ye
        pewes .................................. 1   0.”

In courts of justice, might be seen large nosegays, not for ornament, but as preservatives against the pest. The Rev. J. R. Boyle, F.S.A., 158 has gone carefully over the churchwarden’s accounts of St. Nicholas’, now the Cathedral of the city of Newcastle, and reproduced some curious items in his guide to the building. Here follow a few of the items:

“1684. For juniper and erbes for ye
    vestry ............................................ 0   10.
1684. Paid for erbes and fflowers
    for Mr. Maior’s pew 2 times ......... 3   0.
1686. Erbes for ye church at Easter,
    Whitsuntyde, and Assizes ............ 6   0.
1688. Paid for holland [holly] and
    juniper for ye vestery, and erbs ... 1  11.
1690. Paid for sweet herbs for
    strawing in ye pews, etc. ............. 1   0.”

Mr. William Kelly, read before the Royal Historical Society, on July 12th, 1877, an important paper on “Visitations of the Plague at Leicester.” He gave particulars of the Mayor addressing a letter to Justice Gawdie, who was about to visit the town in his official capacity. He was informed that the plague had broken out in houses near the castle, and it was concluded that his lordship would not come to preside so near the infected places. The result of the communication may be gathered from the following 159 entry, copied from the chamberlain’s accounts:

“1594. Item, paid for charges of
    makinge readye of All
    Hallowes Churche for the
    judges to hold the assyses in,
    because the other parte of the
    town was then infected with
    the sicknes ............................... xvs.   vjd.”

We have previously stated, that persons wishing to leave a plague-stricken town, for the purpose of travelling, were obliged to obtain passes. Mr. Kelly gives a copy of one of these documents, which we reproduce in extenso. It reads as follows:

“Villa Leic. Theise are to certifie all the Queenes Majesties officers and lovinge subjects, to whom theise presents shall come, that the bearer, Alice Stynton, the wife of John Stynton, of the towne of Leycester, pettye chapman, dothe dwell and inhabyte in the parish of St. Nicholas, in the said town, in a streete called the Sore Laine, neyre unto the West Brigge.

     The which John Stynton hathe not bene in Leycester sythence one fortnytt after St. James Daye last; but travelinge abrode in Northamptonshier 160 about his lawfull affaires in gaytheringe under the Greate Seale of England, by lycence, for a poore house at Waltam Crosse.

     And this bearer, his wief, with hym all the said tyme, untill her nowe comyng hom to Leycester, which was aboute a weeke past. The which bearer her dwellyng ys not neyre unto places suspected of the plage, but ys cleyre and sound from the same, God be thancked, neyther ys there any att this present sicke thereof in the said streete or parish, God be praised. Do therefore request you to permytt and suffer her quietlye to travell to her husband, and also to permytt and suffer her said husband and her quietlye, upon ther honest behavire, to travell aboute ther lawfull busynes withoute any your hyndrance, and you the constables to helpe them to lodginges in ther said travell yf such nede shall require. In witness whereof, we the mayor and alderman of the saide towne of Leycester have hereunto subscribed our names, and sette the seale of office of the said mayor, this vjth daye of October 1593, A° 35° Eliz.”

The records of Beverley supply some important notes respecting persons leaving the place. We gather from George Oliver’s history of Beverley, 161 that the plague raged with great violence in the year 1610, death and desertion were greatly thinning the town; the corporation made an order, directing that a fine of ten shilling be imposed on every individual leaving the town, even to go to fairs and markets, without the mayor’s special permission. If the preceding measure was insufficient to detain persons in Beverley, it was resolved to imprison or otherwise punish, at the discretion of the justices, those offending.

The head of every family had to report periodically, during the time of the plague, to the constable in his ward, the state of he health of his household. If the disease attacked any member of his family, or those under his charge, and he neglected, within a specified number of hours, to report the matter, he was liable to a fine of forty shillings, to be placed in the town’s chest.

The town of Derby suffered greatly from a plague in 1592-3. It appears to have been imported in some bales of cloth from the Levant to London, and quickly spread into the provinces. In the parish register of St. Alkmund’s, Derby, under October, 1592, is this statement. “Hic 162 incipit pestis prestifera.” It took twelve months to run its destructive course.

The register of All Saints’, Derby, under October, 1593, says: “About this time, the plague of pestilence, by the great mercy and goodness of Almighty God, stay’d, past all expectac’on of man, for it rested upon assondaye, at what tyme it was dispersed in every corner of this whole p’she: ther was not two houses together free from ytt, and yet the Lord bade his angell staye, as in Davide’s tyme: His name be blessed for ytt.”

The inhabitants of Derby suffered greatly from a plague in 1665. In the Arboretum of the town is a memorial of the visitation, in the form of a stone, bearing the following inscription:

“Headless Cross, or




‘1665. Derby was again visited by the plague at the same time in which London fell under that severe calamity. The town was forsaken; the farmers declined the Market-place; and grass grew upon that spot which had furnished the supports of life. To prevent a famine, the inhabitants 163 erected at the top of Nuns-green, one or two hundred yards from the buildings, now Friar-gate, what bore the name of Headless-cross, consisting of about four quadrangular steps, covered in the centre with one large stone; the whole near five feet high; I knew it in perfection. Hither the market-people, having their mouths primed with tobacco as a preservative, brought their provisions, stood at a distance from their property, and at a greater from the townspeople, with whom they were to traffic. The buyer was not suffered to touch any of the articles before purchase; but when the agreement was finished, he took the goods, and deposited the money in a vessel filled with vinegar, set for that purpose.’ ”

Tobacco has long been regarded as an efficacious preservative against disease. There is a curious entry in Thomas Hearne’s Dairy, 1720-21, bearing on this matter. He thus writes, under date of January 21st: “I have been told that in the last great plague in London none that kept tobacconists’ shops had the plague. It is certain that smoaking was looked upon as a most excellent preservative. In so much, that even children were obliged to smoak. And I remember that I heard formerly Tom Rogers, who was yeoman beadle, say that, when he was that year, when the plague raged, a school-boy at Eaton, all the boys of that school were obliged to smoak in the school every morning, and that he was never whipped so much in his life as he was one morning for not smoaking.”


Charles Knight, in his “Old England,” gives an original drawing of the Broad Stone, East Retford, Nottinghamshire. He says, on this stone, money, previously immersed in vinegar, was placed in exchange for goods, during the Great Plague.

A Large Stone on a Pedestal with a few coins on it.  A man is reaching for it, who is holding a knapsack on a stick which is resting over his other shoulder.  This is surrounded by some trees, and a in the background are  two people at a distance watching him.


In front of Tothby House, near Alford, Lincolnshire, under a spreading tree, is a large stone, which formerly stood on Miles Cross Hill, and, when the town was plague-stricken, in the 165 year 1630, on this stone, money immersed in vinegar was deposited, in exchange for food brought from Spilsby and other places. From July 22nd, 1630, to the end of February, 1631, 132 burials are recorded in this parish register and this out of a population of under 1000 persons, a proportion equal to that of London during the Great Plague. In one homestead, within twelve days, were six deaths. The Rev. Geo. S. Tyack, B.A., who has contributed a carefully-prepared chapter to “Bygone Lincolnshire” on this theme, does not state how the scourge was brought to Alford.

The dead were, as a rule, buried at night, without coffin and ceremony, and frequently in a common grave outside the usual graveyards, like, for example, those in the pest pit of London. “Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!” was the dismal cry which was heard in London during the Great Plague. The people were dead and buried in a few hours, and it is believe that many were interred alive. A well-known instance occurred at Stratford-on-Avon. The plague raged at the town in 1564, and swept away one-seventh of the inhabitants. The council chamber was closed, but the councillors did not neglect 166 their duties; they met in a garden to discuss the best means of helping the sufferers. The visitation was not confined only to the homes of the poor. The Manor House of Clopton was attacked, and one of its fair inmates, a beautiful girl named Charlotte Clopton, was sick, and to all appearance died. She was buried without delay in the family vault, underneath Stratford Church. A week passed, and another was borne to the same resting place. When the vault was opened, a terrible sight was presented. Charlotte Clopton was seen leaning against the wall in her grave clothes. She had been buried alive, and, on recovering from the plague, had attempted to get out of the vault, when death had ended her sufferings.

At Bradley, in the parish of Malpas, Cheshire, an entire family, named Dawson, consisting of seven members and two servants, died of the plague, in the year 1625. One of Dawson’s sons had been in London, and returned home sick, died, and infected the whole household. The deaths commenced towards the end of July and ended September 15th. Respecting Richard Dawson, the following particulars are given in the parish register, after stating that he was the brother of the head of the house: “being sicke of the 167 plague, and perceyving he must die at yt time, arose out of his bed and made his grave, and caused his nefew, John Dawson, to cast strawe into the grave, w’ch was not farre from the house, and went and lay’d him down in the say’d grave, and caused clothes to be layd uppon, and so dep’ted out of this world; this he did, because he was a strong man, and heavier than his said nefew and another wench were able to bury. He died about xxivth of August. Thus much I was credibly tould he did.” The next entry in this distressing record bears date of August 29th, and is that of the nephew just named, and, on September 15th, Rose Smyth, the servant, doubtless the wench referred to, was buried, “and the last of yt household.”

At Braintree, in Essex, in 1665, the plague made great ravages. In that year, 665 persons died of it, being fully one-third of the inhabitants of the place. Business was at a standstill, the town was shunned, and the inhabitants had to depend on charity. Long grass grew in the street, and the whole place was one of desolation. At this time, Dr. Kidder, afterwards Bishop of Bath and Wells, was looking after the spiritual welfare of the place. His life contains a painful picture of the sufferings of the inhabitants. In 168 his own house, a young gentleman was attacked and died. “My neighbours,” he writes, “durst not come near, and the provisions which were procured for us were laid at a distance, upon a green before my house. No tongue can express the dismal calamity which that part of Essex lay under at that time. As for myself, I was in perpetual danger. I conversed daily with those who came from the infected houses, and it was unavoidable. The provisions sent into the neighbouring infected town were left at the village where I was, and near my house. Thither the Earl of Warwick sent his fat bullocks, which he did every week give to the poor of Braintree. The servants were not willing to carry them further. This occasioned frequent coming from that infected place to my village, and, indeed, to my very door. My parish clerk had it when he put on my surplice, and went from me to his house, and died. Another neighbour had three children, and they all died in three nights immediately succeeding each other, and I was forced to carry them to the churchyard and bury them. We were alarmed perpetually with the news of the death of our neighbours and acquaintances, and awakened to expect our turns. 169 This continued a great part of the summer. It pleased God to preserve me and mine from this noisome pestilence. Praised be his name.” The plague at Colchester, in the same county, in 1665-6, made the death rate higher than that of the neighbouring town or even of London. Its deadly operations opened in August, 1665, and closed in December, 1666, and, in that period, passed away 4,731 persons. Poverty prevailed, but help poured in from many places. Weekly collections were made in the churches of London, and by this means the sum of £1,311   10s. was obtained. The oath book of the Corporation contains the form of oath administered to men known as “Searchers of the Plague.” It was the duty of the men to search out and view the corpses of all who died, and, in cases of death from the plague, to make known the fact to the constables of the parish, and the bearers appointed to bury them. The searchers had to live together, and apart from their families, and not go abroad, except in the execution of their duty. They were careful not to go near any one, and they carried in their hands white wands, so that people might know them and so avoid them.

Collections in churches were very general for 170 those suffering from the plague. The following entry, reproduced from the parish register of the small town of Cheadle, Staffordshire, may be quoted as a specimen of similar records:

“1666. Collected on the first
    monthly fast, being second day
    of August, towards the relief of
    the persons and places visited
    by the plague ........................... 14s.  7d.”

The plague penetrated into most unexpected places. Far away from London, in the Peak of Derbyshire, is the delightfully-situated mountain village of Eyam, a place swept over by health-giving breezes. It is a locality of apparent security against infection. In September, 1665, a parcel of tailor’s patterns was sent from London to Eyam, and with it came the disease. At that time the village had a population of 350 persons, and when the plague “was exhausted with excessive slaughter,” only seventy-three were alive. From September 6th, 1665, to October 11th, 1666, 277 died, the death rate being much higher than that of London. The history of this visitation is heart-rending, and has been told by several writers, but by none more carefully than by William Wood, in his “History of Eyam,” 171 published by Richard Keene, of Derby. Two names in this dark story stand out in bright relief, one was the Rev. Thomas Stanley, the ejected rector of the parish, in 1662, and the Rev. William Mompesson, a successor, who was appointed in 1664. With their lives in their hands, these two brave men remained at the post of duty, visited, advised, and aided the sufferers unto death. Mrs. Mompesson administered daily to her husband’s suffering parishioners until death closed her useful life, on the 24th August, 1666. This was a terrible blow to her devoted husband, and a heavy loss to the villagers. “At one time,” we are told, “Mrs. Mompesson’s heart failed her, when she thought of her two children in the midst of the plague. She cast herself and her two children at the feet of her husband, and begged that they might all depart from the death-stricken place. In the most loving manner, however, he raised her from his feet, and pointed out the awful responsibility which would attach to his deserting his post. He then besought his wife to flee to some distant spot, where she and her babes might be safe. She refused, however, to leave him, but they mutually agreed to send the children to a relative in Yorkshire.”


About the middle of June, the more wealthy people fled to distant places from the plague-stricken village, and others built huts on the neighbouring hills, and in them took shelter. The entire population appeared determined to flee. Mr. Mompesson pointed out the folly of such a proceeding, observing that they would carry the disease to other places. His earnest entreaties prevailed.

He wrote to the Earl of Devonshire for assistance, to enable the inhabitants to remain in their own village. The Earl realised the importance of confining the disease within a certain limit. He readily made arrangements for a constant supply of food and clothing for the sufferers. A boundary was fixed round the village, marked by stones, and the residents solemnly agreed that not one should go beyond the radius indicated. The provisions, etc., were left early in the morning at an appointed place, and were fetched away by men selected for the work. If money was paid, it was placed in water. The men of Eyam faithfully kept their promise, so that the plague was not carried by them to any other places.

The churchyard was closed and funeral rites 173 were not read; graves were made in fields and gardens near the cottages of the departed.

During the time the disease was at its height, the church was closed but the faithful rector did not neglect to assemble his flock each succeeding Sabbath in a quiet spot on the south side of the village, and to proclaim to them words of comfort.

Shortly after the disease had stopped at Eyam, the rectory of Eaking was presented to Mr. Mompesson. The inhabitants of his new parish had such a terror of the plague that they dreaded his coming amongst them, and a hut was built for him in Rufford Park, where he remained until their fears had subsided.

This short study of a serious subject enables us to fully realise the force of the supplication in the Litany: “From Plague and Pestilence, Good Lord deliver us.”