23rd June 1348. The Great Death.

Outbreaks of the Great Plague occurred in 14th century England at a time when the country experienced particularly low temperatures, after several centuries of a warmer climate.

Today a Monday on June 23rd, the first Melcombe, Dorset, resident died: the Black Death had claimed its first English victim.

The pestilence had come from a merchant ship having Gascon sailors, who were found to be covered with black blotches, boils and ulcers under the arms and groin. Within a few days they were dead.

The path of the plague it appears, ran from China to the British Isles, carried along the trade routes by the black rat.

By 1346 it entered Crimea where plague infected corpses were catapulted by the Tartar besiegers into a Genoese trading port who fled, but carrying the plague with them. In 1347 the disease spread from Messina throughout Europe and Spain.

The Great Plague or Great Death as it was then called, spread rapidly throughout England, where peasants were tilling their strips of land, but also at a time when the population in the towns was growing as trade developed.

The tightly packed communities were an ideal breeding ground for infection and the people succumbed quickly.

Great and Little Cornard in the Stour Valley, Suffolk was one of the first in the county to report an outbreak: 21 families lost all adults. The Manor Courts had to reassign lands which was to upset the local customary feudal system.(1)

In 1349 Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, ‘doctor profundis‘, died at Rochester of the pestilence within a week of receiving the temporalities of his see from Avignon.(2)

The outbreaks in 1348 and later, caused widespread distress, but eventually saw economic change, with the peasantry now finding their labour was in higher demand. The result was they could demand higher wages and a chance to escape degrading serfdom.

Movement of population took place as peasants sought better land, where King and Lord had less control in a sellers’ market, where one third of the population had died. Those remaining would have seen it as the vengeance of God against a sinful people.


‘Only the dregs of the people survive’, says an unknown hand, inscribed below, on a stone at  Ashwell Church, Hertfordshire, against the date 1349.

Church graffito possibly by the parson.

Church graffito possibly by the parson at St Mary’s Church. Part of the writing says, originally in Latin: There was a plague,1000; 3 times 100; 5 times 10, which equals 1350. Pitiable, fierce and violent [plague departed].

The 14th century was the only period in the last millennium, when England’s population declined, and which apart from better conditions for the peasants, saw much opportunistic marrying to rich widows and widowers.

As always you win some and lose some!

(1) Norman F Cantor, In the Wake of the Great Plague.

(2) Documentary evidence shows in 1327 that 37 taxpayers, at Great and Little Cornard, paying 3 pounds, 9 shillings and 11 pence, farthing. Quite a sum then!

Ref; Cornard.info/history Pt 2.

Ref: boxford.me.uk/black-death-in-suffolk.

Ref: Daily Telegraph.Dominic Sandbrook Monday 10.7.2009.

Ref: Benedict Gunner, The scourging Angel.

Ref: Pic. Image/googleimages/hertfordshirememories.com.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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