Black Death and Beyond

23rd June 1348 initiated a change in a great many other things throughout England

The 14th century had started so well. There was a comparatively well-fed population of around 4 million – nearly three times that at the time of the Norman Conquest. The climate was kind, and all around were religious houses, praying for our wellbeing and tending the sick and needy. But, by 1335 it is estimated there were around 7 million people in the country and the fabric of society was beginning to unravel. The creation of ‘new land’ by assarting – the act or offense of grubbing up trees and bushes, and thus destroying the thickets or coverts of a forest – had ceased. Farming methods remained as they had been for centuries and monastic landowners were squabbling over boundaries and rights. Then the weather changed – becoming colder & wetter – culminating in a famine in 1315/6. This was followed by various infectious diseases affecting cattle and sheep – cattle murrain, which literally means “death” and sheep foot-rot. These together with bad harvests caused prices to rise. Society was on the edge of disaster.

Over the previous centuries plagues of various kinds had hit the populace on a 20/25 year cycle. When the plague that is called the ‘Black Death’ arrived in 1348 it was fiercer than any before and was greeted as another chastisement by God for the dissolute living of the rich – including the Monastic hierarchies – and the wretched poverty of the poor.

The social change provoked by the plague had a significant impact on the Fenland monasteries, although specific details of the plague are scarce. Crowland had actually suffered from an epidemic sometime between 1304 & 1315 when they lost 13 monks in 15 days. In 1324 they had 41 monks, 15 persons with pensions & 36 servants – a surprisingly low total for one of the great Benedictine monasteries. By 1380 the number of monks had fallen to 27 but we do not know if this was as a result of the 1349 plague, later plague visitations or other matters. Accessible records for Peterborough & Sawtry provide no details of plague, while the only information on Ramsey is that Abbot Robert of Nassington died in 1349.

Others give us a little more detail though: – in 1347 Thorney had a community of 33 professed monks. When the plague struck 13 monks died, as well as 100 of the monastic house­hold. In 1349, just before the plague, Ely – then a cathedral with a Priory ‘attached’ – had 53 monks. Immediately after, the figure recorded is 28.

Plague struck again in 1350 and 1361 before returning to its 20/25 year cycle

Wars and the plague had combined to cause great changes in the secular world, and these impacted on many aspects of monastic life. International trade had become severely limited with Ramsey’s annual fair at St Ives being one of the casualties.

Population decimation – down to some two and half million by 1370 – led to a decrease in the value of mills with falling profits & increased repair costs. Ramsey’s mills at Brancaster & Chatteris were two casualties.   This population decrease increased the value of labour – the uni­versal demand providing a freedom of movement unfamiliar until then. The reaction was the ‘Ordinance of Labourers’. Published on 18th June 1349 it limited the freedom of peasants to move around in search of the most lucrative work. This was promulgated through Parliament as the ‘Statute of Labourers’ in 1351. The act failed to achieve its aims and trouble began to brew.

It did not take into account the changing economic conditions during the Black Death. The period from which wage levels were taken was one of economic depression in England as a result of the 100 Years War. Therefore, wages during the Black Death were set even lower to match those during this depression. In practice, the statute was poorly enforced and unsuccessful, but it set a precedent that distinguished between labourers who were “able in body” to work and those who could not work for whatever reasons. This distinction resurfaced in later laws regarding poverty.

These rules were, of course, very unpopular with the peasants, who wanted higher wages and better living standards. As a result it was a contributing factor to subsequent peasant revolts, most notably the English one of 1381.

It was on 15th June 1381, that Peterborough Abbey felt this as a mob started to gather in the centre of Peterborough to complain about the new tax, unfair rents and other grievances. Their target was the local landlord and tax collector, the institution which effectively owned and ran the city and surrounding area – Peterborough Abbey. One can imagine the monk’s nervousness as a lynch mob gathered outside on the market square! Quite rapidly the monks would have secured the precincts; the great Norman gateway, that still stands today, was not just built for grandeur, but defence. The gateway was complete with the great gates that still survive and a portcullis, the slot for which can still be seen. This hurried but resolute defence left the two sides with something of a standoff.

In the meantime word had reached a local magnate of what was going on… he was Henry Despenser, the Bishop of Norwich. Henry’s brother had recently died and he had gone to take care of business at one of the family holdings at the manor of Burghley and so happened to be in the area.

Hearing of the riot in Peterborough, Henry headed in to deal with the trouble with his retinue of 8 knights and a number of archers and gathering other troops from the local gentry as he went. On the arrival of this war band the reaction of the mob in Peterborough, which would have included women and children, can only be imagined. Panic would have caused people to flee in all directions, trying to escape the carnage as Henry gave orders to his troops to give no quarter. A contemporary account describes the scene: ‘Some fell by sword or lance without the church, some within, some even close to the altar. So those who had come to destroy the church and its ministers perished by the hand of a churchman. For the Bishop’s sword gave them their absolution…’

Many records imply that this massacre took place in the grounds of the Abbey church. This may well not be true. For this to be the case it would have involved the mob forcing through the abbey’s substantial defences. The church could possibly be the old pilgrimage chapel of Thomas Becket, which still stood at this time and could have been accessed from the square. It is likely that it is there that the rioters sought sanctuary – and received their ‘absolution by the sword’. It is true that very soon after the event the chapel was de-consecrated. It was later re-consecrated and immediately demolished, the stone being used to build a new church that stands in Peterborough Market Square to this day.

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