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OUTBREAKS OF disease were a fact of life in medieval London, and the term ‘plague’ or ‘pestilence’ covered a multitude of sins. One of the earliest medieval records of a Londoner dying of something called plague is that of the passing of Bishop Fulk Basset in 1259,17 and epidemics in fourteenth-century London were, of course, known prior to the arrival of the Black Death.18 They were occasionally of significant dimensions. The fifteenth-century French Chronicle of London recorded the ‘great pestilence’ among the survivors of the famine of 1315–16, while the chronicle of Henry Knighton, covering the years 1337–96, recorded how a plague in 1340 caused ‘men to bark like dogs’ with pain.19 It was perhaps with this outbreak, or an undocumented more recent one, in mind that on Sunday 10 August 1343, it was proclaimed throughout the city that as part of measures introduced to keep the king’s peace, ‘All men of the misteries, as well as victuallers, journeymen, labourers and servants, shall work as they used to do before the pestilence, under pain of imprisonment and fine’.20

Whatever this pestilence was, it had clearly been sufficient to reduce the labour pool in the city, and the city’s response to attempt to limit wages presaged the stringent statutory measures which would be introduced following the devastating pestilence of 1348–9. The early 1340s pestilence left no obvious trace within the wealthier will-making group represented by the Husting rolls;21 it may of course have affected the poorer strata of the city more seriously than the wealthy, but it is noteworthy that a plague apparently significant enough to elicit a response from the city authorities regarding mortality levels could be otherwise invisible in the testamentary record. So the London of the 1340s had experienced epidemics, but that experience would not have prepared the citizens and residents for what was to come just a few years later. The years 1348 and 1349 were to witness the unfolding of the ‘most lethal catastrophe in recorded history’.22

An Image of London in the 1340s

It is helpful to sketch out an image of London by way of setting the scene. The city in the reign of Edward III was by European standards impressive. By English standards it was a colossus, and it dominated national and overseas trade, political and courtly interests. In 1339, just a decade before the events described in this book, it was described as a ‘mirror and example to the whole land’. A conurbation comprising the walled city, extensive suburbs, Southwark across the Thames, and Westminster, its resident population probably numbered near 80,000 souls in 1300, four times the size of Norwich, and ten times that of Great Yarmouth. It was the hub of an international trade network which brought merchants from across the known world by both land and sea. It boasted a very diverse economy, a complex civic administration that was emulated elsewhere, the largest concentration of religious houses, hospitals and friaries in the land, and crucially, at Westminster, the coalescing centre of national government.

Its walled circumference was essentially Roman, with the exception in the west of the westward bulge of the Dominican friary, and in the east the vastness of the Tower. At its spiritual heart lay St Paul’s Cathedral, Romanesque at its core, but with considerable, newly completed work including one of the greatest spires in Europe dominating the skyline finished in 1314; nearby, a little to the north-east, stood the great Guildhall, seat of the principal civic administrative rulership in the form of the mayor and aldermen. The city’s economic engine was the extensive waterfront, then a complex mixture of stone river walls and timber revetments, docks, wharves and cranes projecting outward into the highway that was the Thames. Vessels clustered around these, loading and off-loading the prodigious quantities of exports and imports, to be transferred away along bustling lanes such as Dowgate, Billingsgate and Oystergate up to the warehouses, shops and markets that lined the streets. Major markets could be found within the city, such as at the Shambles (meat market), Poultry (poultry market) and Cornhill (grain market); and major yearly fairs took place at, for example, West Smithfield (livestock) and Westminster Abbey.

The houses were a mixture of numerous fine stone mansions, such as John Poulteney’s Coldharbour, or towered complexes such as Servat’s tower at Bucklersbury, and the more modest wooden and stone tenements packing in perhaps 60,000 inhabitants in all in 1348. Gardens there were too, in numbers, with fruit trees and livestock regularly referred to in the documents, and some areas, especially the north-western quarter of the city, may have presented a surprisingly green aspect. Industry was everywhere, at a craft or cottage scale and sometimes on a more intensive basis as in Cripplegate in the north-west and St Mary Axe in the north-east, where archaeological evidence for metalworking covering multiple plots has been found.

One hundred and twenty parish churches served the religious needs of this teeming population with their belfries, fonts and churchyards for the dead, but as well as these, London’s great influence had drawn the religious orders to found numerous monasteries and nunneries. Outside Aldersgate lay St Bartholomew’s priory and hospital, and across the great livestock market at West Smithfield stood the great priory of St John of Jerusalem, the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, and the nunnery at Clerkenwell; west, towards Westminster, was the Carmelite (White) friary, and next to it, the halls and church of the disbanded Knights Templar, now filling with London’s growing cadre of lawyers and appellants.

Inside Newgate stood the Franciscan (Grey) friary, not far from the Dominican (Black) friars against the extended city wall to the south, and even closer to the venerable college of St Martin-le-Grand. On the eastern side of the city gathered a similarly impressive group of monastic houses. St Helen’s nunnery in Bishopsgate stood south of St Mary Bethlehem (of Bedlam fame), which in turn was neighbours almost with the great hospital priory of St Mary Spital, just beyond the gate itself. At Aldgate stood the impressive church and priory of Holy Trinity, and south and east of this stood, inside the walls, the house of the friars of the Holy Cross (the ‘Crutched Friars’). Beyond them was the house of the sisters known as the Poor Clares, or Minoresses, Franciscan nuns who passed their name to the area of the Minories. Concluding the circuit, to the south-east of the Tower lay the third of the city’s hospitals, that of St Katherine. Most of these were well established, having been founded as much as two centuries earlier, but two were very recent. The hospital and priory of St Mary founded by William Elsyng, the remains of whose church still stand on London Wall just east of the Barbican Centre, was less than twenty years old, and the college founded by Sir John de Pulteney, or Pountney, adjacent to the parish church that still bears his name, St Lawrence Pountney, was down towards the river.

The prisons at this date, especially the Fleet prison and nearby Newgate, were fearsome places where, without external support, one ran the real risk of starving to death or being consumed by sickness. Equally feared was the humiliation, agony and significant risk of long-term damage from a few hours on Cheapside’s famous pillory, with the rotting meat or counterfeit clothing burned beneath the villain’s face: some would risk a prison sentence to avoid this particular punishment. The theft of two oxen and three cows from outside Aldersgate earned Thomas de Braye a hanging in March 1348, and the spikes of London Bridge held traitors’ heads fresh from Tower Hill or Tyburn, or the less well-known execution site at Nomannesland out towards Clerkenwell.

From among the riverside quays the many-arched twelfth-century stone bridge spanned the Thames south to Southwark. This was considered a suburb by many, but with a population of perhaps 5,000 it was large enough to justify being called a town.23 The houses, including some fine mansions such as that of the Prior of Lewes, clustered near the bridgehead and along the main north–south road, or, like Dunley’s Place, along the waterfront.24 The settlement had several parish churches and two important religious houses – the Cluniac monastery at Bermondsey to the east and, near the bridgehead, the Augustinian priory of St Mary Overy. To the west of the priory lay the extensive waterfront palace of the Bishop of Winchester. The hospital of St Thomas lay set back from the main high street, and at the extreme southern end of the settlement could be found the leper hospital known as The Lock. Southwark was the site of numerous brothels, and by the 1370s held two prisons – the King’s Bench and the Marshalsea.

Westward from the city extended a ribbon development along Fleet Street and the Strand towards Westminster. By the fourteenth century this road was lined with the mansions of the elite, of earls, dukes and bishops such as those of Carlisle, Norwich and Durham, linking the economic powerhouse of the city with the centre of national government now firmly established at Westminster Palace.25 Among these houses, closer to the city, stood the great Temple, the former house of the dissolved Knights Templar, and in the mid-fourteenth century leased out by the subsequent owners, the Knights Hospitaller, to lawyers and appellants serving the city and the court. Suitably isolated to the north of this thoroughfare was the leper hospital of St Giles-in-the-Fields, near the junction of modern Charing Cross Road and New Oxford Street.

Westminster itself was dominated by the royal palace and the great abbey, forming the heart of government in the kingdom. It is easy to forget that the town was significant in its own right with a population probably exceeding 3,000 before the plague.26 It too had a parish church, a leper hospital at St James in the Fields, and a hospital for the sick at St Mary Rounceval, near Charing Cross.

These three principal hubs of urbanism were, of course, ringed by numerous manors, with their attendant villages and hamlets, such as Islington, Tottenham, Stepney, Kingsbury and many more, sited on or near the main highways that brought the trade of the nation into the heart of London. The manor houses were often owned by London citizens, forming rural retreats away from the hubbub of city life.

This was London on the eve of the pestilence.

The Threat to England

The Black Death had already begun its spread across Europe as early as 1347, and its march has been charted elsewhere.27 Its route to Britain was almost certainly from France, and we know that by January 1348 it had started killing people in Avignon. Toulouse and Perpignan were affected by April, Lyons in May, Givry in July, and Bordeaux and Paris by August. Seaborne infection had seen deaths beginning in Rouen in late June, although Caen does not appear to have been affected until September, and Calais not until December.28 This rate, though terrifyingly rapid for those caught up in it, did provide sufficient time for the knowledge to spread and for the implications to be considered at the highest levels. Many Londoners must have known of the impending threat weeks or even months before it arrived. England was a trading nation and one at war with its neighbour; despite the obvious interruptions to cross-Channel communications that accompanied the conflict, many merchants in the capital must have been aware that by spring 1348, city after French city was falling before the scourge. Pilgrimages to European shrines were an important part of everyday medieval life, and travellers returning from St James de Compostella, Rome, and other key religious centres that had been affected early on must also have brought tales of woe and destruction. We have to assume that knowledge of its approach was thus reasonably widespread in the city long before the disease itself made landfall, threatening to spread panic and terror.

It is, in fact, rather hard to establish exactly how early the threat did register with Londoners. The documentary evidence for very early intelligence is slight and oblique. We have no London pilgrim’s accounts, no mention in administrative documents from the city, and, so far, no references in surviving merchants’ documents. The earliest evidence appears in papal correspondence in late spring 1348. On 15 May King Edward sent a team of papal diplomats to visit Pope Clement VI at Avignon to negotiate an extension of the existing truce in the war between England and France. The team comprised John Carlton, chancellor of Wells Cathedral, Thomas Fastolf, Archdeacon of Wells and a papal chaplain, and, significantly for London, John de Reppes, prior of the London Whitefriars and papal envoy since 1343.29

This advance party was clearly intended to negotiate a stop-gap in the war; they were given power only to discuss a maximum of one year’s extension to the truce, pending the intended dispatch towards the end of September 1348 of the Earls of Lancaster and Arundel, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, with a view to a more binding arrangement. It is Carlton’s signal to the Pope that his mission was limited which provides us with the first clear evidence that, in English diplomatic circles at least, the potency of the pestilence was recognised. Acting on information received from Carlton before 30 May, the Pope wrote to Philip of France to exhort him likewise to send envoys to Avignon, stating that the archbishop and the two earls were due to come from England to the papal court at Michaelmas (29 September) to give their consent to the prolongation of the truce, ‘unless hindered by the epidemic’.30

Since Carlton was the source of the information, de Reppes and Fastolf must have known, and it is almost certain that such a plan had been discussed in advance with Edward. We may therefore safely conclude that the English king and at least one London prelate both knew as early as May 1348 that an epidemic had gripped France, and that Englishmen abroad were at risk. The king most likely knew much earlier than this, but proof is wanting.

There seems to have been no further indication of English activity or preparation for any such crisis in June. In Europe, however, stresses were reaching breaking point. On 5 July, in response to a growing popular suspicion of the source of the plague and resultant violence against them in Germany and other countries, Clement VI attempted to protect Jews by the reissue of the Bull ‘Sicut Judeis’.31 While it clearly did not directly affect England in any substantive way, it is likely that knowledge of the Bull would have made its way there quickly, providing another route along which knowledge of the pestilence might have flowed to London. By the end of the month, the king’s concerns over the plague and its effect on his subjects overseas were growing. On 25 July, following the election of William de Kenyngton to the abbacy of St Augustine Canterbury, Edward, ‘in view of the war with France then imminent, the dangers of the ways and the peril of death, by letters patent prohibited [William] from going’ to Rome to confirm his elevation.32 The reference is oblique, and plague is not specifically mentioned, but the reinforcement of three kinds of danger, including ‘peril of death’, is strongly suggestive of prior knowledge of the damage being wreaked by the disease which had, by this date, reached northern France.

Royal concern was mirrored by that of the senior clergy of the land. That the threat was being discussed openly in northern England is made clear in a letter dated 28 July from William Zouche, Archbishop of York, to his official in that city.33 He wrote: ‘There can be no one who does not know, since it is now public knowledge, how great a mortality, pestilence and infection of the air are now threatening various parts of the world, and especially England.’ Identifying its cause as the sinfulness of the people, he laid out the earliest strategic defence plans against the plague:

Therefore we command, and order you to let it be known with all possible haste, that devout processions are to be held every Wednesday and Friday in our cathedral church, in other collegiate and conventual churches, and in every parish church in our city and diocese … and that a special prayer be said in mass every day for allaying the plague and pestilence.

A release of forty days of penance was offered for those accepting the indulgence and entering into the processions. This sense of urgency from a northern prelate is striking, as is the sense that only a long-term round of mass prayer was likely to succeed. The warnings had been made public across the largest religious province in the kingdom. If York was making preparations of this nature, how much more concerned must London, far closer to the danger, have been at this time.

The warnings became more urgent. On 17 August 1348 Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells (no doubt well-informed by John Carlton), communicated to his own archdeacons the fact that a ‘catastrophic pestilence’ had arrived in ‘a neighbouring kingdom’, and urged that ‘unless we pray devoutly and incessantly, a similar pestilence will stretch its poisonous branches into this realm and strike down and consume its inhabitants’.34 His proposed strategy of prayer was similar to, and perhaps based upon, Zouche’s with processions and stations to be held at least every Friday in all churches in the diocese. King Edward was almost certainly keenly aware of the concerns both of Zouche and Ralph of Shrewsbury. Before 23 August 1348 he is reported to have given serious consideration to the ‘pestilences and wretched mortalities of men which have flared up in other regions’, and to have sent letters to the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Stratford, requesting prayers to be said throughout the province of Canterbury.35Stratford, whose responsibility it was to have communicated this royal request through his bishops, died (though not, as far as we can tell, of any plague) on 24 August, and as a result the transmission of the orders was delayed until the following month.

There is good reason to suspect that the king’s serious consideration also extended to his own spiritual preparations for impending disaster. The chapel of St Stephen the Protomartyr in Westminster Palace had been under substantial renovation for a number of years, but was as yet incomplete. However, on 6 August 1348 Edward confirmed the establishment of a college comprising a dean and twelve canons, granting them his ‘great inn’ in Lombard Street in the city at the same time.36 The king cemented this arrangement on 20 August through a grant for life to a number of his senior servants. Thomas Crosse, clerk of the Great Wardrobe, received the deanery; John de Chesterfield and John de Maydenstone, clerks, received the first and second prebends; and John de Buckingham, a chamberlain, the third.37 On its own, this may simply have represented an appropriate time to move ahead with the foundation of the college, but it is striking that on the very same day, Edward also recorded his intention to enhance considerably the small college of eight canons at Windsor Castle. He determined that:

the glory of the Divine Name may be exalted by more extended worship [by the addition of] a warden and president of the same, fifteen … other canons, and twenty-four poor knights, to be maintained of the goods of the chapel, with other ministers, under the rule of the warden, willing that the canons and ministers shall celebrate divine offices there, according to an ordinance to be made, for him and his progenitors and successors, in part satisfaction of those of whom in the last judgement he will have to give account.38

These two foundations would certainly have provided the king with a considerable personal intercessory armament against the impending scourge.

Despite these early intimations and preparations, life in the city appears to have continued as normal. Major building works continued, at St Stephen’s Westminster and also in the abbey itself, where renovation of both the east and south walks of the cloister were approaching completion, at least part of which were most likely to have been overseen by William Ramsey, the chief royal architect.39 At the Tower of London, a new water-gate, the Cradle Tower, was being constructed to permit direct royal access from the river into the fortress. This tower had been started early in 1348, and building was to continue throughout the plague’s visitation. Its name may have derived from the presence of a drawbridge lowered outward to provide a landing stage for the royal barge and then raised to seal the outer entrance to the water-gate. It remains one of London’s few surviving medieval structures confidently datable to this specific period.40

Commercial land transactions were frequent, and particular documents provide engaging pictures of London life in the weeks before the pestilence struck. For example, on 4 September, the king licensed the mayor, aldermen and citizens to grant in fee to John de Gildesburgh, a wealthy fishmonger, a lane called ‘Desebournelane’ in the parish of St Mary Somerset near Queenhithe, for the purpose of building houses. The lane ran 215ft down to the Thames and was 7ft wide. The grant was conditional on Gildesburgh inserting a gutter ‘to receive and carry off at all seasons of the year, rainy or not rainy, the water from all the highways there running down into the lane in their wonted manner and descending to the Thames’.41

Evidence is plentiful for the backdrop of imports and exports of an enormous range of goods into London’s port and through its gates. Arrangements for the repayment of a loan from hugely wealthy merchants to the king (principally to finance the war with France) give some indication of the quantities of material passing through the port. On 25 September the king issued a writ ‘to the collectors of the custom of wool, hides, and wool-fells on the port of London, with an order to pay Simon de Garton and Hugh de Kynardeseye or to their attorneys 20s out of every sack of wool and of every 300 wool-fells and 40s out of every last of hides taken out of that port, out of the realm’ until they had recouped £7,500 on behalf of the king’s merchant financiers, Walter de Chiriton, Thomas de Swanlond and Gilbert de Wendlyngburgh.42

Controls on exports to Europe are revealed by exceptions made: on 10 September Alan de Aylesham, a merchant of King’s Lynn, was licensed to take twelve packs of worsted cloth to Flanders from the port of London, notwithstanding the late ordinance that cloth must be taken to Calais and not elsewhere.43 Far more modest commercial deals are also reflected in the documents of the time, such as the debt acknowledged on 23 September by Thomas Reyner, citizen and taverner of London, to Hamo the Barber, citizen and cornmonger of London, of £7 8s, presumably for advance stock.44 Crafts and trades guilds appear in the documentary record for August: the pewterers’ guild ordinances were drawn up and presented to the mayor and aldermen, and admissions to the guild of leatherers recorded in the City Letter Books, for example.45

The Great Wardrobe, the mechanism for managing the royal assets and provisions, is glimpsed in September. Edward issued a writ of aid for one year, for Thomas de Tottebury, clerk of Queen Philippa’s great wardrobe, to bring timber from her parks of Havering-atte-Bower (Essex), Bansted (Surrey) and Isleworth (Middlesex), and stone from the quarry of Tollesworth (Surrey), and from all quarries in the county of Kent by the towns of Maidstone and Aylesford on the Medway. Workmen were to cart and prepare the stone, and ‘to cause the same to be brought to her wardrobe in “La Rioll” London, at her charges’.46 La Riole was a substantial property in the parish of Great St Thomas Apostle, to which such imports occurred roughly yearly, both before and after the principal plague months, suggesting business as usual.

The continuing conduct of the war against France naturally remained a subject of considerable interest to London traders. Many would have been heartened to hear the proclamation on 11 September, transmitted by the sheriffs to the citizens, that a truce had been concluded with France for a term of six weeks, from 13 September to 25 October. However, negotiations for peace were by no means complete, and on 25 September the king gave a commission to William, Bishop of Norwich, the Earl of Lancaster, Robert de Ufford, Earl of Suffolk, Sir Walter de Mauny, and John de Carleton, to treat formally for peace with France. A successful outcome could not be depended upon, so simultaneously Edward was augmenting his forces in case of failure: on 1 October he issued a writ to the sheriffs of London (and the mayors and bailiffs of seventeen other sea ports) to unload merchant ships and send them to join the fleet.47

The Tower of London had several roles at this time, including acting as a royal palace, a storehouse, the site of the royal mint and as a royal prison. Both the latter are glimpsed when, on 26 September, the king instructed John Darcy, constable of the Tower, to release one Nicholas de Luk (de Lucca), lately a serjeant of Percival de Portico, master of king’s money in the Tower. De Luk had been imprisoned there for accounting anomalies identified by de Portico, but had protested that he was able to fully account for any inconsistencies. Lacking any counter-argument from de Portico, the king ordered de Luk’s release.48 Another notorious London prison makes an appearance at this time, when an order was sent from the king to sheriffs of London to release William Talentyre, clerk, from Newgate prison, pending a court hearing on a charge against him of writing a charter with the king’s seal attached, ‘ingeniously abstracted from certain of the king’s letters patent’ and then fastened to that charter.49

London citizens themselves and the minutiae of their lives also surface in the documentary records, most commonly through personal disputes and the wills they left. Disputes over property came before the court known as the Assize of Nuisance, held at the Guildhall. On 26 September two complaints were heard by the mayor and aldermen, both touchingly ‘modern’ and familiar. The first was a party wall dispute of sorts. Alan Gille and John de Hardyngham, wardens of London Bridge, alleged that Thomas Isoude, rector of St Margaret Friday Street, removed a rain gutter on the south side of the church to build a kitchen, and replaced the old gutter with two new gutters, one to receive the water from the church, and the other, leading into it, the water and waste from the kitchen. However, the water from both fell instead upon the tiles and party walls of the Bridge tenement adjoining the church, causing foundations, walls and timber to rot. The rector was given forty days to remedy the situation.50

The second case was a very early example of an ancient lights dispute. William Peverel, Queen Philippa’s tailor, complained that Matilda (Maud) atte Vigne had built a cellar, blocking the light of the windows in his tenement in the parish of St Clement Candlewickstreet opening on to her land and garden, which he was intending to enlarge. Matilda replied that she had built on her own land, as she was entitled to do, and that there was no case against her. William maintained that the former owner of her plot, Gilbert de Colchester, had granted by deed to William’s predecessor, in perpetuity, the light of the windows overlooking her tenement, with the right to enlarge them at will, and he produced a deed sealed with Gilbert’s seal. Matilda denied that any such arrangement was ever granted by Gilbert and declared that the deed was not his. The case was referred to the next Husting of Common Pleas.51 The outcome remains a mystery; the Assize was not to hear petitions again for eight months.

Death was ever-present in the crowded city, and many wealthier citizens with property interests were accustomed to drawing up wills for enrolment in the Court of Husting. The summer of 1348 in London was unremarkable in terms of will-making, with two wills drawn up in July, five in August and six in September.52 The court was suspended at harvest time (August and September) and for major fairs, but eight wills were enrolled in July 1348, which was not an unusual number for the height of summer. Another potential indicator of concern over matters of mortality, requests from wealthy citizens for papal permission to choose one’s confessor at the hour of death, reveals no especial change from levels in previous years: two married couples, Simon de Berkyng and his wife Lucy, and Thomas Leggy, then Mayor of London, and his wife Margaret, received indults of this sort in July and August respectively,53 but that was the sum total up to September 1348. By this date wealthy Londoners were neither dying in excessive numbers nor, it would appear, expecting to. To the east, the picture was similar for the poor customary tenants working the land of the Bishop of London’s manor at Stepney. The periodical court rolls are incomplete, but the court held on 30 October 1348, covering areas of Stepney, Hackney, Mile End, Stratford and Holywell Street, reports no deaths from the previous court (undated, but probably at least a month earlier), confirming instead three tenements held in the lord’s hands (due to earlier deaths of tenants, one at least dating back to September 1347).54

These reflections of London urban life in the summer and autumn of 1348 are just snippets, but taken together they provide a flavour of daily life and death in the busiest city in the land. None of the documents mention anything at all about the plague, but in just a few weeks, by All Hallows’ Eve, this familiar social environment was to face potential obliteration.

An English Pestilence

The various chronicles suggest a date for the arrival of the plague in England between late June and late September. We must assume that what they meant by ‘arrival’ was the first appearance of the symptoms and the evidence of an abnormal death rate. The actual date of landfall may have been some days or possibly weeks earlier, when the pathogen was still in its incubation stage and its first human carriers were infectious but not displaying any symptoms.55 However, there are no certain independent manorial or royal accounts of pestilence anywhere in England before October 1348, and I suggest here that the plague made its first English manifestation in late September or early October, and not in August.56 The royal family itself may have received one of the earliest blows.

Preparations for the marriage of Edward’s daughter Joan to Pedro, infante of Castile, had been under way since as early as 1 January 1348, with establishments that any male heir would inherit the title of King of Castile.57 En route to Spain, Joan and her entourage departed Portsmouth in early August, arriving some time before the 20th. She perished of the plague on 2 September. Edward was probably at Clarendon when the news arrived, but had returned to Westminster before he wrote to the Spanish royal family. His letter, dated 15 October, makes clear his inward desolation caused by the ‘sting of this bitter grief’, but illuminates a brave face on the tragedy as he accepted that he had a daughter in heaven who can ‘gladly intercede for our offences before God himself’.58

Nor was this the sum of Edward’s personal woes. On 5 September, at a lavish and fully regal funeral, Edward’s 3-month-old son,William of Windsor, was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. The infant’s body had been brought from Brentford (perhaps having been borne there by boat from Windsor) to London accompanied by fifty paupers ‘of the King’s alms’, carrying torches, for which they were paid IS each, and laid out in state in the abbey church. Curiously, the accounting for the paupers’ expenses only appears in the Michaelmas term of Edward’s twenty-third year; in other words, after the cessation of the plague over one year later.59

Probably through the insistence of a king spurred on by such personal disaster, on 28 September 1348 Robert Hathbrand, the prior of Christchurch Canterbury, acting during the vacancy of the Archbishopric, sent to Ralph Stratford, Bishop of London, the orders from Edward III originally sent to the late Archbishop Stratford in August. The letter is known as Terribilis, from its opening word.60 In it Hathbrand underlines the imminent disaster: ‘it is now to be feared that the … kingdom is to be oppressed by the pestilences and wretched mortalities … which have flared up in other regions’. Such language indicates that to his knowledge the disease had not yet attacked England. By way of rationalising the coming plague, Hathbrand suggested that God used such devices to ‘terrify and torment men and so drive out their sins’, and exhorted the bishop to organise sermons at suitable times, and processions every Wednesday and Friday to help pacify God through prayer. Those citizens partaking were to be offered indulgences granting them a reduction of their time in Purgatory. The bishop was personally to ensure that these measures were set in place throughout the city and diocese of London, to communicate to his fellow bishops in the southern province, and to report back to the prior before 6 January 1349 to explain what actions had been taken. Ralph Stratford received these instructions by 5 October 1348, and communicated them to, among others, the Bishops of Exeter and Hereford. There, the message was to be spread to the people ‘during procession and sermon in the cathedral’,61 and it is thus very likely that this was the mechanism for informing Londoners, too.

We can be sure that by early October, all of London was aware that death was threatening southern England, and that the city now lay in its path. Quite possibly, the first infected carriers had already entered the city, and the inexorable, invisible spread had begun.

Geoffrey le Baker (d. c. 1360), a clerk of Swinbrook, Oxfordshire, in an important chronicle detailing the period 1303–56, claimed that the pestilence entered London on 29 September 1348.62 A later annal from Bermondsey Abbey in Southwark, covering the years 1042–1432, repeats this date, but may have been based on le Baker’s work. However, this date seems rather too early, given the circumstantial evidence from other sources. The number of wills Londoners drew up (six in October) and the number of papal assents to choose confessors does not paint a picture of fear or panic, even if they might hint at an increasing concern.

Four citizens receiving indults to choose their own confessors were Thomas Cavendish, a draper on Cheapside, and Nicholas Ponge, a vintner near Bishopsgate, and two relatives, Matilda and Robert White, the latter a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. In terms of the numbers of wealthy will-making Londoners who were dying, only two wills were proved.63 Covering parishes immediately to the north and east of the city, the court of the Bishop of London’s manor of Stepney, held on 30 October 1348, records no deaths whatsoever, in stark contrast to its next session in early December and subsequent ones.64 So it must be concluded that as yet, the pestilence had not physically manifested in the city, even if its psychological presence may have begun to make itself felt.

Further indirect support for a lack of any increased mortality can be derived from the analysis of 193 probates listed for May 1347 through to November 1348 in the register of Hamo de Hethe, Bishop of Rochester, a diocese which encompassed parishes as close to London as Greenwich. The last entered probates date to 3 November 1348, and a steady monthly average of about nine probates characterises the sample. By 23 December, however, with ‘the plague now raging’, anyone within the diocese was empowered by papal licence to hear confessions of the victims.65

During October 1348, the war with France, negotiations over prisoners captured during the king’s Scottish campaigns – especially the young King David II – and other domestic matters seem to have taken up more of Edward’s energies than any preparation for the plague itself. Perhaps, having established the framework for a spiritual response, he felt able to set the responsibility on the shoulders of the bishops. Certainly his business relating to London reveals no specific evidence of disaster. He remained at Westminster throughout most of October (certainly from the 4th to the 24th), and on the 8th he issued a writ to the sheriffs of London for proclamation to be made ‘for such men-at-arms, hoblers, archers, and others, as were willing to serve the King abroad, to be at Sandwich on Sunday before the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude (28th October) at the latest’.66

Two days later, Edward issued safe conduct until summer 1349 for Joan, wife of David II of Scotland, to come to the Tower of London to keep her husband company, following it up with similar safe conduct until December for Thomas, Bishop of Caithness, to treat for David’s liberation from the Tower (an effort that was unsuccessful).67 On 12 October protection was also offered to the prior of Bermondsey (a Cluniac house still dependent on its French province, so ‘alien’), to whom the king had given custody of the priory during the war with France; royal protection extended to the priory and its community. Similar consideration was given to alms-gathering activities by hospitals in London, and he issued royal protection for two years to the master and brethren of the hospital of St Thomas the Martyr in Southwark.68 Lastly, an investigation into the theft of £188 worth of jewels and other items from a turret in the Tower, sometime between their deposition in 1347 and 25 October 1348, led the king to issue a formal pardon to Bishop William Edington of Winchester, also the king’s treasurer, and to Thomas Crosse and John de Buckingham (canons of Edward’s new college at Westminster), whose responsibility it was to manage such royal assets.69 These issues and correspondences, focusing on current events and royal responsibilities, do not seem to accord at all with the image of a city already wracked by death and disease.

The clearest indication that the killer had not yet begun its harvest was the letter written on 24 October by the Bishop of Winchester while in his chambers in the episcopal palace on the west side of Southwark. The palace was a very substantial Thames-side residence and guaranteed the bishop excellent access to the city and Westminster on the far side of the river. Edington’s letter, written to the prior and chapter of St Swithin’s Winchester and to all other clergy in his diocese, was a call to spiritual arms to protect Winchester and its people. Known as ‘A voice in Rama’ in reference to the Massacre of the Innocents,70 the letter conjured up stark and fearful imagery. Of the villages, towns and cities consumed by the plague, it mourns that ‘all joy within them ceases, all sweetness is dammed up, the sound of mirth silenced, and they become instead places of horror …’ It confirmed the dreadful news that ‘this cruel plague has now begun a … savage attack’ on England’s coastal areas.

Edington, echoing Zouche, Shrewsbury and others, commanded that the monks gather in their choir on Wednesdays and Sundays, and recite the seven penitential psalms and the fifteen psalms of degrees on their knees. On Fridays, the community was to process through the market place singing the same psalms, and also ‘the great litany instituted by the fathers of the church for use against the pestilence’. For the people of his diocese, though, the time for defence had passed: the plague was in all likelihood already among them.

To what Edington’s ‘great litany’ refers is not exactly clear. It is obvious that a special processional prayer against the plague had been constructed. It may have been based in some form on the missa pro mortalitate evitanda, the Mass for avoiding the plague, which had been compiled by Pope Clement VI in Avignon.71 This Mass promised 260 days of indulgence to all who heard it and were truly contrite and confessed, and guaranteed that all who heard it on five consecutive days, kneeling with a candle in their hands, would not succumb to sudden death. Its efficacy had apparently been proved in Avignon and surrounding parts. Whatever the content of the litany was, the letter itself, written in London, must surely demonstrate that the plague was as yet unfelt in the capital.

As October drew to a close, changes to civic administration were in train. Thomas Leggy’s term at the Guildhall as London’s mayor came to an end, and he was replaced by John Lovekyn.72 It was to be Lovekyn’s term that encompassed almost exactly the duration of the plague. Meanwhile, the king had selected John de Offord, then Chancellor of England, dean of Lincoln, and prebend of St Paul’s Cathedral, as his preferred candidate for the Archbishopric of Canterbury. The Pope favoured the decision (despite the fact that the chapter at Canterbury wished another London canon, Thomas Bradwardine, to take his place). De Offord’s selection was inevitable given his powerful support; once confirmed, he would gain access to the great London archiepiscopal palace at Lambeth, but he would not be able to retain all the properties held through St Paul’s Cathedral: in a letter of 24 October to John de Carleton (the canon of Wells who helped negotiate the truce with France), the Pope reserved to the latter the canonry and prebend of Tottenhale, which de Offord would have to resign on his elevation.73 This moated site stood on the site of the modern junction between Euston Road and Tottenham Court Road, and thus in easy reach of the main western route to the city, but it has now long since vanished completely. In contrast, Lambeth Palace, directly across the Thames from Westminster, still stands remarkably complete.

In late October, in a chamber near the heart of the palace, Robert of Avesbury, the archbishop’s commissory clerk, was no doubt hard at work. Avesbury was probably London’s most credible eye-witness chronicler to the unfolding disaster that encompassed the city, and it is in his de Gestis Mirabilibus Regis Edwardi Tertii that we are provided with the date of All Saints’ Day, 1 November 1348, as the beginning of the visible signs of pestilence in the city, as it took root and ‘daily deprived many of life’.74

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