There were a number of years when the bubonic plague ravaged England in the Middle Ages. Parish Registers were first used in the late 1550s, so any excess deaths due to the plague should be found there, in comparison to non-plague years. Outbreaks occurred in the towns in various years, such as Norwich (1625-1626 and 1665-66), Chester (1603-06 and 1647-48), Leicester (1593-94 and 1610-11), Worcester (1609) and, particularly, London in 1665-66. These outbreaks often overwhelmed the local administrations and plague burial pits were not uncommon. For example, outside of York, the area alongside the city walls was used for this purpose.
Concentrating on the outbreak in 1665-66, an examination of the parish Burial Registers for Wickhamford and Badsey reveal no change in the average death rate when compared to years either side of the outbreak. The burials in Wickhamford for each year of the seven years between 1662 to 1668 inclusive numbered 3,2,4,2,2,2,2. For Badsey the numbers for those years were 5,8,8,8,4,8,6. The population of Wickhamford at this time is not known, as censuses were not taken until 1801, but, based on birth, marriage and burial data over the centuries, was probably not too dissimilar to that in 1801, when it was 125. Badsey would have been perhaps three times this population or slightly more. This is sort of distribution of numbers of burials is reflected in the Registers of neighbouring parishes (e.g. Bretforton and Offenham), and in Hampton and Bengeworth. Cases are known elsewhere in England of villages self-isolating to prevent the spread of plague, either from within (e.g. Eyam, Derbyshire in 1665-66) or to stop infection arriving. What was it about the spread of this disease that left our villages unaffected?
Bubonic plague is a bacterial disease, traditionally thought to be carried by black rats and transmitted by fleas from this host to humans. Therefore, there must be conditions where the rats thrive and are in close contact with humans. The disease travels slowly and only crosses open spaces with great difficulty. This is due to the sedentary nature of the black rat, which lives, wherever possible, in the roof spaces of houses and is averse to wandering across the countryside or crossing water. For this reason, plague was essentially a disease of towns, with houses in close proximity, where rats could move easily between properties. They were more likely to inhabit poorer houses with bad maintenance, than the better constructed houses of the more well-off citizens. Wealthier town residents often fled to the countryside at times of plague outbreaks, but were not welcomed into villages because of the perceived risk of transmission. A more recent theory as to the vectors of bubonic plague has pointed the finger at body lice, which infest clothing and feed on blood. This idea has been raised by scientists in Marseilles, in Southern France, and may change our views of the role of rats in the transmission of the disease.
The economy of towns suffered at these times, with owners and skilled artisans deserting their businesses, and markets and fairs cancelled. In some instances, infected households were locked up or people were placed in temporary isolation hospitals – pesthouse – in suburban fields. Such measures were usually deeply resented by the town’s inhabitants. Church services were often abandoned (the clergy often fleeing) and civic ceremonial was cancelled. Assize and quarter session courts were transferred to healthier locations. Understandably, villagers did not venture into towns, especially as the supplies they normally purchased were not available. This again reduced the interaction between affected towns and unaffected villages.
An earlier outbreak -The Black Death from 1348
Known at time as The Great Mortality (‘The Black Death’ is a 17th century term) there were no accurate records of deaths, but modern estimates for mortality in England run from 25-60% of the population. With this rate of death, it would be very surprising if Wickhamford and Badsey had escaped, but with no burial or population information it is impossible to know how many succumbed. The villages were under the control of the Abbot of Evesham. The Benedictine Abbey there was badly affected by the epidemic, with the numbers of monks falling from around 200 to less that 50. These numbers never recovered in the time left before the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1530s. As the Abbey had properties in Wickhamford and Badsey (on the sites of the present two Manor houses), with monks moving between them and Evesham, it would be very likely that infection occurred in both villages. The property in Badsey was used for the care of sick monks, so it is probable that plague-affected monks were sent there.
- The main part of this article is based on a paper by Alan D. Dyer in Medical History in 1978, entitled The Influence of Bubonic Plague in England 1500-1667.
- Peter Stewart supplied some of the information on parish burials.
Tom Locke – July 2021