1349: the Black Death comes to Hertfordshire
PUBLISHED: 13:27 01 April 2019 | UPDATED: 16:42 03 April 2019
Spring of 1349 in Hertfordshire came with a black cloud - a plague that would wipe out as much as half the population. It brought death but also major social change
The beginning of the pestilence was in 1350 minus one...
only the wretched of the population live to tell the tale
(Translation of graffiti carved in Latin in the wall of the tower of St Mary’s Church, Ashwell)
The North Hertfordshire village of Ashwell today exudes stability, serenity and permanence. It is a picturesque place with a sense of community and historic, well-ordered properties. Villagers 670 years ago would not recognise such a world. They faced a daily struggle of hard work, poverty, threats of eviction, fire, disease, and famine, but most deadly of all was ‘pestilence’.
Known since the 19th century as the Black Death, the pestilence was one of the worst pandemics in human history. Thought to have been a mixture of bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic plague, it was carried by fleas on rodents spreading from Asia to Europe along trade routes, arriving in England in 1348. The horrific symptoms were egg-sized swellings called ‘buboes’ in the neck, groin and armpit which oozed pus and blood. Fever and vomiting followed, and death occurred within days. It is estimated that, worldwide, it killed up to two hundred million people.
Plague ravaged Hertfordshire with the arrival of the spring of 1349, with most deaths recorded between April and August. Between a third and a half of the population perished; the very young and old were most vulnerable. In some Hertfordshire villages, the mortality rate was above 70 per cent. In the hamlet of Park, straddling Watling Street, there were 85 deaths in a community of 110.
Higher social class was no guarantee of safety. At St Albans Abbey, the Abbot died on Easter Sunday, 46 of his fellow monks, three-quarters of the monastic number, would die before autumn and more than 40 per cent of priests across the county would succumb before the end of the year – little wonder that contemporaries named it the Great Mortality.
To escape the plague in London, Edward III fled to the perceived safety of his Hertfordshire palace at Kings Langley in January of 1349, bringing with him for protection, his personal holy relics including a fragment of the cross, a vial of the blood of St Thomas Becket and certain bones of St George. While there he formulated his plans for a new chivalric order, the Knights of the Garter, with his protector St George its patron saint.
How did the plague spread so quickly in 1349? Fleas carrying the bacillus travelled in the clothing of merchants and pilgrims moving along the network of old Roman roads including Watling and Akeman Street, as well as on rodents, arriving in villages whose populations rarely went beyond the parish boundary. Village grain stores and thatched roofs were a haven for a seething rat population.
The Church said the pestilence had been sent by God as a punishment. Desperate parishioners in Ashwell carved their despair into the walls of their church, believing that God had abandoned them.
Those fortunate enough to survive faced an increase in violence and lawlessness across the county. Kinsbourne, a small village north-west of Redbourn, saw its bailiff killed and a dairyman murdered. The reeve, in charge of the lord’s estate, ran away in fear of his life.
From death, despair and chaos, however, emerged a new England. When the pandemic finally passed, the economic balance in the county had changed, and the seeds of wider social transformation were sown. Survivors found they had more economic power in their hands, as there were too few workers to farm the land: crops rotted in fields for want of labour to harvest them. Where previously peasants had been tied to their village and the local lord, unable to move without permission, now circumstances meant they could demand higher wages and seek work elsewhere.
The king’s advisors, seeking a return to the old ways passed the Statute of Labourers in 1351 to regulate wages and prices at the 1349 level. In Abbots Langley, Ware and Hertford, the injustice of this led to riots. Such was the labour shortage, landlords soon found that if they wanted men and women to work their land, they had to ignore the new laws and pay higher wages. Skilled workers saw a 60 per cent increase in pay after 1349, while farm workers’ pay doubled to 3d per day. Craftsmen moved from village to village to find work.
With the diminished population, farms were abandoned (impacting the income of local landowners), and communities such as Caldecote and Litte Gaddesden, which lost more than half their population, declined. In a few cases, whole villages were deserted, like Ardwick (now a Scheduled Monument) and Gubblecote north of Tring – abandoned not because the population was wiped out, but due to economic opportunity; better farmland was available elsewhere and the survivors simply moved on. Ashwell, one of the most valuable manors in Hertfordshire, declined after 1349. Conversely, market towns like Berkhamsted and Baldock grew in importance, and there was an expansion of town fairs to meet the growing demand for goods and a rise in living standards.
More than 40 villages and hamlets in Hertfordshire have been identified as being abandoned after the Black Death. Most are to be found in the north-east of the county. Some deserted sites remain visible to this day as raised humps in the landscape, with the tracks that passed through them showing as sunken hollows, such as at Ardwick. Many more have been wiped away by deep ploughing.
The survivors of the Great Mortality would see more plague. It was a frequent visitor to the county. Outbreaks between 1350 and 1366 caused further death and devastation.
It could be argued that the Black Death brought with it a new sense of time as it focused thoughts on mortality. Church bells across the county were rung to signal the hour rather than solely for the traditional church services during the day. It certainly brought dramatic changes in employment, society and land ownership as the shortage of workers contributed to the collapse of the feudal system across England. A wealthier class of peasant emerged, who, in time, would become the gentry.
Language changed too. The death of so many clergymen literate in Latin led to their replacement with men far less fluent, and thus hastened the dominance of the English language.
Such was the devastating impact of the Black Death across Hertfordshire, it would be centuries before the population recovered to its 1349 level.