The Black Death brought devastation to our region. Chris Upton examines how the people might have dealt with the summer of 1349.
Every summer morning in 1349 each person in England – lord and peasant, priest and commoner – woke up with the real expectation that this day would be their last. A terrible enemy had taken hold of the country, fiercer by far than the Scots or the French they were meant to be fighting. Pestilence had conquered the land.
The Black Death had first arrived in Dorset in August 1348 and made its steady progress – riding triumphantly on the back of rats – across the country. By the early summer of 1349 it had its grip in the Midlands, and it would not be letting go until a third – perhaps as many as half – of the population lay dead.
We will never know exactly how the people of the Midlands dealt with that summer; we have to go where the surviving records take us. And those records take us to Worcestershire. Here was a county largely owned by the Church – the abbeys and the bishop – and they kept better records than most.
The well-preserved and much-used manorial rolls from Halesowen Abbey allow us to chart exactly how the Black Death progressed. There were two or three deaths on the abbey’s lands each month in the spring, rising to almost thirty in June and July, and falling back again in August. The plague bacillus – Yersinia pestis – liked things warm and damp.
Some sittings of the manor court did nothing more than read out the death knell, and look for new tenants to take on the vacant plots. Some families, like the Attlowes in Hunnington, were entirely wiped out, father and mother, two sons and two daughters.
By May 1349 the Bishop of Worcester – Wulstan de Bransford – also had his hands full. Great as the cathedral and its graveyard was, they were not sufficient to provide burying places for the scores succumbing to the Plague.
He authorised a new graveyard at St Oswald’s Hospital, and ordered that all plague victims to be brought there. And then Wulstan fled to his palace at Hartlebury, there to bide his time till the bells ceased to toll.
But the fleas found him in August, and Bishop Wulstan joined the list of fatalities.