How Bury St Edmunds dealt with past pandemics

The base of Heyecross, known locally as ‘the plague stone’, on Out Risbygate. Image © Keith Evans

I learnt about the terror of the plague at a young age. I grew up not far from St Peter’s Pits on Out Risbygate and the so-called ‘plague stone’ (in reality the base of one of the crosses that marked out the banleuca of St Edmunds Abbey – the boundary of the abbot’s absolute jurisdiction). St Peter’s Pits, where I spent a lot of time playing as a child, is the remains of a large open-cast chalk mine which was once used for the burial of victims of the Plague. The ‘plague stone’, which is now located outside West Suffolk College but seems originally to have been located on the roadside at the southwest corner of Gibraltar Barracks, is reputed to have been where people were required to wash their coins in vinegar in a cavity in the stone before they entered the town during 17th-century outbreaks of Plague.

By the time the Black Death first arrived in Bury St Edmunds, either in the late winter or early spring of 1349, it had mutated from its original bubonic form into ‘pneumonic plague’, which was transmitted by coughing and sneezing and was therefore significantly more deadly. Along with the townsfolk, the monks of St Edmunds Abbey were decimated by the plague and a special dispensation had to be obtained from the Pope for monks to be ordained priest under the canonical age limit of 25 years old. Half of the 80 monks of the Abbey perished, but the plague of 1361-2 was arguably even worse for the Abbey because it took not only two abbots but also the prior and sacrist; there were no fewer than three abbots in one year. By 1369, when the plague broke out for a third time, monastic discipline had broken down within the Abbey and one monk even murdered another, burying his victim’s body in a shallow grave in the Great Churchyard that was discovered by the abbot. The fact that the murderer was merely set a penance before being allowed to return to his monastic duties shows how desperate the Abbey was to maintain numbers of monks at this time. Through all of this, the monk Henry of Kirkstead, who was elected prior in 1362, devoted his energies to improving the cataloguing system of the monastic library.

At the time the Abbey was dissolved in November 1539, plague had broken out once again. It returned in 1589, causing the Feoffees of the Guildhall Feoffment (who informally ran the town in the absence of a Corporation) to erect tents to house plague victims. The houses of infected families were boarded up to prevent anyone entering or exiting, while the parish constables were paid to take food and other necessities to the afflicted. Bury’s worst ever outbreak of the plague occurred in the summer of 1637, when 10% of the town’s population (about 600 people) died within nine months. People remained in their homes and trade came to a standstill; contemporary accounts describe grass growing in the streets. It was during this outbreak that St Peter’s Hospital on Out Risbygate was used as a ‘pesthouse’ (quarantine for those infected with the plague) while the bodies of the dead were buried in the pit opposite.

Bury was not affected by the infamous outbreak of plague that devastated London in 1665, largely because the Corporation implemented strict measures to prevent any contact between Bury and London and sealed the gates of the town. The Corporation also constructed pesthouses in Sexton’s Meadows in case they might be needed. In the event, the pesthouses were used in the coming decades to accommodate victims of another highly infectious disease – smallpox. Bury’s first major outbreak of smallpox had occurred as early as 1463, but the worst outbreak was much later in 1732-3. Smallpox tended to disproportionately affect the young (because older people either had natural immunity or had survived it as children). There were also many deadly outbreaks of measles in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In January 1902 a casual worker brought smallpox to Bury, which infected many people over the next few months. Priests were forbidden to visit the sick, but on 7 March one of the Jesuit priests at St Edmund’s Catholic Church, Fr Frederick Jones, decided to carry a supposed relic of St Edmund secretly through the town. Fr Jones claimed afterwards that the epidemic abated after the saint’s intercession was invoked. The relics in question came from the French city of Toulouse, which claimed to be in possession of St Edmund’s body, and that St Edmund had saved the city from plague in 1631. The idea that St Edmund was a ‘plague saint’ did not feature in the medieval cult of the saint, and may have arisen from conflation of St Edmund with St Sebastian, who was also martyred by being shot with arrows and was venerated as a protector against the plague. The Toulouse relics, which we now know were not really St Edmund’s at all, became associated with protection from pestilence.

Even in the Middle Ages, it was well understood that self-isolation was a way to protect the population at large from infectious disease. However, by the 17th century the social classes dealt with epidemics very differently, with the poor barricading themselves in their houses in the hope of escaping infection while the wealthy left the town for the countryside. In one respect, the wealthy who fled were right that the close quarters living of early modern urban life contributed to the spread of disease, but by leaving the town they also ended up infecting other places if they themselves were carriers of the disease. For most, all they could do was wait out the pestilence while trying to have as little contact with others as possible.


Review: Royal Witches by Gemma Hollman

Gemma Hollman, Royal Witches: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville (Cheltenham: The History Press, 2019), 320pp.

I was very excited when I first heard about Gemma Hollman’s book Royal Witches, since cases of political sorcery at the English court are hardly a popular field of study; after all, my book Magic as a Political Crime (2017) was the first book-length treatment of the subject since 1928, and I eagerly follow any further developments in the field. Hollman’s study is even more specific, focussing on the fifteenth century and on four royal women in particular: Joan of Navarre, the stepmother of Henry V; Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester; Jacquetta of Luxembourg, mother of Elizabeth Woodville; and Elizabeth Woodville herself, the Queen of Edward IV. As Hollman rightly observes, the stories of all these women were interconnected, and they were also linked by the fact that they were all the subject of accusations of sorcery or ‘witchcraft’ (a slippery and controversial term when applied before the early modern period).

Royal Witches is written for a popular audience, and Hollman carefully navigates the path between adequately elucidating the subject matter and communicating it without the burden of excessive scholarly explanation. It is undeniable, however, that explaining what ‘witchcraft’ meant in fifteenth-century England is no easy business. Although she devotes a short chapter to this question, Hollman also allows the sources to speak for themselves, although the focus of the book is very much on reconstructing as much as possible about the lives and intellectual worlds of the four women rather than on fifteenth-century magic itself. All historians, of course, come at this material from different angles and with different priorities; for me, as a historian of magic, what matters is trying to reconstruct the sort of magical procedures that these women and people close to them were accused of attempting. This is not something that Hollman spends much time on, but she reaches the judicious conclusion that we cannot be certain that any of the things the ‘royal witches’ were accused of doing or sponsoring actually happened. A strength of the book is the consideration it gives to cultural portrayals of the four women as well as the conventional primary sources.

Hollman is undoubtedly right that accusations of sorcery were a way of discrediting powerful women, and there was a distinctly misogynistic tone to the accusations considered in the book – particularly the idea that the women had ensnared their husbands by the use of love magic. Many more men than women were subject to accusations of political sorcery, but accusations against women had a distinctive character. However, direct accusations of malicious supernatural intent must be weighed against the possibility that the purpose of accusations was to portray powerful women as superstitious and enticed by the lure of magic done by learned men – and therefore unfit to rule. For example, no-one ever accused Eleanor Cobham in her own lifetime of actually being a witch; the accusation was that she employed magicians and made use of the services of a cunning-woman. The book’s title, while an understandable choice, could potentially be misleading for those who do not take the trouble to read it – creating the impression that all of these women were accused of malefic witchcraft as a political strategy. The accusations against them were certainly highly political, but they were more complex than just the slur of witchcraft. Yet Hollman is right that any accusation that smelt of sorcery was particularly pernicious, and put a person in the awkward position that their guilt was presumed unless they could demonstrate their innocence. Yet fifteenth-century England remained a place where, generally speaking, witchcraft was considered a very minor issue that barely moved the dial of official concern – unless it occurred within the context of the royal court.

I welcome Royal Witches because it highlights that accusations of sorcery were central, not peripheral, to court politics of the fifteenth century (and indeed the late Middle Ages) – a fact that is far too often overlooked by conventional political historians. The book also invites us to consider the evolution of thought about witchcraft/sorcery over the course of the fifteenth century. The book is engagingly written and thorough in its engagement with the sources, and I was delighted by the quality of the index (an essential feature of any book). This is stimulating and entertaining narrative history, although the reader interested in theoretical questions about the nature of how sorcery and witchcraft were understood over time may come away a little disappointed. In a book aimed at a popular audience this is understandable, and I hope that Hollman’s book introduces many people to late medieval court sorcery and encourages them to delve deeper into this still little studied field.


Publication and launch of Monasticism in Suffolk

Today is publication day for my book Monasticism in Suffolk, which is a comprehensive history and gazetteer of all past and present monastic houses in Suffolk. While Suffolk’s parish churches are much celebrated, many of the county’s monasteries are little known and understood. This evening I launched the book at St Edmund’s Catholic Church in Bungay, which is one of two monastic churches in the county still run by Benedictine monks; the church is also in the precincts of a medieval house of Benedictine nuns, and is thus a site where Suffolk’s monastic past and present meet. A surprise visitor at the launch was the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.

Monasticism in Suffolk is my personal contribution to this year’s millennium celebrations of Suffolk’s most significant monastic anniversary – the foundation of St Edmunds Abbey in Bury St Edmunds. The focus of the book is not, however, on Bury St Edmunds (the subject of an earlier book in 2016), but rather on Suffolk’s other monastic houses – of which there were over fifty in the Middle Ages, ranging from large monasteries like Bury, Butley and Leiston to tiny cells of two monks or canons. The book deals equally with monasteries of men and women, as well as tracing the origins of Suffolk monasticism back into the Anglo-Saxon period and moving forward into the post-dissolution period to examine the revival of monasticism in modern times.

The former priory church at Great Bricett (© Angels and Pinnacles)

Monasticism in Suffolk is the first complete monastic history of any county – and Suffolk was a county particularly well-endowed with monasteries, which have left their traces in the landscape. In addition to impressive monastic ruins at sites such as Bury, Leiston, Herringfleet and Dunwich, a number of today’s parish churches today were once monastic churches, and many Suffolk houses bear titles such as ‘abbey’ and ‘priory’ – a reminder that they were built on monastic sites or, at least, were once owned by a monastery. One of Suffolk’s ancient monasteries was even re-established in 1953: Clare Priory, the first house of Augustinian friars in England, was revived by friars from the Irish Province of the Augustinian Friars (which was originally founded by friars from Clare in the Middle Ages). I am very grateful to the Prior Provincial of the Augustinian Friars of England and Scotland, Fr Robert Marsh OSA, for writing a foreword to Monasticism in Suffolk that highlights the ongoing presence of monasticism in the county.

Augustinian friars at Clare Priory in 2011 (© The Catholic Herald)

Monasticism in Suffolk will be my fourth and last book with Lasse Press, which will no longer be publishing after this year. It was uncertain whether Lasse Press would be able to bring this book to press, and I am immensely grateful to my publisher for the effort required to prepare the book for publication under very difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, the book is here, and stands as much as a testimony to the heroic effort of the press as it does to any effort on my part.