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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.