The Black Death in the British Isles

Some Contemporary Accounts of the Black Death in the British Isles

[Note: For further information on English sources of this period, see Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England II, c. 1307 to the Early Sixteenth Century (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).]

According to the fourteenth-century Grey Friars’ Chronicle written in King’s Lynn, the plague first reached England in the summer of 1348, via a small seaport in the southwest:

“In this year, 1348, in Melcombe [Regis] in the county of Dorset, a little before the feast of St John the Baptist [24 June or 29 August], two ships, one of them from Bristol, came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of the terrible pestilence, and through him the men of that town of Melcombe were the first in England to be infected.”

Source: website on the Black Death, by Dr. Mike Ibeji, at: (seen 19 Jan. 2005)

Geoffrey le Baker, a secular clerk at Oxford (fl. 1341-56), wrote a chronicle in which he described the spread of the Black Death throughout England:

“At first it carried off almost all the inhabitants of the seaports in Dorset, and then those living inland, and from there it raged so dreadfully through Dorset and Somerset as far as Bristol. The men of Gloucester refused to allow people from Bristol into their region, as they all thought that the breath of those who lived amongst people who died of plague was infectious. But at last it attacked Gloucester, yea and Oxford and London, and finally the whole of England so violently that scarce one in ten of either sex was left alive. As the graveyards did not suffice, fields were chosen for the burial of the dead…A countless number of common people and a host of monks and nuns and clerics as well, known to God alone, passed away. It was the young and strong that the plague chiefly attacked…This great pestilence, which began at Bristol on 15th August and in London about 29th September, raged for a whole year in England so terribly that it cleared many country villages entirely of every human being.”

Source: website on Bristol, at: (seen 19 Jan. 2005)

Henry Knighton, a canon of St Mary’s Abbey, Leicester, wrote a chronicle between 1378 and 1396 in which he described the effects of the Black Death, especially at Leicester in 1349 and in the countryside:

“Then the grievous plague penetrated the seacoasts from Southampton, and came to Bristol, and there almost the whole strength of the town died, struck, as it were, by sudden death; for there were few who kept their beds more than three days, or two days, or half a day; and after this the fell death broke forth on every side with the course of the sun. There died at Leicester in the small parish of St. Leonard more than 380; in the parish of Holy Cross, more than 400; in the parish of St. Margaret of Leicester, more than 700; and so in each parish a great number. Then the bishop of Lincoln sent through the whole bishopric, and gave general power to all and every priest, both regular and secular, to hear confessions, and absolve with full and entire episcopal authority except in matters of debt, in which case the dying man, if he could, should pay the debt while he lived, or others should certainly fulfill that duty from his property after his death. Likewise, the pope granted full remission of all sins to whoever was absolved in peril of death, and granted that this power should last till next Easter, and every one could choose a confessor at his will. In the same year there was a great plague of sheep everywhere in the realm, so that in one place there died in one pasturage more than 5000 sheep, and so rotted that neither beast nor bird would touch them. And there were small prices for everything on account of the fear of death. For there were very few who cared about riches or anything else; for a man could have a horse, which before was worth 40 s., for 6 s. 8 d., a fat ox for 4 s., a cow for 12 d., a heifer for 6 d., a fat wether for 4 d., a sheep for 4 d., a lamb for 2 d., a big pig for 5 d., a stone of wool for 9 d. Sheep and cattle went wandering over fields and through crops, and there was no one to go and drive or gather them, so that the number cannot be reckoned which perished in the ditches and hedges in every district, for lack of herdsmen; for there was such a lack of servants that no one knew what he ought to do. In the following autumn no one could get a reaper for less than 8 d. with his food, a mower for less than 12 d. with his food. Wherefore many crops perished in the fields for want of some one to gather them; but in the pestilence year, as is above said of other things, there was such abundance of grain that no one troubled about it.”

Source: Edward P. Cheyney, ed., Readings in English History Drawn from the Original Sources, Intended to Illustrate a Short History of England (Boston, etc.: Ginn and Company, 1908), pp. 255-6.

According to Geoffrey le Baker, the plague so ravaged Oxford that grass grew high in the main streets:

“the grass grew several inches high in the High St and in Broad St.”

Geoffrey le Baker also notes how the plague spread from England to Wales and Ireland:

“In the following year, it laid waste the Welsh as well as the English; and then it took ship to Ireland, where the English residents were cut down in great numbers, but the native Irish, living in the mountains and uplands, were scarcely touched until 1357 when it took them unawares and annihilated them everywhere.”

A Welsh poet, Jeuan Gethin (d. March-April 1349), has left a vivid description of the symptoms of the pestilence:

“We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of black death.”

In London, according to Robert of Avesbury, a secular clerk who lived near St Paul’s Cathedral (d. 1359):

“The pestilence arrived in London at about the feast of All Saints [1 Nov. 1348] and daily deprived many of life. It grew so powerful that between Candlemass and Easter [2 Feb.-12 April 1349] more than 200 corpses were buried almost every day in the new burial ground made next to Smithfield, and this was in addition to the bodies buried in other graveyards in the city.”

“Those marked for death were scarce permitted to live longer than three or four days. It showed favour to no-one, except a very few of the wealthy. On the same day, 20, 40 or 60 bodies, and on many occasions many more, might be committed for burial together in the same pit.”

Source: website on the Black Death, by Dr. Mike Ibeji, at: (seen 19 Jan. 2005)

William Dene was a monk at Rochester Cathedral Priory:

“In 1348 and 1349 a plague of a kind which has never been met with before ravaged our land of England. The Bishop of Rochester, who maintained only a small household, lost four priests, five esquires, ten attendants, seven young clerics and six pages, so that nobody was left to serve him.”

“At Malling Abbey the Bishop appointed two abbesses but both died almost immediately, leaving only four nuns and four novices. One of these the Bishop put in the charge of the abbey for it proved impossible to find anyone suitable to act as abbess.”

“To our great grief the plague carried off so vast a multitude of people of both sexes that nobody could be found who would bear the corpses to the grave. Men and women carried their own children on their shoulders to the church and threw them into a common pit. From these pits such an appalling stench was given off that scarcely anyone dared even to walk beside the cemeteries.”

“There was so marked a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in that period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was left idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them.”

“During the whole of that winter and the following spring, the Bishop of Rochester, aged and infirm, remained at Trottiscliffe (his country home near Sevenoaks). In every manor of his diocese, buildings were falling into decay and there was hardly one manor which returned as much as £100.”

“In the monastery of Rochester supplies ran short and the brethren had great difficulty in getting enough to eat; to such a point that the monks were obliged either to grind their own bread or to go without. The prior, however, ate everything of the best.”

“The entire population, or the greater part of it, has become even more depraved…more ready to indulge in evil and sinfulness.”

Source: website on “Disease in the 14th century” at: (seen 7 Jan. 2005)

John of Fordun, a clerk of Aberdeen (d. c. 1384), described in the Scotichronicon the effects of the plague in Scotland in 1350:

“In 1350, there was a great pestilence and mortality of men in the kingdom of Scotland, and this pestilence also raged for many years before and after in various parts of the world. So great a plague has never been heard of from the beginning of the world to the present day, or been recorded in books. For this plague vented its spite so thoroughly that fully a third of the human race was killed. At God’s command, moreover, the damage was done by an extraordinary and novel form of death. Those who fell sick of a kind of gross swelling of the flesh lasted for barely two days. This sickness befell people everywhere, but especially the middling and lower classes, rarely the great. It generated such horror that children did not dare to visit their dying parents, nor parents their children, but fled for fear of contagion as if from leprosy or a serpent.”

Source: website on the Black Death, by Dr. Mike Ibeji, at: (seen 19 Jan. 2005)