In the summer of 1592 the plague swept through London. On 10 September 1592, the Privy Council wrote to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London that ‘by the weekly certificates, it doth appear that the present infection within the city of London doth greatly increase, growing as well by the carelessness of the people as by the want of good order to see the sound severed from the sick’. Thomas Dekker likened the advent of plague to Death pitching his tents in the ‘sinfully polluted suburbs’, from where he commanded his army of ‘Burning Fevers, Boils, Blaines, and Carbuncles’. These generals led his rank and file: ‘a mingle-mangle’ of ‘dumpish Mourners, merry Sextons, hungry Coffin-sellers, scrubbing Bearers, and nastie Grave-makers’.
An estimated 658,000 died of plague in England 1570–1670 (433,000 in London). Outbreaks occurred on average every 14 years. The so–called ‘Great Plague’ of 1665 resulted in 68,596 deaths (12% of the population), while the plagues of 1563 killed 20% of London’s population, and that of 1603 killed 18%. In comparison, the plague that killed the Blackman children in 1592 was, with its 8.5% mortality rate, a relatively minor outbreak.
James Balmford, the curate of St Olave’s, Tooley Street, observed that some sufferers lost their minds, leaping out of windows or running into the Thames. He put much of the blame for the spread of disease on the ‘bloody error’ that many people made, in thinking that the ‘Pestilence’ was not contagious. He dedicated his A Short Dialogue concerning the Plagues Infection of 1603 to his parishioners: a publication in which he ‘set down all that I have publicly taught’ and tried to disabuse them of this fatal misconception that led ‘men, women and children with running sores’ to ‘go commonly abroad and thrust themselves into company’.
Although plague burials took place at dusk when there were fewer people around to minimise the chance of the disease spreading, not all took heed. Balmford grieved to see how ‘the poorer sort, yea women with young children, will flocke to burials, and (which is worse) stand (of purpose) over open graves, where sundry are buried together, that (forsooth) all the world may see that they feare not the Plague.’
Government medical advice
The official government advice against catching the plague, first issued in 1578, with the catchy title of :
Orders, thought meete by her Maiestie, and her priuie Councell, to be executed throughout the counties of this realme, in such townes, villages, and other places, as are, or may be hereafter infected with the plague, for the stay of further increase of the same Also, an aduise set downe vpon her Maiesties expresse commaundement, by the best learned in physicke within this realme, contayning sundry good rules and easie medicines, without charge to the meaner sort of people, aswell for the preseruation of her good subiects from the plague before infection, as for the curing and ordering of them after they shalbe infected.
suggested a whole host of preventative measures and cures, such as potions and lotions made up of ingredients like vinegar or various herbs and spices, or what to burn to purge the air. If you could not afford the ingredients, this was no obstacle: ‘The poor which can not get vinegar nor buy Cinnamon, may eat bread and Butter alone, for Butter is not only a preservative against the plague, but against all manner of poisons.’
Unofficial medical advice
Various remedies against the plague were proscribed in the twenty-three books published on the subject between 1486 and 1604. It was popularly thought that beer and ale had medicinal qualities, and alehouses were notably busier at times of plague.
Perhaps the most mind-boggling remedy, from Simon Kellwaye’s 1593 tract, A defensative against the plague, suggested applying live plucked chickens to the plague sores to draw out the disease. A later pamphlet gave more detailed advice as to how this would work:
Take a cock chicken & pull all the feathers of his tail very bare, then hold the bared part of the pullet close upon the sore & the chicken will gape and labour for life & will die; then do so with another pullet till it die, & so with another: till you find the last chicken will not die cannot be killed by the infection being altogether extracted, for when all the venom is drawn out the last chicken will not be hurt by it & the patient will mend speedily: one Mr Whatts hath tried this on a child of his, & 8 chickens one after another died & the ninth lived, & the sore being hard & hot was made soft by the first chicken as papp, the 2nd drew it clean away.
Infected houses were shut up and marked with a red cross to warn others away. Shakespeare describes the way plague victims were quarantined in Romeo and Juliet:
the searchers of the town,
Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Seal’d up the doors, and would not let us forth.’
This added to their misery. As James Balmford put it, those who were isolated in this way ‘think it an hell to be so long shut up from company and their business: the neglecting whereof is the decay of their state.’ The loss of business was a very real concern for those of modest means. Balmford callously dismissed such concerns, remarking that those infected should be ‘content to forbear a while, since in the Plague they usually mend or end in short time.’
As the contagion spread, more general measures were put in place to combat it. Bonfires were lit in the streets ‘to purge and cleanse the air’. Dogs, thought to be carriers of infection, were culled by parish authorities. Clothes belonging to the deceased were also suspect. In Kent, in 1610, a man sold a coat belonging to his lodger, who had recently died of the plague. Unfortunately, the man who bought it died soon afterwards, as the coat was ‘not well aired or purified’.
Great efforts were made to stop crowds from gathering. Theatres, many of which were located in Southwark, were closed on 23 June, and did not open again until August 1594. The Westminster law courts were prevented from beginning their new term in October, and by the end of the month it was decided to hold them in Hertford instead. The High Court of Admiralty, which usually met in Southwark, was relocated to Woolwich. On 11 October, the usual ceremonies held to inaugurate the new Lord Mayor of London were cancelled, and the Queen suggested the money was spent on relieving ‘those persons whose houses are infected’ instead.
Rich and poor
Unsurprisingly, the poorest areas of London were the worst hit. By contrast, wealthier people retreated to their houses in the country to wait it out. Balmford enjoined them to be charitable: 'the good they can do (as they be rich men) is to relieve the sick and needy: which they may do well enough, without their residence [in London], if they were so well minded.'
Xenophobia and Discrimination
Some blamed immigrants for bringing the plague to London. The ‘filthy keeping’ of foreigners’ houses was identified by the city authorities as ‘one of the greatest occasions of the plague’. This might have helped to trigger the anti-immigrant feeling expressed by London apprentices in the spring of 1593. The trouble began in April when they set up ‘a lewd and vile ticket or placard’ on a post in London threatening violence against ‘the strangers’. A series of ‘divers lewd and malicious libels…published by some disordered and factious persons’ appeared in the following weeks. One castigated the ‘beastly brutes, the Belgians, or rather drunken drones, and fainthearted Flemings: and you, fraudulent father, Frenchmen’ and threatened that if they did not ‘depart out of the realm’ by 9 July, over 2,000 apprentices would rise up against them. The verse set upon the wall of the Dutch church at Austin Friars in the City of London in early May did ‘exceed the rest in lewdness’: ‘Strangers that inhabit in this land!…Egypt’s plagues, vexed not the Egyptians more/Than you do us; then death shall be your lot’. The threatened violence never actually erupted. Some of the culprits were rounded up and ‘put into the stocks, carted and whipped, for a terror to other apprentices and servants’. The Privy Council encouraged the Lord Mayor to use torture if necessary to prevent these ‘lewd persons’ from their ‘wicked purpose to attempt anything against strangers’. For ‘out of such lewd beginnings, further mischief doth ensue’.
You can read the full extract from the book (with all the footnotes) here. Or buy your own copy of Black Tudors here: (hey you might have plenty of reading time in the next few months).