Black Death comes to Walsham
I researched and wrote these notes for Suffolk Archives. They were intended for people teaching the History of Medicine in Suffolk at GCSE level. As luck would have it, Lucy Worsley's team off the telly did pretty much the same research at the same time and made rather a good BBC programme about it all.
The village was not know as Walsham le Willows until the C16th, so it will be referred to here as Walsham.
There are no sources which tell us directly about the Black Death in Walsham le Willows. There are, however, well preserved manorial court documents which are detailed contemporary records about land transactions and disputes of the time. They do not directly record the health of villagers, or even mention the pandemic itself except to list some of the names of villagers who died. However, historians have used these records to piece together a picture of village life in that tumultuous year.
Walsham and High Hill manorial courts
Manorial courts were the lowest law courts in England. They dealt with local matters such as land disputes and inheritances. The courts in Walsham also issued fines for social ‘misdemeanours’ such as giving birth outside marriage, getting married without permissions, and so on.
The court rolls
These are the records of court sessions held in the village. There are 255 rolls covering the C14th. They were made of sheets of parchment and were kept rolled up for safekeeping.
They were written in medieval Latin and in a court script which is not too difficult for experts to read. They are not illustrated - just text.
The court rolls are well preserved and are safeguarded by Suffolk Archives at the Record Office in Bury St Edmunds.
Who is not in the court rolls?
As most of the courts’ time was devoted to matters connected with land, people who did not rent land themselves tended not to be included in the records.
Children under the age of sixteen would usually be in this group.
Other landless villagers, many of whom would have worked on land rented by more senior members of their family, were also unlikely to appear in the records. These would have formed rather a large group, estimated by historians as two out of every three men and nineteen out of every twenty women.
Secondary sources for these notes are listed at the end of this document.
West Suffolk, showing Walsham le Willows from Court Rolls ed. R Locke
In many way, Walsham was an unremarkable west Suffolk village with a church and two manors: the smaller manor, High Hall, was the east of the village and the larger and richer one, Walsham, was in the west.
Walsham had a very large population. Historians have estimated that between 1000 - 1500 people lived there just before the Black Death first struck in 1349. This part of England was amongst the richest in the country but, with such a large population and a shortage of land locally, life was harsh for most villagers in C14th.
The lords of the manor
The lords of the manors were at the top of the village hierarchy and, although lords of both manors farmed part of their lands directly, they also rented out land to villagers. At the time of the Black Death, they were not members of the nobility - just minor gentry.
The manor of Walsham was the property of Rose de Valognes and her husband. He died in the Black Death and she died a few years later. They did not live in the village and are barely mentioned in the court records of the period. The other manor, High Hall, was the property of Edmund de Welles who lived in the manor house with his sister, Margery.
Each manor held regular courts, twice or three times a year and villagers were required to attend.
Like many neighbouring villages, most villagers worked on the land, growing crops and raising animals. They did not own their land or their own houses. They were tenants of someone else higher up the feudal chain.
Some villagers were ‘free’. These elite peasant families included the Cranmers (see the section below on deaths).
Most villagers were unfree (villeins), like John Chapman (see the section below on symptoms).
You can read more about the differences between free and unfree peasants in the glossary below.
Walsham le Willows from Court Rolls ed. R Locke, showing places identifiable from the court rolls, along with archaeological findings (1980s) from the medieval period
St Mary’s parish church
Walsham already had a church when the Domesday Survey was carried out in 1086. That building is long gone but the flint and other building materials from that very early time was used and reused over the centuries. The tower and font date from the 1300s but the rest of the church was revamped after the Black Death.
No-one knows the names of any of the parish priests at this time as they were appointed by Ixworth Priory and no records survive.
Links to the outside world
Walsham was rural village but not isolated. It was just twelve miles from Diss and Stowmarket and with strong links with Ixworth Priory. It also had links to Bury St Edmunds which was about twelve miles away to the southwest. The Abbey there was one of the richest and most powerful in England and a centre of learning with a notable library of medical manuscripts. The Abbot collected rents from land right across west Suffolk, but had very little land in Walsham.
The Black Death is thought to have arrived in England in July 1348 at the Dorset port of Weymouth. It spread rapidly across the country and is thought to have arrived in Walsham around mid-March 1349.
How much villagers knew about the illness and its spread is not known but by the time it reached Lakenheath (only thirty miles away) in January 1349 killing at least 20 people there, news must have reached Walsham.
Historians have estimated that the worst of the plague in Walsham was over by mid-May 1349, so at its height for about two months.
From M. Bailey, Medieval Suffolk, Woodbridge, 2007 p. 178
Historians do not agree whether the Black Death was bubonic plague, pneumonic plague or both. It was not referred to in English as the ‘Black Death’ until the mid C18th.
Table of causes (modern understanding) and symptoms
Course and mortality
The bacterium, Yersinia Pestis, spread by bites from fleas carried by rats on ships from central Asia
Human fleas and lice via shared bedding and clothing
- Pains in the areas of the abdomen, arms and legs
- Vomiting and diarrhoea
- Buboes (pus-filled swellings, particularly in the groin and armpits) which turned black
Course of disease was a few days with 50 per cent mortality
The bacterium, Yersinia Pestis, spread by coughs and sneezes (airborne)
- Painful breathing
- Coughing up blood
Mortality 100 per cent
There do not seem to be any sources specific to Suffolk which describe the symptoms or course of the pandemic. As the historian John Hatcher wrote, thinking about the Black Death in Walsham:
‘The intimate history of the Black Death, as witnessed by those who experienced it, was never recorded.’
So, in an attempt to give his readers a vivid and personal account of the disease, Hatcher has written a work of part fact/part fiction based in the real Walsham with real villagers but using historical information taken from other sources where contemporary local material is not available. In this book, John Hatcher takes a real person, John Chapman, a peasant farmer who rented land in the east of the village, and describes his illness and death, drawing on the writings of a C14th Italian, Gabriele de’ Mussis.
‘John began to feel unusually weak and listless one late afternoon while pulling up the first crop of weeds.’
‘He complained, with slightly slurred speech, of tiredness and an unusual tingling sensation in his painful arms and legs.’
‘He was slipping into a fever and was strangely disoriented.’
‘By the following morning, the carbuncle [cluster of painful boils] in John’s groin was the size of a duck’s egg, blackened and leaking pus, and John was delirious and only sporadically conscious.’
‘John did not regain his senses, and soon after sunrise he stopped breathing.’
From The Black Death: the intimate story of a village in crisis, 1345 – 1350h by John Hatcher
The real John Chapman’s death is recorded in the court record of 25 May 1349 held in High Hall manor. His heir was his three year old daughter.
- God’s judgement
The teachings of the Catholic Church taught that nothing happened unless it was the will of God. Any calamities were his punishment for sinful behaviour. These were basic and orthodox Christian teachings, seen as the absolute truth, and would have been known by the Walsham villagers and all their neighbours.
Local clergy in and around Walsham would have emphasised how important piety, repentance, prayer and fasting were as responses to illness and calamity.
- Witchcraft, charms and evil spirits
It was commonplace for people in the Middle Ages and beyond to believe that demons, witches and evil spirits caused disease.
Clergy performed exorcisms to remove evil spirits from sufferers’ bodies. Exorcisms in Walsham have not been recorded.
- Ill-fated stars and planets
The idea that the movements of planets and stars could cause disease was brought to Europe in the early middle ages and became very influential for many centuries. Each part of a human body was thought to be ruled by a star sign. For example:
- Aries rules the head, including the face, brain, and eyes
- Taurus rules the throat, including the neck, thyroid gland, and vocal tract
- Gemini rules the nervous system, which includes the shoulders, lungs, arms, hands, and fingers
There were a number of astrological works in the Abbey library in Bury St Edmunds which some of the monks may have used as almanacs to predict how patients’ health was affected by astrology. It is quite likely that Walsham people would have been unfamiliar with astrology at this time.
- Unbalanced humours
By the C13th, the ancient Greek and Roman theory of humours were known in western Europe. The belief was that the human body was composed of four fluids or ‘humours’ which needed to be kept in balance for good health. Works by the Islamic scholar, Avicenna, had brought these ideas as far as Bury St Edmunds where his Canon of Medicine was in the monks’ library. In this he stated:
And we also say that the humoural fluids - both beneficial and superfluous - are confined to four kinds:
1. Blood, the best of all – hot and wet
2. Phlegm – cold and wet
3. Yellow bile – cold and dry
4. Black bile – hot and dry
Adapted from Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, book 1
To treat a patient, the physician had to rebalance their bodily humours. For example, Avicenna recommended Syrian rhubarb for the plague as the plant has ‘cold and dry’ properties whilst the disease is ‘hot’. Whether Syrian rhubarb was readily available in west Suffolk is another matter though …
Nature: Syrian rhubarb is a plant which grows on mountains during the spring season and it possesses properties similar to that of unripe grape juice and orange.
Temperament: It is cold and dry
Properties: It is cooling, stops bleeding and lowers temperatures
Swellings: It is useful in plague
Excretion: It helps the patient balance their humours by encouraging ‘beneficial’ sickness and diarrhoea
Fevers: It is beneficial in measles, smallpox, plague and other epidemics
Adapted from Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, one of the medical encyclopaedias at Bury Abbey
Syrian rhubarb, recommended by Avicenna
Many people thought that disease was caused by bad air, also known as miasma. A well known manuscript in the library of Bury St Edmunds stated this, but the author also added that this could not happen unless it was the will of God:
‘Pestilence is a contagion that as soon as it seizes in one person quickly spreads to many. It arises from corrupt air and maintains itself by penetrating the internal organs. Although this is generally caused by powers in air, it never occurs without the consent of God.’
From Etymologies by St Isidore of Saville
St Isidore of Saville
Juniper wood and myrrh were burned. The highly fragranced smoke would fill the room and stop bad air from bring disease inside.
Herbal remedies were popular all over western Europe for centuries. In villages like Walsham, recipes would be passed down by word of mouth and probably tended to use locally grown plants such as juniper and thyme which have since been confirmed as having antiseptic properties.
In the medical library at Bury, there were beautifully made ‘herbals’, books of remedies copied by monks from centuries’ old sources. In particular, there was a copy of Pseudo-Apuleius’ herbal made at the Abbey in the late C11th or the early C12th. Each page deals with one medical plant, giving its name in several languages, ancient stories about the plant, and basic instructions as to how to use it to treat disease. It was probably a reference work and of no practical help to villagers of Walsham. Below is a sample page describing ‘asterion’ or aster.
‘Asterion grows among rocks and rough places. This herb shines by night just like a star in the sky and any one who sees it unaware of this fact may say that he sees a phantasm and, being full of fear, he is laughed at, especially by shepherds (Its medical use is) for fallings (i.e. epilepsy). For these you may prescribe the berries of the herb to be chewed in the wane of the moon when it shall be in the sign of Virgo and should they wear the herb itself suspended about the neck they will be he cured.’
Bury Herbal or Pseudo Apuleius’ Herbarium (Bodleian digital 130, folio 13r)
In summary, no-one understood the causes of disease in medieval England, and so treatment was mostly ineffective.
Traditional theories tended to cite the supernatural causes, whereas new theories from the Islamic world were based on observation of the physical world – but were, nevertheless, wrong in modern eyes.
The Catholic Church was extremely powerful and dominated what people thought about disease. Villagers in Walsham would have been very familiar with its basic views on ill-health.
Monks in Bury St Edmunds with medical knowledge do not seem to have been active as physicians in villages like Walsham. It appears that by the time of the Black Death, their role was to study individual cases in the monastic infirmary and mostly concern themselves with book learning.
The stark facts
A total of 119 deaths were recorded in the court rolls for Walsham and High Hill manors in the late spring and summer of 1349. The lists give the names of the dead, what land or houses they rented, who inherited the tenancy to the land and what death tax were due to the lord of the manor. These are the bare legal facts. The human cost of the outbreak and the emotional scenes at court as these matters were dealt with can only be imagined.
The grand total of fatalities in the village would have been many more than this as the court did not record the deaths of people who had no land. This means that so no-one under 16 is included, nor any of the landless villagers (unless they were named as heirs). Historians have estimated that many children died and most people over the age of 50. They have calculated that between 45 per cent and 55 per cent of villagers perished (say 500 – 750 people). Population numbers did not recover to pre-Black Death levels until the mid C19th.
Many families lost at least one member but the losses for some were more numerous. For example, the male line of the Cranmer family was completely wiped out. Three generations of that family died in the space of a few weeks – William the grandfather, William his son, Robert and William his two grandsons. They were substantial free peasants and their lands, buildings and livestock passed into the hands of the women of the family: two married women, Olivia and Hilary. They would have also taken on the responsibility for the work their family were obliged to do each year for the lord.
Get an image of the right part of the rolls
The Cranmer family, free tenants, who rented land and property in Walsham and High Hall
Place in family
Stot (his best heavy horse or cow)
His son, William, but who also died in the Black Death
Stot (his best heavy horse or cow)
His son, Robert, but who also died in the Black Death
Robert Cranmer (grandson)
His brother, William, but who also died in the Black Death
William Cranmer (also grandson)
His married kinswomen, Olivia and Hilary
Adapted from the High Hall manorial court held 25 May 1349 (HA504/1/2.7.ii), the Walsham manorial court held 15 June 1349 (HA504/1/5.14), and the High Hall manorial court held 23 July 1349 (HA504/1/5.12.i)
Many other villages would have had a similar number of fatalities but the survival of the Walsham court records means that we know these facts about Black Death in the village and, from them, historians can build this fuller picture.
Where are the bodies?
Some medieval ‘plague pits’ have been found in Suffolk villages such as Rendlesham and Barsham. These pits are usually in the northwest of the churchyard and are where many corpses appear to have been buried together in great haste. It seems that none has been unearthed yet in Walsham. However, there is a belief in the village today that there may be a pit in the churchyard under a hump by the main gate and this, too, is in the north west of the churchyard.
Some churches in East Anglia have graffiti on their walls, an informal and moving way of remembering people who died in the Black Death. However, Walsham parish church was substantially rebuilt in C15th and there is no commemorative graffiti to be seen now from times gone by.
The sudden death of at least half the village in the space of just a few months must have caused untold grief and trauma which we can only imagine.
Immediate population decrease
The outbreak of plague took place in the spring of the 1349. As we have seen, it was the children and the elderly who were probably the hardest hit groups. There were an estimated 500 survivors left to pick up the pieces. Fortunately, many of these were likely to have been the working age population.
Spring lambing must have been severely disrupted. Spring ploughing and sowing would have already taken place, but soon there would be acres of wheat, barley, oats and peas growing which would have to be harvested. Making matters worse, the plague year followed seven years of poor harvests and famine so villagers were already hungry.
Organised response from the local administration
The two manorial courts sat immediately after the worst of the Black Death was over – one in west Walsham in mid June; the other in east Walsham (High Hall) at the end of July 1349. Most of the villagers were duty-bound to attend.
The most pressing task was to sort out the inheritances and death taxes of those who had died. This is why the names of the 119 landed victims of the plague were listed.
New officials were elected to fulfil essential local functions, such as Adam of Angerhale who became the person who collected fines and rents for the lord of High Hall.
Fines were levied on two women, Olivia Cook and Alice Patel, who had had illegitimate babies.
In these ways, the traditional social and economic life of the village continued as best it could.
Shortage of clergy
The map above in the section ‘Arrival’ shows that over 50 priests were appointed to parishes (‘instituted’) across Suffolk between February and May 1349. This suggests that there were many vacancies to be filled. Priests would have been particularly vulnerable to infection because an important part of their duties was to visit the dying to administer the Last Rites. In this way, clergy were at the front line of the disease.
In the years immediately after the Black Death, there continued to be a decreased number of monks, nuns and priests across Suffolk. Bury Abbey asked the pope’s permission in 1351 to ordain ten monks as priests, even though they were under the minimum twenty five years of age, as there was a lack of priests to celebrate Mass.
Power of the Church
There seems to have been no decrease in the power of the church. Church building and restorations continued, as in Walsham. There was an increase in pilgrimages to centres such as Walsingham, Ipswich and St Edmunds’ shrine at Bury, but we do not know if anyone from Walsham went.
Gradual decline of Bury Abbey
At the Abbey itself, forty of its eighty monks died. There was disorder in monastic life – several short-lived Abbots and a scandal of murder in the cloisters. Some historians date the Abbey’s slow decline to this period. In particular, depopulation across the county meant that the Abbey’s extensive estates in west Suffolk weren’t farmed as effectively as before.
Some historians, like John Hatcher, have noted that women such as Olivia Cranmer gained more wealth and local prestige when the male line of her family died out in the plague and she inherited the family holdings.
Over the following years, the high number of fatalities meant there was shortage of peasants to work in the fields and to look after animals. Peasants in Walsham, as in other villages, were in such demand that they could choose to ignore their traditional duties to the lord of the manor, leave the village and go to work for other people. They could work for whoever paid them the most money.
However, Walsham peasants who did this found themselves hauled up in the manorial courts. For example, in October 1353, eleven of them were listed in the court rolls - six women – (Isabella Spileman, Cristiana Lene, Alice Noreys, Olivia Rampolye and her daughter, and Alice Galyon) and five men (Stephen Swylepot, Nicholas Horn, John Hardheved, Simon Wyete and John Craske). They had refused to harvest crops for the lord. They were fined but payment was deferred until the following autumn on the condition that they ‘come and work amicably and without dissent’.
Over the years, these peasants and others found themselves in court again on similar reasons and for shoddy workmanship such as gleaning ‘badly in the lord’s corn’.
The years 1349-51 saw the introduction of a series of laws (the Statutes of Labourers) designed to peg wages at pre-plague levels, and to control the movement of agricultural labourers. It was poorly enforced but still very unpopular with peasants who were increasingly resentful of a system which kept them poor and powerless.
Peasants’ Revolt, 1381
This rebellion was partly caused by peasants’ anger at taxes and restrictions on their freedom. It was not directly caused by the Black Death. Rather, the pandemic had accelerated a slow decline of the manorial system which had started beforehand.
Walsham probably played very little part in the Peasants Revolt. There were violent disturbances in parts of the County where the Abbot of Bury was a landlord. This did not include Walsham.
The plague returned in 1361 and again in 1369. Major outbreaks also occurred in Suffolk in Tudor times and in 1665. The last known case in England was in Suffolk in 1918 when Mrs Gertrude Garrod died. She had lived in Erwarton on the Shotley peninsula.
The first-known case in England - a seaman who arrives in Weymouth in Dorset from France
Plague reaches London
First cases in Suffolk (Lakenheath)
Height of outbreak in Walsham le Willows
1349, 25 May
First court sitting in High Hall manor after outbreak
1349, 15 June
First court sitting in Walsham manor after outbreak
1349 - 1351
Statutes of Labourers
Peasants’ Revolt, including outbreaks of rebellion across East Anglia
Handwriting usually used in C12 and C13 for legal documents
A small minority of peasants were ‘freemen’. They were able to move round from one village to another and did not have the same restrictions on them as unfree peasants did.
They had to attend the lord’s court sittings at certain times and work for him for a few days each year, e.g. at harvest and ploughing
A rural area with a manor house where the lord of the manor and his dependents lived and ran a farming estate; and a population of peasants who worked the surrounding land to support themselves and the lord. There were two manors in what is now Walsham le Willows.
The lowest law courts in England. They dealt with local matters, particularly relating to land e.g. settling disputes between tenants, approving land transfers, inheritances. Also appointed local officials and issued fines.
Someone who rented land or property. In the Middle Ages, most people were tenants of someone further up the feudal ladder than themselves.
Unfree peasants who were legally tied to land owned by a local lord. If they wanted to move, or even get married, they needed the permission of the lord first and pay him a fee.
They had to work for the lord whenever summoned, regardless of their own needs.
Unfree peasants had to attend every time the local court sat.
See Unfree tenants
Debby Banham, Medicine at Bury in the time of Abbot Baldwin, in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest ed. Tom Licence, The Boydell Press, 2014
Anne F Dawtry, Modus Medendi and the Benedictine Order in Anglo-Norman England, Studies in Church History, vol 19 The Church and Healing, 21 March 2016
Michael Gullick, An Eleventh-Century Bury Medical Manuscript, in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest ed. Tom Licence, The Boydell Press, 2014
Richard Sharpe, Reconstructing the medieval library, in Bury St Edmunds: Medieval Art, Architecture and Economy ed. Antonia Gransden, Routledge, 1998
John Hatcher, The Black Death: the intimate story of a village in crisis, 1345 – 1350, Phoenix, 2009
Ray Lock, The Court Rolls of Walsham le Willows 1303-1350, Suffolk Records Society vol XLI, The Boydell Press, 1998
Ray Lock, The Court Rolls of Walsham le Willows 1351-1399, Suffolk Records Society vol xlv, The Boydell Press, 2002
Ray Lock, The Black Death in Walsham le Willows, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, vol 37 part 4 1992
C Ritchie, Black Death at St Edmunds Abbey, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, vol 27 1955 pp 47-50
Veronique Thouroude, Medicine after Baldwin, in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest ed. Tom Licence, The Boydell Press, 2014
BBC TV, Lucy Worsley Investigates, episode about Black Death (with particular reference to Walsham le Willows), May 2022