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The Black Death of 1348 in Exeter

Back to historic events in Exeter

The Great Pestilence came from the east, from central China. It spread westward, carried by refugees and traders, eventually arriving in France, and from there it reached England.

There had been other plagues, notably in 1234, but this was different. It was carried by rats. They arrived in two vessels which sailed into the harbour of Melcombe Regis in Dorset, now known as Weymouth. It soon spread rapidly. Rats can travel great distances in grain, clothing, etc. and the plague soon reached outlying towns and villages.

The Symptoms

The disease was both infectious and contagious. It was fatal to breathe the air around the victim or touch him. People were so terrified that they often deserted their families and friends and left them to die alone.

At the onset of the disease swellings appeared in the armpits and in the groin, followed by gangrene in the throat and lungs and acute pain. The victim vomited blood and the body gave off a vile stench.

By March 1349 fifty seven clergy had died of the plague and in April a further fifty one in Devon. Prayers were said in churches nationwide. As each incumbent died, his successor donned the infected vestments of his predecessor and was soon a victim himself.

The Bishop escapes Exeter

Exeter's Bishop Grandisson made his home at Chudleigh for the duration of the plague. He considered it to be a safe place. The plague claimed several of his relatives, including two of his sisters, Katherine and Agnes, and two nephews. Only one member of the Royal Family fell victim to the plague. Princess Joan, who died at Bordeaux on her way to Spain, where she was to marry Pedro of Castile.

The plague was most virulent in the south east corner of Devon. Colyton was the worst village, but all the villages around were badly infected. Colyton lost four vicars in seven months. Twenty monks and three brothers were buried at Newnham Abbey, which was close to the Dorset border where the plague first struck.

The ranks of the clergy had been so much depleted that was impossible to find incumbents for the vacant benefices. Elsewhere employers found it difficult to get workers, as so many had died of the plague. Beasts and cattle strayed everywhere for no-one was left to tend them.

Work on Exeter Cathedral came to a halt. It was not possible to fill the windows with stained glass. Men brought loads of faggots, clay and hay, and these were used to stop up the gaps and keep out the wind and rain. St Nicholas Priory lost many of its monks.

Exeter, with a population of three thousand lost 1900 dead. The total of deaths in the country was estimated to be two and three quarter millions. A certain professor Theobald Rogers calculated the number of deaths worldwide as 25 million. Europe lost half its population. Izacke wrote of Exeter, 'The Plague of Pestilence reigned here almost three Years Space'.

The Black Death was a calamity of colossal magnitude. Up to that time, nothing in the history of the world was comparable to it. It stood alone for its awful fatality.

Written by Margaret Ball

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