Eyam Plague: The Ultimate Quarantine (1665-1666)

OK, I think it’s important for me to tell you as we go into this Tudorial that there are NO Tudors in it at all. Not one. At the time of writing the UK is in complete lock-down as a response to the Coronavirus pandemic, and whilst I have a list of about a million Tudor related subjects to write about, now seems like a good time to write about the absolute badass villagers of Eyam and how they chose to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good. Buckle in – it’s a tear jerker (sorry not sorry)

Here goes…

Most people are familiar with the Black Death, and understand that it ravaged through Europe and Asia from the mid-1300’s onwards. It was responsible for killing 50million people in Europe in the 14th century, eventually fucking off for good in the late 17th century*. The last serious epidemic in England occurred between 1665 -1666, and was rather originally named ‘The Great Plague’, (the title of ‘The Black Death’ had been taken in 1348 after a mass outbreak, but it was all the same shit).

The Black Death… with very little happening in the way of social distancing.

The plague itself was an utter bastard of a disease, claiming the lives of around 100,000 English people between 1665-66, and giving rats a reputation that they didn’t really deserve. The disease itself was basically a sneaky little cockweasle of a bacteria that hung out in the goz of fleas. The fleas then went about happily, riding on the back of rats who unwittingly went about their ratty business, ignorant to the fact that these fleas were biting everything in sight, infecting them and spreading the plague at a rate of knots.

If you caught the plague, you were more than likely fucked – and if you shared living quarters with an infected person, you were more than 100x more likely to catch the infection. If you caught it you knew about it. The bacteria (Yersinia pestis if you want to get scientific), would enter the body through fleas saliva when you got bit, travelling straight to the lymphatic system and causing some pretty shitty reactions. Firstly, as your body tries (pointlessly) to react, tennis ball sized ‘plague-boils’ would sprout up in your groin and armpits, leaking pus and blood all over the place. Then would follow headaches,  fever, aches and chills, accompanied by an onslaught of diarrhoea and sickness which made light work of both orifices… and then you died.

The plague was rife in London in 1665. The rich often fled to hide in their country estates (usually taking the disease with them), whilst the infected poor were boarded up in their houses. The government had very little by way of a plan, and it started to become every man for themselves, (sounds familiar eh?!).  London was in absolute chaos, and since quarantine regulations didn’t place restrictions on trade routes, the rest of the country quickly found themselves at risk; seamlessly taking us to the heroes at the heart of our story: the villagers of Eyam in Derbyshire.

Eyam is a tiny village in the heart of the Peak District in Derbyshire. It lies between Bakewell (of tart fame) and Sheffield (of steel fame), and quite close to Chesterfield (of bent church fame). In 1665, its population is estimated to be around 350-800. Historical records differ, but either way you can tell by the numbers that it was, and still is, fucking tiny. Despite being small, Eyam was a known stop-off for travelling merchants from London taking goods up north. One such merchant who lived in the village was a tailor named Alexander Hadfield.

In August 1665, Alexander sent for cloth from London, which was now under the ravages of the Great Plague. When the bale of cloth arrived at his home, Alexander’s assistant, George Vikers, opened it and upon noticing it was damp hung it out by the fireplace to dry. Unbeknownst to George and Alexander, the cloth was riddled with infected flea larvae which were pure digging on the heat from George’s fire. On September 7th George became Eyam’s first fatality of the plague. By the end of the month another 5 people had died. Knowing now that the plague had well and truly hit the village, panic and hysteria ensued, and people began to consider leaving.

In this historical period and in this part of the world, religion was everything and people began to turn to the church for answers. The local rector was a man named William Mompesson, who had only recently taken up post (and was now probably wishing he hadn’t).  He, his wife and children had moved to the village a year or so previously to replace the previous rector, Sherland Adams.

William Mompesson.(c) Museums Sheffield; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sherland has no importance to this story except that he was sent to replace the previous minister, Thomas Stanley, and then promptly died only to be replaced by Mompesson. Stanley however, is pivotal to this story. He had been appointed as rector to the parish of Eyam in 1644 under the rule of the puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, and being that way inclined themselves, the villagers loved him. However, as times changed and the royalists crept back in, Stanley was given the boot after he refused to take the Oath of Conformity and use the Common Book of Prayer.

Thomas Stanley soon found himself in exile under the ‘5 mile act of 1665’, which stated that no member of the clergy could live less than 5 mile of his previous parish. Luckily for his beloved parishioners, Stanley was belligerent enough to decide he would stay in Eyam only to watch the utter royalist dickhead, Sherland Adams, promptly followed by the cocky youthful gobshite Mompesson, waltz in and steal his parish. This didn’t really matter though as the people of Eyam were loyal to Stanley, and had no time for these new royalist pretenders.

When the plague hit Eyam, it hit hard. Mompesson was desperate to maintain some sort of order and control, to restrict the spread of the disease, and to prevent it from reaching the neighbouring industrial city of Sheffield as well as the other surrounding villages. His idea was for the village to go into self-quarantine, shutting its borders and preventing anyone from leaving or entering in an attempt to quash the spread. Knowing this meant imminent death, and not really giving two shits for the words of the new vicar, the villagers understandably told Mompesson to fuck right off. That when Mompesson realised that if he was stop the spread of the plague, he would need to enlist the help of his predecessor, Stanley, so made the 2 minute trip down the road to drag him out of exile.

When reading about Eyam, many sources give conflicting accounts; for example the number of villagers that inhabited the village, or whether it was Mompesson or Stanley who was to take the credit for the whole quarantine idea. However one thing which resonates through them all is how well the two men put their religious differences aside, and worked together for the greater good. Using Stanley to win over the villagers, Mompesson convinced them that the only way to stop the spread of the plague was for them to take the hit and let the disease die with them, there, in the village.

Mompesson persuaded the villagers not to flee Eyam by telling them that he’d be with them until the bitter end, and reiterating the importance that nobody leaves as they were all in it together blah, blah, blah. Then, after sending his own kids to live in Sheffield, he closed the town boundaries to stop people from leaving or entering. By all accounts, the people did this willingly. Possibly because they believed that the harsh winter months would kill the disease – which to an extent it did limit the transmission, but 42 people still died between September and December and, of course, the following summer was one of the hottest known, causing the fleas to go fucking mental.

Not being self-sufficient, Eyam’s successful isolation depended on the grace of other local villages to support them. ‘Plague stones’ were set up around Eyams parameters whereby money was placed in a well of vinegar in the stone to disinfect the coins, in trade for food. The stones can still be seen around the village.

Mompessons well as it stands today. This would be filled with vinegar for the villagers to disinfect their payments for good in.

The villagers also took other precautions. Mompesson had put a hold on all funerals so he could tend to the dying, and held church services in the open fields to reduce contact between parishioners. To reduce the risk of contamination it was also ordered that people were buried with immediate haste in a grave near where they died. This mean that the consecrated grounds of the cemetery were now out of bounds for many of the God-fearing villagers, who were forced to bury their loved ones in their own gardens and fields close to their homes.

Many of the survivors had the added indignity of moving their deceased loved ones by tying ropes around their feet and dragging them to the fields, so as to not be in contact with the infection. By far the shittest account of any is that of Elizabeth Hancock, who was forced to bury six of her children and her husband who were all taken by the plague within 8 days of each other. The graves are still in Eyam today under protection by the National Trust. Surviving the plague, it’s hard to imagine if Elizabeth would have felt blessed or cursed by the events.

As the plague ravaged the village people began burning their clothes and soft furnishings at the advice of Mompesson who led by example. One man who failed to heed this advice was a bloke called Marshall Howe. Marshall had caught the plague and, against all odds, recovered. Believing that he could not catch it twice, he decided to make some extra cash by turning his hand to grave digging. Marshall stood to earn a pretty decent income from this alone, but he still he topped this up by stealing the clothes and other possessions of the dead. Although Marshall survived the plague, he lost his young child and wife. It is thought that they had caught the plague from the infected clothes of the deceased that Marshall stole from.

Things were looking grim. Mompesson’s own beloved wife, Catherine, had died and Stanley had set to helping the villagers write their wills (a few of which survive in Eyam Museum). They kept detailed records of every member of the village who lost their life. People were forbidden to see their families and friends in neighbouring villages and all ties to life, with the exception of aid, outside Eyam were cut.

Another famous story is that of Rowland Torre and Emmot Sydall who were betrothed when the plague hit. Emmot lived in Eyam with her family and Rowland in the neighbouring village. Each night they would sneak out and meet secretly, whispering (or shouting more likely) sweet nothings across the river to each other, until one night Emmot stopped coming. The story goes that as soon as the quarantine was lifted, Rowland was one of the first in the village, eager to find Emmot, but she’d already died, leaving him heartbroken forever more. Fucking horrific.

The stained glass window in Eyam church, with Emmot and Rowland (bottom right).
I’m not crying, you are!

Having no cure for the plague, the villagers were utterly left in the shit and forced out of desperation to resort to the absolutely fucking ridiculous treatments prescribed by the 17th century. One of the best being to pluck a pigeons tail feathers out and rub the bald bird on your boils until it dies. What cunt came up with this is not known. Another was to lay a frog onto a boil until it bursts. That is the frog bursts, not the boil! It’s amazing that this shit was prescribed by physicians during a period when the number 1 pastime was witch-hunting.

On November 1st, 1666 the last victim of the Eyam plague had died. It claimed the lives of 260 men, women and children from 76 families. Comparatively, Eyam had a higher percentage of plague deaths than London. It was due to the bravery and sacrifice of the villagers, and the leadership skills of Mompesson and Stanley that the plague did not take hold elsewhere. They had saved the lives of potentially thousands by preventing the spread to the nearby and densely populated city of Sheffield. Absolute fucking badasses.

With all of this happening during such a religiously charged time in history, it is interesting to think of how the villagers (and indeed Eyam’s neighbouring villages) saw God’s role in all of this. Were they being punished for past sins? Were they doing the lords work by quarantining themselves, acting as the chosen ones, giving their lives to stop the disease? It’s hard to know.

Eyam ‘plague cottages’. If you take a walk through Eyam you will be guided by the green plaques of doom. To walk through it will take about 35 seconds because its fucking tiny, giving you the full magnitude of the horror).

Both Mompesson and Stanley survived the plague of Eyam. Mompesson left the village in 1669 to go and work in Nottinghamshire. What’s really wank (aside from all of the aforementioned death) is that his reputation became as a plague minister, and not as the brave bastard he was. Consequently he was forced to live in isolation in a hut from the fear of his new parishioners who suspected that he may bring the plague to them. Shitehawks.

The word ‘quarantine’ derives from the Italian phrase ‘quarantina giorni’ meaning ‘40 days’. This was the standard period of time expected of those isolating from the plague. For the people of Eyam, their quarantine lasted 14 months and took the lives of over a third of their village.

  • With special thanks to Eyam Museum for being so frigging good https://www.eyam-museum.org.uk/. If you’re ever in Derbyshire you should visit Eyam; the pictures I have borrowed are only small pieces of it’s history, you have to see it to really feel it).

*Although the plague left Europe at this time, the World Health Organisation report that there are still to this day around 1000-3000 new cases of it confirmed each year, (mostly in African countrie


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