Eyam’s Ultimate Sacrifice: Medieval Village Locked Down to Stop the Plague
‘Lockdown’ is a word we now see on a daily basis as the 2020 coronavirus pandemic requires limiting the movements and activities of communities during the mass quarantine of most of the world’s population. But this is not the first time such drastic social measures have been taken.
1666 AD was known as the “Devil’s Year” for much more than its numerical association with the number of the Biblical Beast. No sooner had the diabolical date begun, when on January 26 France declared war on England and Munster against a backdrop of the “Black Death” (bubonic plague) that decimated the population between 1665 - 1666. According to historian Ben Johnstone, in September 1666 when the Great Fire of London swept through central parts of the English city it destroyed the pulsing heart of religion in England, St Paul's Cathedral, and a further 87 parish churches and 13,200 houses. When the smoke cleared and the human death toll was found to be the number “six,” few Londoners doubted that the lord of darkness did indeed walk among them.
London’s Ludgate in flames with the square towers and spire of St Paul's Cathedral catching fire in the distance. Oil painting by anonymous artist, ca. 1670. Paul Mellon Collection in the Yale Center for British Art. (Public Domain)
Black Death Trotting on ‘The Devil's Hoof’
The Great Plague lasted from the beginning of 1665 until September 1666, representing the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England, killing an estimated 200,000 (one quarter of London's population). Fatalities soared in the city of London in part because Londoners failed to self-quarantine, but this was not the case in the rural English village of Eyam located idyllically in the Derbyshire Dales within the Peak District National Park.
An early nineteenth-century scene showing the Eyam village pond, plague cottages, church tower, Talbot Inn and cottages, rectory gateposts and four groups of figures. (Public Domain)
Fearing Black Death might penetrate their quaint community, the entire population of around 350, mostly farming folk, quarantined themselves. A 2004 paper titled ‘ The Eyam Plague Revisited: Did the Village Isolation Change Transmission from Fleas to Pulmonary’ published in the journal Medical Hypotheses called it an act of “self-sacrifice” to prevent the further spread of the plague.
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Following the devil’s footprints backwards, this story began in the spring of 1665 when a London fabric merchant sent a bale of cloth infected with plague carrying flees, that had already killed thousands of Londoners, from the capital city to Eyam. This biological time bomb was received by a tailor's assistant called George Viccars, who hung it in front of his fire to dry, releasing a hell-driven fleet of disease-ridden fleas. He became the first of Eyam plague victims. What is perhaps most disturbing in this man’s death, according to Eyam churchwarden Joan Plant speaking, is that Viccars was only visiting Eyam to “help make clothes for the local religious festival, Wakes Week, but sadly he never left.”
Inspired by “Black Death”, The Dance of Death is a visual allegory of death and a common motif in late medieval period artworks. Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). (Public Domain)
Master Plan of the Reverend Plague Fighters in Eyam
By the end of the spring of 1666, 42 villagers had died, and many were on the verge of evacuating in a last gasp to save themselves, but the newly appointed village rector, William Mompesson, was determined to prevent the plague spreading to the nearby towns of Sheffield and Bakewell and foresaw that the village should be quarantined. This would mean his parishioners would effectively have to sacrifice their lives. Mompesson became the reverend in Eyam in April 1664 after the previous rector, Thomas Stanley, had refused to acknowledge the 1662 Act of Uniformity, which was a rule that all prayers must use the English Book of Common Prayer introduced by Charles II. What’s more, this new Act meant everyone had to attend church once a week “or be fined 12 pence,” which was an impossible demand for the poor majority of England, who worked seven days a week to barely scratch a subsistence.
Eyam Parish Church contains displays and detailed accounts of the village when it voluntarily locked down during the spread of the plague that had been imported in a flea infected cloth from London. (Alan Fleming/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Ken Thompson is the historian and chairman of Eyam Museum, who says neither Stanley or Mompesson were very popular in the village so their master plan to mass quarantine the village was difficult to implement and required extreme action. On June 24, 1666, Mompesson announced to his congregation that he believed the entire village should be locked down and that no-one whatsoever should be permitted to enter or leave. Mompesson promised the villagers that if they willingly gambled with death rather than spreading the disease to other regions, that he would do everything in his power to alleviate their suffering and that the kind Earl of Devonshire based in the neighboring Chatsworth House would send them food and supplies.
The Reverend William Mompesson was born about April 28, 1639 AD in Collingham, Yorkshire, England, and his courageous act is amplified when we consider he was only in his mid-30s. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Stanley agreed to support Mompesson’s audacious plan and when he explained to the villagers that a one mile guarded line preventing anyone from entering or leaving the infected area, a “cordon sanitaire”, was the “only” way they could contain the plague, they eventually agreed to the daring plan. The villagers knew they had a chance of survival if they adhered to strict social distancing within the village and to prevent their disease spreading outwards, they ventured, one by one, to a boundary stone with six holes drilled in the top in which they placed coins to pay their neighbors and traders for essential supplies.
18th century oil painting showing Chatsworth House, which served as a central command station for getting supplies to the locked down villagers in Eyam. Painted by William Marlow (1740–1813). Devonshire Collections. (Public Domain)
A BBC Local Legends article published on April 12, 2007 titled ‘ Living With The Plague’ recounts the last days in what must have been a living nightmare, where for over 14 months, a settlement that had been founded and named by Anglo-Saxons slowly rotted into history, from the inside out. On November 1, 1666, farmer Abraham Morten became the 260th and last person to die from bubonic plague in Eyam, but if they had not quarantined, thousands of further deaths may have occurred across England through the national trading network, which makes the villagers’ selfless decision to quarantine themselves one of history’s more heroic displays of genuine altruism.
By the end of the Devil’s sweep, the outbreak of Black Death claimed the lives of 260 of the villages 350 original population. However, their personal sacrifice successfully contained the Black Death from spreading beyond their village. This incredible show of social unity, where a group of humans used “distance” as a weapon against the spread of a deadly infection, was the master plan of Reverends Stanley and Mompesson, but kudos must be equally shared among the village folk who implemented this bold act of self-sacrifice.
‘Doktor of Rome.’ Artwork of Paulus Fürst 1656 AD . Wearing such clothing and face masks, doctors in Rome tried to protect themselves from becoming infected with the Black Death. (Public Domain)
The people of Eyam’s collective response to the disease outbreak ensured those living beyond Eyam did not suffer from the same effects of the plague that took the lives of their family and friends, and William Mompesson must be one of England’s most courageous and compassionate historical figures for having dealt with distress and deaths of those inside the village, while protecting those around it. If you look again at his portrait there is a solemnity in his eyes, reflecting deep genuine compassion, a look that is today present in the faces of health staff around the world who attempt to lock down wards and hospitals in the fight to contain coronavirus, just like the villagers at Eyam did in the “Devil’s Year”.
Emmott and Rowland, Star-Crossed Lovers Across the Stream
Emmott Syddall was 22 and about to marry her lover, Rowland Torre, when the plague broke out. They were separated by Eyam’s self-imposed quarantine. Each day, the two lovers met on opposite sides of Eyam’s stream to see each other.
Sadly, Emmott died from the plague. When she didn't show up at the stream on a number of consecutive days, Rowland ran into the deadly village to search for his lover. Tragically, he found the body of Emmott with her family in her home.
The lovers’ heartbreaking story is mentioned in ‘ Lockdown’ by Simon Armitage. Here is an excerpt:
“And I couldn’t escape the waking dream of infected fleas
in the warp and weft of soggy cloth by the tailor’s hearth
in ye olde Eyam. Then couldn’t un-see
the Boundary Stone, that cock-eyed dice with its six dark holes,
thimbles brimming with vinegar wine purging the plagued coins.
Which brought to mind the sorry story of Emmott Syddall and Rowland Torre,
star-crossed lovers on either side of the quarantine line
whose wordless courtship spanned the river till she came no longer.”
The Boundary Stone of Eyam in Derbyshire has six holes on top which are believed to be where coins were placed for trade with the outside world during the quarantine lockdown to prevent the spread of the Bubonic Plague in 1665-6 AD. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Top Image: Bubonic plague victims’ graves in Eyam village, Derbyshire, UK. Source: Paul /Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie
The story of Eyam is included in the April 2020 issue of Ancient Origins magazine. Read more of the fascinating articles included in that issue HERE.