The excessive fear of plague and illness for Henry VIII was none stop. Stories are told that upon the birth of Prince Edward his household had been cleaned daily to prevent illness and early death. Because of the high mortality rate and lack of antibiotics in the mid 16th century the king would sometimes require notifications from those who served him and were affected by illness. They were often required to report to his ministers on the appearance of the plague in his realm. The plague was constant in England in the mid 16th century and a regular threat to the well-being of the king’s subjects.
The following letter was written by Margaret (Dymoke) Coffin, a lady in waiting at the court of Henry VIII, on the day of her husband’s death. Margaret is best known as one of the five ladies who served Anne Boleyn in the Tower prior to her execution.
Margaret’s husband, William Coffin was Master of the Horse for both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour and died from the plague. The letter his wife wrote was to Secretary Cromwell. This letter gives us an interesting insight into court life that we don’t often hear about.
Right honorable and my singular good lord,
In my most humblest manner, as a poor widow full of heaviness and without comfort for the departing of my husband, whose soul God pardon, beseeching your lordship to be good lord unto me, and that it may please you to advertise the king’s highness of his departing, and whereon he died, and as the women that laid him forth said, and showed me, it was the great sickness and full of God’s marks over all his body. And I most humbly beseech his grace to be good and gracious lord to me in all my rightful causes; for I know not what case I and my servants stand in, but I remit all to the mercy of God, to whom I beseech God send your lordship long life.
Written at Standon, the 8th Day of December (1538), by your beadwoman,
Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain, Vol. 3; page 63
Europeans were introduced to The Black Death, or “The Great Pestilence” (by sea) in 1347 when twelve trade ships docked at a Sicilian port. Most on board were dead and those who were alive were gravely ill – they would soon die as well. On board were men covered with black boils that oozed blood and pus – it was eventually given the name, “Black Death.”
The Black Death knew no status – when a person became infected with this plague they would die within a few days. It would begin with a persistent fever, followed by blisters and boils on the legs, arm and neck that would weaken the victim due to the immense pain – so much pain they became fatigued and bedridden. The boils would grow and increase in size until they were the size of an egg, oozing and seeping infectious fluids. Within days they would be dead. Very few people actually survived the plague.
The Black Death terrified people so much that they often abandoned family members and loved ones to save themselves from becoming infected.
Many died unseen. So they remained in their beds until they stank. And the neighbors, if there were any, having smelled the stench, placed them in a shroud and sent them for burial. The house remained open and yet there was no one daring enough to touch anything because it seemed that things remained poisoned and that whoever used them picked up the illness.
What is the Black Death and how did it spread?
The bacteria that causes this plague lives in rats – some rats have developed an immunity to it, and the fleas that feed on their blood cannot swallow it – in turn, when the flea jumps to its human victim, it bites the human and leaves behind the unswallowed rat blood in the bite. The human is now infected.
There are three types of this plague:
Pneumonic plague - The virus settles in the victim’s lungs and after four to five days their lungs essentially become liquefied. The victim coughs up their liquefied lungs and dies. Symptoms include: fever, headache, weakness, shortness of breath, chest pain and cough.
Septicemic plague - The virus inhibits the body’s ability to clot – so the outcome is bleeding to death from multiple places at the same time. Symptoms include: fever, chills, weakness, abdominal pain, shock, and bleeding underneath the skin or other organs.
Bubonic plague - The virus attacks the lymph nodes and makes them swell and blacken and their skin decomposes while they’re still alive.
The Black Death, or plague, arrived in England in the Summer of 1348 and by August/September it arrived in London and took hold of the city with brutal force.
‘The pestilence arrived in London at about the feast of All Saints [1st Nov] and daily deprived many of life. It grew so powerful that between Candlemass and Easter [2nd Feb-12th April] more than 200 corpses were buried almost every day in the new burial ground made next to Smithfield, and this was in addition to the bodies buried in other graveyards in the city.‘
In England, the Black Death would claim 1.5 million people out of an estimated 4 million between 1348 and 1350 – almost half of the population. It spared no one. Small villages in England were completely wiped out. When a family member became infected, the rest weren’t far behind. There was no way to stop it. When residents fled their infected villages they were one of the very reasons the plague spread throughout the country so quickly — taking the Black Death with them and not even realizing it. Either they were already infected (and didn’t know it) or they were carrying the infected fleas on their clothing.
“The Black Death had a huge impact on society. Fields went unploughed as the men who usually did this were victims of the disease. Harvests would not have been brought in as the manpower did not exist. Animals would have been lost as the people in a village would not have been around to tend them.”
The Black Death had a huge impact on England and it’s food supply. During the plague there was a huge surplus of food that spoiled because there was no one available to harvest the fields. Those people who either sick, dead or had fled their home. After the plague, many faced starvation because not enough crop had been planted due to dismal labor numbers. Another after effect of the food shortage was inflation, which created even more hardship for the poor. The normal price of items increased four times their normal rate – leaving it nearly impossible for some to eat.
Near the end of 1350 the plague had subsided, but didn’t really die-out in England for a few centuries. Outbreaks occurred in 1361-62, 1369, 1379-83, 1389-93, and throughout the first half of the 15th century. It wasn’t until the late 17th century that England became largely free of serious plague outbreaks.
Did You Know?
Many scholars believe the nursery rhyme, “Ring Around the Rosy” was written about the Black Death (See video below)
King Edward III was the ruling monarch during the outbreak — his daughter, Joan of England died from the plague on 1 July 1348.
Lyrics to Ring Around the Rosy:
Ring around the rosy A pocketful of posies “Ashes, Ashes” We all fall down