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The Black Death

The Black Death spread from the East, to Sicily, then up through Italy and across the continent to reach Surrey in autumn 1348.

The disease strikes rapidly. Within 24 hours of infection and the first appearance of the first black pustule, came an agonising death.

By the time it petered out in September 1350, approximately one third of the nation had died of plague.

The plague struck both rich and poor. London, packed and insanitary suffered dreadfully. Those who could afford to fled the stink and terror to the countryside. Sutton is just south of Stane street which would have been a busy route and the fact that the registers between 1345 and 1366 are lost may indicate that Sutton suffered severely.

Across England in 1348 the monastic system came close to collapse when the black death killed off something like two thirds of all people in holy orders.

The Chertsey Abbey still continued the tax on death (heriots) and had difficulty housing all the animals it received as a result. If there had been land shortages in the early 14th century then suddenly in two years there was more land than people to farm it and many holdings may have become vacant.

Subsequent epidemics of bubonic plague occurred in 1360-2, 1369 and 1375, leading to a further fall in population. In the next 100 years there were at least a further 13 major national epidemics. But perhaps of even greater significance was the the fact that the plague became endemic, flaring up in local outbreaks.

There had been about 2 million people in England in 1066. In about 1300 the population had risen to near six million, but famine, disease and changes to the economy meant the population dropped to about 3 million by the end of the century.

The period of optimism and growing economic welfare had been brought to a sudden and catastrophic end.

Free from the feudal bonds of the countryside, the inhabitants of London must have been envied by the villeins in Sutton. It must have been tempting to run to London, as a villein could gain freedom by escaping to the city and living there for more than a year; but this avenue involved the loss of land and agricultural livelihood, which would have been a prohibitive price.

After the black death much of the feudal consensus would have broken down. The Abbot as Lord of the manor may have realized that if the peasants were now free from any obligation to the Abbey, the Abbey was equally free from any obligations to care for the peasants.

It is quite possible that the Abbot saw he could now make more money out of sheep than he could out of his peasants.