Cumbria’s Great Pestilence, 1597-8

Last week, I found myself behind the care home at Tynefield on the southern edge of Penrith and saw this block of stone. It was filled with rubbish and rainwater, but was clearly man-carved and looked an awful lot like the base of a medieval stone cross. And this, indeed, is what it is, but that’s not its main claim to fame. This stone block is in fact Penrith’s Plague Stone, and a grade 2* listed monument.

Rubbish in Penrith's Plague Stone
Rubbish in Penrith’s Plague Stone

You’ll know about the plague from primary school lessons about the 1665 Great Plague of London, but that was far from being the earliest, or most fatal plague epidemic. After a century or so of argument amongst historians and biologists it now seems certain1 that the plague was caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacteria that lives in fleas, which in turn live on rats. When the rat dies, the fleas jump ship to the nearest warm-bodied alternative, which was often humans.

The plague took three forms. The most well known, bubonic plague, was so called because the bacteria set up home in the lymph system, causing giant swellings, or buboes, to appear at lymph nodes. In modern outbreaks, around 80% of people with this variant will die after a few days, but it’s not easy to transmit from person-to-person and spreads slowly. The second form is pneumonic plague, where the bacteria affects the respiratory system, causing profuse coughing and ejection of extremely infectious sputum; 95% of pneumonic plague sufferers die. The third form of the disease is septicaemic, which clogs up the blood and causes blockages and necrosis; the death rate is nearly 100% and many die on the day that they first show symptoms.

It seems likely that there were outbreaks of plague beyond recorded history, but the first recognisable episode is the Justinian Plague of 541 – 700CE; this variant is known as Y.pestis

Penrith's Plague Stone c. D McIlmoyle
Penrith’s Plague Stone c. D McIlmoyle

antiquar. The next wave originated in China, arriving in the Crimea with the Mongols in 1346. Some Genoese traders fleeing the siege of Caffa brought the disease – Y. pestis medievalis – to Sicily in October 1347, and from there it spread across Europe over the next four years. Historians have argued for decades about mortality figures but the current conclusion is that it killed up to 80% in some continental areas, with an average of around 50% across Europe2. The population didn’t recover for at least 150 years.

The plague was first recorded in Cumbria in 685CE, when it struck Carlisle. There were three further outbreaks before Y.pestis medievalis arrived in 1349; after this there were regular outbreaks, notably in 1380 and 1554, before a particularly nasty bout arrived via Newcastle in the autumn of 1597. The first Cumbrians to succumb in 1597 were the villagers of Kirkoswald, to the east of Penrith. And then, on 22nd September, 1597, Andrew Hodgeson, a visitor staying in digs on King Street in Penrith, died of the plague. William Wallis, vicar of St. Andrew’s Church in Penrith, wrote:

‘Here begonne the Plague (God’s punishment in Penrith).’

The disease spread slowly but steadily over the winter months, devastating individual families but not causing notable disruption to town activities. This changed when warm weather arrived in the following May; 13 people were buried on 27th May, 1598, and from then, things only got worse.

Many seemingly healthy people were said to have sickened in the evening and died the following day. If this is true, Penrith may well have had more than its fair share of the most fatal

Penrith's Plague Stone near Greengarth Home c. D McIlmoyle
Penrith’s Plague Stone c. D McIlmoyle

septicaemic form of plague. There were no marriages for the whole of the summer. Markets all but ceased as traders were frightened to approach the town.

In southern Penrith, the market was traditionally held at Tynefield, an open area now remembered in the street names, Tynefield Court and Tynefield Drive. An old cross base – a ton-weight stone measuring about 2ft 6ins long by 2ft wide, with a deep recess which originally held the cross shaft – was brought into use as a plague stone. The cavity was filled with vinegar, which has some disinfectant properties, and money was placed in it before changing hands. You also wonder if the religious connection was more than coincidence, too.

According to an inscription in the church – the 18th-century brass plate replaces a contemporary carving, obscured by subsequent renovations – 2260 Penrith people died in the 1597-8 outbreak of plague. 2500 also died in Kendal, 2200 in Richmond, and 1196 in Carlisle. Most of the Penrithians were buried in a mass grave ‘on the fell’, south of the current cemetery, under the streets of Croft Terrace and Croft Avenue. Others were buried in the church yard, at the old grammar school or in the deceased’s own gardens.

By the autumn of 1598, the incidence of illness had fallen sufficiently for a little normal life to begin, and a number of marriages took place at St. Andrew’s, including that of the vicar, whose wife Sarah had succumbed in the spring. On December 13th, 1598, the vicar felt able to record,

‘Here endeth the Visitation’.

There’s no doubt that Penrith took a serious punching in this episode of the plague. People cleverer than me have looked at the death figures, and suggest that the 2260 recorded for Penrith may include the surrounding villages as well as the town – Kirkoswald alone is known to have lost 583 people in 1598 (surely most of the village?). Nonetheless, in 1688,
Penrith’s population, recorded at just 1356, had clearly not recovered.

Penrith’s plague stone became a listed 2* historic monument in 1951. It was temporarily removed during the building of the old folks’ home, but apparently replaced in exactly the same location. I like the garden setting, and the shading of the surrounding trees, but the rubbish in the cavity is embarrassing. In the absence of gravestones for those hurriedly buried in the trench on the fell, this, surely, is their memorial.

© Diane McIlmoyle

PS. I took the rubbish away.

Further reading: History of Penrith by Ewanian, 1894, pp110-118.

  1. After years of alternative hypotheses about the cause of the plagues, the scientific journal PloS Pathogens published a paper by a multinational team in October 2010, conclusively demonstrated that they were caused by various variants of Y.pestis. (Note added 31.08.11 As weirdnesses would have it, there has been more proof just this week. See this news article.)
  2. Philip Daileader, The Late Middle Ages, 2007.

Footnote added 31.08.11 If you want to know anything, and I do mean anything, about historical plague, you need to visit Michelle Ziegler’s Contagions blog.

17 thoughts on “Cumbria’s Great Pestilence, 1597-8

  1. Is anything more known about the stone, Diane? Looks like it once held a substantial cross, which is presumably long-vanished. I wonder how old it is.

    I’ve sent a note about this post to Michelle (of Heavenfield) as it touches on topics covered by her Contagions blog.

    • Hi Tim – no, I know nothing about the cross. I’ve searched my antiquarian book collection, and whilst some of them know it to be a cross base, none of them know from where. The official listing describes it with their usual caution as ‘possibly an old cross base’.

      It does look very old, but there are no markings on it other than the fact it’s clearly been shaped and the recess carefully carved in a nice square shape.

      Penrith’s St. Andrew’s Church was heavily remodelled in c.1720, but given that it needed remodelling, I wonder if the old church was falling to bits for a long time before that? The old church – of which only the tower remains – was at least 13thc. There were earlier buildings from c. 1130. It’s not particularly near the church, though, and it would be a bit heavy to move!

      TheTynefield site is the location of the traditional market to the south of the town, so perhaps it had its own cross. In which case, where did the rest of it go?

      • I’m getting more and more intrigued by this Plague Stone and wondering if it might be early medieval, i.e. Anglo-Saxon, or Norse. The location towards the Eamont could be significant in this regard, especially if the original site was visible from the river or from the road leading up from the ford. And then there’s the Tynefield and its association with markets, and I’m wondering how far back its use as a place for public gatherings goes, which then got me thinking of the various candidate-sites for the meeting of kings at Eamont in 927. All very intriguing….

        I will definitely visit the stone next time I’m in the area. If I’d known of its existence a couple of weeks ago, while pottering around Mayburgh Henge across the river, I would have sought it out. Thanks btw, Diane, for drawing attention to it. I’ve made a note to see what info Cumbria CC’s archaeologists have in their sites/monuments list (or Historic Environment Record as they call it nowadays).

        Picking up on Michelle’s point (below) about the removal of the cross, I would hazard a guess that it was destroyed in the 16th century during the Reformation, when a great many ‘idolatrous’ monuments were torn down and broken up.

        • Oof, Tim, that would be quite exciting if it went back to that meeting at the Eamont! It’s certainly on what I believe to be the old road – Bridge Lane – with the ‘bridge’ obviously being the one beyond the Kemplay roundabout in Eamont Bridge. The area is higher than Eamont-Bridge-the-village; in fact, I would have thought that without the 18th/19thc buildings in Eamont Bridge, you would have been able to see the prehistoric stuff from there.

          I have no idea how old Tynefield is as a market place – as you say, it would be great if the county archaeologists took a peek when they pulled down Tynefield House/built Greenbank old folks’ home (when the plague stone was temporarily removed).

          I didn’t know that crosses were destroyed as well as effigies and sculptures. That would certainly explain why quite a few cross bases were used for this purpose across the country – it seemed an odd coincidence. Despite puritanical efforts, it’s still easy to imagine local folks thinking that that little bit of sanctity wouldn’t hurt.

  2. A plague stone for disinfecting money is something new to me. I’m sure you are right about seeking a little extra protection from the cross. There has to be something of the philosophy of money also because they were clearly willing to exchange other goods. Do you know of plague stones from elsewhere?

    I wonder if you would find the cross in or near the mass grave ‘on the fell’? Such a substantial cross you would think would leave a trace somewhere. If that cross was stone, moving it to make a washbasin seems like a lot of work and sacrilegous to the cross.

    • Michelle, I’ve just discovered that there’s a plague stone at Greystoke, which is a very old village to the west of Penrith. This one is of the other sort – it appears to be an ancient waystone that’s been appropriated for disinfection use, and as a result of this being more useful than the waymarking in modern history, this is what it’s remembered for. Which got me thinking… how long have people been using vinegar as disinfectant? Could we possibly posit the idea that people were disinfecting money at trading sites long before the high medieval plagues – perhaps going back the the first big bout in the 6th/7th centuries? But then we’re into whether people used money for ordinary trades that early in time… ah, that’s the thing with history. Always more to learn 🙂

  3. Hi Michelle – nice to meet you and great blog! (I’ll add a link!)

    There are quite a few plague stones with the disinfecting malarkey around the country. Some are cross bases, too – there’s one in Suffolk known as the Risbygate Cross and one at the Derby Arboretum. There’s also one at Macclesfield which is not a cross base, but has crosses carved on the side, so perhaps that was old church/market cross furniture, too. [Edited: just discovered that there is supposedly one in the Cumbrian village of Edenhall, which is known to have lost a quarter of its population in this episode of plague. A relatively modern cross (19thc?) has been erected on the older cross base which was traditionally known as the plague stone.]

    The mass grave ‘on the fell’ is now under some rather smart Victorian streets, so there is no sign of the burial at all.

    The site of the plague stone is close to an old town border and market place. As Tim knows rather well, the southern border of Penrith by Eamont Bridge goes back into antiquity (we’re talking Urien, Rheged and early medieval heroes and prehistoric edifices here!) and was the site of the ford after which Penrith is named. Perhaps there was a traditional market cross there – although there is no mention of such a formal arrangement, as far as I know – or perhaps there was a waymarker of some sort. Still looks exactly like a medieval cross base, though! See my comments to Tim about the remodelling of Penrith church.

    Thanks for coming over 🙂

  4. Just had a look at the OS 1:25K map and saw the Plague Stone clearly marked beside the A6 in that Gothic typeface they use for ancient monuments. You are surely right, Diane, to identify this as the line of the old road from the Eamont ford. I would guess that the cross formerly set up in the stone was a waymarker of some sort, to give a specific message to travellers on the road, maybe to show a parish boundary or a pilgrimage route. I wonder what happened to it? If it was broken up during the Reformation it would be nice to imagine a few chunks being salvaged by local people and re-used in an old wall or farmhouse or whatever – with the faintest hope of re-discovery today.

    I did a bit of rooting around for info on Tynefield but got no further than guessing the name comes from Tyne Beck or Tyne Sike which runs nearby (evidently an old name for Dog Beck, the easternmost section of Myers Beck). I found this old name in the index volume to Armstrong et al ‘The Place-Names of Cumberland’ – unfortunately I don’t have the other two volumes which give all the detailed info.

    • Hi Tim – that’s very interesting. Sadly, there’s little hope of finding stone fragments in nearby buildings, as the current ones are very modern brick jobs. Every time I go past the site – I was there this morning – I imagine what the place would look like without buildings. It doesn’t feel like a slope when you drive along the road north from Kemplay roandabout, but it really is – the flattish bit at the top of the mound coming up from the Eamont. Quite magical, really, now I have in my mind’s eye the view down to the prehistoric stuff 🙂

  5. This is all so interesting, thanks. I have been to Eyam in Derbyshire & I think there is a boundary stone around there that was used in the same way. I think I also read somewhere that there was research being carried out to try to find out why some people survived yet others died.

    • Hi Kate! Yes, there is one in Eyam, too. There are loads around the country, so clearly by this late stage in the plague’s evolution, people had decided this was the thing to do. There does seem to be research ongoing about the disease, but then, of course, it still exists in some parts of the world. I think the fact that the same disease can be communicated in several different ways got people thinking – they used to say in this historical period that if you’d had the buboes for five days, you’d probably end up recovering. Those that got the blood (septicaemic) and respiratory (pneumonic) form were considerably less lucky, and often didn’t survive the day. Unthinkable to us in the cosy modern west.

  6. I recall visiting Eyam many years ago, quite a depressing place even today with plaques on the plague cottages showing the tragedy that struck this village in 1665. The story goes that they apparently caught plague when the local tailor had some flea-infested cloth delivered from London. Within a week he was dead.The villagers chose to go into isloation to prevent the plague spreading and had drop off points outside the village where money would be left, soaked in vinegar, in exchange for supplies. One such place was known as the Coolstone.

    I remember a very fine 7th century Anglo-Saxon decorated cross in the churchyard but I think the most striking sight was the Riley graves, a small family grave yard on the hillside just outside the village in which Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six children over an eight day period.

    Recent research has shown a rare gene mutation, termed ‘Delta 32’, that appears in a number of the plague survivors descendants.

    • Hello Ed – yes, the Eyam story is the best known, but you wonder how many other villages did exactly the same thing. Unimaginable to our modern western eyes.

      The Riley grave must be sad. I was shocked to find that most of Penrith’s dead are buried ‘on the fell’, under later housing, with little memorial other than the plaque revealing the total number of dead in the church.

      I seem to remember reading somewhere that many Europeans have a gene – presumably a different one to the one you mention – which has helped scientists establish how long Y.pestis has been about. Quite spooky to think that this history is written into our very DNA.

      Thanks for commenting, and for adding that detail about Eyam. Definitely a place to visit if I’m in that part of the country.

  7. The gene is Eyam is no longer thought to give them an advantage against the plague. CCR delta 32 was fairly abundant before the plague. I believe it is now thought that smallpox may be the agent that selected for that mutation.

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