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.
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
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
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.
PS. I took the rubbish away.
Further reading: History of Penrith by Ewanian, 1894, pp110-118.
- 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.)
- 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.