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. Continue reading