From April until July 1625: Huntingdon
Anno Regis Caroli 1o
Aetatis Suae xxv to xxvi
One afternoon late in April, by the pillory on Market Hill, as I stood with Alderman Stafford, considering whether we could set up some kind of workplace in which the able poor could earn their keep with flax or hemp, we watched the lunatic who lived out in Hartford come walking up the road from the bridge.
He wavered from one side of the street to the other, gutter to gutter, with his head twisted like a wryneck’s on his body, & his hand up next to his chin, twisting & clutching at his ear as he walked.
Out of the way, a driver on a wagon muttered as he passed.
My only son has been eaten by a sow, the lunatic said when he reached us. All that was left of him after the sow had done her work was the stone in his heart.
He looked in the pocket of his breeches & held out a cobble on which the outline of a heart discoloured the stone.
My wife Johanne is so consumed with melancholy that she lies in a ditch & says she is dead.
He had been saying these things for two years but we had seen her every week at the cheese market as hale & pink as any woman in England. She cooked him & his son their bacon & eggs each morning & then sent her husband out on the road to tell us his repeated & mournful tale.
I took him back out to Hartford, talking along the way, cuckoos & woodpeckers in the woods, skylarks above us, cocks crowing in the yards. The whole world beside us was filled with people ploughing, hoeing, axing out the dead wood from the pollards, levelling molehills, cutting bean sticks, planting beans, raking old leaves, putting out dung. Women walked at the heads of the horses, the men behind with the ploughs. Pastures were being scoured with ox-drawn dredges, ploughlands broken up with horse-drawn harrows. The final cartloads of last summer’s hay, which had been standing all winter in stacks out on the meadows, were being taken back to the barns before the cattle were let out on to the spring grazing. The only sound on the road was the oiled creak of the cart axles as they passed.
We came to the village. There was weeping in the roadway. The people there were wrapping a woman in a shroud. Beside her was the body of a boy in his. The woman had died that morning in a ditch. A man walking out to the fields had seen her as he passed. There had been a pig in the ditch too, gnawing at the body of the child who had died beside her. The lunatic stood next to the wrapped corpses of his wife & son & wailed like a demon in a play.
The next day a goose-drover was found dead, the geese, three or four hundred of them, milling around him, masterless, pecking at the hairs on his head & at the grass on the road up into Lincolnshire. A fisherman near Ramsey lay drowned in his nets with the carp & tench clustered at his face, their lips nibbling at his. The minister at Uplode fell from his pulpit, dropping on to the stones of the nave as he began with the words of his evening sermon, his text: ‘Those who are first shall be last. Those who are up shall be down.’ At the same moment all the myrtles & the jessamine in our garden withered & died. The oranges in their pots shrank & shrivelled. The almonds fell from the trees not only unripe but scarcely formed. An old ewe in Mepal gave birth to a three-headed ram lamb. It, they, lived & mewed, the three heads speaking one to the other for some hours, before all three died, one by one, a few minutes elapsing between the death of each, moments in which the living mourned long & pitifully their departed brothers. Later the lunatic from Hartford took ill, died & was buried next to his wife & child.
An insensate fear was in the town. A man, who had a boy in his house with all the signs of plague, turned him out & he went wandering & found himself taken in by an old & lonely widow & died that night in her house, where she then sickened too.
At the Council the tradesmen would not call it the plague for fear of losing custom. But they were overruled & we swore in a woman-searcher of the infected, to walk the streets to ask & hear where the sickness had come. The doors of those houses that were infected were to be nailed up. A red cross was to be set on the doors & the rubric lord have mercy upon us painted on the frame. We had a pesthouse made of boards & canvas out on the common between the mill & the bowling green & watchmen were set day & night to keep any from going there or coming thence. All that died in that house, or any house, were to be buried in the yard at St Benets.
Anyone in Huntingdon that had friends in the country that would receive them, into their houses, or a part of their houses, or even into a barn or a stable or a piggery, fled from the town as if from a fire, loading their goods & wares into carts & wagons, shouting at the men, bundling up the children, boarding up the doors & windows of their houses, as though a storm were coming. Thirty carts a day left Huntingdon piled high. House after house in the High Street & Bridge Street & Bear Lane & George Lane stood empty & lifeless as if blinded, blank to the world, with silence in the streets between them. The cats remained; the dogs had fled.
And so in truth I must confess, I sent away Beth & my mother & the children, down to Essex, to Stambridge & the Bourchiers, with all but four men from my household, not wanting to expose them to the violence of God’s wrath. Dame Ann lent her coach to take them all.
As the children gathered at the foot of the coach steps, I kissed them on their heads & cheeks, & held their bodies, the ribs & shoulders, & brushed the curls of their hair. They were pleased to be going, with no fretfulness. Everything they knew was going with them.
Are we taking Bouncer? Richard asked.
No, not this time. He’s staying with me.
No, no, she’s here too.
Soon, anyone of any standing had gone. Of the Council 24, I was very nearly the only one not to leave. There was none left who were ready to assist me & comfort the poor in their misery, neither recorder, justice, churchwarden nor overseers in all the town, nor high constable, but only two of the petty constables who had no friend to receive them in the country.
I had them come to stay with me & gave them ten shillings apiece by the week for their pains. Christopher Brathwaite & Jonas Pinhorn.
We spoke together late at night.
You have been sent from God to me, I told them.
Over a book of the Gospels we swore together that they would help me, both night & day, to help supervise & control the bearers who would carry the infected persons to the pesthouse in the town meadow & to help order the unruly people, who were ready both night & day to bring the place to ruin.
It was no festivity that meeting in the parlour by the light of our candle, with the shadows in the corners of the old room where the monks had prayed & conducted their ceremonies, before the light of Reformation. And we all made a vow & promised together that evening that whoever it pleased God to visit with his plague, the others would be faithful to him & would stay with him & tend to him in his suffering & dying.
In the light of the candle, I looked into their faces, as they did into mine, & all three of us knew we were looking into the grave.
A grave is no cavern of finality, I said to them. It is an arbour, an anteroom, as cool & shady as a summer parlour in a garden, where you will find peace & calm away from the trouble of this world. There you might rest from the heat of this life.
Not one of us believed those words, nor escaped their sorrow.
The people lived in pain before they died & for these paupers there was no escape. They burned & froze from one hour to the next, two days, three days before they succumbed. Their fingers darkened, their toes & feet & legs. Black noses on white faces.
They dragged the air in through their mouths as though breathing fog or water. I saw the bodies. They were blotched under the skin where the blood had clotted & pooled. I have never seen the dead so dead. All the goods in their houses were burned, all clothes & hangings, all the furniture & chests, every article in which the sickness might find its habitation.
Those who were not dead were dying. Those who were not dying were hungry. We had not enough to give them. And I knew before they came that they would soon make their complaints. At home I had the gateposts strengthened & the bar between them.
In the evening Richard Coulter the captain of the poor came to speak with me. I saw him coming & I stood at the gate to receive him, with Christopher & Jonas & the men of my house beside me.
He was a tall man with a spade of a beard & his body more sinew than flesh. His coat was wrapped around him with a rope at the waist & his cap low on his brow. He had worked much of his life at the peats, out in the fen &, once he was with me by the gate, he started to blaspheme.
Do you think we will be starved Oliver? Do you think your starving is what is right for the likes of us? Some kind of starving like that John Darlow, I believe you know him, found dead in the river last week, some way down from his house, starving but bloated as if he’d had his fill?
I said nothing.
You know we have no food? Coulter said.
We have done our best.
And sometimes the best is not enough. Not when you have the people starving like kittens in a puddle.
We can only get what the country provides.
What the country provides? & what of these houses here Oliver?
He pointed at the line of boarded-up buildings, the best houses in Huntingdon, going away towards the bridge.
Do you imagine the runaways have left behind anything in them houses which might, what could you say, be marketable?
And my house? I asked him.
Yours might be worth a rummage, Coulter said.
I thought of what little we had in there, what I had gathered in our lives, what my father had saved.
This man was the worst of any in Huntingdon, with the men & their women all round him, listening to him, jeering with him, mocking.
You lost last time we played at the tables, did you not? & I am not certain you are on a winning streak now.
I walked up close to him, saying nothing but looking at him until I was near enough to hit him but I feinted & then, as I always intended, as he ducked I grabbed him by the collar & held him down like a boy, head down, as he wrestled to get out of the hold but my men were on to him, holding him down, pushing him further into the dung of the road, so that he was held by their weight to his knees & then on to his chest & belly, where I could ask him where he might like to play the next round?
His others around him were shouting & roaring.
Not here I think, I said. Nor in the Falcon, where the ale has never been to my liking. But I have an idea where the drink might be to your taste.
With Christopher & Jonas binding him with his own rope I took him to the gaol & threw him in there with the others on the straw in the strong room at the back & promised them a whipping.
Death was coming into the houses without complaint or fanfare & most of the people began to die in a sort of quiet.
One man, though, we could hear him shouting in Corbet’s Lane at the top of the town, a crowd of others gathered outside his bolted door. He was speaking of his money, saying that this person & that owed him a thousand pounds, until his brother came & talked to him through the barred-up door & prayed that he would lay aside all earthly cares & trust that he was about to go to the place where his forefathers had gone.
Earth, earth, dust, dust, the dying man came to say. All things are toys & trifles. When can we leave this turmoil & corruption?
As they died I had the bearers carry the dead to the graveyard & the living of their families to the pesthouse on the common.
Bearers were not easy to find. I could get only three to carry at first. Each of them asked four shillings for the service & only with that in their pockets did they take their loads. In the churchyard were two tenements. I put the three bearers in one of them, just the men. Their families stayed in their own places.
In the dark that night, with the braziers burning where the men were keeping watch over the houses still occupied & those that were empty, the lights of their fires shone & wavered up & down the streets.
I was at home when a woman came running & told me that her neighbour Robert Belman had come to her house & pulled her out of it with all her goods into the road & told her to leave the house & leave the town because she was wife to one of the bearers.
I gathered my coat & men & staff & sword & went to find this Belman. He was sitting in the half-dark with a tallow light at the back of his rooms.
Why did you push that poor woman out of doors & all her goods?
I won’t have her there, he said.
And why is that?
I know her husband will come to her in the night, & what will he bring with him? Sickness from the bodies he has been handling all day. And the two of them, this woman & that man her husband, they are not of the best. They never have been & we have always heard them next door late at night, contesting & blaspheming & taking the Lord’s name in vain. And worse I can tell you. It will be no surprise to me or Mrs Belman if God’s will condemns them to this death. And if them, then in all likelihood us. The sickness has no respect for walls.
You must allow her back. And take down the barricade you have made at her door & help her in with her goods.
I will not. She is not to return.
I collared him & had him bound by Christopher & Jonas & we began to walk & half drag him to the gaol.
We were halfway down the High Street, almost at the gaol. But then the people were gathering & we were surrounded in the dark by a crowd of them, of his friends, telling me, their mouths up next to me, that I had no right to imprison him, pushing & joshing at me, gales of their breath all over me in the dark like a pack of hounds at the lights & skirts of a piece of meat, slavering in their anger, walking backwards in front of me, fingers in my face, shouting all over me in a fog of noise, but I would have none of it. Leave me or I will imprison you all, I said & collared first one & then another, having them bound so that their arms were held close to their sides.
At last, after that, we got the woman into her house.
I saw her settled & her goods set out in the rooms, her bed restrung & the bedclothes on it, her kissing my hand & full of gratitude to me. But no rest in this time of trouble. I was back at home when the three bearers came running.
Mr Fragg had brought a crowd of citizens to their house in the graveyard. They had been beating on the walls of the house. They were raging & bellowing beyond the doors & walls, singing & shouting, hate & fear: If you don’t come out we’ll pull it down around you.
A gang of them had collected at one of the corner posts of the house & begun to rock it back & forth so that the whole house started to shudder & shift. Tiles fell from the roof into the street & split there. The gutter broke from its fixings. Glass in the casements upstairs splintered from the frames & fell in pieces on the road below. And so the bearers, with fear in their hearts, cried out to the mob to stop, shouting through the closed door & asked that they might be given free & quiet passage away from the churchyard & to me. And so here they were now & what was I to do?
It was the Sabbath after candlelight.
We shall be killed, the bearer said. Take us away. Only you can save us. Matthew Fragg brought more than three hundred of them to our door, all of them with death in their hearts. They have been taking the fallen tiles & throwing them through the windows of our house. They have lit a fire outside & threatened us with death by burning. They have boiled cauldrons & pans of water on their fire & thrown the scalding water in on us. Look.
He showed his hand & arm.
With my staff, & a sword at my side, I went down in the dark late in the night, along with my men, to the house. No one saw us on the way & we put the three of them back in.
No sooner were they there than the mob gathered again. The whole town of Huntingdon was there, breathing like a beast, heavy in the dark, as if it were a body in trouble, the hectic in its veins. Look down one alley & there were men running one way, shadows in the lit patches, down another & a crowd gathering like a clot or an imposthume in the blood, the whole body of the town diseased & discomposed, death in its limbs, burning with fever, red & swollen with hatred & fear.
Mr Fragg was with the crowd of others in the flare light, the light coming & going on their faces. I knew him from the Council well enough. We had laughed & joked a little about sir Oliver & dame Ann, his belly, her cakes. He had been, I thought, my friend.
They are not to stay here, Fragg said, & pushed at me with his fists against my chest, thinking to bowl me over.
If you do that again I will have you in the gutter, I said & pushed back at him, hard with the heels of my hands, so that he staggered into the mass of bodies behind him, arms out, caught by them before he fell.
His friend & ally there, a man who had worked for him, a tanner, Lancelot Russell, saw us in this argument & drew his sword, & if God in his mercy had not prevented his thrust by the hand of Jonas the constable, he would have run me through & I would have died there that night in the fear that was on us.
Holding on to Christopher Brathwaite’s neck beside me, urgently, speaking in his ear, I said to him, We have to still this, we have to bring some peace to this, some obedience, some order here now or more men will die than need. Make a proclamation now, yes four times, to still the noise.
O yeas! O yeas! O yeas! O yeas! Brathwaite began, deep & clanging above them, a pealing bell from his height above us. Hear me now!
I looked at him beside me, crowing as a cockerel high above the run where the hens crowded & clustered in their worry.
The Bailiff doth straitly charge all men & all manner of people in the King’s Majesty’s name, that hath not to do here, by the command of him & the Common Council of this borough presently to depart upon pain of imprisonment.
Nothing happened. The dark crowd of men rustled like leaves in a wind. I went close up to Mr Fragg.
Will you be gone? I require you to return to your house.
Yes, you. You have managed & gathered a violent & wicked rout of men to batten on the people & those who in our time of trouble are doing all that we can to keep the good order of this borough. So go. If I need to say it one more time & you are not gone, I will lay you here in the street as good as I am God’s servant.
He did not go. I asked Brathwaite to call again, to calm that stirring sea.
O yeas! O yeas! Brathwaite sang again, his church voice echoing above us. Hear me now!
Mr Fragg stood there with Russell beside him, fixed & planted on the graveyard earth.
I hit Fragg as he smiled at me, my fist in his teeth, the bones of my fingers on the bones of his face, what felt like bone on stone, no give in him, no flesh, & he fell as a log at my feet, his eyes shut, his mouth open, the blood in his mouth a bright pool between his lips.
Get up! I said.
But he lay there & the others thought I had killed him in rage & so they went & vanished up the streets of the town & away behind their doors into their houses & the dark.
Jonas threw a pail of water on Fragg’s face, twice, & another over his body to wake him. Russell stood by, hand on hilt. Fragg groaned, felt his mouth, looked up at me, sat, considered where he was, pushed himself to his feet, no looking at me now, & held by Russell went off to his house, no words between us.
Then at least the town was quiet, the bearers were in where I needed them to be. My fingers were swelling.
One woman, Goody Good, shouted from her window above us as we passed home up Mill Lane: You are not worth a hedgehog’s turd Mr Bailiff. You & the slodger girls. I know of your antics.
We broke her door, I had her bound & Jonas & Christopher threw her to the cage with the others.
The night passed & in the morning a quiet lay on the empty streets. The people away in the country. A glowing dawn. The houses boarded up. One cock crew. A cat picked at the rubbish by the bridge house on the quay. That morning the alms of bread & beer were given to the poor. The carts were coming as I had ordered with the quarters of wheat & barley already ground, the bakers at work, the brewers bringing in the hogsheads of half-crown ale.
And so for a few days it was quiet. Until the bearers of the dead went in rebellion.
They came to my gate. One of my men, Jack Raveley said there were three of them waiting. I said for them to come up but he told me they would not. I went down & found them at the gate, each of them with a good hedge stake in his hand.
What is it with you here?
We need money; we will not do this for four shillings.
I stepped down by them & said: You shall have something.
I called for my men & boys. Together we picked stones from the street. When we were ready, we began to stone the bearers, a hailstorm on their heads.
The bearers, retreating ten yards, gathered stones themselves & tried as best they could to throw them at us but it was God’s will that a stone of mine landed clear in the middle of one of their heads, felling him there, until he stumbled up & away, hand to his head, & the others ran after him. We followed them until they were driven back into their house in the churchyard where they cowered unseen behind the wooden walls.
Raveley had brought his musket. I had him charge it with a pair of bullets. I told the bearers, You dally with me but I am in earnest. Do what you have said you will do for four shillings. Not one of you before has had more than a shilling a month.
From beyond the walls one answered: We will not.
Then you should pray, as you will die.
I had my man shoot his musket through their window. Once. And then again. And then again. And then again. And then at the door. And then at the tiles on the edge of the roof. And then the window again. And again. And again. And again. All glass was broken, the wood splintered. And at the tenth time, the bearers’ spokesman cried out to me to let them live. They would do what they should do, if I could give them a Bible & a clean shirt each. I promised them that & left them. The people that had gathered outside the churchyard at the sound of the musket withdrew before us like sheep before dogs.
The sickness lived on with us. One man, John Digges, in his despair or confusion mixed white arsenic with a dish of food for his wife & all his household. All ate & all died, he the last among them after he had seen them sup their fill.
Another, Richard Dawson, knowing he was sick & seeing that he must die of it, stood up out of his bed & dug his own grave, asking his nephew John Dawson to throw some straw in there, & when it was done he went & laid down in that grave, & asked for his bedclothes to be laid on him & there he died & departed out of this world. To his nephew he said he did it because he was a large & strong man & heavier than John & his brother could bury.
Another, Jonathan Bull, a wood-cleaver, lived in a small tenement, just one storey, in Cobbler’s Lane, with a little door to the street & a window beside it.
A passer-by said she heard the wife crying out in distress & so I went to the door of his house & asked her through it:
How is it with you & your husband, & your children?
They cannot speak to me, she said. The sickness has stolen their voices. They are lying here beside me now. And she sank in silence.
I told her that in the night they would all be removed to the pesthouse, & she must provide everything she wanted carried with them.
No you cannot, she said to me, whispering at the door. You cannot do that to me or to us. I will not have them die in the pesthouse. If they are going to die they will die here. You have no right. If you take us we shall all die.
Late in the night I came to have them out, but she would not open the door & again she railed at me.
Are you born of a woman or a beast that you should do so bloody an act upon people in our suffering condition? Are you the Devil’s spawn?
I told the bearers to break the house open but they would not or could not. So I sent my man home for my iron bar. Still she would not open & so I gave the bearers orders to drive the bar in between the door posts & the door itself & at the second stroke they burst it. Two of the bearers went in but no sooner in than they were out in the lane again.
Do you not know that our lives are as precious to us as yours is to you? the bearer asked. We will not go in. The house is hot. Feel it. You can feel the heat coming out through the door like the contagion itself. That smell is the smell of death. And the house is burning up with the heat of the infection.
You have no choice, I said.
And again, standing back a few yards away across the lane, together with my men we beat them with stones so that they were forced into the house for shelter. And so they brought out these three speechless people & the woman still railing at us as the Devil’s own serpents, the worms of hell, & carried them into the fields to the pesthouse, her crying every step of the way, & even on after we had locked them in with the others.
What can be done save that which must be done? What is necessity in a cruel world? Is necessity not just another name for God? Or is he God’s brother who does his cruellest work? As water falls from a leat into a millpond & from the pond on to the wheel & from the wheel out into the after-race, God’s will is in the world. What are we but bubbles on the stream of his being?
The evenings passed & the fire-filled nights. The possessions of all those who died were burned in the streets. We killed the dogs & trapped the rats & cats. Only Bouncer & Trustlove stayed with me, kept within the gates at home. And Huntingdon was a town of death. One in three of those in the pesthouse died & was buried. It was not long before these bearers of the dead began to lose their minds. One evening I came to the place beside the burying ground out beyond the castle ruins where I could see & hear them, each of them carrying on their shoulders a two-quart pot of ale. The searching-woman was with them, carrying her own pot above her like that, as if she were the verger & they her priests.
The four of them were dancing among the graves & singing,
Shoulder-work, oh shoulder-work
Is there any better than shoulder-work?
carrying the pots of ale to the newly covered graves & with ceremony & singing placing them on the earth, before drinking from them to the point where they staggered & fell & lay down by the dead.
I did not come too close, on that midnight, but I could hear the music of their pipes & tambourines, & see them dancing by the bonfire, man & woman, it could have been a kind of matrimony, or a stately sacrament. Two & two they danced, holding each other by hand or arm. Round the fire they joined in circles, their laughter burning up & out above the flames, beside the falling logs of the fires, bitter mirth in their faces, their bodies & feet following the slow music in the shadows, feet rising & falling, all in the rhythm of dancing & drinking, grief & death.
Artwork © Henrick Hondius, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam