Rising from the Ashes: Britain After the Black Death

Sweeping through Britain in the mid 1300s, the Bubonic Plague, now commonly referred to as the Black Death changed the cultural, societal and economic landscape of Britain.

First arriving in the British Isles in the summer of 1348, the Black Death was already running rampant across Europe. Spread by flea infested rats, medieval Britain held little hope of containing the deadly outbreak.

The first case in Britain was recorded when sailors from France arrived in Melcome Regis, Dorset. From there it spread rapidly, along the coast and into the hinterlands via river valleys.

When it reached the powerful city of Salisbury, Wiltshire, it struck the clergy as much as it did the commoner. So much so, that the bishop had to appoint twenty two new priests in November of 1348 alone.

Salisbury cathedral
Dark and somber Salisbury cathedral

By the autumn of 1348, the Black Death had reached London, and by 1349, the entirety of England was in the grips of the plague. Unsanitary conditions and a lack of modern medical practices resulted in an estimated 20-50% of the British population perishing in just a two year period.

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Practices such as blood letting and forced vomiting were used to treat the disease, which did nothing to improve the prognosis of those afflicted.

The disease was particularly prevalent in poorer communities who were often forced to live in squalid and overcrowded conditions and had little opportunity to escape the advance of the disease across the countryside. The clergy also experienced high death rates as many were called to tend to the sick and dying.

The impacts of the Black Death rippled through Britain for years to come, reshaping the political and social landscape. It provided a redistribution of power and economic advantage that would impact the future of the UK for generations.


Labour Shortages and Better Wages

Interestingly, for peasants that survived the Black Death, the plague provided a distinct economic advantage. In the years leading up to the plague, England had been built on the Feudal System. In this system, peasants worked the land for wealthy landowners. They often did this for little to no wages and had very few avenues to improve their economic situation.

Clenston Manor
Clenston Estate has been in the same family for 800 years.

Lords often held control over everything from when peasants were allowed to leave their village to who their daughters could marry.

A high population among the lower classes in England meant that there was a flooded labour market, giving peasants little opportunity to question the practices of their lords or the wages that they earned. The plague changed this.

Class System

Due to the high death rate in the lower classes, in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death there was a sudden labour shortage.

This labour shortage, particularly in farm workers, led to nobles offering higher wages in a bid to secure workers and stop their lands falling into disrepair. It also allowed workers to have the ability to negotiate for better wages and conditions due to decreased labour competition.

LiDAR scan of ridge and furrow next to an abandoned village in Somerset.
LiDAR scan of ridge and furrow next to an abandoned village in Somerset.

A lower population meant more resources for those that survived the Black Death. This overabundance meant prices for goods dropped as wages increased. In turn, those in the lower classes that managed to endure the plague saw a largely better quality of life and economic standing in the years afterwards.

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This increase in purchasing power not only allowed lower classes to afford basic necessities but allowed them to become better educated, purchase luxury goods and enter into professions that would have once been impossible to break into. The influx of wealth and power into the peasant classes brought a sudden fluidity to what had been a very rigid class system.

The Peasants Revolt

While the living standards of the lower classes improved in the wake of the Black Death, this posed a troubling issue for the upper classes. Higher wages, a reduced workforce and fewer taxes gave the groups that had previously had an ironclad grasp on the peasant population a distinct disadvantage.

To try and hold onto their pre-plague levels of power, in the decades following the Black Death upper classes and the government began to increase legislation regarding class activities and upward economic movement.

ridge and furrow
A scene that a medieval peasant would recognise today, thou he may be scratching his head at the power lines.

By 1360

In 1351, King Edward III passed the Statute of Labourers, imposing that wages must be frozen at pre-plague levels. Although this was unsuccessful and wages rose regardless, it did demonstrate a clear objective to halt the economic and social fluidity that the aftermath of the plague facilitated.

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Orders were passed to try and limit the movement of peasants between villages and estates. By the 1360s, there were even laws limiting the clothing lower classes could legally wear and the goods that they were allowed to purchase.

wat tyler
The Peasants’ Revolt began in May 1381, triggered by a recently imposed poll tax of 4 pence from every adult, whether peasant or wealthy.

These laws, understandably, resulted in resentment between the government, the gentry, and the common people. By the 1380s, the laws created to try and halt the economic advantages that the common people found after the Black Death, combined with taxes and a reigniting of war with France reached boiling point, sparking the Peasants Revolt lead by Wat Tyler.

Beginning in the May of 1382, the Peasants Revolt lasted six months and led to mass executions and the sacking of the Tower of London.

A Brief End to Wars

Britain’s history is marked with devastating and enduring wars. The plague saw a pause to these international conflicts for a brief period of time. Having been locked in the Hundred Years War for generations, Britain ceased its fighting with France between 1349 and 1355.

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With a dead and dying population, England suddenly couldn’t spare men to be sent to die in wars. Similarly, changes in economic structures, such as fewer profits from taxes due to fewer people alive to pay them, made funding a war economically enviable.

A Changing Relationship with the Church

In a deeply religious period of history, the relationship many people had with the church began to change as a result of the Black Death. There was a prominent idea that the Black Death was seen as punishment from God.

A brief and unsuccessful uprising from Scotland was even sparked by the Scot’s idea that the plague was God punishing the pestilence of their southern neighbour. The high death rates in the clergy, with some estimates as high as 40% of England’s priests perishing, resulted in many under qualified members of the church quickly rising the papal ranks.

This generated a degree of mistrust in a church already grappling with the aftermath of the pandemic. Many people in the English population were concerned about the number of plague victims that had died without receiving last rites, and for a period the Pope allowed people to confess their sins to one another rather than a priest.

The plague caused the interruption of the construction of many churches. When and if this construction resumed, architectural styles shifted from the overly ornate styles popular in pre-plague times to much simpler architectural designs.

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It has been argued that the impact the plague had on the standing of the Catholic Church was a contributing factor to the English Reformation.

The church’s inability to explain or abate the plague sowed the seeds of mistrust and dissent between the population and the church that would, almost two hundred years later, be a contributing factor to England parting from the authority and influence of the Holy See.

A Recurring Problem

The early 1350s may have marked the end of the Black Death but it didn’t mark the end of plague in Britain. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1300s that the disease and earlier pandemic would come to be known as The Black Death.

Prior to this time it was referred to instead as The Great Mortality, or The Great Pestilence. Recurrences of Bubonic Plague cropped up throughout history, with other major outbreaks, although albeit not as large as the 1300s outbreak, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

One of the worst outbreaks occurred in London between 1665 and 1666, claiming the lives of an estimated 100,000 people in just eighteen months.

The plague in London
When the plague struck London once again, and as a preventative measure, all dogs and cats were destroyed. This had an unintended effect of an explosion in the rat population, this in turn allowed the disease to run rampant throughout the city.

Six Feet

In fact, even the practice of burying people at a depth of six feet is said to have originated with the 17th century Bubonic Plague outbreak in London. The Mayor of London allegedly ordered all plague graves to be a depth of at least six feet, possibly to limit the risk of the bodies of plague victims being dug up by animals and spreading further infection.

However, no subsequent outbreak had the same national level of impact as the 1300s outbreak that swept Britain like wildfire. An outbreak that gave rise to a restructuring of society, a changing relationship with the church, and an economic mobility that is rarely seen at other points in history.

A Lasting Change?

Despite its dramatic impact, the economic wealth that was generated at the end of the Black Death did not last indefinitely. By the mid-1400s there were once again large rifts between the rich and poor and seemingly few ways for the economically disadvantaged to improve their station.

However, there is no denying the fact that the pandemic had a profound impact on the society, culture and the historic fabric of both Britain and wider Europe and Asia.

The massive loss of  life and the dramatic shift this caused throughout society was something that reverberated through British history impacting and sparking events such as the Peasants’ Revolt and the English Reformation that occurred decades after the pandemic had ended.

The Black Death influenced arts and culture, with artwork, poetry, songs and literature taking inspiration from the sheer devastation of the plague. The economic upheaval that was generated in the wake of the Bubonic Plague in Britain may have ebbed a century later. However, there is no doubt that from a societal, historical and cultural perspective, the years that the UK battled the Black Death changed the very course of British history.