Plague Crosses, What Exactly are They?

The history of plague crosses -the term “plague cross” encompasses two distinct meanings. It can denote a mark affixed to a building inhabited by individuals afflicted by the plague.

Or it can signify a lasting structure constructed to facilitate commerce among plague-stricken individuals while mitigating the potential for contagion. A diverse array of plague crosses existed throughout Britain and other parts of Europe until the plague significantly receded by the eighteenth century.

These crosses, also known as boundary crosses or pest crosses, played a crucial role in marking infected areas, enforcing quarantines, and providing solace and protection to communities grappling with deadly diseases.


Origins of Plague Crosses in Britain

The origins of plague crosses in Britain can be traced back to the tumultuous times when deadly outbreaks of the plague swept across the country.

The term “plague cross” is inherently linked to the devastating bubonic plague that struck Britain and mainland Europe during the mid 1300s. The Great Plague, spanning 1665–66, marked England’s last significant epidemic. It is most notably remembered for the devastating impact on London, where it claimed the lives of 100,000 individuals, accounting for 20 percent of the city’s population. The plague also severely affected other areas, including Eyam in Derbyshire, the city of Derby, and Norwich.

As the plague, often referred to as the Black Death, exacted a heavy toll on communities, it necessitated innovative measures to mitigate its spread and offer solace to the afflicted.

The plague cross in St Mary's churchyard marks the spot where 315 victims of the plague of 1637 who were buried in a common grave.
The plague cross in St Mary’s churchyard marks the spot where 315 victims of the plague of 1637 who were buried in a common grave. Image Credit: Philip Halling

During this time, the populace was grappling with the devastating impact of the plague, which led to a dire need for isolating those infected and preventing further transmission. To address this, various makeshift measures were taken, including the marking of houses and buildings where plague victims resided.

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These marks, often in the form of painted symbols or signs, served as a grim warning to others and a means of segregating the infected from the healthy population. While not as enduring as physical structures, these early marks laid the foundation for the later development of plague crosses.

Dedicated Structures

As the plague continued to resurface over the centuries, the need for more structured solutions became apparent. Plague crosses evolved from being mere marks on buildings to becoming dedicated structures designed to facilitate trade and commerce while minimising the risk of contagion.

Probably the stump of a medieval cross, it found later use as a plague stone. Commercial transactions took place here to quarantine the village. Goods were left here and payment placed in the trough on the left
Probably the stump of a medieval cross, it found later use as a plague stone. Commercial transactions took place here to quarantine the village. Goods were left here and payment placed in the trough on the left. Image Credit: Richard Webb

These crosses, often constructed in open areas or marketplaces, served as meeting points for both the infected and those unscathed by the disease. The rationale behind these structures was to enable essential economic activities to continue amidst the chaos of an outbreak while maintaining a certain degree of isolation for the plague-stricken individuals.

The design and form of plague crosses in Britain varied considerably, reflecting regional differences and architectural styles of the time.

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Some were simple, unadorned pillars or columns erected in open spaces, while others took on more elaborate forms, incorporating religious symbols and inscriptions. Many of these crosses were placed in locations where they could serve as focal points for trade, allowing merchants and customers to conduct transactions with minimal physical contact.

Plague Stone, Eyam. These stones were where food was left by outsiders for plague-stricken Eyam villagers during their self-imposed quarantine.

One noteworthy aspect of the origins of plague crosses in Britain is their dual role as both practical structures and symbols of hope and resilience.

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From simple marks on buildings to purpose-built structures, these crosses played a vital role in managing the impact of the plague on society.

Functions of Plague Crosses in Britain

Plague crosses in Britain served several vital functions during times of disease outbreaks:

  1. Quarantine Enforcement: Plague crosses marked the boundaries of quarantined areas, preventing the spread of disease beyond those limits. Infected individuals or those suspected of being infected were confined within these boundaries until they either recovered or succumbed to the illness.
  2. Symbol of Protection: Plague crosses were believed to possess protective powers. The inscriptions often invoked the name of God or saints, imploring divine protection for the community within the quarantined area. Residents placed their faith in the belief that these crosses could shield them from the deadly plague.
  3. Warning to Travelers: Travelers approaching a region marked by a plague cross were forewarned of the presence of contagious disease. These markers served as a visual reminder to exercise caution and avoid entering the afflicted area.
  4. Communal Gathering and Prayer: Plague crosses provided a focal point for communal prayers and acts of devotion. Communities would gather around these crosses to seek solace, offer supplications for healing, and express hope for the end of the epidemic.

Evolution of Plague Crosses

Over time, the design and purpose of plague crosses in Britain evolved to adapt to changing societal needs and beliefs. While the core function of demarcating infected areas remained constant, the symbolism and style of these markers shifted.

During the height of the Black Death in the 14th century, plague crosses in Britain were often simple and unadorned, reflecting the somber and dire nature of the pandemic.

Plague Stone Cross (Greenway Cross or Cross o’ the Moors), a Stone Cross incised in a stone, Wildboarclough, Cheshire East, England. Image Credit: L Coulton

However, as centuries passed and the memory of devastating plagues faded, the crosses became more ornate and decorative. They began to feature intricate carvings, religious motifs, and inscriptions that conveyed messages of faith and hope.

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In some regions of Britain, especially in rural areas and villages, plague crosses evolved into elaborate structures resembling small chapels or shrines. These architectural marvels served not only as markers but also as places of worship and contemplation. Pilgrims would visit these sites to pay homage to the saints and seek protection from diseases.

Enduring Symbolism

While the era of devastating plagues has largely passed, the symbolism of plague crosses in Britain continues to resonate in the modern world. These crosses serve as historical artifacts and reminders of deadly epidemics. Plague crosses also hold cultural and religious significance, connecting contemporary British society to the traditions and beliefs of their ancestors.

The Plague Cross at Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, England, close to the site of a mass burial of plague victims
The Plague Cross at Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, England, close to the site of a mass burial of plague victims

In some regions of Britain, plague crosses are still maintained and revered. Visitors often leave offerings or tokens of respect at these sites, perpetuating the tradition of seeking protection and solace through these enduring symbols.

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In literature and art, plague crosses are occasionally featured as potent symbols of disease, survival, and resilience. Whether depicted in a historical novel or portrayed in a painting, plague crosses continue to capture the imagination and convey the complex emotions associated with pandemics of the past.

Where to See Some Fine Examples

The best examples of plague crosses in Britain can be found in various locations across the country, each with its unique historical significance and architectural characteristics. Here are some notable places where you can find well-preserved plague crosses:

London, Smithfield: Smithfield Market in London is home to one of the most iconic plague crosses in the country. Known as the Smithfield Cross, it served as a focal point for traders during the plague outbreaks and remains an important historical landmark.

Eyam, Derbyshire: Eyam is renowned for its remarkable response to the plague in 1665. The village’s boundary stone, known as the “Eyam Plague Stone,” is a notable example of a plague cross. It served as a boundary marker during the quarantine period when the village voluntarily isolated itself to prevent the spread of the disease.

Geddington, Northamptonshire: The Eleanor Cross in Geddington is a stunning example of a medieval cross that also served as a plague cross during outbreaks. It is part of a series of crosses commissioned by King Edward I in memory of his wife, Eleanor of Castile.

Culross, Fife, Scotland: The village of Culross in Scotland boasts a well-preserved plague cross, known as the “Culross Market Cross.” This historic cross has served various purposes over the centuries, including as a symbol of protection during outbreaks.

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Eyam, Derbyshire: In addition to its boundary stone, Eyam features another plague cross known as the “Eyam Plague Memorial.” This memorial commemorates the sacrifices made by the villagers during the plague and stands as a testament to their resilience.

Winchester, Hampshire: The city of Winchester is home to a striking medieval cross known as the “High Cross” or “Butter Cross.” While not exclusively a plague cross, it has historical significance and played a role during periods of disease outbreaks.

Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: The “Market Cross” in Cambridge is another example of a medieval cross that served various purposes, including as a gathering point during plague outbreaks. It is a prominent feature of the city’s market square.

Mercy Cross

York, Yorkshire: The city of York has several historic crosses, including the “Mercy Cross,” which played a role during the plague years. It serves as a reminder of the challenges faced by the city’s inhabitants during the outbreak.

Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria: The market town of Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria features a plague cross known as the “Devil’s Bridge.” This historic structure has a rich history and is closely associated with the town’s response to the plague.

Other Villages and Towns: Many smaller villages and towns across Britain have their own plague crosses or markers, often with unique stories and historical significance. Exploring these lesser-known locations can provide a deeper understanding of the local impact of the plague.

When visiting these sites, it’s essential to respect any historical markers or plaques and to be mindful of their cultural and historical significance. These plague crosses offer a window into the past, allowing us to reflect on the challenges faced by communities during times of epidemic and the resilience they displayed in response to adversity. We often walk passed them with out a second thought, but they are from a very horrific and significant time in our history.