How England Coped With the Plague


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

At the time when people were trying to cope with the plague, the losses among the noble classes were probably somewhere around 25-30 percent, and among peasants anywhere about 40-70 percent, with some places recording mortality rates as high as 80 percent. The clerical classes had losses of around 45 percent.

Image of 14th century houses built of stone, Vicar's Close, Wells, Somerset, England, UK.
Within the population, nobles were somewhat less affected than the peasants, probably due to the fact that many of their houses were built of stone. (Image: Martin Fowler/Shutterstock)

Nobles Coped Better With the Plague

Among the population, nobles were somewhat less affected from the plague than the peasants, probably due to the fact that many of their houses were built of stone, which was less easily penetrated by flea-carrying rats than the wood structures in which the peasant classes lived. Also, because nobles had access to better nutrition, they were healthier to start with than those who labored on the manors. 

This produced some situations that had to be coped with, in new and exciting ways. For example, whenever the head of a peasant family living on an English lord’s manor died, his family owed the lord a heriot, or a death tax, and this usually took the form of the family’s best animal like a pig, or sheep, or goat, or even a cow. 

The logic here was that this family was now short of a body that had done labor for the lord, so now the amount of work in the fields and harvesting of crops—the production—was going to go down. In order to offset this loss of production, the family then gave one of their animals to the lord to compensate him for the lost labor and in order for them to remain on the manor and enjoy the lord’s protection.

With the onset of the Black Death, suddenly the lords had more animals than they could cope with. With this sudden influx of livestock available for the taking, the value and prices for such animals plummeted.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Living with Dignity During the Plague

Landscape of hills where the plague pits used to be.
Recent archaeological excavations of so-called plague pits show that even though they were mass graves, the bodies were usually laid out in an orderly fashion. (Image: AndyScott/Public domain)

In terms of social order, the people of England coped relatively well, all things considered. Although London quickly ran out of burial space and had to consecrate new plots of land as mass graves, it was not the case that people were simply dumping bodies into a hole in the ground. 

Recent archaeological excavations of so-called plague pits show that even though they were mass graves, the bodies were usually laid out in an orderly fashion—all oriented in the same direction, sometimes grouped together by age and gender. So this suggests that people were still trying to live through this horrific event with a measure of civilized dignity.

Learn more about Europe on the brink of the Black Death.

The Plague against Religion

Religious institutions did not fare so well during the epidemic, and indeed, their status was weakened by more than a few factors. One was that members of the clergy were affected in numbers pretty much equivalent to everyone. 

Not only did the monasteries suffer huge losses, but England had two archbishops die of the plague, one of whom succumbed just 40 days after his consecration, which itself had been hastily arranged because his predecessor had just died of the Black Death.

What would have had an even more deleterious effect on the Church was the fact that, according to many accounts, the clergy refused to visit those who were ill and suffering, so great was their terror of being sickened themselves. When they did perform their duties, like administering last rites, many of them did so both hastily and reluctantly. 

There were many devoted priests who bravely performed their duties sincerely and generously to the fullest of their abilities; but, because they did this, and were exposed to the plague on numerous occasions, those good men of the cloth were some of the very first to die.

Learn more about the epidemiology of plague.

The Plague Kept Coming Back

Most scholars agree that England was particularly hard hit by the Black Death, with some citing an overall mortality rate of 60 percent. Although the first wave of the plague finally slowed down by the end of 1350, there was no way for the populace to know this. 

Image of London with the Big Ben in background
The plague was a demographic catastrophe with effects that can be felt down into the modern day. (Image: S.Borisov/Shutterstock)

In 1348, when the plague arrived, it may have seemed like a one-time epidemic; because the black rat fleas go into hibernation in winter, the rate of infection of the bubonic type seemed to slow down. But then it came roaring back with a vengeance in the summer of 1349, and again in the summer of 1350. There was no reason for people to doubt that this was now going to be the new normal. So it must have seemed like an answer to a prayer when 1351 was mercifully almost plague-free.

However, the plague kept coming back once every 6–10 years or so. There were over 15 recurrences of the Black Death in England between 1351 and 1485. The plague outbreak of 1361 was an incredibly traumatic recurrence, as the majority of the victims were the children of survivors of the first pandemic.

In the long term, this meant there was a combination of high mortality and low birth rate since many women delayed marriage and childbearing after the first outbreak because they were needed in the labor force. England’s population would not recover to pre-plague levels until well into the 16th century. It was a demographic catastrophe with effects that can be felt down into the modern day.

Common Questions about How England Coped With the Plague

Q: Why were nobles less affected by the plague than peasants?

The nobles coped with the plague much better because they had better food to eat which in turn led to a lower chance of dying because of a healthier body. Their homes were also made of stone unlike the homes of peasants which were made of wood and could be penetrated by rats.

Q: Why did the Church suffer so much from the plague?

The Church suffered from the plague mostly because of the fact that the clergy tried to visit the ill and administer last rites. This led to many of them dying.

Q: Why did the plague come back after the first wave?

The simple answer is it never left. The rats that were the carriers of the plague went into hibernation causing people to believe that the spread of the plague had slowed down or that they had coped with the plague but they were soon proved wrong.

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