The Spread of the Black Death in England


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

Before the spread of the Black Death in England, people were already struggling economically. All of this would have been just fine, and the economy might have kept on chugging along in this fashion, except for the arrival of the Black Death, an event that’s one of those external factors, something like what modern theorists call a black swan.

Painting of medieval setting with horseman of death riding in background
Of a population of 60,000 in London at the start of the epidemic, less than half that number were still in the city by 1351. (Image: matrioshka/Shutterstock)

Spotting a Black Swan in England

The theory uses the idea of a flock of swans as a metaphor. Most swans are white. Most of us expect swans to be white. When we imagine them, they’re usually white. But then, sometimes, there is, unexpectedly, a black swan in the midst of all these white swans, and it’s a disrupter. 

So, a black swan is an event that is beyond the normal range of expectations, that is almost completely unexpected, that no one could really have anticipated, and which has dramatic and long-lasting effects. The arrival of the Black Death in England was certainly a black swan event.

In England, the death toll in most places was equivalent to that found on the continent which was right around 50 percent, but we do have evidence that in some communities mortality might have been as high as 70–80 percent. When you have mortality rates that high, all the practitioners of a certain specialized craft or trade get wiped out, along with their apprentices, and no one is left who has the knowledge of carpentry, or barrel making, or working the mill for the grinding of grain.

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

Arrival of Death on England’s Doorstep

Concept of a black swan among many white swans.
Spotting a black swan is an event that is beyond the normal range of expectations. (Image: nancekievill/Shutterstock)

As throughout Europe, the plague first arrived in England through a port city. The chronicle, known as the Greyfriars’ Chronicle notes that the plague arrived in Weymouth sometime in June 1348 on a ship that had come from Gascony. 

From Weymouth, the plague was carried by ship south and west around Cornwall, breaking out in full force in Bristol in August 1348. Next was Gloucester. Although the leaders of this city recognized what was happening and tried to quarantine the city by shutting the gates against any travelers who might be coming in, it was too little too late.

From this point on, the Black Death spread rapidly throughout England, due in part to the fact that, as a nation on an island with lots of navigable rivers, England’s water-based trade networks allowed the plague to advance quickly both along the coasts and inland. Because fishing was a huge industry in England, it’s pretty clear that fishing vessels were spreading the Black Death all along the coastal waterways as well. 

It’s an interesting quirk that the great city of London was spared until relatively late. The plague didn’t show up there in full force until the beginning of 1349. Once it arrived, however, it made up for lost time with its incredible virulence.

Learn more about the Black Death’s political outcomes.

Priests Were Hit the Hardest

One way we can track the plague’s progression is through records about the need to fill vacant clerical offices. In the towns along the south and west coast, we see a surge in clerical vacancies in the autumn of 1348. As John Kelly has noted, this sudden loss of a huge number of priests could be the basis for an Agatha Christie murder mystery: Who Is Killing the Priests of Coastal England

While it’s likely that other groups in the community also suffered losses, the priests were hit hard because they were visiting parishioners who were ill and in need of comfort and last rites. Other scholars point out that those in clerical benefices were likely to be older and more susceptible to illness to begin with, which might explain the high mortality rate in this population.

And then there is the way that the plague burned through monasteries. When you have a lot of people living together in close quarters, it’s a perfect recipe for an epidemic. The abbey of Meaux lost 83 percent of its population, with 42 out of 52 monks and all of the lay brothers attached to the monastery perishing in the Great Mortality.

Learn more about the end of the first wave.

Black Death Brings Huge Losses in England

A way we can track people’s panic about the growing epidemic is by examining the number of wills that were written and brought to probate. We see a sharp increase in wills written and filed in January 1349, which suggests that the noble classes had started to feel threatened by the epidemic in the late autumn of 1348.

Image of Saint Mary the Virgin Church Overton on Dee, Wales, UK.
By 1349, the Black Death had swept through all of England and moved into Wales. (Image: D. Pimborough/Shutterstock)

By 1349, the plague had swept through all of England and moved into Wales. The Scots on the northern border, at first spared by the outbreak, gleefully rubbed their hands and decided in 1350 that now was the time to invade the lands to the south. These plans, however, changed dramatically when the plague found its way into the ranks of the invading army and killed 5,000 of them almost overnight.

The losses in England were staggering. Of a population of 60,000 in London at the start of the epidemic, less than half that number were still in the city by 1351, probably due to a combination of deaths and flight from the urban setting. Records from many of the manors show that, in some cases, half of the families living and working on the land were completely wiped out. In other instances, whole villages were simply obliterated.

Common Questions about the Spread of the Black Death in England

Q: What was the black swan metaphor with regards to the Black Death?

We always assume that swans are white. There’s always a possibility of seeing a black swan. But, if we did see one in the middle of a flock of white swans it would be surprising. Similarly, the spread of the Black Death in England was just like seeing a black swan.

Q: Why did so many priests die in England during the Black Death?

It was mainly because they would visit the ill much more often than others and also most of them were not that young. Thus, the spread of the Black Death in England was much more fatal for them.

Q: What did the Scots do when they found out about the spread of the plague in England?

The Scots first planned to invade England but their plans failed, as they had underestimated the spread of the Black Death. Consequently, around 5,000 of their soldiers died because of the plague.

Keep Reading
Was the Black Death Really a Bubonic Plague?
What Really Caused the Black Death: Anthrax or Celestial Bodies?
Challenging the Predominant Theory of the Black Death