Hampshire During the Black Death

Hampshire During the Black Death and the 100 Year’s War (1337 – 1444)

The great dynastic struggle between the rival houses of France and England which began in 1337, lasted for more than the 100 years which gave it its name. It was aperiod of great change in Hampshire, of social unrest, of major economic trouble, and problems of decline in population. The county was vulnerable to attacks from France and her allies, and the wool trade suffered from the vicissitudes of war. Men were called away from the land, and before long the Black Death seriously upset the economy of a county unused to rapid social change. The Black Death may have resulted in a violent break up of the manorial system, but it has also been suggested that it was merely part of the pattern of what can be called normal medieval catastrophe, of recurring plague on mankind, murrain on sheep, famine, and the devastations of war. Recent research has shown that the population of the county had begun to decline before Hampshire suffered in the great European famine of 1315-17, and Hampshire farms lying on the route of men marching to war were always dangerously situated. The reeve at Silkstead paid fairly large and regular sums in bribes to prevent his stock being harmed or his corn carts taken for military transport.

Map 7 Internal trade in late medieval Hampshire
Map 7 Internal trade in late medieval Hampshire

In October 1348 the Bishop of Winchester, Edington, who had already received news of the Black Death and of Its dreadful effects on the Continent, issued special directions for prayers and processions for the monks of his Cathedral Church for he was ‘struck with the great fear lest, which God forbid, the foul disease ravage any part of our city and diocese’. The plague was already in Dorset, and by the turn of the winter of 1348 and 1349, it was at its height in Hampshire. Though this initial outbreak diminished by the end of 1349, there were further severe outbreaks in 1361-2, 1369, and 1379. All the available evidence suggests that the plague of 1348-9 shook the agrarian economy of much of Hampshire and it certainly devastated Winchester. Amongst the farms belonging to Titchfield Abbey there was a high mortality on the coast, at Titchfield itself in particular, but a high death rate is also indicated in certain inland areas, in Burghclere and Highclere; for example, as late as 1376 at Highclere, of 103 ploughing services due only 15 were actually performed, and in Burghclere the proportion was 207 to 54. In central Hampshire, the earliest record surviving for Silkstead after the first outbreaks of plague shows a considerable diminution in the numbers of cattle, sheep and pigs, and fewer people to look after the stock; there were vacant buildings at Compton which were not let again fully for as long as 20 years after 1349, 15 families died out completely, and by 1352 the most important freeman had to mortgage his property to a London merchant. Some villages were practically wiped out, especially if they suffered in a later outbreak; thus by 1362, most of the Morestead village houses were in ruins. Manorial lords found it often difficult to find tenants, though this was not the case with many of the Titchfild holdings, which were at least nominally filled, though sometimes apparently by mere children. The Isle of Wight is said to have been virtually depopulated; Brading sea mill was vacant in 1349 for ‘no Miller would come because of the mortality’; the average number of Inquisitiones port mortem, in the Island (inquiries after death concerning the property of notable persons) was one a year, but in 1349 there were seven deaths thus recorded, all people of considerable local importance. There is no doubt, either, that there was a very high death rate amongst the clergy all over the county; the high mortality is referred to in Bishop Edington’s register in an entry of 14 January 1348-9, and for that year, out of a total of some 83 livings vacant, 30 at least were caused by death. Amongst those who died there were the incumbents of Farnham, Wallop, Hurstbourne, Abbott’s Ann, Greatham, South Tidworth, Crondall, Amport, and Basingstoke, as well as the Prior of Christchurch and St. Swithun’s and the Abbess of Si. Mary’s, Winchester. In the first three months of 1349 there were at least six vacant livings caused by death in the city of Winchester and many churches fell into disuse, amongst them St. Lawrence in the very heart of Winchester, where the rector was allowed to find another living because of the ruin of his parish. It was necessary for Bishop William of Wykeham to threaten to excom­municate laymen who dismantled churches or usurped their sites, and in 1376 the mayor and bailiffs of Winchester were actually cited to appear in the cathedral before the bishop for illegally taking the sites of St. Petroc, St. Martin in the Wall, and St. Nicholas. Many years after, Winchester was said to be in such a state of economic decline that there were in 1452 nearly 1,000 houses empty or in ruins, and 17 parish churches inofficiate. The decline was definite, but it was only in part a result of the Black Death, other factors being the difficulties of the woollen cloth industry, and the restrictive regulations of the Corporation which drove men to live anywhere rather than within the walls of Winchester, regulations which in fact helped to produce a revolt in 1381 against the city’s burgher oligarchy.

The centre of Winchester before 1348 was tightly packed and disease spread rapidly. Even though the town had the advantage of many streams and brooks running through it and two large public lavatories, the only conduited water supply was for the monks of the cathedral, and the townspeople took their water from the brooks and from wells, including the common city well near the High Cross. From the early years of Edward I’s reign, in contrast, the townspeople of Southampton had a good water supply, thanks to the grant to the town of a conduit house and piped water supply by the Friars Minor. Perhaps on the whole Southampton was healthier and less cramped than Winchester, but in 1338 the town was sacked by the French and much of it had to be rebuilt. Though the townspeople had been given numerous murage grants to complete the walling, in fact the work had not been carried out. It was feared that the French might return, trade suffered and some merchants moved to Bristol. The Black Death was a further blow and by the last quarter of the 14th century, the population of Southampton has been calculated as less than two thousand. A period of security and revived trade followed the temporary peace with France in 1389, and the presence of many Italian merchants was a very important factor in the prosperity of late medieval Southampton, when colonies of Venetian and Genoese traders and other Italian merchants from Florence and Milan helped to make the town a cosmo­politan centre. The greater part of Southampton’s varied imports was distributed through Bargate by carriers to many parts of southern England. In the reign of Henry V the king’s attempts to create a Royal Navy were centred on Southampton, for it was a Southampton draper and general contractor, William Soper, whose father had been a Winchester merchant, who constructed several of Henry’s most important ships, including the Grace Dieu, the largest ship to be built in England before 1637. War thus brought a temporary prosperity to Southampton, but Henry VI’s advisers sold most of the Royal Navy by auction in 1422, and Southampton was never again a likely centre for naval development.

Thus. the years of the Hundred Years’ War were years of difficulty and decline for Hampshire towns, though decline was sometimes temporarily camouflaged by the false prosperity brought about by the bustle of war and the individual fortunes made by contractors like Soper in Southampton, and by innkeepers such as Mark le Faire in Winchester. In the county generally there was recovery, but a definite decline in population, and the process of change by which money rents were paid instead of services given, was accentuated. More and more demesne land was farmed out for a paid rent by lords who could not otherwise get their land worked at all; on some manors the large common fields decreased in size and some were eventually cut up. Yet it was not mere economic and social change which was to prove the most important sign of the end of the Middle Ages. The brutalities of war, and the horrors of the Black Death, shook men’s faith and belief in the teaching of the Church. It was not always easy to believe in the resurrection of the body or the sacredness of human life; the rebuilding of much of Winchester Cathedral begun by Bishop Edington and completed by William of Wykeham stands as a great act of faith in a world of increasing religious difficulties and of declining moral values.