When Catherine Mompesson remarked one summer evening, “How sweet the air smells”, her husband realised she would be dead within days.
In August 1666, that sweet-smelling sensation was the first step towards a rapid and certain death from bubonic plague. George Mompesson recognised only too well the hallmarks of the virulent disease which had devastated Eyam, the remote English village of which he was rector and, effectively, leader. For months he and Catherine had devoted themselves to caring for the afflicted – and burying them, for no cure was known.
For perhaps three hundred years Black Death, plague epidemics, had broken out sporadically across England. Some communities were wiped off the map but alone amongst them Eyam’s devastating losses – and the village’s quiet heroism – have passed into history.
Eyam is one of a cluster of ancient villages on the slopes above the River Derwent, seven miles north of Bakewell in the rugged Peak District of northern England. It is a region of craggy bluffs, high, windswept uplands and sheltered forests, one of Britain’s most picturesque. For centuries people here prospered from mining lead, albeit in hazardous conditions.
The first to succumb to the plague was George Viccars, a tailor boarding with the young miner’s widow Mary Cooper in a cottage which still stands on the main street. One summer’s day in August 1665 Viccars opened a consignment of fabric brought from London, possibly as second-hand clothing. Finding the material damp, he spread it to dry by the fire. Soon he fell violently ill and, within days, died in an agony of suffering.
We now know that bubonic plague thrives amidst warm weather, poverty and poor sanitation, transmitted between rats and infected fleas. The ancient nursery rhyme…
Ring a ring of roses
A pocket full of posies
We all fall down.
…is not as light-hearted as it seems. The ring of roses was the tell-tale pattern of eruptions across a stricken body. Those still unaffected often carried posies, supposed to ward off the disease. Sneezing fits also characterised the onset of the infection and of course once you fell down you never got up…
Within about a fortnight of the first fatality, the disease spreads rapidly. Inevitably, herbal remedies, poultices, charms and spells failed to clear the ‘foul air’ or ‘miasma’. The only miasma lingering over Eyam was the haze of superstition and witchcraft so characteristic of those times. But however ignorant of the workings of infectious disease, Mompesson and the villagers did discern a glimmer of the truth about the curse which had settled upon them. Isolation could stem it fanning out from Eyam to engulf others.
The villagers’ self-imposed quarantine resulted from an historic agreement between Mompesson and his Puritan predecessor, recently evicted. At a time when religious differences often ended in bloodshed, Mompesson, a relatively young man, consulted with the veteran Thomas Stanley, who still commanded a loyal following. Together they urged the villagers, pious Christians, to give of themselves so that others might live. Virtually all complied.
There would be no further funeral services nor churchyard burials; families would bury their own dead without delay. Locking up the church, Mompesson began conducting open-air Sunday services in a natural amphitheatre called the Delph south of the village. Thirdly and most importantly, Eyam cut itself off from the world so that others might live.
Neighbouring villagers and the Earl of Devonshire agreed to leave food for collection at the village boundaries. At a place now called Mompesson’s Well the coins left in payment could be ‘cleansed’ in running water, whilst at the Eyam Boundary Stone they were inserted into holes drilled in the rock, topped up with vinegar.
Catherine Mompesson had sent away her children but refused to leave her husband’s side. She became one of three or four hundred fatalities, almost half of Eyam. Traditionally the present vicar’s wife tends her grave on Remembrance Day each year.
By the Christmas of 1666 it became apparent that the contagion had passed after fourteen long months. Entire families had been wiped out in what was Britain’s last major outbreak of bubonic plague.
Eyam today largely retains its seventeenth-century character, slumbering under ominous winter skies during our visit. Mompesson’s Well and the Boundary Stone can still be seen in the fields beyond the village. A single street stretches either side of the church of St Lawrence, dating from 1150 AD although, like so many, modified by heavy-handed Victorian restorers. A finely-carved eighth-century Celtic cross stands in the churchyard, close by Catherine’s grave. The grim stone facades of the three Plague Cottages bear plaques recording their history, in particular the beginnings of the outbreak. A little further on, the village stocks still await witches, thieves and wrongdo’ers.