The Plague of Eyam, 1666

In 1665, an outbreak of the bubonic plague struck London, crippling the life of the city and killing nearly a quarter of its half-million people. King Charles II, the royal family, the entire court, and anyone with enough money fled the city hoping to avoid contagion. In doing so, they carried the fleas that spread the plague into the surrounding countryside.

Eyam was a lead-mining village of very little consequence in the heart of Derbyshire in late 1665. It had a population of around 800 people; only a few years before the plague, the Puritan parish pastor, Thomas Stanley, had been replaced by an establishment rector, Rev. William Mompesson. Mompesson was a young man with a young wife (Catherine) and soon had two young children (George and Elizabeth). He also had strong convictions about his duty. When the plague broke out in earnest in Eyam in the spring of 1666, Mompesson refused to flee. Instead, he rallied his village with an extraordinary proposal: a radical quarantine of the entire village in order to prevent the spread of the disease to the large cities of Sheffield and Manchester than lay to the north.

William Mompesson, Rector of Eyam (oil on panel) by English School, (17th century)Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust, UK

First, Mompesson sent his two children to Yorkshire, far away from the village and the plague. Catherine herself refused to leave, insisting that just as his duty was to remain with his flock, so her duty was to remain with her husband. Second, the rector ordered the most up-to-date medical supplies for the plague. Third, he wrote to the Earl of Devonshire at Chatsworth, asking him to organize a supply line for the parish. On regular days, food, medicine, and other necessary trade goods would be left at the boundary stones placed in one-mile radius cordon of Eyam. The villagers would leave payment in the stones in holes filled with vinegar, which was considered an antiseptic against the plague. That way the village could be supplied without breaking quarantine.

A boundary stone at Eyam

Next, Mompesson spoke to Thomas Stanley and convinced the old pastor to lend his support to the proposed quarantine. The two pastors together led a meeting the Eyam parish church, where Mompesson persuaded the people that it was selfish cruelty to risk spreading the plague to others. The people agreed to the quarantine and for the next seven months, no one entered or left the village. They also enacted social distancing measures: each family was responsible for burying its own dead, and all village meetings, including church services, were held outdoors in a natural amphitheater. The people met on Wednesdays, Fridays, and twice on Sundays for prayer, preaching, and exhortations to persevere.

The self-sacrifice of Eyam’s quarantine was not easy. Everyone in Eyam suffered. One woman buried six of her children and her husband within a week. By the end of the outbreak, 260 of Eyam’s 800 residents had died, a mortality rate nearly double that of the ‘Great Plague’ in London itself. Mompesson wrote in November 1666: “The condition of this place hath been so dreadful, that I persuade myself it exceedeth all history and example. I may truly say our town has become a Golgotha, a place of skulls; and had there not been a small remnant of us left, we had been as Sodom, and like unto Gomorrah. My ears never heard such doleful lamentations, my nose never smelt such noisome smells, and my eyes never beheld such ghastly spectacles. Here have been seventy-six families visited within my parish, out of which died 259 persons.” Mompesson himself buried his young wife, Catherine, in August 1666.

But the quarantine worked. The plague never spread to villages around Eyam. It never reached Sheffield and Manchester.

Shortly after Catherine’s death, Mompesson wrote the following letter to his two children.

“Eyam, August 31, 1666

Dear Hearts,

This brings you the doleful news of your dearest mother’s death; the greatest loss that could befall you.  I am deprived of a kind and loving consort, and you are bereaved of the most indulgent mother that ever poor little children had. But we must comfort ourselves in God, with this consideration, the loss is only ours; our sorrow is her gain, which should sustain our drooping spirits. I assure myself that her rewards and her joys are unutterable. Dear children, your blessed mother lived an holy life, and made a comfortable end, though by means of the sore pestilence, and she is now invested with a crown of righteousness.

My children, I think it may be useful to you to have a narrative of your dear mother’s virtues, that the knowledge thereof may teach you to imitate her excellent qualities. In the first place let me recommend to you her piety and devotion, which were according the exact principles of the church of England. In the next place, I can assure you, she was composed of modesty and humility, which virtues did possess her dear soul in a most exemplary manner. Her discourse was ever grave and meek, yet pleasant also; a vaunting and immodest word was never heard to come out of her mouth. Again, I can set out in her two other virtues, with no little confidence, viz. charity and frugality. She never valued any thing she had, when the necessities of a poor neighbour did require it, but had a bountiful spirit towards all distressed and indigent persons; yet she was never lavish or profuse, but carefully, constantly, and commendably frugal. She never liked the company of talking women, and abhorred the wandering custom of going from house to house, that wastefully spending of precious time, for she was ever busied in useful occupations. Yet, though thus prudent, she was always kind and affable; for, while she avoided those whose company could not instruct or benefit her, and would not unbosom herself to any such, she dismissed and avoided them with civility.

I do believe, my dear hearts, upon sufficient grounds, that she was the kindest wife in the world, and think from my soul, that she loved me ten times better than she did herself; for she not only resisted my earnest entreaties, that she would fly with you, dear children, from this place of death, but, some few days before it pleased God to visit my house, she…assured herself that I was passed the malignity of the disease, whereat she rejoiced exceedingly, amidst all the danger with which her near approach to me was attended, whom she believed to be infected.

Now I will tell you my thoughts of this business…her rejoicing on that account was a strong testimony of her love to me; for it is clear she cared not for her own peril, so I were safe.

Further, I can assure you, my sweet babes, that her love to you was little inferior to that which she felt for me; since, why should she thus ardently desire my longer continuance in this world of sorrows, but that you might have the protection and comfort of my life?

You little imagine with what delight she used to talk of you both, and the pains that she took when you sucked your milk from her breasts, is almost incredible. She gave a strong testimony of her love for you, when she lay upon her death-bed. A few hours before she expired, I brought her some cordials, which she told me plainly she was not able to take. I entreated she would take them, for your dear sakes.  At the mention of your names, she, with difficulty, lifted herself up and took them, which was to let me understand, that, while she had any strength left, she would embrace an opportunity of testifying her affection to you.

Now I will give you an exact account of the manner of her death. It is certain she had, for some time, had symptoms of a consumption, and her flesh as considerably wasted thereby. However, being surrounded with infected families, she doubtless got the distemper [i.e. the plague] from them. Her natural strength being impaired, she could not struggle with the disease, which made her illness so very short.  Upon being seized, she showed much contrition for the errors of her life, and often cried out, – “One drop of my Saviour’s blood to save my soul!”

At the beginning of her sickness, she earnestly desired me not to come near her, lest I should receive harm thereby; but I can assure you I did not desert her, but, thank God, stood to my resolution not to leave her in her sickness, who had been so tender a nurse to me in her health.  Blessed be God, that he enabled me to be so helpful and consoling to her, for which she was not a little thankful.

No worldly business was, during her illness, any disturbance to her; for she only minded making her call and election sure; and she asked pardon of her maid-servant for having sometimes given her an angry word.

I gave her several sweating antidotes, which had no kind operation, but rather scalded and inflamed her more, whereupon her dear head was distempered, which put her upon many incoherencies. I was much troubled thereat, and propounded to her several questions in divinity, as by whom, and upon what account, she expected salvation, and what assurances she had of the certainty thereof. Though in all other things she talked at random, yet to these religious questions she gave me as rational and welcome answers as I could desire; and, at those time, I bade her repeat after me certain prayers…which she always did with much devotion, which was no little comfort and admiration to me, that God should be so good and gracious to her.

A little before her dear soul departed she desired me to pray with her again. I went to her, and asked her how she did? Her answer was that she was but looking when the good hour should come. Thereupon we went to prayers and she made her responses from the Common Prayer-book as perfectly as if she had been in perfect health, and an amen to every pathetic expression.  When we had ended our prayers for the visitation of the sick, we made use of those out of the Whole Duty of Man; and when I heard her say nothing, I urged, – “My dear, dost thou mind?” She answered, “Yes,” and it was the last word she spoke.

I question not, my dear hearts, that the reading of this account will cause many a salt tear to spring from your eyes; yet let this comfort you, – your dear mother is a saint in heaven.

I could have told you of many more of her excellent virtues; but I hope you will not in the least question my testimony, if, in a few words, I tell you that she was pious and upright in all her conversation.

Now, to that most blessed God, who bestowed upon her all these graces, be ascribed all honour, glory, and dominion, the just tribute of all created beings, for evermore! Amen!

-William Mompesson”

Catherine Mompesson’s grave, Eyam, Derbyshire

Copies of Rev. Mompesson’s letters are held in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archive Service in the UK. This transcription was taken from James Montgomery, The Christian Correspondent: Letters, Private and Confidential, by eminent persons of both sexes, exemplifying the fruits of holy living and the blessedness of holy dying,(William Ball: London, 1837), Letter CCXCVIII, pps. 313-318.

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