The Great Plague of 1665

Rats carrying the plague

The Bubonic Plague had been around for centuries, but 1665 saw the worst outbreak and became known as the Great Plague. The City of London was to experience the worst. However a chance encounter by a tailor from the neighbouring village of Eyam, with a parcel from London was to kill him within a week, starting a series of events that would make the village famous.

Plague origin

It started in London in the backstreets of squalor where human waste and rubbish littered the streets and became a breeding ground for rats and their fleas which carried the plague. Unfortunately for Eyam a parcel of cloth from London arrived in the house of the local tailor, it contained infected flees and so the Great Plague arrived in Eyam.

Eyams sacrifice

Eyam church
Eyam church

The story of Eyam and the Great Plague has become famous due to the sacrifices made by the villagers of Eyam. As the plague took hold, some of the villagers suggested fleeing the village for the nearby city of Sheffield. However the church leader William Mompesson persuaded them not to as he feared this might spread the plague into the north of England that had more or less escaped the worst of it. Incredibly the village decided to cut itself off and they quarantined themselves from the outside world, despite certain death for many. It did however prevent the spread of the disease and the deaths of untold numbers.

The effects

The death of the tailor in the summer of 1665 was followed by five more in September and by the end of October twenty three more had died. The plague was considered at an end by November 1666, but it had taken a terrible toll on the village and 260 out of 350 who lived in the village had died.

 Saving Eyam

Eyam was only able to survive its quarantine due to the help of Stoney Middleton who supplied food and other essentials

The Boudary Stone
The Boudary Stone

for their survival. Supplies were brought and left at the parish stone known locally as the Boundary Stone. The villagers left money in holes drilled into the stone which were filled with vinegar, believed to sterilise the coins left in them. Because of this act Eyam was not left to starve to death.

Symptoms of the plague

This is best summed up in a popular nursery rhyme of the time:

Ring-a-ring of roses,

A pocketful of posies,

A-tishoo, A-tishoo,

We all fall down.

The first line of the poem refers to red circular of blotches that were found on the skin. The second line refers to the belief that the plague could be stopped by carrying flowers which could overpower the germs. The third line refers to the final symptom which was a sneezing fit, promptly followed by death.

Ethel Carlton Williamson 1948

In 1948 Ethel visited Stoney Middleton and Eyam and wrote the following in he book.

Eyam, with its Saxon cross, and staid grey houses set in a girdle of emerald hills, seems an unlikely setting for tragedy. Yet two hundred and seventy years ago a drama as tense as any England has ever known was being enacted in this remote Derbyshire village. Fires were burning in the street, houses were barred and shuttered, here and there one bore the dreaded mark, signifying that someone within was smitten with the plague, and from time to time bodies were dragged forth for burial in the common grave. None had time to spare to toll the bell for the souls of those who had passed away; men shunned their neighbours lest they should be bearers of the dreaded infection, and horror stalked naked through the quiet streets.
Eyam has never forgotten those sufferings of long ago. Even today the village bears the scars. Beneath the shadow of the church stands Plague Cottage, where the tailor lived who received the bale of infected cloth from London. The kitchen, where he spread it to air, before the fire, remains practically unchanged. In the churchyard, near the Saxon Cross, is the grave of the Rector’s young wife, Catherine Mompesson. She was little more than a girl in years, full of vitality and loving life and gaiety. Yet after sending her children to safety in York, she remained by her husband’s side, and fought the peril with him, until in the terrible August of 1666, she herself fell a victim. On the opposite side of the path is the grave of Thomas Stanley, the vicar in Commonwealth days, a dour but honest man, who remained in Eyam and with his successor fought the ravages of the plague.

William Mompesson’s grave is not to be found in Eyam. After those dreadful months of strain and anguish, when he lost what was dearest to him on earth, he came unscathed through the peril, but the associations of the place were too bitter. He had been there but six months when the plague brokeout. Before, he had been chaplain to Sir George Savile at Rufford Abbey, and after the companionship of that attractive aristocrat, he found his new living cramped and the people uncongenial. It was in September, 1665, that the plague claimed its first victim, George Vicars, the tailor’s assistant, and throughout the spring and summer of 1666, it raged with unabated force, claiming 267 victims out of the 350 inhabitants, who stayed in the village.

Throughout this terrible time, William Mompesson showed superb courage. Never shunning the risk of infection, he visited the sick and consoled the dying, and, what was even rarer, he was able to inspire others with his own courage. It was by his orders that no one left the stricken village, from the autumn of 1665 until the plague was over, lest they should carry the infection to the world outside. No stranger was allowed to enter the village to bring food or clothing. By arrangement with the Duke of Devonshire, parcels of food and other necessities were placed in pre-arranged places, amongst them Mompesson’s well, which stands high above the village on the Sir William Road. Here at nightfall men came from Eyam to fetch the parcels and to place their contagious money in a receptacle filled with vinegar as payment.

Never has the world seen such an example of self-sacrifice, as a whole community voluntarily abandoning itself to the ravages of this most terrible disease. Mompesson must have been a man of unusual strength of character, yet in a letter he reveals something of what he was enduring. – My ears never heard such doleful lamentations, he wrote, – and my eyes never beheld such ghastly spectacles. There have been seventy-six families visited in my parish out of which two hundred and fifty-nine persons died. On every hand can be seen the price of the sacrifice.

Riley Grave Eyam
Riley Graves Eyam

Half a mile from the church is a field where seven members of the Hancock family, who died in eight days, are buried. They are known as the Riley graves, because the land was called Rylegleys. The churchyard is full of nameless graves. Yet the question arises whether Mompesson’s act of self- sacrifice was not really a terrible mistake. Did he not, by concentrating the inhabitants within a small infected area, increase the deadliness of the plague? If the people had scattered at the first outbreak, would they not have escaped more lightly? For Eyam was not the only place in England to be stricken by the plague. Already from May, 1665, plague had been raging in London, and 68,596. people had died, while in Derby, too, there were many victims.

Yet no one paid so terrible a price as the wind-swept village of Eyam. To fears of infection and grief for the loss of loved ones was added the terrible feeling of being Immured in a prison, from which there was no escape.  Fortunately for his peace of mind no such doubts troubled William Mompesson. Yet he paid a price as. heavy as any. For in August 1666, as has been already said, .He lost his wife, Catherine. In a heart-broken letter to his children, George, aged three and Elizabeth, aged four, he praises her
piety, charity and frugality. – She never liked the company of tattling 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 or avoided them with civility.

Poor Catherine Mompesson. This paragon of seventeenth century womanly virtues was only twenty seven when she died, and her husband designed an elaborate table tomb to the memory. It stands in the church yard beneath the shades of a yew, little changed, except that the Latin inscription has been recut, as the letters had been worn away by the fingers of pious visitors. Mompesson, who prided himself upon his scholarship, took great pains in choosing the symbols of fleeting humanity and the epitaph. Look at the winged hourglass, and the warning words: Cavete. Nescitis horam (Beware. Ye know not the hour.) Near Catherine’s grave stands the Saxon cross, one of the finest in the county, and Derbyshire is famous for its Saxon crosses. Probably the cross stood originally on a hillside, overlooking the village; then it was erected on the strip of Common Land, near Eyam Hall, where the uprights of the village stocks still stand. Less battered and weather-worn than the Bakewell cross, it has deeply-cut scrollwork and a medallion with an angel, and four angels with sceptres round It; while on the reverse side is a choir of angels. Down the shaft is a beautiful vine, bearing bunches of grapes. Nor did the carver neglect to adorn the sides of the cross. On the north arm a figure holds a book, and on the south, is an angel. Authorities think the cross dates from 790. It has suffered from the ravages of time, and from its several removals, and the upper section beneath the head has been lost. A copy of the cross in its original form can be seen in Blundell’s School, Tiverton, where it is the War Memorial.

Eyam Church
Eyam Church

The church has seen many changes since William Mompesson was the Vicar. One pillar and the font of the Norman church remain, and the fourteenth century nave and Tudor clerestory are as he saw them. Shortly before he came to Eyam, the chancel and part of the tower were rebuilt in 1618. It was in 1866, to mark the second anniversary of the plague, that drastic changes were made. Restoration, as they called It, was In the blood of mid-Victorian architects, and on Eyam they worked their will. The north aisle was rebuilt on a larger scale; the chancel, as Mompesson knew it, underwent a drastic restoration; while in 1882 the south aisle was remodelled and a porch was added.
Yet there are links with Mompesson still in the church. There is the pulpit from which he and his predecessor, Thomas Stanley, preached, and his chair is in the chancel with the letters MOM 1665 EYUM. It was discovered in a second hand shop in Liverpool and presented to the church. In the vestry is the cupboard in which the tailor is believed to have kept the roll of infected cloth. The stained glass is .modern, and at ,the West End is a Last judgment, In which a neat spiders web In the right corner represents the signature of the designer, Webb.
In Cucklet Dell, a lovely dip in a steep valley centres the drama of Eyam. It was here that Sunday by Sunday, when the plague was raging, William Mompesson, to lessen the risk of infection, gathered his flock and preached to them from a natural arch of rock, known as Cucklet Church. The key to the dell is kept at Eyam Hall, which like Tissington Hall is a fine Elizabethan Manor House, but It was re- faced in 1676 with stones brought from Bradshaw Hall.
Every year on the last Sunday in August a commemoration Service is held in Cucklet Dell. Popular Imagination has been fired by the self-sacrifice of Eyam and from Sheffield and Manchester and even further afield come girls and youths on tandem bicycles, reinforced by motorists and hiking parties, who gather on the steep slope of the Delph, while the local inhabitants and the farmers are thrust Into the background by these intruders. The green slopes of the dale form a natural amphitheatre and the hillside is black with people, as the clergy and choir wend their way in slow procession from the church to the Dell to offer thanksgiving for the noble examples of self-sacrifice shown by the Villagers.

Hymn singing is a feature of the service. No fewer than 10 hymns are sung by the congregation, mingled with the cawing of jackdaws, who dart in and out of the crags. A visiting clergyman takes his stand beneath the rocky arch and gives a short address on the meaning of self-sacrifice.
Some, in the light-hearted congregation, may recall the scene as it was two hundred and seventy years ago. Then the August sun blazed down pitilessly, as if it would dry up the last drop of moisture and destroy the yellow grass in the Delph. The congregation was sparse, shabbily dressed, with white, drawn faces and haunted eyes. Each shunned his neighbour and in every mind was present the fear of what awaited their return. Even in this brief absence they might find that the dreaded pestilence had entered their homes. Yet all listened intently and looked eagerly at William Mornpesson’s thin, aristocratic face and his auburn curls, ruffled by the breeze. For was he not giving them a message of hope and comfort, telling them to be of good cheer, and to fear not the pestilence, for God had them under his protection?

Ethel Carlton Williams Companion into Derbyshire 1948


  • Sian 1965 says:

    I was told the story of Sham’s sacrifice as a young child.
    After over forty years I finally got to see it for myself.
    Extraordinary experience.
    Everyone needs to see this village and remember what it did for the rest of us. Because quite a few generations wouldn’t have been born if it wasn’t for their courage and incredible unselfishness
    I salute them.

  • Diane Aul says:

    This is truly incredible. That little ditty referenced here (before the article) we used to sing in the United States and here it ended with “ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” I never had a clue all these decades since I was a child what its origins were. I think the clergyman was right to urge self-quarantine. Now that we have recently experienced COVID in an era of modern medicine and sanitation, and responded with arguably too much quarantine, it seems reasonable back then to have taken drastic measures. And it shows a great character and compassion almost absent today.

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