Review Number 32 – January 2005

After the Plague

The Black Death reached Walsham in the spring of 1349. The manor court rolls record the deaths of 119 tenants; that number can be multiplied by between 4.5 and 5 to arrive at the total number including children, dependant women and elderly parents. To cope with the enormity of the task of recording all the deaths, the clerk used a Rental, a list of all the tenants in street order, and worked his way through it starting at the east end of the parish and ending at the west end, enquiring who had died in each house. The population fell from between 1,000 and 1,500 to half of that in just a few weeks; the devastation is unimaginable. The details of the pestilence and its fatalities are well documented but what of the survivors and their descendants?

Children and the elderly made up half the casulties, leaving a population of about 500 adults to begin the work of regeneration. Prior to 1349 food would have been in short supply and every available piece of land was ploughed and sown with grain in an attempt to feed the high population. In addition, bad weather had caused widespread famine in the years leading up to 1349. The Black Death hit Walsham in late spring when all the winter wheat and most of the spring barley were already sown so for the first time, despite all the horror of the plague, there would have been enough food for all.

The only evidence we have of life at that time is that of the manor courts and these show that life carried on as normal. The courts held immediately after the Black Death record the usual business such as transfers of land and brewing and selling of ale without licence. As early as November 1349 eight widows and two women who had inherited land had married. Walsham people picked themselves up, brushed themselves down and got on with life.

The manor of Walsham, with its lay, non-resident lord or lady is considered to have always been a fairly benevolent place to live compared with manors controlled by, say, the Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds. Even so, the feudal system dictated that, in return for holding houses and land on the manor, tenants were required to pay in cash, chickens, eggs and oats and perform services for the lord. These services, or customary works, included working on the manor farm, the demesne and being at the lord’s beck and call to run messages or do whatever was required. Ploughing the lord’s land, mowing his hay and reaping his crops at harvest time took priority over working your own fields to feed your family. In addition, the lord received ‘the best beast’ as death duty on the death of a tenant, entry fees when property changed hands, and fees for licences for marriages, illegitimacy and permission to leave the manor to live elsewhere. In return they received, not only a house and land, but also the protection of the lord of the manor and the community, and access to the manor court to settle their problems. After 1349 this feudal system began a steady decline.

Before 1349, from time to time, tenants refused to carry out the required works on the lord’s land and were fined accordingly. But in 1353 there was a collective refusal by thirty-five people to carry out the winter works. In addition nine women refused to winnow and another eleven people refused to reap at harvest time; even though they were paid in money they worked instead for ‘other men for money’. Confrontation was avoided by the fines being postponed under condition that the tenants did not repeat the offence but worked without dissent the following year. With the workforce now halved, no doubt the lord raised the wages to that of the ‘other men’. Tenants were beginning to use their collective bargaining power. Despite these allowances made by the lord to his tenants, some men continued to withold their labour from time to time making it increasingly difficult for the lord to farm his demesne. In 1391 John Hawes was fined £1 because he refused to carry out the work known as reapale (reaping at harvest with ale provided) and also haymaking. The following year he and other men witheld ploughing services.

There is no direct evidence of involvement of Walsham people in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. However, it was usual for two or three courts to be held each year and, although there are eighteen month and two year gaps in the survival rate of the court rolls in previous years, the largest gap occured in 1381. There are no surviving court rolls between September 1380 and December 1383;a gap of over three years. It is possible that during this period of national unrest, the rolls which contained evidence of landholding and misdemeanours were destroyed.

In 1404 Lady Elizabeth Elmham became lady of Walsham manor on the death of her husband Sir William. That year seventeen people refused to carry out their allotted haymaking works in the lady’ s meadow known as Little Meadow which lay to the west of the pond opposite the churchyard extension in West Street. They were all fined just 1d except William Hawes who was fined 3d probably because he was wealthier. The fines were really amercements fixed by affeerers at each court with circumstances regarding the offence and ability to pay taken into account. The annual accounts of the manor for between 1406 and 1426 are missing but from 1426 onwards the items for haymalking and carriage of hay show nil profit ‘because they were released by the Lady Elmham’. Elizabeth Elmham died in 1419 but the legacy of her benevolence lived on.

Tenants could commute their labour services to money, paying the lord of the manor in cash rather than work his fields. The numbers choosing this option gradually increased until in 1428, 528 harvest works were sold (compared to 154 in 1402). One solution to this labour shortage was for the demesne land to be leased to the tenants for a fixed annual sum and in 1429 John Cooper was leased 28 acres at East End for 10 years, William Hawes 42 acres of Fishpond Field for 10 years and Adam Blayer 1½ acres for 20 years.

When Alice de la Pole became lady of the manor on the death of her husband William she immediately leased out the remaining demesne land. In 1453 there were twenty-three cases of demesne land being leased: from just small pightles to over 70 acres to John Robwood. The new rents ranged from 1s 2d to £1 16s 8d pa. Alice was Geoffrey Chaucer’s granddaughter and lived at the Chaucer family home in Ewelme, Oxfordshire and at Wingfield Castle; she didn’t need a hall and farm in Walsham; the site of the manor was leased out at the same court.

While these alterations were taking place on the manor, the landscape itself was being changed. With the population greatly reduced, it was not necessary for so much land to be arable for growing grain. In the past, much of the arable land had been organized in small strips forming furlongs which, although held by individuals, had been working communally. Animals had been allowed to graze in certain places at certain times under supervision, but with the newly experienced shortage of labour, an alternative method was required. Slowly but surely small pieces of land were amalgamated and then hedged to form closes in which livestock could graze without constant supervision. Whenever possible, tenants aquired extra land adjoining their own in a process of consolidation; the larger piece could then be enclosed with hedges. In 1437 John Robwood acquired 1½ roods in the same place from John Swift and John Page and 1½ roods of land from John Spicer, 5 roods in the same place from Robert Margery giving him a 2 acre field next to land he already held. Many of the 15th century courts record mutually beneficial exchanges of land. In 1410 John Fuller exchanged a small piece of land for a strip that John Cook held next to land he already held, enabling him to amalgamate and enlarge the field. Some people made closes by putting up hedges and digging ditches without permission. In 1414 Robert Margery obstructed a path by digging a ditch to make a close and was ordered to stop making the ditch or pay a penalty of 13s 4d.

One of the most common offences recorded in the 14th and early 15th century courts was that of animals damaging the crops of the lord or of other tenants. While grazing on the commons, road verges and headlands it is inevitable that livestock strayed into arable fields, which were open, ie. without hedges or ditches. As the number of offences regarding the making hedges and ditches and enclosing land increased so the number of offences for trespass and damage to crops decreased. The livestock were now in enclosed pastures. This was a gradual process, of course, but although in 1414 there were seven cases of damage to the lord’s oats, peas and wheat and two cases of damage to the barley of a tenant, after this date very few cases occur. By 1577 when the survey known as the Field Book was made, 1052 acres were specified as pasture and only 328 as arable. Of the field boundary hedges remaining in Walsham today the largest number are about 600 years old. These are the hedges planted soon after the Black Death by tenants making small closes for livestock.

Survivors of the plague had the opportunity, for the first time, to acquire substantially more land and become wealthier. Not all tenants could take this opportunity but those who did opened the way for their descendants to build the many substantial 16th and 17th century houses that survive in Walsham and become yeoman. While the population was high and food was scarce, the diet of the average peasant consisted largely of pottage made from oats, peas and occasionally some meat or fish. As the land became enclosed for pasture, they kept more cattle and ate more meat.

One other change to the landscape after the plague was the decline in the number of houses, especially at the east end of the parish. Prior to 1349 many families were living in half or even a quarter of a house resulting in chronic overcrowding. The village did not become deserted after the death of so many people; instead the villagers dispersed, making use of empty property. But the population took several centuries to fully recover and gradually many people moved away from East End and Cranmer Green. The court rolls contain numerous instances of tenants allowing their buildings to decay. In 1410 Robert Manser held a tenement in Clay Street and was ordered to repair the waste made in it before Christmas or face a penalty of 10s. At the same court it was recorded that a building fell into ruin on Levy’s tenement and elsewhere a cow-house and a barn had deteriorated. The following year the building on Levy’s tenement had not been repaired and the principal house of Edmund Patel’s tenement was wasted. There were once thirty medieval houses situated along Clay Street; by 1577 only eleven remained.

Over thirty surnames disappeared from the records after 1349, in families where no male heirs survived. Notable amongst these was the Cranmer family who lost four males. Robert and William, the sons of William Cranmer junior, both died and the Cranmer property (one of the largest in the village) passed to their sisters Olive and Hilary who were married to Robert and John Hawes. The Hawes family also lost three males. William and Walter both died. William’s son John also died but Walter’s son John lived until 1410, securing the family name and fortune at the Rookery until the 17th century. You could say that the Hawes had a “good plague”. Eight of the Ramply family died but enough survived to carry the name right into the 19th century.

No male members of the Robwood family died, although they lived at Cranmer Green surrounded by those who succumbed. They may have lost wives and daughters whose deaths would not have been recorded in the courts. John Robwood was one of those who refused to work in 1353 and although, when he died in 1365, he held only one messuage and 14 acres of land, his grandson, also John, took full advantage of the disintegration of the feudal system to improve the family fortune. In 1410 he was elected reeve and served as a juror. By 1425 he had his own sheepfold and was fined 3s 4d for having more sheep than his licence allowed. He acquired more land: in 1427 he was granted two houses and land at East End for 2s 4d pa. By 1341 he leased over 100 acres of land, meadow and pasture for which he paid 103s 4d pa: – far more than any other tenant. During the earlier medieval period, although the properties varied in size, only the lord of the manor would have had that much. From 1433 onwards he acquired land, pasture or meadow at almost every court, including, in 1434, Payne’s tenement (where Old Hall now stands) containing 30 acres. In 1441 the lord of the manor was William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, later Duke: the feudal system was now virtually at an end and the manor itself was leased out. The first person to take advantage of this was John Robwood: he leased the manor in Summer Road for a total of £44 pa. Accounts show he had the barn and bake-house thatched and hired a carpenter to make trestles for a table in the hall. He had a new mill-house built at a total cost of 23s 5d including the wages of a carpenter for twenty two days at 4d a day. He was now a regular member of the manor court jury and needed to live nearer the village centre. In 1457 he and his wife Joan began to build the Beeches. His descendent, another John Robwood, lived at the Beeches when the Field Book was made in 1577. His land amounted to 186 acres and was the most anyone held in Walsham at that time. His death was recorded in the court of 1599 describing him as a yeoman but, in his will, he referred to himself as a gentleman. The name of Robwood disappeared from Walsham records in 1628, nearly 350 years after the first mention of the name in the Lay Subsidy of 1283.

Your verdict on whether the Black Death was beneficial depends on your viewpoint, politics or even whether you are a vegetarian. But you must surely concur with Bruce Campbell’s assessment: “a catastrophe with a silver lining”.

Audrey McLaughlin


  1. Court Rolls of Walsham Suffolk Record Office(Bury)HA504/1/1-22
  2. Accounts of Walsham Suffolk Record Office(Bury)HA504/3/1-15
  3. R. Lock The Black Death in Walsham le Willows(Suffolk Institute ofArchaeology and History Vol: XXXVII)
  4. K.M.Dodd The Field Book of Walsham le Willows 1577(SRS 1974)
  5. S.E.West & A. McLaughlin Towards a Landscape History of Walsham le Willows (EEA No.85, 1998)
  6. B.M.S. Campbell English Seignorial Agriculture(CUP 2001)

What the Papers Said

Bury Post 27th June 1827

“This issue contained a letter from Zachariah Meadows, a Walsham cooper, praising Mr. John Kent a maker of medicines from Stanton. “Sir, The great benefit which I have received from your invaluable medicines and applications induces me to lay my own case before the public. In October 1826 I applied to you in consequence of being inflicted with scrofulous disease of the left side of the neck. I am about 50 years of age and for a considerable time have suffered severely from the above complaint. There was an ulcer on the left side of the neck and the gland much enlarged and there was much discharge into the mouth from an ulcer in the jaw. Every means of cure were in vain and my health deteriorated rapidly. I resolved to try the effect of your medicine and in a very short time I got better, my health improved, my ulcers healed, the swellings dispersed and I became perfectly well as I continue to be. Z. Meadows.” ‘ Mr. J. S. Kent may be consulted on scrofulous, scorbutic and cancerous complaints at his house in Stanton every Tuesday and at the Half Moon Inn in Bury each Wednesday.”

Bury Post 12th September 1827

“Mr. William Derby of Walsham le Willows begs leave to inform his friends at Woolpit and vicinity that his Commercial Dining and Dancing Booth will be at the above place during the time of the fair. Comic singing will be introduced between the dances. Good wines and spirits will be available. None but persons of respectability will be admitted.”

Bury Post 25th June 1828

“A Walsham estate to be sold by auction at The Mart, London.
Lot 1: A valuable estate situated in the delightful village of Walsham le Willows near Bury St. Edmunds, 82 miles from London. A family mansion with 8 bedrooms, 2 attics, dining room 24 feet by 15 feet, drawing room 18 feet by 15 feet, library, servants offices, coach house, stabling and outbuildings placed in a lawn of above 30 acres in fine healthy country abounding with game and pleasure grounds, gardens and plantations. Suitable for a respectable family.
Lot 2: Church Farm, contiguous with Lot 1 to which it would make a valuable addition. Containing 157 acres of arable, meadow and pasture land. Now let to Mr. Brooks at £200 pa.
Lots 3&4: Property and land in Badwell Ash.
Lot 5: Comprising Home Farm with good farmhouse, offices, yards etc. with 121 acres of land now let to Mr. John Goddard at £200 pa.”

Bury Post 1st October 1828

“Mr. S. Vincent of Walsham having observed a colt at Woolpit fair to be dangerously bad from a fall that fractured its skull, he took it in hand to cure the animal agreeing to make no demands if not properly restored. The colt remained in his care for 10 days and is now quite well. Several eminent veterinary surgeons had declared a cure quite impractical.’

Street Lighting and Morality

Now that the churchyard limes have been pollarded the iron brackets attached to two of these trees have become more noticeable. In the days before electricity, oil lamps were attached to these and other brackets in the village to light the streets during the winter nights.

Monies given by voluntary subscriptions that was sometimes difficult to obtain covered the cost of paying to fill, light, and maintain these lamps. The Bury Post dated 31st October 1903 reported that during a meat tea at the Literary Institute in Walsham, Mr. W. Nunn said that he understood that the village streets were not going to be lit this winter that he thought was a disgrace. The Rev. Harrison thought that the village should be lighted from the points of morality and safety and undertook to form a committee to collect the money needed. On 14th November 1903 the Reverend arranged a meeting for those interested in lighting the streets. Only a few turned up but J. Gill, H.Nunn, G. Jollye, H.Clarke, and G. Sawyer were elected and at once proceeded to ask for subscriptions and arrange lighting for Walsham’s streets during the dark winter nights.

James Turner

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