How Did the Black Death Spread in Britain?

In 1348, rumours circulated in Britain about a deadly disease engulfing Europe. Inevitably it wasn’t long before it arrived in England, but what actually caused it and how did it spread?

Where Did Plague Spread in Britain?

The plague arrived in South West England laying waste to the port of Bristol. This comes as little surprise as it was the largest port in the South West and had strong links with the rest of the world. In the Grey Friar’s Chronicle, it talks of a sailor who brought this pestilence with him and caused the town of Melcombe to become the first town in the country to become infected. From there the plague spread quickly. Soon it had hit London, which was ideal territory for the plague to spread; it was crowded, dirty and had dreadful sanitation.

map-plague

This Map shows the spread of the Black Death across Europe, Western Asia and North Africa in the late 14th century.

From there it moved into the North which prompted Scotland to try and take advantage of the weakened country. They invaded, but paid a heavy price. As their army retreated, they took the plague with them. The harsh Scottish winter held it up for some time, but not for long. In the spring it returned with renewed vigour.

What Disease was the Black Death?

There are a number of theories about what caused the disease, but the most prevalent is that it was down to a bacterium called Yersina pestis which was carried by fleas living on the back of rats. It is thought to have originated from the orient and was carried along the Silk Road by traders and Mongol armies.

Yersinia_pestis_fluorescent

A Yersina Pestis bacterium at 200x magnification.

However, some scientists argue that the evidence does not stack up. They suggest the symptoms described in historical accounts do not match the symptoms of modern day plague. Equally, bubonic plague, they argue, is relatively curable and even without treatment only kills around 60%. None of this, they say, ties in with what was seen in the middle ages.

How Did it Spread So Quickly?

Whatever the origins, there’s no doubt that the conditions in which most people lived played an enormous part in helping the disease to spread. Towns and cities were highly crowded, with poor sanitation. In London the Thames was heavily polluted, people lived in cramped conditions with sewage and filth in the street. Rats, ran rampant, leaving every opportunity for the virus to spread. Controlling the disease, therefore, was almost impossible.

the-triumph-of-death

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Buegel the Elder conveys the impact that the Black Death’s devastation had on the medieval imagination.

What Was Its Impact?

The first outbreak of plague in Britain lasted from 1348 to 1350, and the effects were catastrophic. As much as half of the population was wiped out, with some villages suffering nearly 100% death rates. Further outbreaks followed in 1361-64, 1368, 1371, 1373-75, 1890 and 1405 with each one inflicting catastrophic destruction. However, the effects went further than just the death toll and would in the end have a profound effect on the nature of British life and culture.

Further Reading:

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Tom is a freelance journalist who studied history at Essex University. His work can be found in many different publications focusing on business and politics.