The Puritans and the Plague

The diary of Robert Woodforde (1606-54) tells in considerable detail of the activities of the Puritan community in Northamptonshire during the outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the seventeenth century.

There were food shortages and the cancellation of events including the courts;  but the puritans continued to go to church, many hundreds squeezing into All Saints, Northampton for every service which could last three hours or more.

Robert was a member of that congregation.  His diary for 1637-1641 has survived.

For almost five months from the autumn of 1637, the congregation at All Saint's had been in conflict with the two Diocesan commissioners appointed by the Bishop of Peterborough.

There was a strong tradition of puritan defiance at All Saints.  The Canons of 1603 had struck at the very heart of puritan belief by requiring that the Communion Table be placed at the east end of the chancel of the church in the position occupied by the altar.   In pre-reformation times the original stone altar at All Saints had in 1550 been replaced by a wooden table, situated in the body of the church, but the episcopal commissioners had demanded that the table should be moved back to the chancel.

During this conflict, the vicar of All Saints, the Revd Thomas Ball had been summoned before the commissioners and admonished by them on several matters.   In addition, the churchwardens had repeatedly refused to carry out the wishes of the commissioners and, as a result, had been excommunicated.

Finally, the congregation appeared to accede to the commissioners' instructions and on 16 March 1637/8 the work on installing the Communion Table in its approved place was almost complete.  Rails had been erected around it and the seats immediately in front of the table had been cleared away.  It seemed that at last the puritan community of All Saints had conceded defeat; but on that same day an `Act of God' reached Northampton which was to affect every individual and every family in the town and would, perversely, enable the puritans to continue to disobey the episcopal commissioners.   These two events - the installation of the new chancel rails and an outbreak of the plague - are reported in the same brief entry in the diary of Robert Woodforde:-

The rayle in the chancell is now almost up, and its confidently reported that the sicknesse is in towne. Oh Lord p(re)vent it or heale it if it be thy will, if not I pray thee give us to see the rod & him that smiteth with it.
Robert Woodforde was born in the Northamptonshire village of Old (or Wold) and baptised there on 6 April 1606.  His family appears to be descended from the Woodford family of Leicester and Leicestershire, as several generations in Northamptonshire bore the same arms as that family.  His mother, Jane Dexter, was a daughter of the lord of one of the two manors in Old, and the parish register of Old indicates that both families had been in the parish for at least four generations.

Robert had married Hannah Haunch, the daughter of a London gentleman, on 22 January 1637/38.  He was educated at Brixworth ans trained in London as a lawyer.  He was appointed Steward of Northampton in 1634 after agreeing to pay a pension to his predecessor.  At the time of the outbreak of the plague they were living with their two young sons, in the town of Northampton.  On 23 March 1637/38, Robert was able to confirm his suspicion that the plague had again broken out in Northampton, and in his diary he expressed the community's fears for the first time:-

Its certeynely reported that the siknes isv in the towne. I have besought the Lord to p(re)vent the spreadyinge of it if it be his will. Els in his mercye to dispose of me and my family to a hidinge place, & to sanctifyethe siknes to us.

Only three days after this entry the first deaths in the town were being attributed to the plague. There was also the suggestion that public gatherings such as fairs, where large numbers of people met with travellers from other towns, should now be avoided in order to reduce the risk of spreading the infection:-

The fair is here to day. One is dead to night its thought he dyed of the sikness, 4 have dyed out of Dannt's house, Lord looke uppon us in mercye for the Lord's sake.

In the months that were to follow, most public gatherings, including the fairs and the courts in Northampton and the surrounding villages were to dwindle or close because of the epidemic. However, it is significant that religious meetings apparently continued uninterrupted at All Saints, despite these services and lectures representing possibly the largest gathering together of people anywhere in the county.

Dr Samuel Clarke, one of the two Diocesan commissioners, wrote to the Dean of Arches on 17 June 1638 about the activity of the congregation at All Saints.  The tone of the communication is more personal than formal and hints at a genuine fear and perhaps even a feeling of defeat.  It reveals Clarke's obvious concern that the services were continuing at All Saints, and his evident exasperation that the puritan congregation were by then using the outbreak of the plague as an opportunity to disobey the commissioners' instructions regarding the Communion Table:-

The sickness is sore at Northampton. They now do what they like in the churchservice at All Saints. Some very lately cut down the rail or chancel that was about the Lord's board in pieces, and brought down the Lord's table into the middle of the chancel. I long since advised the Mayor and his brethren that the Thursday lecture and sermons on Sunday in the afternoon should be forborne in these infectious times. They then raised a report of me that I was about to starve their souls.

Such was the charismatic appeal of the ministry of the Revd Thomas Ball that many hundreds of people apparently attended regularly his Sunday sermons and Thursday lectures even during the plague year when being present at any public events must have meant a greatly increased risk of infection.  A report written by a layman who attended All Saints at that time (and who was obviously not in sympathy with the excesses of the puritans' actions) provides an indication of the high level of church attendance during the outbreak of the plague:-

At (that) sermon there were 800 and there are no fewer than 500 or 600 every lecture on Thursday, ... when the sermon begins, there is such a flocking into the church, where they unreverently squat down in their seats ...

If these figures are accurate it would seem probable that the meetings and lectures at All Saints brought worshippers from other parishes and from villages outside the town They present a stark contrast with contemporary reports of poor attendance at church.   Only a few years earlier, the future Archbishop Abbot had complained that, even in times of famine, few came to church "and these so carelessly and sleepily that they can scarcely be called present at all."

The constant movement of people from the rural areas surrounding Northampton into the town, twice weekly, often remaining to dine in the town with members of the congregation, must have assisted in the extension of the infection beyond the town's walls.   Ironically, It would seem that the puritans' faith and their belief that they would be protected from the plague `if it was God's will' aided the extension of the outbreak beyond the limits of the town.  Given the deteriorating condition of the church building and the various unsavoury activities which the Commissioners had reported as taking place within its precincts, it would seem very likely that those who continued to attend the services at All Saints were at a higher risk of infection:-

The churchyard is basely defiled w(i)th excrements and it appeares that there is usuall evacuatinge ag(ains)t the church walls at the doores and at the most eminent ends and frontispieces thereof.

By the end of March, the epidemic was a major subject of concern and debate within Northampton and the surrounding area.  Robert Woodforde noted on 30 March 1638 that whilst walking towards Kingsthorpe with fellow puritans Samuel Martin and Matthew Watts they discussed the `present Calamityes' and the state of the town `now in regard of the siknes feared.'.

The first official response to the epidemic is recorded by Woodforde on 3 April 1638 when the Northampton Court was adjourned and moved to Kettering because of fear of infection.   Woodforde himself travelled on foot to Kettering to attend the Court as Steward, and whilst lodging in Kettering on 5 April 1638 he received a letter from his wife:-

I wrote to and received a letter from my wife
I heare that the siknesse is at a
house near unto mine ... by the great Conduit

if it be his will.
but the Lord p(re)vented it with the sicknesse.

The diarist also uses the Old Testament metaphor of the Night of the Passover to show his belief that the plague had been divinely initiated:-

Another one died in Washington's house to day.
Oh Lord command thy destroyinge Angell to

abhomnacons that are amongst us.

On the very next day, an exodus took place from Northampton as Robert despatched his two young children to London, away from the danger of infection.   Samuel aged two years and John aged eight months travelled in wicker baskets attached to the horses.  The family's trusted friends Goodman Lamport and Goodman Wright led the way.  The diarist's wife, Hannah, accompanied them as far as the town boundary to say farewell to her children:-

I prayed and my wife & I went alonge with
our Children about as farre as ...pton windmill;
I humbly cast & committed them to the
p(ro)vidence of the Lord.

There is an apparent conflict in the way in Robert Woodforde and the congregation of All Saints as a whole viewed the plague.  The frequent appeals to God within the diary suggests that the author believed in the possibility of Divine intervention; but in despatching his family away from the centre of the outbreak, Woodforde obviously believed that the future for him and his family was not pre-destined, and that human action could enable his family to escape infection.  Yet the congregation continued to crowd into their decaying church.  Each week, these worshippers would have noted the absence of friends and even entire families as the plague spread, and yet they continued to be drawn together, either by their profound faith in the `will of God' or by the charismatic appeal of the ministry of Thomas Ball.

Many more deaths occurred in Northampton during the following week and the St George's Fair which took place in the town on 23 April is described by Woodforde as `nothinge great by reason of the sicknesse.  Robert Woodforde travelled to London prior to Whitsun week and returned towards Northamptonshire on Tuesday 15 May 1638.   At Wellingborough he heard `ill newes of the sicknesse' affecting his home village of Old, about ten miles north of the town.   On the following day he heard of the death of an old woman of his acquaintance in the same village, and this sad and personal loss prompted Woodforde to express, in his private writings, his fear of being infected:-

I have heard lately that old good wife Arnold
is dead at old. The sicknesse is somewhat
dangerous there.... I was wonderfull
sleepy in the afternoone with a stupid sleepnesse
that I was much afrayd.
I am now at Wilbye & am in great distresse
through feare of beinge sick for I feele myselfe very aguish & feverish & know not what.

This infection proved not to be the plague and Woodforde was recovered in time to attend the Sessions at Wellingborough on 22 May where they were being held because of the intensity of the sickness in Northampton.  At these Sessions it was agreed that a weekly allowance of £100 over and above the existing payment of £47 6s 8d was to be paid to the towne for the relief of the poor for the duration of the epidemic, this money to be raised by a levy on those who lived in villages within five miles of Northampton.  It was noted by Woodforde that the Diocesan commissioners, Sibthorpe and Clarke, were amongst those who supported the motion.

Gradually, the diarist's every action was affected by the fear of infection.  When, for instance, he was about to enter the shop of Mrs Crick in the town - a puritan member of the congregation at All Saints - a friend warned him that there was someone sick inside.  Later, he was concerned that his wife had eaten food which he thought had come from `out of the chamber of the sick'.  With their maid Temperance, Robert and Hannah then prayed that the Lord would be `a wall of fire about us', and when he travelled to Long Buckby to visit his close friend Mr Bacon, Woodforde warned him that he had recently been in Northampton and could therefore be infected.   On that evening he prayed earnestly `though destractedly' because he had so much fear of infection.

Some weeks later he was to return to the house to lodge overnight only to find that Bacon's daughter was infected with smallpox instead.  It is clear from the diarist's personal observations that the symptoms of the plague were generally not confused by the community with the other infections prevalent at that time.  Woodforde notes that although "the sicknesse at a very low ebbe" in London, many are dying there of smallpox and the city is very full of people because of the large numbers of country-dwellers who had travelled into London to avoid the infection in the countryside. 

Some weeks later whilst Woodforde was lodging in the strongly puritan parish of Easton Maudit he visited a family in the nearby hamlet of Grendon, finding there that the children of the Allen family "hath lately had the measles". This realisation, that he was stumbling from one risk of infection to another, triggered a night of deep fear and depression and prompted the diarist to pour out his fears in a long four-page entry in the diary:

I and my family are complled to flee from
our habitacon, my selfe in one place, my wife
in another, & my wife is now neare unto the
see it (sub)servient to anguish & infirmity.

Robert was 32 years old at the time of this entry.  Whilst in London, Woodforde and his father-in-law attempted to contact other Northamptonshire men who were in the capital "to entreat their liberality to distressed Northampton".   It is recorded that Sir Paul Pynder gave £50 and that another group raised £70 from various contributions.   The diarist failed to find a courier who was willing to carry the money back to Northampton and was forced to carry it there himself.  Although it appears that he travelled frequently, and often undertook the journey to London through Dunstable, St Albans and Islington, there is a heightened sense of danger in Woodforde's account of his journeys at the time of the epidemic suggesting that the plague was causing suffering and hunger even amongst those not infected by reason of there being less food available in the markets, fairs and shops.   Consequently, there was more lawlessness on the highways as people in search of sustenance fought and robbed travellers.  Despite some earlier reports of a lull in the sickness, the number of people dying in Northampton continued to rise during the summer of 1637.   Forty-two people died in the town during the third week in July according to the diary, and the names of those known to the diarist are noted.   They included Nicholas Shritch and his wife, Goodwife Nelson and all her children, Arthur Hutton, Mrs Foster and Mr Watts. The community was being decimated.  At the same time the smallpox epidemic also continued to spread towards the South Midlands so that on Sunday 24 July Woodforde was compelled to write:-

Keepe me and (my family) from infecon in these
contagious times, the small pox doe wonderfully increase yet thou art able to defend & preserve.  The sickness rageth exceedingly in Northampton.

In the first week of August, Woodforde recorded that about twenty-five more people had died in the town and the fair which would have been held in Northampton on 15 August did not take place because of the fear of infection.   In the first week of September the figure recorded is twenty people.  In the third week of September, Woodforde heard of only two deaths attributable to the plague but as late as the first week of November, the infection was breaking out in fresh houses and appeared to be increasing again.

Finally, on 15 February 1638/39, the epidemic appears to have burnt itself out.  It had lasted almost a year.  For the greater part of that time Robert, Hannah and their children had lived away from the town.   The diarist now saw the plague as an act of God, punishing the nation for its corruption and wickedness.  After almost every reference to the epidemic, he adds the prayer:

Lord stay thy hand at Northampton if it be thy will.

Again, there is the allusion to the Old Testament narrative of the Angel of Death passing through the land and smiting the wicked.  Yet in the biblical narrative, the Children of Israel had stayed indoors, within their own homes and with their families; in Northampton they had gathered within their church.

In the years after this outbreak of the plague Robert continued to live in Northampton with his family and to work as Steward.  He died in 1654 and his burial is recorded in the register for All Saints, Northampton on 17 November 1654 as 'under-sheriff'.  He lived long enough to see the Revd Thomas Ball survive a summons to the Star Chamber in 1640.  He witnessed the commencement of the Long Parliament in the same year and the impeachment and execution of Laud in 1645.   No doubt he would also have heard that the Diocesan commissioner Sibthorpe had been deprived of his living at Burton Latimer in 1646, and he was, of course, alive at the time of the execution of Charles I in 1649.

The church of All Saints in Northampton, the focus of puritan activity for so many years, was almost totally destroyed in the great fire of Northampton in 1675.

Hannah Woodforde was thirty-seven years old at the time of her husband's death.  In time, she remarried and moved to a new life in London near to her own family's roots.