The Black Death in York

The Black Death

About the Author

York resident and regular contributor. Fascinated by this historic city and always keen to promote local, independent businesses. The man taking the photographs and tweeting from @Jorvik

York Pass

The Black Death, originally known as the Great Death, began in China in 1346 and swept across Europe in the 14th century killing millions, finally abating in 1350.

The plague, causing a dreadful and painful death, was a regular and horrific visitor to Britain – though never so virulent as that of the Black Death which affected many areas of England. In the summer of 1348 boats from the Continent carrying the disease entered ports such as Bristol and Weymouth. The Black Death spread rapidly in the South West and within three months Londoners were dying.

York could not escape the northwards onslaught, first succumbing to the Black Death in May 1349. The city was dealt a double blow when the plague spread from the River Humber, ravaging York during the summer of that year. The city lost over half its population of around 15,000; it is thought up to 10,000 may have succumbed to the fatal disease.

Closely built dwellings and crowded lodgings, little hygiene and no sanitation all furnished the plague’s spread. The River Ouse, then a dumping ground for all York’s effluent and rubbish, supplied water for use in the baking and brewing trades further fostering the rapid spread.

In the unfolding tragedy hardly was a family left untouched by the plague with many being totally wiped out. The young and the strong were often the hardest hit while the elderly and those more infirm were spared. The peasantry, labourers and artisans (of which York had in abundance), being the most numerous members of society, were respectively the most affected, also around half of all York’s parish priests perished in the outbreak.

The city’s extreme mortality rate led to its reliance for survival on incomers from the immediate countryside.  Historians have argued that York’s appalling death rate helped in a roundabout way to advance its prosperity. Evidence shows the number of craftsmen and traders made freemen of the city quadrupled from the usual figure of 50 per year by 1350-51, replacing the great numbers that had died.

The Roman city walls allowed for some quarantining though the numbers of victims still meant York’s churchyards soon reached overflow; consequently St. Oswald’s chapel and cemetery at Fulford were appropriated and dedicated to assist with burials. ‘Plague pits’ arose, signified by grassy mounds below the city walls – supposedly without disturbance since the interments, safeguarding against a possible resurrection of the killer disease.

Ralph Higden of Chester, the best known chronicler of the middle ages who travelled extensively over the north of England, reported ‘scarcely a tenth of mankind was left alive’. From his study of the Black Death the phrase ‘there were hardly enough living to care for the sick and bury the dead’ also recurs in several sources including a chronicle created at St Mary’s Abbey.

The plague re-visited York in 1361, 1369, 1375, 1378 and 1390 and, in 1604, 3,512 people died from it.

Leave a Comment