In this very difficult time of the coronavirus pandemic I recalled again the story of an English village named Eyam. Eyam is in Derbyshire and my wife and I visited it while on a long camping holiday around Britain in 1975. My Willson ancestors came from the area around Hope, in the same county. I read again the story in a volume of ‘The King’s England’.
In September 1665, during the reign of Charles II, the bubonic plague had broken out in London and thousands were dying. Samuel Pepys gives a vivid account of it in his diary. The eleven volumes of the famous diary, with accounts both of the Plague and the Great Fire, rest on my library shelves.
The Deadly Infection
That month a box arrived in Eyam from London with cloth and old clothes. That box carried the deadly infection. The first victim was the journeyman (carrier), who had opened the box. He was dead within four days. By the end of that month five more people had perished.
For more than a year the pestilence raged in Eyam. Within a year 259 out of 350 villagers had died, as well as 58 children.
But it is how the village responded to that frightful ordeal that makes it famous to this day. It was not only a place of grief and despair but also a place of quiet heroism.
The Church of England parish priest, William Mompesson, his wife Catherine, and another clergyman living in the village, set themselves to isolate the village from the outside world and so to contain the infection. With a stick they drew a line around the village and everyone swore not to cross it.
They arranged for food supplies to be brought from the outside world and left at places on the boundary. They left coins to pay for these supplies, each coin being carefully washed before being taken away.
Deaths became so frequent that the church bell ceased to toll and there was no room in the graveyard. In August 1666 Catherine Mompesson, wife of the Rector, died and was buried in the churchyard. A yew tree now marks her grave.
The heroic sacrifice of Eyam was not in vain. The infection of the plague did not spread to neighbouring villages around Derbyshire. My Willson ancestors, and many others, may possibly have owed their lives to the sacrifice and courage of Eyam.
Reminders of the past
We visited the Parish Church on a beautiful summer day. The quiet beauty of the place today seems to be a world away from the horrors of the plague three hundred and fifty years ago.Much of the ancient medieval church was later restored and sadly the old furniture was scattered. But there are many reminders of the heroism of the village. I remember seeing a beautiful book on display listing the names of every recorded villager in Eyam, those who died and those who survived. Visitors may see an ancient oak chair carved with the Rector’s name ‘Mom, 1665’. It is said to have been rescued from a dealer’s shop in Liverpool where it had been discarded as junk.
I remember seeing the ‘leper’s squint’ dating from the Middle Ages. A leper would be totally isolated and forced to ring a bell and cry ‘unclean’ to warn anyone not to approach him or her. But he was allowed to crouch against the outside wall of the church and view the Mass being celebrated on the altar through a hole called the leper’s squint.
The 2020 plague
In 2020 the world is struggling to cope with a coronavirus pandemic, a new plague like the bubonic plague or leprosy, and many have died while scientists desperately struggle to find a vaccine. In the 17th century there was no knowledge of a vaccine but the people of Eyam coped with their ordeal just as we are being asked to do. They kept themselves isolated to protect the people of other villages and many paid for it with their lives.
Our Blessed Lord said, as recorded in John 15: 13, ‘There is no greater love than this: that someone should lay down his life for his friends’.
by Robert Willson