How Croydon’s pandemic priests survived the Black Death

MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: Coronavirus is not the first pandemic that priests have had to cope with while ministering to the congregation at Croydon’s Parish Church, which has a history going back a thousand years.

Croydon Minster has had to deal with plague and pestilence before

The year is 1348. King Edward III is 21 years into his long reign as monarch.

Gonville Hall, the forerunner of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge, is founded in this year.

Two Parliaments are called. The first one took place in the January and February, the second in April. That second one was the last Parliament to sit until February 1351.

A year that began normally was completely changed by a pandemic. Sound familiar?

In 1348, the Black Death arrived in England, probably carried by an infected sailor arriving at the port of Melcombe, modern day Weymouth. By the November of that year the disease – what we know now as Bubonic Plague – had reached London, with devastating effect. The whole of society and the routines of daily life were turned upside down.

14th Century church art is dominated by death and funerals

The dreadful disease even brought a temporary truce to the Hundred Year War between England and France.

Pope Clement VI had to issue a Papal Bull protecting the Jewish population in Europe against attacks during the pandemic. And in that year, history tells us, John of Tonford was the Rector of Croydon.

1348 was a difficult time for everybody. The king and his wife, Philippa of Hainault, lose their 14-year-old daughter, Princess Joan, to the disease. She dies in France on the way to Spain to marry Pedro of Castile. She is buried in Bayonne Cathedral. A small bronze statuette of her, called a weeper, can still be seen today on the side of her father’s tomb in Westminster Abbey.

Two of her brothers, royal princes Thomas and William, both aged under two, died that year as well. As many as 2 million people in this country may have died. Whole villages and small towns were abandoned with no one left to work the fields or do the work necessary for a thriving medieval community.

Croydon would have suffered along with everywhere else. Those infected with the plague first developed black swellings in the armpit and groin. Later, dark marks appeared on the skin as a result of internal bleeding. A high fever, with a vomiting of blood, accompanied these symptoms. Death often came swiftly, if not painlessly.

Edward III’s tomb at Westminster. Three of his children died from the Black Death

A contemporary chronicle written at the Cathedral Priory at Rochester, and now held in the British Library, describes the devastating effects of the pandemic on its local population: “A great mortality… Destroyed more than a third of the men, women and children. As a result, there was such a shortage of servants, craftsmen and workmen, of agricultural labourers, that a great many lords and people, although well-endowed with goods and possessions, were yet without service and attendance.

“Alas, this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves, from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard.”

Survivors turned down jobs. Examples can be found where they would only work for triple the normal, pre-plague wages. Because of the doles handed out at funerals, those who once had to work now began to have time on their hands and some money in their pocket.

As a result, churchmen, knights and other wealthy folk were forced to thresh their own corn, plough their fields and perform every task themselves in order to make their own bread.

It may be because of all the upheaval with the pandemic, it may be that not very much happened during his tenure in the rector’s post, but John of Tonford doesn’t appear to have left much of a mark in Croydon.

This hadn’t been the case for his predecessor. Richard de Bury became the Bishop of Durham. He was a patron of learning, wrote a book entitled Philobiblon and was among the first to build a substantial library.

Richard de Bury, the rector of Croydon, was an author and patron of learning

His successor, John, might not even have come to Croydon. Absentee rectors were not uncommon in those days as men of the cloth could have oversight of multiple churches. He could have organised the daily running of the church remotely, by sending messages by horseback (holding Zoom services was still some way off).

We know that John of Tonford was rector in 1348 because the Archbishop of Canterbury’s registers show that he presented John de Horstede to the Croydon Vicarage in that year. Croydon was such an important church that it had both a rector and a vicar. The latter was the one who carried out the day-to-day work.

We don’t know exactly when John began his tenure. We do not know, either, when it ended. We do know, however, that his successor, William de Leighton, was collated into the post in January 1351.

Our pandemic priest John probably came from Tonford in Kent, on the river Stour just south of Canterbury. There was an old Friary there, on the site of which there was later built a manor house. The ford part of the name is to do with the shallow crossing of the river at that point. Many, many years later the Kent artist Thomas Sidney Cooper, during the Victorian era, painted this ford in an idyllic country scene entitled “Banks of the Stour, Tonford, with cattle.

Archive material also shows that there was a Priory at Canterbury in the mid-1300s. The prioress who was elected in 1356 was Cecily de Tonford. She resigned in 1366.

The only other reference to Croydon in the records of the Archbishop of Canterbury of the time reveals there a redistribution of the income received by the Croydon church while John was in post. At that time, when there was both a Rectory and a Vicarage, the Archbishop’s decision clarified who got what in terms of rents and tithes. The rector, John, was to receive all the great tithes within the parish. That refers to corn, hay, falls of wood and timber cut within the parish, among a very long list of other tithes.

However, the Rector had to pay for any repairs to the walls or roof of the chancel of the church himself.

The pandemic not only affected John’s time as rector. It also impacted on the selection process for his successor. The new rector of Croydon, William de Leghton, is listed as being collated into the Croydon church by Archbishop Islip on January 12 1351.

Significantly, he is the only person on the list of rectors to be described as a sub-deacon.

Back in the 14th century, a churchman described in this way would only have taken minor orders. It meant that you had the tonsure, the special haircut, and all the protections of clerical status but had yet to take full orders and thus lead the Eucharist, the giving of holy communion.

Given that the position of rector of medieval Croydon was an important one in terms of income and status, it is surprising that someone should be appointed who was not fully qualified. One explanation could be that there was a lack of clergy to go round. Many priests died in the Black Death. Visiting the sick and administering the last rites to dying parishioners made the priests vulnerable to infection themselves.

St George’s, Ivychurch, known as ‘the Cathedral of Romney Marsh’

In March 1352, William was collated to another rectory in the Canterbury Diocese by Archbishop Islip. This time it was at St George’s, Ivychurch, on Romney Marsh. The simple entry in the church records here lists him as rector, with no mention of him being a sub-deacon.

This could mean that he completed his holy orders within the year of being appointed to Croydon. St George’s is an impressive building, built in the 13th century, now known as the “Cathedral of Romney Marsh.”

William de Leghton’s name can be found, too, in Maidstone in Kent. In 1357 he is appointed as the master of the Hospital of St Peter and St Paul, known as “le Newerk de Maydeston”. Originally, this was a place of shelter set-up by Archbishop Boniface. The exact date of its opening is unclear, but it would have been in the middle of the 13th century. This was a place of shelter for poor folk, including lepers.

It had accommodation for 12 people with the Master resident on site. Each person living there was given a daily allowance of bread, beer and a “daily dish of pittance”, the original meaning of the word “pittance”, referring here to a small dish of food.

In a time of pandemic, then as now, people were out to survive, the best way that they could. In 1348, many saw the pestilence as an Act of God. Today we look at it more scientifically, but it doesn’t stop fear, concern or uncertainty. Prayer remains a comfort for many today, just as it would have been in the time of the pandemic priests.

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1 Response to How Croydon’s pandemic priests survived the Black Death

  1. Lewis White says:

    A fascinating account by David. Thank you.

    The loss of 1/3 of the population before Black Death ended puts the term “herd immunity” in the modern debate around the current covid pandemic into a frightening perspective. Let’s hope the vaccines not available in 1348 but available to us prove to work on Covid.

    What a huge shame that Croydon’s proximity to London resulted in the area round the Minster, once water meadows graced with crystalline springs, and a stripling River Wandle full of minnows and trout, eventually falling foul (llterally) to industry, with the ponds being filled with obnoxious effluents from tanning and town rubbish, and that the nearby Old Palace was (understandably) abandoned by the Archbishops in favour of the wholesome airs of the sandy Shirley Hills and chalky downlands surrounding their new palace at Addington Palace.

    The Victorian Old Town and in our own times, the Roman Way dual carriageway and flyover have buried the now polluted, culverted Wandle stream under metres of concrete and tarmac.

    It would take a massive investment of money to pipe the contents of the culvert to a treatment facility, and the removal of Roman Way, to provide finance and space to restore the Wandle in a natural bed, and its springs to flow clean again. Tickling for trout near the Salvation Army in Old Town, or fly-fishing from the Minster steps sadly remain an unlikely prospect for a hundred or so more years.

    What another shame –that no-one ever set up a Croydon University back in the 1350’s day.
    No-one even funded a “Croydon College” at Oxford or Cambridge. William de Merton set up a college at Oxford in 1264, maybe a partial “pre-compensation” for Merton itself later losing its Priory when it was sacked by King Henry VIII in 1538.

    No such luck for Croydon. No Oxford College.

    However, looking on the bright side, Croydon’s Old Palace was rescued, along with its Medieval Hall, and is now an excellent school. We also have a Minster. But no University.

    Will “University Challenge” ever find a home in a post-Covid Croydon future ? One would like to think so.

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