Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Penrith Under the Tudors: Vol. II of A New History of Penrith by Michael A. Mullett. Bookcase. £12.
A brass plate in St Andrews in Penrith seems to record the deaths from the plague in the town during the years 1597 and 1598. The figure of 2260 is truly appalling, far more than the probable population of the town at the time. And the deaths in other towns were equally horrific. Kendal buried 2500, Richmond 2200 and Carlisle 1196.
On the plate is a quotation from the book of Ezekiel in he Bible warning of the punishment for sin.
The figures differ markedly from those recorded by William Walleis, who was vicar of Penrith during those terrible years at the end of the sixteenth century. He recorded a total of 615 deaths in the fifteen months beginning in October, 1597.
The vicar’s first entry relating to the plague was of one “Andrew Hogson, a stranger” on 22 September, 1596. The first Penrith resident, Elizabeth daughter of John Railton, died some weeks later on 14 October. “The contagion appears to have invaded from the north-east, imported from Newcastle upon Tyne . . . Andrew Hogson, as a man on foot, may have been one of the thousands of desperate vagrants who illegally crowded the roads of Elizabethan England.”
The entry for Hogson’s death is followed by the ominous note: “Here begonne the Plague ( God punismet) in Penrith.”
By the summer of 1598 “Penrith had become a town whose business was death and Walleis was its undertaker.” There are no entries for ten days in June, 1598. Walleis’s wife had died on 30th May and his son on 14 June.
There was one death on Christmas Day, 1598, and one final death marked with the letter ‘P’ for plague on 6 January 1599. As a note in the records said: “Here ended the visitation.”
Elizabethan Penrith certainly suffered from the plague, but there is a difficulty in accounting for the discrepancy between the figures on the brass plate and those recorded in the parish records. The brass plate had taken its figure from an earlier plaque, with “crude and slovenly writing” which is first referred to a century after the plague itself. Professor Michael Mullett, noting the scriptural quotation, concludes that “the rhetoric . . . gave the numbers a moral meaning that, arguably, took precedence over their arithmetical exactitude”.
The sixteenth century had, in fact, been an era of increasing prosperity in Penrith. Cumberland became more fully integrated into the more centralised Tudor state and economy. “The Tudors pacified what had been a turbulent feudal society.” With the victory in the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542, there was no longer the need for an armed and trained citizenry. Gentry families like the Carletons, the Huttons, the Lowthers and the Whelpdales prospered and built their fine houses in the town. But there was also a new merchant class. Robert Bartram built a fine house at the heart of the town, opposite the parish church. The grammar school, founded in 1564, became “a beacon of classical and humanist, Latin-based culture in the town”. The old Catholic order was overcome and Penrith prospered as a Protestant town, loyal to the crown.
But the majority of the people, the lower orders of society, continued with a “cultural localism”. They were illiterate. They spoke in a dialect with Norse and Celtic elements. Their diet was of the local staples of oats and barley. However, Penrith, like the rest of Cumberland, was developing from being a marginal, regional outpost, to become an integrated part of the wider society.
The second volume of Michael Mullett’s History of Penrith, continues the story with the same impeccable scholarship and the same clear overview of a particular town caught up in the larger processes of history. Penrith is fortunate indeed in having such a fine historian tell its own very interesting history.