Tag Archives: plague in Cambridge

In tempore pestis

Plague in 1532-3

Charles Creighton’s A History of Epidemics in England has a chapter on plague in the Tudor period. There was scarcely a year without an outbreak between 1511 and 1538. King Henry VIII’s restless travelling between royal houses was driven by his fear of plague and the English Sweat. The universities went in fear too. Local outbreaks in Cambridge in 1532 and Oxford in 1533 hit the universities hard.

According to the Annals of Cambridge, in 1532 the Fellows, Scholars, and Bachelors of St John’s College were absent ‘in Easter term, during which, for fear of the plague, they had dwelt in the country’. And some time during the 1532-3 financial year (financial years began, as did academic years, at Michaelmas on September 29), the town of Cambridge paid 5 shillings to ‘John Blonnfeld yoman of the Kyngs garde cummyng in massage to enquir whether that the plage reynyid in Cambrigge or no’. The answer was not recorded, but the King’s College accounts suggest that it did.

Two entries in the accounts record payments for people to go out and retrieve choristers, or at least young boys. Bowers (p 266) says in 1542 another boy similarly had to be retrieved, so this was not unheard of, nor necessarily entirely attributable to the plague. The first payment was ‘extra duty’ pay to a Chapel clerk called Malard:

Extract from ‘Feoda et Regarda’ for 1532-3 [KCAR/4/1/1/10]

Item solutum vjo die novembris malard clerico exeuns pro choristis  ij s

Also, paid on 6 November to Malard, clerk, going out for choristers   2 s

Whether Malard was recovering boys trying to escape home away from the plague, or having to recruit new choristers, is not clear.

It is interesting to speculate about the relationship of this Malard to a Mallard, not a member of the College, who was one of three supplementary payees for the 22 March exequies (for more on the exequies, see below).

Payments for exequies, for 22 March 1532-3 [KCAR/4/1/1/10]

This is the other occasion where a young boy had to be retrieved:

Extract from ‘Custus Equitantum’ for 1532-3 [KCAR/4/1/1/10]

Item solutum pro expencis hanckocson equitandi ad ware ultimo die Augusti pro puero faciente fugam        xx d

Also, paid for expenses for Hanckocson riding to Ware on the last day of August for the boy who fled          20 d

A news story published by Gonville and Caius College this past April notes that they locked their College gates in times of plague. We may  not have been quite so rigid in 1532, as the accounts note a payment to someone who brought the money from one of our Lincolnshire estates but – rather than being prohibited from entering, he chose not to enter College ‘for fear of the plague’.

Extract from ‘Expense Necessarie’ for 1532-3 [KCAR/4/1/1/10]

Item solutum xxvio die octobris pro expensis factis super R Robardes adducentem pecunias a Wylloughtun ad collegium & non audentem intrare ob metum pestis.  vj d

Also, paid on 26 October for expenses for R Robardes bringing money from Willoughton to college and not daring to come in for fear of the plague.  6 d

Another curious thing is that two horses were brought back from Norfolk, during the plague. There are plenty of entries for College horses being treated in this year – one, ‘vocati hyrishoby’ (‘called the Irish Hobby’ – the breed is now extinct), stayed at Babraham to recover for 3 days around 15 October – but there is no reason given for horses being at Norfolk, or whose need it was to bring them back during the plague, as noted in the extract below.

Extract from ‘Custus Stabuli’ for 1532-3 [KCAR/4/1/1/10]

Item solutum xxijo die octobris W. Rawlyns pro pabulo equino ij equorum redeuntis a norfolcia in tempore pestis per ij noctes                          xx d

Also, paid on 20 October to W. Rawlins for horse fodder for bringing back 2 horses from Norfolk during the plague, for 2 nights          20 d

Commons reimbursements

The news story cited above notes that in times of plague the members of Gonville and Caius took to the country, ‘without loss of stipend of other privileges’. This seems also to have been the case at King’s in 1532-3. The commons expenses record these reimbursements, and they are only recorded from September to December 1532 and April to June 1533, suggesting that the plague raged in Cambridge during Michaelmas term, improved with the dispersal of people from the urban area, and then got worse again when they returned, a situation with which we today are all too familiar.

Extract from commons expenses for Michaelmas 1532 [KCAR/4/1/1/10]

The above is from the commons expenses for Michaelmas 1532. It says:

In primis solui pro communis xxiijor sociorum & scholarium absentium ob metum pestis a vigilia Michaelis usque in 3m diem decembris videlicet per ix septimanas & dimidium ut patet per billam M Turges xj li viij s & pro communis ix sociorum absentium eodem tempore per viij septimanas [& dimidium] cuilibet xij d per septimanam iij li xvj s vj d Item pro communis iiijor sociorum absentium consimiliter per vij septimanas & dimidium 30 s Item pro communis ij sociorum et unius scholarium absentium eodem tempore per iiijor septimanas & dimidium xiij s vi d Et pro communis quinque sociorum absentium eodem tempore per quinque septimanas et dimidium xxvij s vj d Item pro communis iij sociorum et unius scholarium absentium eodem tempore per vj septimanas et dimidium xxvj s Et pro communis unius socii absentis consimiliter per iij septimanas et dimidium iij s vj d Et pro communis vij sociorum et iiijor scholarium absentium eodem tempore per unam septimanam et dimidium xvj s vj d  [Total:] xxj li ij s vj d

Which, translated, begins

First I paid out for commons for 24 Fellows and Scholars absent for fear of plague from the vigil of Michaelmas to 3 December, that is for 9 ½ weeks, as appears in the bill of M Turges [a bursar] £11 8s, and for commons for 9 Fellows absent at the time for 8 [½] weeks at 12d per week £3 16s 6d…

A similar list of reimbursements is recorded for 19 April to 18 June.

If we presume nobody is counted twice in any one term, that’s a total of 61 Fellows and Scholars who eventually evacuated for all or part of the 9 ½ weeks from 28 September to 3 December 1532, and 51 who evacuated from 19 April to 18 June, out of a possible maximum of 70. Most, if not all, were back in time to say the December exequies, or specified prayers (see below).

The chaplains, clerks and choristers were entitled to commons allowance under the statutes, but the accounts record no payments to these members, so either they did not evacuate or they were not reimbursed for it.

The saddest thing about the 1532-3 plague is that 3 choristers died. Roger Bowers lucidly explored the plague’s effects on the choir in his chapter in the Chapel 500th anniversary book, so we need only reproduce here the entries showing that two women were hired to bleach and oversee the choristers’ bedding during the plague, and then we paid for shrouds to bury 3 choristers:

Item solutum ijbus mulierculis per manus W. Byrlyngam pro lotione et supervisione supellectilium chorustarum in tempore pestis    iiij s j d

Item solutum pro iijbus lintheaminibus ad sepiliendum iij chorustas    iij s

Also, paid 2 women by the hand of W. Burlingham, for bleaching and overseeing the choristers’ bedding in the time of plague 4 s 1 d

Also, paid for 3 shrouds for burying 3 choristers 3 s

Extract from ‘Exhibitio Chorustarum’ for 1532-3 [KCAR/4/1/1/10]

The College at that time consisted of up to 70 Fellows and Scholars plus the Provost, 10 chaplains, 6 clerks (men in holy orders), 16 choristers and 16 servants. It’s not clear just how many of the adults in College died; perhaps their families took them home to bury. What is likely, from the head counts compiled c. 1900 (cat. no. KCHR/3/1/13/2), is that in 1532-3 there was about 30% turnover amongst the Fellows and Scholars, 40% among the chaplains and clerks (who seem to have been readily replaced), and possibly 100% amongst the choristers.


The accounts record payments to members for saying exequies, or prayers (it is probably more accurate to think of them as memorial services, possibly including music) for Henry VI and his parents as required by statute on nine specified dates. It appears that, during the plague, all of the required exequies were in fact observed. Low numbers at this time might reflect deaths, but might also reflect people who chose to stay away, shirk their duties and forgo their payments and commons reimbursement.

Exequy dates # Fellows & Scholars participating
(full complement: 70)
# Chaplains & Clerks participating
(full complement: 16)
# Choristers participating
(full complement: 16)
17 and 19 December, 3 January 57-61 14-15 10-12
22 March 59 13 2
21 May 31 14 0
20 June 47 14 5
15 and 31 August, 23 September 50-61 13-14 13-15
Table: Numbers of participants celebrating exequies during 1532-3

More questions than answers

The 1532-3 accounts raise various tantalising questions. For example, is it remarkable that so many workmen came from as far away as Royston, Bassingbourn and Luton to work on the new Choristers’ room and other repairs? Is it remarkable that the audit was held at Grantchester instead of in the College in 1532-3? Were there more widows being paid that year for wheat and horse food, than usual? Was it remarkable that we were buying wheat – weren’t our tenants supposed to supply it? Was it a hard winter – did we pay more for fuel, or buy more than usual (pro-rataed considering the evacuation)? Some of these might be answered with research in the existing accounts documents. Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, there is a gap of nearly 10 years in the accounts books around 1532 which complicates any such research.


Many thanks are extended to Michael Good for suggesting the blog, and for solving the ‘hyrishoby’ puzzle.


Bowers, Roger. ‘Chapel and Choir, Liturgy and Music, 1444-1644’ in King’s College Chapel 1515-2015: Art, Music and Religion in Cambridge; JM Massing and N Zeeman, eds (London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2014) pp 258-283.

Cooper, Charles Henry. Annals of Cambridge, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Warwick & Co, 1842) pp 346, 353-4.

Creighton, Charles. A History of Epidemics in Britain, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: CUP, 1891; https://www.gutenberg.org/files/42686/42686-h/42686-h.htm  accessed 19 October 2020) pp 293-7 and index for ‘London, plagues in’.