Notes from the plague years 1603, 1605 & 1607

Early modern letters contain frequent mentions to illness and contagious diseases. Four hundred years ago, the plague was a recurring, er, pestilence. When it hit London, those who were able to do so left the city for the relative safety of the countryside. Such temporary evacuees included Shakespeare’s acting company – but also most of the nobility, and the royal court.

The current coronavirus pandemic is making me think of references to the plague in letters that I’ve edited written by English merchant Richard Cocks (1566-1624). In the early 1600s, Cocks lived in Bayonne in southern France, near the Spanish border. For some five-six years, he was involved with Sir Robert Cecil’s intelligence and correspondence network, forwarding packets of letters from the English ambassador in Spain to London, and also writing letters to erstwhile intelligencer and Cecil’s secretary, Thomas Wilson (1565-1629). Wilson later became Keeper of State Papers at Whitehall, and much of his own papers ended up in the British State Papers. Among them are about 100 letters from Cocks to Wilson, now mostly held at TNA among the State Papers Foreign, France (SP 94).

Cocks writes about the plague in nine letters to Wilson from 1603–1607. Almost all of the mentions have something to do with the practicalities of sending letters between Bayonne and London.

The earliest mention is from late 1603:

I haue writton yow dyvers others sence I receved any answer of the Recept of them wch I doe attribute to the Sicknes in the Cyttie of London : wch hath Caused yow to retyre yor Selfe into the Cuntrey / […] / I beseek god of his mercy to Cease the sicknes in London. (27 October 1603, SP 94/9 ff. 79-80)

In 1603, the plague reached London in March, but the disease took until June to start claiming dozens of lives weekly. By the end of July, over a thousand people a week were dying of the plague; the peak was reached in early September (3,037 deaths from the plague), after which the numbers slowly decreased, although the pestilence was still very much present in December. (Source)

Such disturbances of normality of course affected all activities, including the carriage of mail. Cocks’s next mentions of the plague date from 1605, and all have to do with the disease playing havoc in Bordeaux.

Alsoe it is said the sicknes is very hotte at Bourdeaulx soe that non wch com from thence may be suffered to enter into this towne of Bayon / (14 July 1605, CP 111/119)

it is said that the sicknes is very hott in Bourdeaulx / (25 July 1605, SP 94/11 ff. 176-177)

The plague had hit Bordeaux in 1604 and lingered until 1606; to cope, the city even established le bureau de la santé. Although the epidemic of 1629–1630 was much greater, even in 1605 much of the city was quarantined and the gates strictly guarded (source). To prevent or at least to obstruct the spreading of the pestilence, other cities also guarded their gates with equal vigilance – cities like Bayonne, as Cocks reported in the fall:

I am sorry that they of Bayon had soe small respect of Ser wm. Cornwallis for they would not suffer hym to pas thorow the towne wthout makinge any stay at all soe that he was forsed to goe downe allmost to the barr of Bayon and soe to passe alonge the sand hills wch was the occation that he could not aryve at StJnodeluz vntill wthin night, soe that yf it had not byn his Chanse to haue met wth me he would haue byn but badly lodged / the occation they would not let hym pas thorow Bayon is for that he came by Bourdeaulx in wch place the plage is very hott, & as it is said doth increse eavery day / soe that heare is very strickt ward kept that non may enter into the towne that cometh from those parts . nether haue parmition of 40 dayes after they present ther request allthough it weare a presedent of Bourdeaulx / (31 August 1605, SP 94/11 ff. 232-233)

Sir William Cornwallis was the son of the English ambassador to Spain, Sir Charles Cornwallis, and was making his way down to Spain over land. Cocks met him by chance in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a small town down the coast from Bayonne, very close to the Spanish border. Note how the quarantine he mentions is indeed 40 days!

As before, the plague made the carriage of mail even more precarious than it already was:

I know not what else to writ yow. but yf any matter of Emportance be offered yow shall heare from me by the first, but yow must not mar{vel} yf it be not soe often as yow exspect, for passedg per Sea is not every day at pleasure / & that wch is a great hinderance is the sicknes at Bourdeaulx for now it is soe hott . that ther is noe conveance of lettrs per that way / nether per consequence per Rochell /. (7 September 1605, CP 112/60)

yf yow haue not receved soe many letters from me as yow haue expected, truly the falt is not in me for I haue not wanted to writ per all conveances / but the way of france is now soe dangerose, that I haue noe mynde to meddell that way . & the rather because of the Sicknes in bourdeaulx . wch is more hote then ever / & yow. know that conveances per Sea are somtyms quick & somtyms longe / (2 November 1605, SP 94/12 ff. 92-93)

Bordeaux was of course an important stage on the post routes, and its closure effectively cut off overland conveyance of mail. At the same time, Cocks in many letters is careful to note how, plague or no plague, conveyance over sea is always uncertain.

By late 1605, the plague had spread to Spain – where it met a tabardillo, a type of typhus, coming the other way:

And it is generally reported heare . that the plage is in Bilbo . Allaredo & those parts of Spaine / and that the Tabardillõ is very hott at valladolid / soe that heare is such strickt lookinge vnto passingers from what part soever the com / that the may not be Suffered to enter into the towne /. and to say the trewth they haue reason , for yf the sicknes should once enter into the towne , it would quyt vndon them / (23 & 25 October 1605, SP 94/12 ff. 84-85)

The next time Cocks mentions the plague are from 1607. Once again, the disease has hit Bordeaux; once again, it is “very hott”. And once again, isolation, border control and quarantine are the methods used to try to control the situation:

Alsoe it is said that the sicknes abegyneth very hott at bourdeaulx /. & amongst the rest a monestary infected & shut vp / soe now the post is remoued downe to the Nunrye at St barnardes . & gardes set that non wch com from bourdeaulx may pase thorow this towne, it is said alsoe that the sicknes is in other places in france / soe it is proclemed by Sownde of Trompet that noe fayre shalbe kept in this place this yeare / (7 August 1607, SP 94/14 ff. 97-98)

But at present the Sicknes is soe hott at bourdeaulx . that noe man that Cometh from those partes may be Suffered to enter into this towne / for as it is said ther weare now of Late aboue 100 howses enfected & shut vp in the Space of one wicke / (20 August 1607, SP 94/14 ff. 109-111 & 113)

This time, Cocks also mentions proclamations made to the “Sownde of Trompet” cancelling any fairs scheduled for the rest of the year. Apart from the trumpets, this sounds very familiar today, as increasingly the corona virus is driving authorities to both cancel mass events, and close places of gathering.

Until, that is, the heat dissipates, and the epidemic passes.

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