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Courage in a time of plague

By 1348 the city of Cambridge, sitting on the edges of the fenlands of East Anglia, had grown rich on the wool trade, one of the great engines of prosperity in Medieval Europe. Wool from East Anglia supplied the great weaving and textile industries of Flanders. The richest of all the town’s guilds was the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary, its wealth reflected in a significant quantity of portable wealth, especially silver plate.


However, in June 1348 the Black Death pandemic arrived in Britain. Originating in China, it spread along the trade routes to Europe and arrived in the British Isles by ship from the Angevin province of Gascony. The plague is said to have been spread by flea-infected rats, as well as individuals who had already been infected, but it spread up the British isles during 1348-49 at a rate almost faster than the speed of travel along rutted medieval roads, and during one of the coldest winters on record, suggesting that it was also airborne.  


As a new strain, the disease was extremely infectious, and the population had virtually no defence against it. Entering the lymphatic system, it caused swellings known as buboes, which gave birth to the term bubonic plague. After only 3-4 days the spleen and the lungs would start collapsing, resulting in an agonising death. An estimated 30-60% of the population died during the first surge of the disease between 1349 and 1352. That is perhaps as many as 3,750,000 fatalities in the British Isles alone. As with all diseases its incidence was sometimes unpredictable. Some towns and villages were wiped completely off the map, others fared rather better than the average. In the face of the pandemic all other political and economic priorities were put on pause. Edward III’s wars against the Scots and the Valois King of France were suspended, as was all work on the cathedrals of Ely and Exeter. The resulting shortage of workers, and the consequent increase in wages has been credited with killing off the feudal system and laying the basis for a wage economy.


The arrival of the Black Death was understandably also seen as presaging the end of the world. In the case of the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary we know that 92 of its aldermen died of the plague, most of its membership. It is difficult to even imagine the horror of the situation these individuals found themselves in. The world they had built was passing away before their eyes. Traumatised and isolated, still fearful for their own health, and for the health of their loved ones, they found themselves in charge of an organisation rich in silver plate, but almost without any people. However, William Horwood (Mayor and Justice of the Peace), Henry de Tangmere (Money lender and Goldsmith) and John Hardy (Guild Secretary and Stationer) did something that we might not expect, something unique in the history of Oxford and Cambridge. They took the wealth of the now defunct Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary and combined it with a new Guild of Corpus Christi, apparently established on purpose to receive legacies from individuals contemplating their own death from the plague. Its first behest came from Margaret Andreu (a brewer) who was dead within days of making her Will. By the end of 1350 the new Guild of Corpus Christi had nearly 200 members, some from as far afield as London, all apparently attracted by the idea of creating a legacy. In 1352 the new Guild formally absorbed the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary and reconstituted itself as the College of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The new College acquired all the lands, silver plate and revenues associated with the two guilds. Corpus remains the only Oxbridge college ever to be founded by townspeople rather than by wealthy or royal patrons, and it was to be the last college of any kind to be founded for 70 years.


Construction began immediately in 1352 on a single modest College court, near the parish church of St Benet’s. What is now ‘Old Court’ in Corpus Christi Cambridge remains the oldest college building still in residential use in Oxford and Cambridge. The late great scholar Dr Oliver Rackham also described the building in 2002 as perhaps ‘the only memorial to the Black Death’.

Oliver Rackham

Faced with the end of the world, and the death of most of their fellow aldermen, the survivors had founded a new college. How are we to interpret this? The medieval mind was imbued with deep religious sentiments which we may now find hard to comprehend. The Founders’ Prayer, recited annually until the Reformation, made clear that one of the most important tasks of the College was to pray for the souls of the dead. So, we should probably see the foundation of the College as, at least in part, an act of loss and commemoration. It should also be noted that the 22 fellows and students who made up the first academic body of the College, all male and sharing accommodation in the new court, would all have been students of theology, most destined for a life in the medieval church. But these facts should not diminish the significance of the founders’ act. The College was also about preserving learning and knowledge in a sea of death and despair, it was about creating an island of hope and faith in the middle of what appeared to be the general collapse of civilisation. It was an act of extraordinary courage.


As the world faces the new, and hopefully less deadly, COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, I have found myself reflecting on the foundation of Corpus Christi College, where I was lucky enough to study as an undergraduate in the 1980s, and even to live (during my final year) in the medieval court. In the face of social distancing, quarantines, and tens of thousands of deaths, especially amongst the elderly and BAME communities, it might be tempting to think that the arts, education and the life of the soul need to take a back seat for a while. I think that the actions of William Horwood, Henry de Tangmere and John Hardy suggest that in fact the opposite is true. The fragility and impermanence of our lives when faced with an existential threat means that, in the end, our search for meaning, truth and hope are in fact the only things that matter. Henry de Tangmere was to die in 1361, a victim of the second wave of the plague. There, but for the grace of God…

Graham Henderson

Posted on:Monday 17th August, 2020