No one is immune from the plague when it strikes England during the Medieval Ages not even royalty. In fact everyone suffers either directly or through the loss of someone close to them. The plague is said to have such a devastating impact when it first arrives in England that around a half of the population go on to lose their lives. In the process the fabric of society is torn apart as feudalism begins to disintegrate.
Even today it is still remembered in seemingly innocent rhymes like ‘ring a ring of roses’.
A pocket full of posies
We all fall down dead
A large part of the problem is that no one knows how to heal the victims. General medical ignorance and widespread desperation drive many to crazy cures. One option is to place a live hen next to the swelling to draw out the pestilence from the body. Then to aid recovery you drink a glass of your own urine twice a day. If that does not take your fancy than consider another alternative. It involves using a mixture of tree resin, roots of white lilies plus dried human excrement and then applying them to the places where the body is cut open. If that isn’t enough to kill you then you can always try drinking arsenic poison.
An early example of how the Black Death offered no favouritism occurs in early August, 1348 shortly after the plague has arrived in Europe. Joan, daughter of Edward III, is leaving England on a journey to be married to Pedro, the heir to the kingdom of Castile.
Everything appears to have been taken care of. She is accompanied by a heavily armed bodyguard. These included over a hundred English bowmen, some of them veterans of the Battle of Crecy 1346 (one of the most important battles of the Hundred Years' War).
They protect not only her but the large dowry she brings. It includes a huge red silk marriage bed and her trousseau (cloth and linen for her marriage) alone requires an entire ship. Joan's wedding dress itself is made with more than 150 meters of rakematiz (a thick silk fabric embroidered with strands of gold). This is an extremely rare and valuable commodity and helps illustrate her special status. In addition she also has a suit of red velvet, two sets of twenty four buttons made of silver gilt and enamel, five corsets woven with gold patterns of stars, crescents and diamonds and at least two elaborate dresses with an in built corset. Such is her ostentatiousness that she even travels with a luxurious portable chapel so she can enjoy Catholic services without having to use the local churches along the way to Castile in Bordeaux. So large is all of this retinue for the princess that it requires four whole English ships. They leave from Portsmouth and arrives at Bordeaux where a dumbstruck Mayor called Raymond de Bisquale greets them.
From Bordeaux to Castile should be straight forward but what Princess Joan does not know is that a Black Death plague is racing through Europe and sweeping aside all in its wake. In all probability as the pestilence has not been seen in England she probably knows nothing of it. Some say the Mayor immediately warns Joan and her companions about the danger of the Plague, but they don’t listen and proceed to settle in the royal castle overlooking the estuary of the Gironde.
It soon became apparent that a severe outbreak of a lethal disease is taking hold in Bordeaux but such is the ignorance of its potential lethalness the young princess and her advisors do not seek depart quickly enough. Very soon though she regrets her decision as she watches in horror as the members of her entourage begin falling sick and dying. On August 20th even Robert Bouchier, the main leader of the retinue and a tough veteran of the Battle of Crecy falls sick and dies.
A decision is taken to seek isolation and Joan, the 13 year old second daughter of King Edward III is moved, probably to a small village called Loremo where she remains for some time. However even here she can not escape the disease. Tragically for Edward his daughter suffers a violent and quick attack of the Black Death and dies on 2nd September 1348.
It is left to Andrew Ullford, a diplomatic lawyer who does not fall victim to the Plague to depart for England in October and to inform the King of what has occurred. The royal family are shocked even though by now with the spread of disease across the English Isles they are aware of its devastating mortal destruction.
Her dramatic and sudden death sends shock waves across the country. Not only is she one of the earliest english victims of the Plague, but her death disproves the idea that royalty will be spared by God. King Edward III expresses his feelings in a letter he sends to King Alfonso of Castile on October 15, 1348. With regret he ends the marriage arrangements and describes writes ‘but see, with what intense bitterness of heart we have to tell you this, destructive Death (who seizes young and old alike, sparing no one and reducing rich and poor to the same level) has lamentably snatched from both of us our dearest daughter, whom we loved best of all, as her virtues demanded".
He describes Joan as a martyred angel looking down from Heaven to protect the royal family, and concludes "we have placed our trust in God and our life between his hands, where he held it closely through many dangers". Then on a more emotional note he finished with "no fellow human being could be surprised if we were inwardly desolated by the sting of this bitter grief, for we are humans too.’
On October 25, Edward III sends an expedition to Bordeaux that is supposed to find the body of Joan and bring it back for burial in London. The leader is a northern ecclesiastical lord, the bishop of Carlisle. In recognition of the danger he is exposing himself to he is very well paid by the King at five marks per day. Unfortunately the story ends here as we are not quite sure happens next in the story. There is no record of Joan's remains being returned to England, nor any account of a funeral of any kind. One possibility is that when the Mayor of Bordeaux decides to burn large parts of the town to stop the spread of the disease he might have also burnt her remains.
Her life is but a footnote in history but it has been suggested that actually it is significant as by preventing dynastic union between England and Castile it stops a potential shift in the balance of power between France and England. Had this happened it might have altered the course of the Hundred Years' War (1337 to 1453) and prevented England from losing the war.
As for the bubonic plague it continues to cause outbreaks that spare no victims. A famous occasion occurs when King Richard II’s wife dies of the bubonic plague in 1394. So distraught is he that when the Earl of Arundel turns up late to his wife’s funeral he rushes over to him and strikes the Earl on the face.