All change in 14th-century Preston

In the middle of the 14th century the Black Death reached Preston and killed up to 3,000 people in the parish, (although the accuracy of this figure is open to question). The first cases were recorded at the beginning of September 1349, the last in early January 1350. It took just three months for this brutal plague to carry off as much as half the population of the town.

No less brutal was the sacking and burning of Preston by marauding Scots led by Robert the Bruce in 1322, one of several such raids the county was suffering at that time. And brutal indeed was the Little Ice Age that descended on Europe at the beginning of the century, wrecking harvests and issuing in years of recurring famines, the worst of which came in 1315. Not surprising then that Barbara Tuchman should write in her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, that, ‘A physical chill settled on the 14th century at its very start, initiating the miseries to come.’

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The previous century had ended well and the new century looked set to continue the story of expansion and prosperity, with no indication of the ‘miseries to come’. There is clear evidence for this in Preston where the taking in of ever more land for cultivation is a clear marker for a growing population, and the endowment of new religious institutions, a hospital and a friary, by local people witnesses increasing prosperity in the town.

Amongst the most prominent people in Preston at the opening of the 14th century were the members of the Preston family who had arrived in the town at the beginning of the previous century. They built Preston Hall, near the present junction of Moor Lane and Walker Street, and surrounded themselves with an extensive estate. They were the people who gave land to the Franciscans on which to build a friary. By the end of the century the Prestons had departed for Ireland where they established the Viscounts Gormanston dynasty, although they retained connections with the town until late in the 17th century; the new powerful man in Preston was William Ergham, who arrived in the town after the Prestons’ departure, and was to become the mayor no less than ten times.

There in a nutshell is the history of Preston’s 14th century. The problem is that it rests on very shaky foundations and there are huge gaps in our knowledge of events in the century. Go to the records of the history of Preston in the 19th-century and you are drowning in paper, go back to the 14th century and delvers in the town’s history are grateful for the odd scrap of parchment.

Take for example the evidence for the impact of the Black Death at Preston. The figure of 3,000 dead was recorded and survived only because a dispute about money between two senior clerics left a trace amongst ‘several pieces of parchment not arranged in their correct order’ in the Public Record Office in London. These were discovered in the 19th century. The relevant items were ‘Two pieces of thick parchment, containing the numbers of vacancies in livings [and] the numbers of deaths in certain parishes in the deanery of Amounderness’. [1]

The dispute was between Henry de Walton, archdeacon of Richmond, and Adam de Kirkham, dean of Amounderness. Adam had recently succeeded the previous dean, William Ballard, who himself had died of the plague [2]. A jury of 18 prominent local laymen was assembled to determine the dispute, and the fact that laymen rather than the usual clerics were needed to resolve an ecclesiastical dispute is testament to the deprivations the Black Death brought to the numbers of local clergy.

Written in medieval French on the parchment recording the case are the words ‘dedeinz la paroche de Preston morerent treys mille hommes et femmes’, which is to say that three thousand men and women died in the parish of Preston. The same figure of 3,000 deaths was recorded for both Lancaster and Kirkham parishes. Also recorded was the fact that the chapel of the Magdalene at Preston was empty for eight weeks during the time of the pestilence. This piece of parchment is the single reference that survives to the Black Death in Preston.

The 19th-century scholar who reported the discovery of the Amounderness parchment suggested the figure of 3,000 dead should be treated with caution:

Though we have here a contemporary record, there seems little ground to place much more reliance on the numbers of deaths than on many other calculations in medieval documents. Allowance must be made for the exaggeration of panic; and there is evidently no attempt at strict accuracy …

This caution was echoed more strongly by the editors of the Victoria County History of Lancashire, who describe the figure of 3,000 as ‘an obviously exaggerated estimate of the number of deaths’. [3]

When the former Lancashire county archivist Sharpe France came to write his lengthy A History of the Plague in Lancashire, he put more faith in the reliability of the lay jurors, noting:

Some doubt has been cast upon the correctness of the figures in this dispute. They are said to have been exaggerated by panic and by that inherent inaccuracy from which mediaeval calculations were liable to suffer. It must be admitted, as there were no official statistics in those days, that the total numbers of deaths in each parish were only approximations — the roundness of the figures shows this. But approximations are not a very long way from being exact. The figures were provided by a local jury, and they would know only too well whether the mortality had been in hundreds or thousands, even if they did not know the figures exactly. This document shows, if nothing else, that north Lancashire suffered tremendous losses from the ravages of the Black Death. [4]

I think Sharpe France is stretching credulity somewhat when he claims ‘approximations are not a very long way from being exact’. And if he is placing so much trust on the reliability of the lay jurors in vouching for the accuracy of the figures, why does he question the figures they sign off for other parishes? The document records 100 deaths in Ribchester, but Sharpe France notes that 110 people in the parish died with goods worth more than £5 and, extrapolating from this figure, concludes that the number of deaths must have been ‘at least 400’. Using similar extrapolations he ups the number of deaths in Lytham from the 140 in the document to ‘at least 500’; in St Michael’s he increases the number of deaths from 80 to 300.

Sharpe France cannot have it both ways: trusting the lay jurors to vouchsafe the number of deaths in Preston and yet questioning their reliability in other parishes. A more reasonable conclusion would perhaps be that the document establishes that the numbers dying from the plague in Preston should be counted in thousands, not hundreds, but to treat the figure of 3,000 with caution.

No documentary evidence survives for the impact of the Little Ice Age on 14th-century Preston, but the town would not have escaped its impact on Northern Europe, including England, with crop failures and shorter growing seasons. [5] Along with cooling temperatures came the Great Famine of 1315 that devastated Europe: ‘the British Isles, with the exception of northern Scotland, were … hit with devastating severity’. [5]

The standard work on the Great Famine seems to be the journal article by Ian Kershaw, who somewhat downplays the evidence for a deteriorating climate:

The harvest of 1315 was a disaster. Chroniclers and manorial records concur in attributing the trouble to the torrential rain which poured down throughout the summer months of 1315, producing widespread flooding and the ruin of hay and corn crops alike. It has been suggested that underlying climatic changes, resulting in a long-term trend towards cooler and wetter weather, began about this time and help to explain not only the extremities of the famine years but also the general economic depression in western Europe during the later middle ages. Unpredictable and extreme weather conditions were certainly experienced in the decade 1315-25, but it is nevertheless difficult, from a comparison of harvest qualities in England during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, to agree with the assertion that the famine years marked the onset of a long-term deterioration in the weather. [7]

He adds:

… writers referred to the poor being forced to eat dogs, cats and other ‘unclean things’. Rumours of cannibalism ‑ of people stealing children to eat them ‑ may have been exaggerated but they testify to the stark horror which this period of extreme famine impressed upon the memories of contemporaries … There is no doubt that by the spring and early summer of 1316 England was in the throes of a famine of major dimensions. And the famine was accompanied, during the course of 1316, by a virulent and widespread epidemic of an enteric type ‑ perhaps typhoid ‑ which greatly increased mortalities. [8]

Preston may have been spared some of the worst ravages of the famine experienced by the wheat-growing districts further south because of the local cultivation of oats ‘…the hardiest crop and that best able to withstand heavy rainfall, produced returns little different from normal, though even in good conditions the gross yield of oats was seldom more than two-and-a-half times its seed.’ [9]

When it comes to marauding Scots it is again questions of financial compensation that leave traces of their impact on Preston in the documentary record. Robert the Bruce raided Lancashire in 1322 and ravaged Preston, leaving the town in flames. The Victoria County History records the raid graphically:

Bruce himself led a force through Copeland and over Duddon Sands into Furness … Crossing Leven Sands into Cartmel, where nothing but the priory was spared, and the cattle and movable property were carried off, the raiders traversed the sands of the Kent to Lancaster, where they burnt town and castle, leaving only the religious houses. Here they were joined by the second column under the earl of Moray and Lord James Douglas, which had probably been ravaging Lunesdale, and pushing southward burnt Preston. Fugitives laden with goods fled before them over the Ribble, some of whom found the inhabitants there hardly more merciful than their pursuers. A small body of Scots apparently crossed the river and advanced five miles beyond it, but the retreat was ordered, and on 24 July the army re-entered Scotland. [10]

The question of the cost of the raid came up 20 years later when an inquisition held at Preston was told that a tax on the parish of Preston that had yielded 100 marks (£66 and loose change) in 1291 was by 1342 worth a quarter less because ‘on account of the ravage there made by the Scots, and on account of other unendurable burdens which increase day by day, there are lands in the same parish lying waste and uncultivated to the detriment of the said tax up to 28 marks a year.’ The ‘other unendurable burdens which increase day by day’ were not specified. [11]

This has been accepted at face value by most historians of the town as a measure of the havoc the Scots wreaked at Preston, but Henry Fishwick provided a different interpretation, although he possibly discounts the speed with which a medieval settlement could recover from disaster:

… there is no evidence to support the statement so often repeated that Preston was either razed to the ground or totally destroyed by fire, whilst there are many indications that such was not the case … It is scarcely likely that a town which in 1322 was destroyed could in six years afterwards obtain a Royal Charter, giving the burgesses power to hold a weekly market (on Wednesdays), and a fair every year to last five days … yet this grant was made by Edward III and dated 22nd May, 1328. Not only did the burgesses get this privilege but at the instance of the Earl of Lancaster, on the 20th May, 1328, letters patent were again given to the ‘Mayor, Bailiff, and Goodman,’ of the town to levy a rate on merchandise, &c., for two years, towards paving the streets, and this not proving sufficient a grant for three years more was issued on 17th May, 1333. [12]

There can be no discounting the devastating aftermath of the Black Death. There was straight away a shortage of people to cultivate the land, leading to soaring wages, to judge by the attempts to keep them in check by the Ordinance of Labourers issued by Parliament in June 1349, shortly before the plague reached Preston. This ordinance attempted, somewhat Canute-like, to stem the tide of wage demands, by fixing wages at their pre-plague level. In October 1350 Thomas of Latham and 10 others were appointed at Preston to enforce the ordinance of labourers in the district, with what success we don’t know. [13]

What is also likely is that land and properties in Preston would have been going begging, attracting people from the surrounding districts to take them over. Unlike in later centuries, when the corporation was actively discouraging migrants from establishing themselves in town (see numerous examples in the Preston court leet records), at this time outsiders would most likely have been welcomed. There is evidence that this had happened, and with it a change in the power structure in the town, in the records of the 1397 Guild Merchant. The 1397 guild roll lists all the burgesses in the town, divided into three categories: in-burgesses, those who were burgesses at the previous guild, or the sons of those burgesses; fined burgesses, those who had paid an entry fee and had been vouched for by two in-burgesses; and foreign burgesses, at this time members of prominent families in the surrounding district who enjoyed some of the benefits of burgess status.

Useful Preston Guild sources in the Preston History Library:

W. A. Abram: The rolls of Burgesses at the Guilds Merchant of the borough of Preston, Co. of Lancaster, 1397-1682
W. A. Abram: Memorials of the Preston Guilds

The interesting category is that of the fined burgesses for they are the incomers who must have arrived after the Black Death. There are 105 of them on the roll as transcribed by Abram and 194 in-burgesses. It is likely that almost all the fined burgesses were heads of households, whereas a good many of the in-burgesses would still be living in the paternal home. This means that it is quite possible that more than half the houses in the town were inhabited by people who had arrived since the previous guild, the date of which is not known, but would have to be after the Black Death half a century earlier because of the number of the in-burgesses listed as being on the previous guild list.

The new people had clearly established themselves. Of the 14 holding office at the 1397 guild 10 were incomers:

NameRoleBurgess type1st proposer2nd proposer
William Erghammayorfined burgessSimon PrestonJohn Haconshowe
Geoffrey Melesstewardin-burgess  
Thomas Morestewardfined burgessSimon PrestonRobert Lister
John Haconshowestewardin-burgess  
Richard Blundellaldermanfined burgessJohn HaconshoweJohn Lambard
Henry Somnoraldermanin-burgess  
Simon Prestonaldermanin-burgess  
John Marisshallaldermanfined burgessRichard BlundellGeoffrey Meles
Richard Brethirtonaldermanfined burgessJohn de HaconshoweHenry Somnor
William Ganyaldermanfined burgessRobert ListerWilliam Gyge
John Alstonaldermanfined burgessWilliam ErghamJohn Haconshowe
William Waltonaldermanfined burgessThomas MoreJohn Haconshowe
William Grymbaldestonaldermanfined burgessJohn LambardSimon Preston
John Lambardaldermanfined burgessWilliam ErghamJohn Haconshowe

To be accepted as a fined burgess an incomer had to be proposed by two burgesses. William Ergham was the first proposer for 17 incomers and the second proposer for two others (together adding up to a fifth of all the new men on the guild roll). Two of the incomers he proposed, John Alston and John Lambard, were aldermen. An examination of the new men or fined burgesses who were themselves proposed by the new men in the above table is revealing:

Name1st proposer2nd proposerTotal
William Ergham17219
Thomas More9211
Richard Blundell314
John Marisshall437
Richard Brethirton639
William Gany2911
John Alston9615
William Walton415
William Grymbaldeston11314
John Lambard32023

But one of the items in a list of Guild orders made in 1328 requires that:

All manner of burgesses which is made burgess by court roll and out of the Guild Merchant shall never be mayor, or bailiff, or serjeant, but only the burgesses whose names be in the Guild Merchant last made before … [14]

The above two tables make it clear that this ruling was soon flouted, as nine of the above should have been disbarred by the ‘shall never be mayor, or bailiff, or serjeant’. And of the nine it is quite probable that Thomas More was mayor in 1383 and 1392, Richard Blundell in 1385 and 1391, William Walton in 1386, 1387 and 1389, and William Ergham in 1388 and 1396. William Ergham continued serving as mayor for the year after the guild, and was mayor again in 1402, 1408, 1413, from 1416 to 1419, and then again, for the last time in 1425. The other names recur frequently: the corporation of Preston was very early established as the self-selecting body that lasted until the municipal reforms of the 19th century.

One link back to the beginning of the century is the presence of members of the original Prestons of Preston family, Simon of Preston and Christopher of Preston, on the guild roll. Christopher, son of Robert of Preston, is entered both as a foreign burgess and as a fined burgess, for which Simon of Preston was his proposer. Christopher’s father, Robert, had joined the other members of his family in Ireland by 1358.

[1] A. G. Little, ‘The Black Death in Lancashire’, The English Historical Review 5, no. July (1890): 524–30.

[2] William Farrer and J. Brownbill, eds., The Victoria History of the County of Lancaster, vol. 7 (London: Constable, 1912), 71 fn. 31.

[3] William Farrer and J. Brownbill, eds., The Victoria History of the County of Lancaster, vol. 2 (London: Constable, 1908), 29–30.

[4] R. Sharpe France, ‘A History of the Plague in Lancashire – Part 1’, The Historic Society of Lancashire & Cheshire 90 (1938): 24.

[5] Sam White, ‘The Real Little Ice Age’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 44, no. 3 (2014): 327–52.

[6] William Chester Jordan, The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century (Princeton University Press, 1997), 8.

[7] Ian Kershaw, ‘The Great Famine and Agrarian Crisis in England 1315-1322’, Past & Present, no. 59 (1973): 7.

[8] Kershaw, 9–11.

[9] Kershaw, 16.

[10] Farrer and Brownbill, VCH Vol 2, 2:199.

[11] T.C. Smith, Records of the Parish Church of Preston in Amounderness (Printed and pub. for the author by C.W. Whitehead, 1892), 8–9.

[12] Henry Fishwick, The History of the Parish of Preston (Rochdale: The Aldine Press, 1900), 26.

[13] B. H. Putnam, ‘The Justices of Labourers in the Fourteenth Century’, The English Historical Review 21, no. July (1906): 534.

[14] Alan Crosby, The History of Preston Guild: England’s Greatest Carnival, 2nd ed. (Preston: Carnegie Publishing, 2012), 17.

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