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Links between the bubonic plague of the 14th century and St Michael's Church and Waytemore Castle, Bishop's Stortford

As we enter yet another year living with Covid-19, Mike James, a member of the Castle Park archaeology group, looks at the links between two Bishop's Stortford landmarks and a pandemic of nearly 700 years ago...

The rapid spread of Covid-19's Omicron variant has been depressing, but we are extraordinarily well-informed about it and protected by vaccination through the rapid advances of science.

Almost seven centuries ago, in 1348-49, another pandemic spread westwards into the UK, with terrible consequences – population mortality in Europe and the UK was 30-40% (Covid's is 'only' 0.25%).

St Michael's Church in Windhill, Bishop's Stortford. Pic: Vikki Lince. (54124550)
St Michael's Church in Windhill, Bishop's Stortford. Pic: Vikki Lince. (54124550)

The causes of the bubonic plague were then unknown and there were no remedies, although many were tried. The survivors could only thank God for sparing them – they must have felt blessed. But who can guess at the consequences of living through such an enormity?

One important survivor was Ralph de Stratford, the Bishop of London between 1339 and 1354. Bishop's Stortford was the Bishop of London's from Saxon times (604 AD). It seems obvious that the first Stortford church was Saxon, being replaced by a Norman building when the Normans arrived, then superseded by the current St Michael's. But almost no physical evidence for this sequence exists; the earliest record for the present church is 1431.

A short walk from St Michael's, the better documented Waytemore Castle was also founded by a Bishop of London, a Norman, in the 1080s. Local villages owed 'castle guard' to build and maintain it.

The Waytemore Castle mound in Bishop's Stortford. Pic: Vikki Lince. (54124610)
The Waytemore Castle mound in Bishop's Stortford. Pic: Vikki Lince. (54124610)

In 1346, just before the plague arrived, Waytemore under Bishop Ralph was at its height. A licence to crenellate – provide it with battlements – was granted by Edward III and it was in good repair.

The castle precinct housed the constable (William Attewood), the bishop's prison and a chapel dedicated to St Paul – appropriate since St Paul was a Roman prisoner. The castle's remains are flint and mortar, but its crenellations, window surrounds, doorways and steps, like St Michael's today, would have been stone.

When JL Glasscock, the builder and historian, investigated the castle keep's ruins in 1899, no masonry was found – presumably salvaged for reuse elsewhere. Limestone does not occur in this area, so it had to be expensively carted in: perhaps Ralph decided to improve his church as well at the same time as his castle?

In 1352, in thanksgiving for his survival, the bishop founded a chantry in his chapel of St Paul to pray forever for his and the Queen's souls. But St Michael's reflects a considerably greater practical investment – in time, money and material. It would have taken several years to build, by hand, being completed after the plague had subsided, before 1431.

Mike James (54179539)
Mike James (54179539)

We can surmise that today's church, much larger than its Norman predecessor, represents in part – like his chantry – a thanks offering from Bishop Ralph and the surviving Stortford population for their protection from the plague, as well as a plea for their future.

A National Lottery Heritage Fund donation is supporting Castle Park renovation and community archaeology. Visit https://friendsofcastlepark.net to find out more.

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