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1528: Cuckfield plans for plague

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

Even back in the C16th century, Cuckfield was prepared for a plague. The Trustees of Cuckfield Free Grammar School in 1 November 1528 made the following ruling:

‘… if the scholars be kept from the school by the plague, that the schoolmaster shall take them elsewhere so long as it be within ten miles of Cuckfield.’

the population will have been relatively sparse in those days, and isolation was the only way to avoid plague. And in those times people were far more capable of providing for themselves and avoiding the need for shopping. But it is very difficult to avoid strangers and others from intruding and inadvertently spreading infection in an isolated community.

At this time society was probably more resigned to plague as being an accepted risk of life. Epidemics and pandemics resurfaced roughly every 10 years from 1348 to 1665-40. And with each new plague epidemic, 20% of the men, women and children living in the British capital were wiped out.

By the early 1500s, England imposed the first laws to separate and isolate the sick. Homes stricken by plague were marked with a bale of hay strung to a pole outside. If you had infected family members, you had to carry a white pole when you went out in public. Cats and dogs were believed to carry the disease, so there was a wholesale massacre of hundreds of thousands of animals.

From 1592 to 1593, London experienced its last major plague outbreak of the 16th century. During this period, at least 15,000 people died of plague within the City of London and another 4,900 died of plague in the surrounding parishes. But when the Great Plague hit England in 1665-6 it was on a much smaller scale than earlier pandemics and was ended by the Great Fire of London.

The following rhyme is attributed to a plague although experts can’t agree which one:

Ring a ring o'roses

A pocket full of posies

Atishoo! Atishoo!

We all fall down



Illustration from Once a Week magazine, accompanying a ballad about a medieval plague in the Elliant district of Brittany. Wikimedia public domain image.

A woman with her child reenacting the early middle ages in Belgium Wikimedia public domain image.


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