31 January 2023

Praying through poetry and
with USPG: 31 January 2023

The Tapestry in Eyam Museum recalling the brave and sacrificial story of the plague in 1665/1666

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation on Thursday next (2 February).

Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Over the past few days, I have been reflecting on poems written in Lichfield and Tamworth, which I returned to last week. My choice of poem this morning is ‘Eyam,’ written in Lichfield by Anna Seward (1742-1809), the poet known as the ‘Swan of Lichfield’.

Anna Seward (1742-1809) by Tilly Kettle … she was part of a literary and intellectual circle in Lichfield

The Coronavirus or Covid-19 –pandemic has been to the experiences in the past created by swine fever, SARS, fear of the HIV virus, ‘Mad Cow’ disease, Ebola, a fictitious virus like YK2 … or, further back in the past, ‘Spanish ’Flu’ or even the plague.

When the pandemic has run its course, even those who have not caught Covid-19 are going to continue how we were isolated and how major events were cancelled to stop it spreading.

Many years ago, decades before the Covid-19 pandemic, I visited Eyam, the ‘Plague Village’ in Derbyshire. Eyam still tells a memorable tale from the 17th century of self-sacrifice and bravery that remains an outstanding and unique story of redemptive self-sacrifice. It is a story that I am often reminded of in Lichfield when I hear the stories of Anna Seward and her poetry.

Eyam is a village in the Derbyshire Dales and in the Peak District. The village is noted for an outbreak of the plague in 1665, when the villagers chose to isolate themselves rather than let the infection spread.

Eyam was also badly affected by the Great Plague of 1665, although the plague is usually associated with London. The sacrifice made by the villagers of Eyam is said to have saved many places throughout the Midlands and northern England.

At the time of the plague, Eyam had a population of about 350. The most important person in the village was the Rector, the Revd William Mompesson (1639-1709), who moved to Eyam with his wife Catherine and their children in 1664.

In summer 1665, the village tailor received a flea-infested bundle of cloth from his supplier in London. This parcel contained the fleas that caused the plague. Within a week, the tailor’s assistant, George Vicars, had died from the plague. More began dying in the household soon after; by the end of September, five more villagers had died; 23 died in October.

As the plague spread, the villagers turned to their rector and his predecessor, the Revd Thomas Stanley. When some villagers wanted to flee to Sheffield, Mompesson feared they would bring the plague with them and persuaded them to cut themselves off from the outside would.

From May 1666, precautionary measures were introduced to slow the spread of the plague. Families buried their own dead and church services were moved to the natural amphitheatre at Cucklett Delph, allowing villagers to separate themselves and reduce the risk of infection.

The villagers voluntarily quarantined themselves although this would mean certain death for many of them. The village was supplied with food by people living outside who left supplies at the ‘plague stones’ marking the boundary that separated Eyam from the outside world.

The villagers left money in a water trough filled with vinegar to sterilise the coins. In this way, the people of Eyam were not left to starve to death, and the people who supplied the village with food did not come into contact with the plague.

Eyam continued to suffer from the plague throughout 1666. William Mompesson had to bury his own family in the churchyard. When his wife died in August 1666, he decided to hold services outdoors to reduce the chances of people catching the disease.

By November 1666, the plague had come to an end. In all, 260 out of 350 villagers had died in Eyam. But their selfless sacrifice saved many thousands of lives in the north of England.

Mompesson survived. He wrote at the end of the ordeal: ‘Now, blessed be God, all our fears are over for none have died of the plague since the eleventh of October and the pest-houses have long been empty.’

The plague ran its course over 14 months, but when it came to an end it had killed most of the villagers. The parish records provide the names of 273 people who were victims. Only 83 villagers survived out of a population of over 350.

Those who survived did so randomly and there is no explanation for their survival. Many of the survivors had close contact with those who died yet never caught the disease. Elizabeth Hancock buried six children and her husband within eight days, but was never infected herself. The village gravedigger Marshall Howe survived even though he handled many of the infected bodies.

Mompesson eventually remarried, moved parish, became a Prebendary of Southwell, and turned down the offer of becoming Dean of Lincoln before he died in 1709.

Every Plague Sunday, a wreath is laid on Catherine Mompesson’s grave in the churchyard. Plague Sunday has been marked in Eyam since the bicentenary of the plague in 1866. It now takes place in Cucklett Delph on the last Sunday in August, at the same time as Wakes Week and the Well Dressing ceremonies.

The Jacobean-style Eyam Hall was built by the Wright family in 1671, soon after the plague, and local mining helped Eyam to recover in population and to prosper economically. Today, many of the village houses and cottages are marked with plaques listing the names and ages of residents who died as victims of the plague, and the story of the plague village is told in Eyam Museum, and there is a plague window in the parish church.

Canon Thomas Seward (1708-1790) was Rector of Eyam for half a century from 1740 until his death in 1790, and his daughter, the poet Anna Seward, was born in Eyam in 1747. While he was still Rector of Eyam, he moved with his family 90 km south to the Bishop’s Palace in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield in 1754, and became Prebendary of Pipa Parva in Lichfield Cathedral.

Although she was born in Eyam, Anna Seward became known as the ‘Swan of Lichfield.’ In her Journal and in her correspondence, she recalled the stories of the plague in Eyam she had heard in her childhood. She returned from Lichfield to Eyam, in 1788 and her poem ‘Eyam’ is filled with nostalgia for her birthplace, tearfully recalling the story of the plague.
Eyam Hall, built shortly after the plague (Photograph: Dave Pape/Wikipedia)

Eyam, by Anna Seward:

For one short week I leave, with anxious heart,
Source of my filial cares, the Full of Days,
Lur’d by the promise of Harmonic Art
To breathe her Handel’s soul-exalting lays.
Pensive I trace the Derwent’s amber wave,
Foaming through umbrag’d banks, or view it lave
The soft, romantic vallies, high o’er-peer’d
By hills and rocks, in savage grandeur rear’d.
Not two short miles from thee, can I refrain
Thy haunts, my native Eyam, long unseen? –
Thou and thy lov’d inhabitants, again
Shall meet my transient gaze. – Thy rocky screen,
Thy airy cliffs I mount; and seek thy shade,
Thy roofs, that brow the steep, romantic glade;
But, while on me the eyes of Friendship glow,
Swell my pain’d sighs, my tears spontaneous flow.

In scenes paternal, not beheld through years,
Nor view’d, till now, but by a Father’s side,
Well might the tender, tributary tears,
From keen regrets of duteous fondness glide!
Its pastor, to this human-flock no more
Shall the long flight of future days restore!
Distant he droops, – and that once gladdening eye
Now languid gleams, ’en when his friends are nigh.

Through this known walk, where weedy gravel lies,
Rough, and unsightly; – by the long, coarse grass
Of the once smooth, and vivid green, with sighs
To the deserted Rectory I pass; –
Stray through the darken’d chambers’ naked bound,
Where childhood’s earliest, liveliest bliss I found;
How chang’d, since erst, the lightsome walls beneath,
The social joys did their warm comforts breathe!

Ere yet I go, who may return no more,
That sacred pile, ’mid yonder shadowy trees,
Let me revisit! – Ancient, massy door,
Thou gratest hoarse! – my vital spirits freeze,
Passing the vacant pulpit, to the space
Where humble rails the decent altar grace,
And where my infant sister’s ashes sleep,
Whose loss I left the childish sport to weep.
The gloves, suspended by the garland’s side,
White as its snowy flowers, with ribbons tied; –
Dear Village, long these wreaths funereal spread,
Simple memorials of thy early dead!

But O! thou bland, and silent pulpit! – thou,
That with a Father’s precepts, just, and bland,
Did’st win my ear, as reason’s strength’ning glow
Show’d their full value, now thou seem’st to stand
Before my sad, suffus’d, and trembling gaze,
The dreariest relic of departed days.
Of eloquence paternal, nervous, clear,
Dim Apparition thou – and bitter is my tear!

The Plague Cottage in Eyam (Photograph: Mickie Collins/Wikipedia)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is the ‘Opening Our Hearts.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by James Roberts, Christian Programme Manager at the Council of Christians and Jews, who reflected on Holocaust Memorial Day last Friday and World Interfaith Harmony Week.

The USPG Prayer Diary today invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for the healing of relationships between Christians and Jews. May the Christian Church acknowledge its history of Jewish persecution and repent.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Canon William Mompesson … the Vicar of Eyam, the ‘Plague Village’ in Derbyshire

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