Scotland and the Black Death

Recently we’ve focused a lot on Covid-19 and the ramifications it’s already having for our society but this week I thought we would take a step back from the ongoing pandemic and instead focus on something a bit lighter – the Black Death

Our story starts in 1348, when the Black Death first arrived in England. 1348, simply put, was not a great time to live in Britain. The Second War of Scottish independence had already been  raging for over a decade, and England had been embroiled in the Hundred Years’ War for nearly as long. On top of this, the common people of the towns and villages were also suffering under high taxes, little food and failed harvests. Life was pretty bleak, but it was about to get a lot worse. 

It was Bristol that would be first hit. A vibrant trading port that had until that time remained untouched by war or famine; instead it was the third horseman of the apocalypse, pestilence, that would leave its mark here. Before the plague Bristol was the second largest city in England, taking silver place only to London, but when the plague hit, Henry Knighton, a monk who recorded the history of the plague described the city as being devastated, saying “almost the whole strength of the town perished” and transforming, almost over night from a city full of life and joy and trade, to a city of corpses where the few survivors didn’t have the strength or numbers to bury the deceased. This, unfortunately, was only a taste of things to come for the rest of the Isles. 

By 1349 London would follow in Bristol’s grim footsteps, and alongside the Back Death, Pneumonic Plague would also ravage the city. This outbreak would take thousands upon thousands of lives, the plague would also break up Parliament and take the lives of at least three Archbishops of Canterbury greatly weakening the English Kingdom’s feudal management.

All this chaos was not unnoticed in the court of King David the Second of Scotland, and many argued the plague was God’s wrath on the English for… well being English. It’s not hard to see how the calamity could be seen to have had a hand of the divine, wherever the plague went it left biblical destruction. Further still, the Scottish nobility argued that because Scotland had remained untouched, this showed that God had picked a side in the war, the Scottish side. It was decided that rather than lay back and watch the southern kingdom burn Scotland would take an active hand in the chaos, and push its advantage to win the war. After all, god had clearly decreed the end times for England, it was their Christian duty to see his will acted. 

The Scots at this point were resurgent, they had already pushed Edward the Third’s armies out of Perth and Fife, and now a great host assembled to invade England itself. When news of this approaching army reached Durham the plague stricken town burst into riots. This incursion, however, was ultimately doomed and the Scots were routed in battle, soon the Scottish army was in full retreat back home. To add to the misery of defeat, among the fleeing soldiers and levies the plague lurked and soon Scotland would be hit with the same divine wrath that the English had suffered. 

Though Scotland was less vulnerable than England, lacking the centralised population centres that England had developed in the centuries prior, the pestilence still took a dire toll. Exact numbers aren’t recorded but what is known is that cities like Edinburgh were devastated, losing nearly half of their population. By the end of the outbreak some estimate almost half the population of the Island would succumb to the disease.

So, you might be asking, why have I chosen to bring to attention this particular part of history? Well I think it conveys a very important message. Even if you think God is telling you to invade England, please, please stay in doors, save lives.