Tudor lockdown lessons


Considering our present lockdown situation because of Covid-19 restrictions, Rye Museum thought it might be an idea to see what previous Ryers have done in similar situations as the concept of avoiding infected persons and objects has been known at least since biblical times in the Old Testament, mainly concerning lepers.

More recent efforts began when the plague came to Europe between 1347 and 1352 and which frequently recurred during the next 350 years.  Isolating ships occurred first and then in 1377 Dubrovnik introduced “quarantine”.  Venice opened the first known permanent hospital for plague victims in 1423; Genoa in 1467, and Marseilles in 1476 – mainly converted from leper hospitals.

Sadly, any Rye records of our efforts to stem the Black Death plague from 1348 were lost when the French burned the town in 1377, but fortunately some of those in the Tudor times do survive – and it is surprising the number of parallels to now.

Tudor folk didn’t have an easy time. Ryers had epidemics of Sweating Sickness at the beginning of the 16th century – peaking in 1517; typhus from returning soldiers in 1590; and lots of deaths between 1557-60, probably due to a  combination of poor harvests and recurrent bouts of influenza – and this is as well as all the many normal illnesses and accidents from which they suffered.

Plague was the most frequent epidemic

However, by far the most frequent epidemic was the plague and Rye had really bad outbreaks in 1532, 1540, 1554, 1556, 1563, 1577, 1579-1580, 1596 – 1597, 1598, 1604 and 1625.  It was usually worse in summer. Examples of Rye burials were:  in 1544- 436; in 1563 – 779; between 1597/80 – 813; and 1596/1597  – 510. And Rye’s population was about 3,000.

One year’s details will illustrate things more clearly: In 1563 St Mary’s had two to five burials a week; increasing to 13; then 17 – gradually increasing to 33 in August; 51 at the beginning of September, and then 90 folk were buried in the last week of September.

These were huge losses to a small town when sometimes whole families were lost,  and often the breadwinner.   The poorer households suffered more losses than the wealthy – usually 25 – 50% more – but in 1579-80 the difference was a massive 240%.

Rye (then only within the Citadel area and the Landgate), had a mixture of wealthy and poor living on the same streets and some of the wealthy moved out to stay in the nearby countryside when plague broke out. This “escaping” got so bad that, in order for town business to be carried on, the corporation fined those who should attend town meetings 40s, if they had been gone from Rye for a month without the permission of the mayor.

The council, based in the old court/ town hall which was situated on the same site as now, tried their best to prevent the spread  of the disease – and I suppose like now – learned as one epidemic followed another.   Their main aim was to isolate the infected and to stop any animals wandering in the streets, which might be carriers.  Their decisions were ‘shouted’ round the town by the town crier.

How to cope with epidemics

These examples of what they tried are from the town records:

July 1563:

  • Mark plague houses with the sign of a cross
  • No member of that household was to leave the plague house on pain of a fine of 40s (a huge sum then – about £467 or a skilled craftsman’s wages for 66 days).
  • Each house was to have a vessel of fresh water at the door, which must be changed every two days to “kepe it swete and cleane”. (Rye houses had no running water –  or even a well at that time – men and boys collected the water from the springs on what is now Military Road – and walked round the town selling it from buckets carried on a yoke or bringing it to householders when ordered in barrels on carts. Water was also available from the cistern in the churchyard, that on Wish Ward and the Waterworks at the bottom of Conduit Hill, which were only open at certain times of the day..  This water was brought in elm pipes from the springs at the foot of Leasam Hill).

September 1579:

  • Same as above
  • Two women were to be employed to view the dead – and be paid 4d per examination (about four pounds).
  • All dogs seen wandering the streets were to be killed.
  • A “poticiary” was to be engaged from the French Huguenot exiles at present in Rye – to prepare medicines.
  • Three women were to be employed to wash and tend the sick – and ‘sack the dead.’  – these also were to be paid.
  • Special overseers were employed for each of the six wards of Rye to see the regulations are enforced.
  • A special monthly rate was to be levied on the 152 wealthiest households to provide for the needy and pay the wages.

Guarding the Landgate night and day

July 1596:

  • Same as above
  • All hogs roaming the streets were to be killed as well as dogs.
  • Locks, hasps and staples were to be bought “to locke in infected personnes”
  • Controlled access at the Landgate was instituted to check all travellers: “for feare of infection.”  Two men were employed to be on guard in the day and two from the usual “six watchmen” who patrolled each ward all night.  Thus, the gate was now controlled 24 hours a day.
  • No packs (packhorses were used for transporting goods then) were to be brought into the town without leave of the mayor.
  • If any were brought in, with permission, they had to be put unopened for some days, into the town storehouse on the Strand.

Some odd things to us were acted upon – in August 1574 – the corporation banned apples, plums and pears among other fresh fruit from being brought “into the Towne during the sicknesse”

They do seem to have a growing awareness that there was a connection between the steaming piles of rodent and insect infested refuse and the outbreaks of summer  epidemics as they ordered barrels of water to be put in the streets to wash this away and keep them clean.

And back to today

Sadly Rye Castle Museum remains closed due to ongoing Covid restrictions, and the closure of the tower, the only regular means of income, has had a major impact on finances. For information on how to become a supporter and updates please visit Rye Castle Museum

Dr Graham Mayhew, Rye Museum member, trustee and author of the superb book ‘Tudor Rye‘, has made a detailed study of the wonderful Rye Town records, now kept in The Keep in Falmer. Jo Kirkham extracted much of the information above about Rye from this book. Thank you, Graham.

Image Credits: Graham Mayhew .

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  1. In 1579 one of the control measures was the killing of feral dogs – a practice carried out in many European plague cities. This was an unfortunate thing to do but based on a lack of understanding about transmission. The plague was spread by rats, and the dogs were very effective in killing these, especially when they were sick and emerged into the open during daylight hours. So killing the dogs was quite the wrong thing to do.
    Fortunately our understanding of the current “plague” is less basic!


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