A Mediaeval response to the aftermath of a time of crisis in Thompson

Instead of dwelling on the only previous time in our history to compare with the current Covid-19 crisis, I am focussing on the measures taken in the aftermath.  But first a little background.

The Black Death, as it is usually known, was Bubonic Plague. It was typified by buboes (a swelling or boil) in the armpits, groin and neck. There was also pneumonic plague which attacked the lungs but it seems generally accepted that it was mainly Bubonic plague which swept England.

It is said to have killed between a third and a half of the population but since there was no census or accurate count of the population this is impossible to corroborate. One measure is said to be the number of clergy who died in each village. We know that Thompson had three clergy in charge during that year which suggests it hit the village quite hard.

Why are the priests significant? Because they were usually those who cared for the sick and dying, and had the medical knowledge of the time which was largely herbal based. In mediaeval England people were religious and turned to their clergy in times of need.

We don’t have very much information about what Thompson was like at that time. We know that less that 50 years before the Plague, in about 1300, building had begun on a new church. Although not yet as big as the structure we have today it would have been a very striking and awe-inspiring new feature in the village and probably replaced an earlier simple timber-framed structure. Many of Norfolk’s wonderful churches were built around this period, designed to show off the wealth earned from the wool trade, and It must have been a time of optimism before disaster struck. 

Like all villages Thompson was made up of a number of manors and the organisation of the community would have been along feudal lines. The main, or capital manor of Thompson, was owned and inhabited by descendants of the de Thomeston family, the property having descended into the female line for more than one generation. Its most recent heiress had been Agnes Crowe who had married Sir John de Shardelowe. Agnes and John had 3 sons. The two younger sons, John and Thomas, inherited Thompson Manor between them. Their father had died in 1344 and their mother in 1349.

It is possible Agnes died from the plague but it is equally probable she died of old age. A lot of things came together at one time which may have prompted the actions John and Thomas were to take. England at this time was a highly religious country. It was believed that the more one gave to God the more quickly one earned passage out of purgatory and a place in Heaven.

With no scientific explanation to understand the visitation of the Plague people turned to religion to help them. However, there was also an increasing problem with retaining clergy in the parishes for various reasons, but partly due to the attractions of new places of learning and pilgrimages. One of the after effects of the plague was a reduction in the number of clergy and, for those of all strata of the population who had survived, a new confidence in defying the ancient rules.

In addition, John and Thomas, although married, had no heirs.  All the evidence suggests that John and Thomas were very religious. They were influenced by the new ideas of Edmund Gonville, founder of Gonville Hall Cambridge, who also founded a religious house, the College at Rushford, Norfolk in 1342. The two brothers may well have visited this as it is situated close to the start of Peddars Way, near to Thetford and relatively easy for them to reach, especially as they travelled to London on business. Certainly, they would have learned of Gonville’s ideas.

Whatever their primary reasons, John and Thomas decided to endow a College modelled on the lines of that at Rushford and the document endowing the College was presented to the Bishop of Norwich, William Bateman, on 3rd April 1350. Sadly, John died in 1350 so he did not see the creation of the College building, the installation of the priests and the beginning of improvements to the new church. A few years later his widow was to become a religious votary living in a vestry at the church.

Thomas died in 1387 and his grave can be found in the south transept or chapel. The endowment meant that St. Martin’s became a Collegiate Church, which technically it still is, endowed with all the Thompson manorial lands owned by the brothers, while a College or place of residence was created for up to six priests to live in.

The rules they had to abide by were quite simple. One of their number was to be chosen as Master; they had to live, eat and pray in common together in the College, saying a mass daily for their foundation, and were not allowed to victual or lodge away from the College. However, unlike the rules of some monastic establishments, they could resign and leave the parish.

There is believed to have been a small chantry chapel already on the site chosen for the College, hence its distance from the church. However, this was altered an extended to accommodate the priests. Much of it still remains today as College Farm. In one move the two brothers had solved many of their problems.

Their wish was that the terms of the endowment would last forever. Their religious needs were taken care of because the priests’ daily role was to say a mass for their foundation and pray for the brothers and their ancestors. Daily prayers and such a generous gift to the church would ensure the brothers and their family a place in Heaven. The rules also prevented absenteeism. The lack of heirs was no longer an issue; the priests ensured continuity by running the manor as the lords of the manor would have done, employing local people and farming the land.

The clergy were the social services of the day as well as providing hospitality for travellers. Thompson residents would have had their spiritual, social, health and economic needs catered for. The innovative religious establishment soon attracted wealthy religious people who donated land, goods and money to St. Martin’s in a quest to please God or came to live here.

By 1381 many new names were added to the Poll Tax list and it is said there were a great many freehold and copyhold tenants holding between one and ten acres, with no one below the rank of smallholder. A big change from the feudal days before the Plague.  It is said that the Plague effectively saw a beginning of the end to the control that the Lords of the Manor had once had.

Under the old system many villagers were not free men and were effectively owned by the lord of the manor. Those who survived now found their skills in demand and could seek higher pay or better conditions. They no longer felt the need to observe the rules about not leaving their village, partly because in some cases there was no longer a lord alive to enforce it and partly due to a demand for their labour by others.

Incentives such as a cottage were also offered, leading to the practice of tied cottages on farms and estates we still see today. Then there was the psychological effect of survival which led to many feeling that if they could survive that they no longer needed to be subservient.

In Thompson the incentive may have been to stay as the village prospered. Along with the improvement of living standards in the village the church underwent much improvement and addition from 1350 onwards. It is hard to envisage it today, but mediaeval churches were highly decorated with brightly coloured interiors and there is no reason to suppose Thompson was any different.

Traces of the original paint still exist on some of the woodwork such as the rood screen. No doubt it was also full of artefacts given by the wealthy. The fact that it is regarded by experts as a significant building with some stunning architectural features indicates the care and money that must have been lavished on it.

So, our history shows an innovative response in this quiet corner of Norfolk to the problems created by a national disaster. It will be interesting to see what new and innovative measures will be put in place across the country once we have seen the last of Covid-19.

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