With the King at Oxford - Alfred J. Church

Of the Plague at Oxford and other Matters

The members of Lincoln College were for the most part inclined to the Parliament, though the King had also some friends among them. The chief of these was one Master Webberley, a Fellow, a man of a litigious and disputatious temper, whom his Majesty's cause doubtless pleased the better that it pleased not the greater part of his society. But 'twould be ungracious in me to speak ill of him, not only because he always showed me much kindness, but because he was content, as will be seen hereafter, to suffer for his opinions. As for Doctor Hood, the Rector, he was, as I have said, somewhat of a weathercock, turning always according to the wind that blew. Now, on my coming back to my chamber, he was mighty pleasant to me (chancing to meet me in the new quadrangle) and told me that the College was proud to have one who could use both his sword and pen, and other fine things of the same kind, which there is no need to report. 'Twas fair weather then with the King's cause, but 'twas clouded over very soon, and Master Rector's countenance changed therewith. It was not four days afterwards that he passed me, taking no heed of my reverence which before he had most courteously acknowledged. Then thought I with myself, "Doubtless, there is ill news from the King." And so it was, as I heard within the space of half-an-hour, viz., that the Prince Rupert and my Lord Newcastle (but my Lord Newcastle was in no ways to blame, as I have heard) had suffered a most grievous defeat at Marston Moor, near to the City of York, at which defeat well nigh the whole of the north country was lost to the King. From that day I had small favour from Master Rector. But with this I concerned myself but little.

During the vacation, that is about the space of three months and more, from July to October, I applied myself diligently to my books, though I did not neglect my military exercises; in them I was by this time somewhat proficient. Indeed, as having done actual service in war I had an officer's place amongst the troop which was raised by the University for the King, and myself taught the rudiments of the military art to the new corners. And, indeed, there was but little recreation other than soldiering. There was much playing, indeed, with cards and dice in the guard-houses, but such things were never to my taste, nor indeed had I the gold pieces which are a man's best introduction to such places. But as for the sport that was followed outside the walls, fishing and fowling, to wit, and the like enjoyments, it was hardly to be got. It was as like as not that he who went forth hoping to catch something should himself be caught. I do not call to mind indeed that I had any sport, save only fives play with a certain Edward Wood, second son of Mistress Wood, of whom, as I have written above, my father rented a house in Oxford. The said Edward Wood was a portionist, or, as it is sometimes named, a postmaster, of Merton College, and we were wont to use the fives play in the garden, that lies on the south side of the chapel of the said College. At the west end of this garden the wall has been built up higher than ordinary to serve this purpose, and the grass has been exchanged for stone. Sometimes one or other of the young courtiers would join us at our play. I know not whether I had pleasanter times than in this fives court. Edward Wood did not tarry long at Merton College, being promoted to a scholarship at Trinity College, but I was privileged to use the place till the very end of my sojourn in Oxford.

Merton College, Oxford


At the beginning of the next term there fell upon the City of Oxford a dreadful calamity, that is to say, a fire, so great as had not been known within the memory of living man. It is said, indeed, that, considering the shortness of the time wherein it burned, it exceeded in damage all fires that had before been in England. It began on Sunday, the eighth day of October, about two of the clock in the afternoon in a little poor house on the south side of Thames Street (which leads from the North Gate to the East Bridge). The wind blew from the north, and being very high greatly increased the damage, so that much of the city that was built to the south of Thames Street was consumed. On the other hand it is to be remembered that no hall, or college, or church, or magazine for ammunition or victuals, was consumed. As for the cause of this conflagration, there was much diversity of opinion. It was to be expected that it should be laid to the account of the Parliament soldiers, of whom there was a body at Abingdon town, not more than three miles distant from Oxford. Indeed, one of their officers, a Major flume by name, had, it was said, threatened this very thing against the city. He was reported to have cried out, "If I cannot burn all Oxford, yet will I burn so much as I can." It was allowed also that the fire burst out in many places at once, and it could not therefore have been caused by an accident. Also the time of its breaking out was noted, which was two of the clock in the afternoon, when many of the citizens were at church, and so unable to attend to the speedy putting out of the flames. For myself I take little heed of these things, which would in any case have been said. On the other hand it is certain that the fire in the house in Thames Street came from a foot-soldier roasting a pig which he had stolen. Of the buildings that were consumed the most important were a printing-office and a house which had been newly set apart for the keeping of wills.

The next year—to speak of calamities which befell the city—when the summer began to draw on, there befell a great sickness of the plague. It may be said that during the whole time, from the King's first coming to Oxford to the surrender of the city, the distemper never altogether departed, seeming to sleep during the cold weather, but waking again and raging, now less, now more, when the spring returned. Nor was this to be wondered at. For it was with Oxford as it was with the City of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, of which Thucydides has written. 'Twas grievously overcrowded; for there lodged therein the King and his Court and officers of the Government and the army, to the number, not always, indeed, but sometimes, of ten thousand and more, and many traders that came thither for the sake of trading, buying, and selling, and not a few of the King's party that sought shelter within the walls, as indeed did my mother and sister. Of scholars, indeed there were but few, the University being then changed into a garrison town. Nevertheless, the number of souls in the city must have been doubled and more; and these also confined within a very narrow space, for it was not possible to live without the walls for fear of the enemy.

About April, therefore, in this year (which is the year 1645), the plague beginning to increase, the Councillor of the city issued a proclamation concerning it. If any house was suspected of the plague it was commanded to be shut up, and all the persons within it commanded to be kept in the house till orders should be given for opening of it again. Also the house was to be marked with a red cross, and "THE LORD HAVE MERCY UPON US" writ in capital letters. And to each house so shut up there was appointed a watchman to see that none went in or out, and to fetch such necessaries as they might have need of. These watchmen carried a white staff, and took an oath that they would perform their duty faithfully. It was not an office to be desired, but if a man was elected thereto he had no choice but to take it. But the most dreadful thing in this visitation was the order that was kept concerning the burial of the dead. There went carts about ('tis a most surprising thing that they who drove the carts and they who fetched the dead bodies out of the houses, for the most part, escaped the disease), after ten of the clock at night, and carried away the corpses of such as had died during the day. Nor was it permitted that these should be buried in the churchyards of the city, but great pits were dug in such places as could be found that were farthest removed from the habitations of man. There were the dead heaped together, without coffin, ay, and often without shroud, and after a service, which a chaplain would make as short and say as speedily as he could, so left. I know not whether the war brought any worse horror than this.

In the colleges none, I think, were affected, none certainly perished. But in those parts of the town that lie by the river where the poorer sort do dwell many died. Yet the mortality was never so great that there prevailed any great and general terror. The ministers of religion also, and the physicians, of whom there was then in Oxford a greater number than ordinary, did not desert their places; and it is always, I have heard, to be noted that where these are steadfast to their duty, they infect others, if I may so speak, with their courage, to the great advantage of the whole state. But whether they that were stricken by this sickness profited much by the help of the physicians is somewhat to be doubted. I have it from one who has had much experience of the plague, both here and in foreign parts, especially among the Turks, where it is to be found almost every year, that the course of the distemper is such that at its first coming the aid of the physicians can recover none, or at the best very few; and that when its first violence is spent, 'tis an even chance with them; and that afterwards, 'tis but very few that die under their hands. It is certainly true that they would use a great variety of remedies, from which may be gathered that such as prospered under their hands were saved by Nature rather than by art. Of these remedies one was sold much among the people, but the men of science made but small account of it. It was said to have been given to King Henry VIII. by a very learned physician of his time. For curiosity's sake I have here written it down.

A handful of elder leaves; a handful of red bramble leaves. Stamp and strain them through a fine cloth with a quart of white wine; then take a quantity of ginger. Mingle these together, and take a spoonful of the mixture, and you shall be safe for twenty four days.

This then was the prophylactic; but the remedy was this:

The water of Scabius, a spoonful; the water of Betany, a spoonful; of fine treacle, a quantity. This shall put out the venom, by the grace of God.

The last clause does save it, to my mind. "The grace of God" can give potency to plain water. Indeed, I know not whether there be anything that is to be preferred to this. So at least some of the wise men will have it.

There needed not indeed either fire or plague to make all hearts dull and cheerless; all, I should say, that were well disposed to the King, for he had enemies even here. Of all the gaiety and show that had adorned the city after his Majesty's first coming there was but little left. The Queen and her ladies had departed to Exeter, in which city was born, in this same year, the Princess Henrietta. Of the nobles and gentlemen that had come with the King, or flowed to him afterwards, many were dead, for his Majesty was most unfortunate in the loss of friends; many had been taken prisoners, and they that remained were sadly shorn of their means. Hence it was but the name and shadow of a Court that surrounded the King; of its pomp and glory, its splendour and riches, nothing was left. To the colleges little remained save that which could not be alienated. Their plate they had given up to the King's service, and it was now melted into money which had long since been spent; in some places the very libraries were dissipated. As for learning, its voice was well nigh silenced. The very schools had passed from their original use, and were filled with stores of ammunition and arms. Over everything there hung the cloud of ill-fortune and ill-success. 'Twas a University to which none came to learn (I do suppose that from the time at which I came to Oxford till the surrender of the city there were matriculated, that is to say, entered the University, scarce two score), and a Court that lacked both power and magnificence, and a camp from which had departed all hope of victory.

When this year (I speak of the year academical, which runs from October to July) was drawing to an end there happened great events, great both for the nation and for me, of which I will now proceed to write.