The first visit of the Silent Eye ‘Rites of Passage: Seeing Beyond Fear’ weekend was to the Derbyshire village of Eyam (pronounced Eem) – The Plague Village.
Our family has a personal connection with Eyam and the terrible events of 1665-6, when bubonic plague, newly arrived in Derbyshire from London, took the lives of 260 of its occupants: over seven-tenths of its population.
No-one began the weekend thinking of heroes or heroines, but they were there in the records–and in the living landscape, though the word may not be entirely appropriate to describe the profound selflessness of its former inhabitants during that fateful year of 1665-6.
The name of the man who is our family connection was Edward Unwin. We do not know his occupation, but it was probably that of lead miner, a common occupation in those parts. This assumption is made on the basis that a close friend of his reported the strange events that follow to Catherine Mompesson, the wife of the new rector of Eyam, William Mompesson, who was a disciplined diarist. Her records are the basis of much of the history of the plague year of 1666.
From Diary of Catherine Mompesson, 5th July 1666:
‘I first encountered John Carter [the neighbour of Edward Unwin] on the morning following his summoning of Marshall Howe to give his ministrations to his near neighbour…’
Catherine Mompesson’s journal goes on to explain how Carter, the neighbour of Unwin, was ‘sharp-spoken’ and unkempt in the way of the local lead miners, but was ‘direct and honest’ in his conversation. In common with the other lead miners, he looked ten years older than his reputed thirty-four years. Catherine Mompesson relates that, in telling the tale, he had ‘a certain jocose air’ about him as he related the story of the previous day.
The journal continues: ‘Knowing that Unwin was either dead or on the verge of death, Carter had summoned his fellow miner, Marshall Howe, who was acting as a self-appointed ‘sexton of the plague’; seemingly heedless of the danger to himself, but well aware that, since Unwin’s wife had already died of the plague, choice possessions from Unwin’s house would pass to him as his fee for the ‘sexton’s’ funeral duties…
Bodies had to be buried in the gardens of the deceased’s dwellings to reduce the risk of contagion from communal graveyards. The journal tells that Marshall Howe had already dug Unwin’s grave in the man’s ‘sweet smelling’ orchard at the back of the property and was carrying his body over his shoulder down the stairs when:
‘The still-warm body started to writhe and thrash.. then shouted out, “I want a posset!”
Edward Unwin was my wife’s tenth great grandfather. He survived the encounter with the ‘plague sexton’ and got his posset from a sympathetic neighbour. The self-appointed sexton fled but is recorded as subsequently continuing his job and surviving the plague. The incident gave voice to the opinion that Marshall may ‘have been overzealous in the execution of his duties several times…’
We know that Edward Unwin survived the plague. My wife, Bernie, hopes that whatever resistant DNA he may have had was passed down through the generations. The posset in question was a mixture of boiled milk, ale, bread and fats – a miner’s favourite sustenance and inexpensive, too.
Edward could not be described as a hero, regardless of his miraculous recovery… But the plague village and the area around it did have its heroes. Eyam, discovering that it was the new centre of a potential explosion of bubonic plague infection, did something remarkable: with some guidance from the clergy, it chose to cut itself off from the surrounding villages and towns, condemning all those ‘within’ to almost certain death.
The credit for this is normally given to William Mompesson, the young local clergyman. But the truth is more complex… Two rectors were involved in the formidable alignment of wills that gave Eyam its fame and historical status.
1662 was the date of the Act of Uniformity. Charles II was on the throne of England and Scotland, and Cromwell’s age of the Puritans had come to an end. The Act of Uniformity forced the ‘ejection’ of hundreds of puritan clergymen from their ‘living’. One of these was Eyam’s much respected rector, Thomas Stanley.
Traditionally, these ‘ejected’ clergyman were expected to leave the region in which they had ministered. But Stanley continued to live close to Eyam – something the nearby Duke of Devonshire had the power to correct but didn’t, such was the standing of the former rector.
The plague arrived in Eyam at the end of August, 1665, in the bite of fleas wrapped in a damp bale of tailor’s cloth. The inexperienced rector knew he had to do something radical but struggled to gain support from the people of Eyam – until he met with Thomas Stanley and shared views across the new religious boundary. Together, they framed the stance the people of Eyam would adopt; to imprison themselves, facing almost certain death, in order to protect the surrounding populations.
The Earl of Devonshire deserves mention in this context, too. He and his family resolutely supported Eyam in its self-imposed isolation. They provided food and other vital supplies for the villagers, left at safe boundary points, for the duration of the plague’s effects.
Space precludes more detail of the beautiful village of Eyam, but Sue Vincent’s recent blog describes our exploration of Eyam in considerable detail.
The day in Eyam had generated heavy hearts, even though these events were four hundred years ago. They let us reflect on the nature of fear… and of love. But this was an important counterpoint to the following day, which would begin on a much more sun-filled note.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.