New findings rewrite the story of the Black Death in Britain
- Skeletons discovered by Crossrail had deadly bacterium Yersinia pestis, which causes the Bubonic Plague.
- Poor health and malnutrition may have contributed to the disease spreading quickly.
- Portland Down scientist Tim Brooks* claims the speed at which the black death spread suggests that the outbreak was in fact Pneumonic Plague – a more virulent and crucially more infectious form of the disease. But the research into the Crossrail skeletons has not been able to inform the debate.
- Records indicate that 60% of London’s population died. The equivalent of nearly 5 million people today.
- Ground-penetrating radar in Charterhouse Square reveals extent of an emergency cemetery and that people were carefully buried according to Christian ritual.
The Black Death is the biggest pandemic in history with millions of our ancestors dying in agony, often in a matter of hours, from a disease no one had ever seen before. More than 650 years on, there’s still a mystery at the heart of this catastrophe.
In 2013, a team from Europe’s biggest engineering project, Crossrail, led by archaeologist Jay Carver, dug a shaft on the edge of Charterhouse Square in central London and uncovered a large number of skeletons, neatly buried in layers. They were victims of the Black Death - the worst disaster ever to hit Britain. This was a corner of a long-lost Emergency Burial Ground, created by Edward III’s men in 1348, as the Black Death reached British shores.
How and why the Black Death was such a killer is still unproven. These skeletons could add to the research. For the first time fresh samples of human DNA have been subjected to a brand new scientific test that can not only spot Bubonic plague, but also every other pathogen present.
These new findings, revealed for the first time in a Channel 4 documentary to be screened on Sunday 6 April (Return of the Black Death: Secret History, 8pm), completely rewrite the story of the Black Plague in Britain.
Crossrail commissioned extensive research into the skeletons. When the scientists analysed the skeletons’ teeth the mystery deepened. DNA analysis shows that the victims did have the deadly bacterium Yersinia pestis, which causes the Bubonic and Pneumonic Plague.
So why did Yersinia pestis kill in such numbers in 1349, when the same bacterium doesn’t seem to detonate pandemics today?
Received wisdom suggests that the culprit was Bubonic Plague, spread by the fleas of infected rats. However, Dr Tim Brooks, from Public Health England, Porton Down, is unconvinced: “As an explanation for the Black Death in its own right, it simply isn’t good enough. It cannot spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that we saw during the Black Death epidemics.”
Dr Tim Brooks from Public Health England, Porton Down has uncovered a story that he thinks is key to the mystery. In 1906 in Suffolk, plague killed a whole family, then spread with a neighbour who had come to help to her family; and then to her relatives, who came 50 miles for her funeral. But the culprit wasn’t Bubonic Plague: they had caught an even more virulent version of the disease, Pneumonic Plague. This settles in the lungs of the victim, and spreads swiftly from person to person through their infected breath.
The strain of Yersinia pestis in London in 1349 has previously been compared to the modern bacterium and found it is almost identical to the one that’s present on four continents today. This wasn’t some super-strain of the bug. Plague today is the same as plague in the 14th century.
The Charterhouse skeletons provided clues of why Yersinia pestis caused such high mortality in the 14th century. Crossrail archaeology contractor Don Walker from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) and Jelena Bekvalacs (Museum of London) discovered that these people were already in poor health when the Plague struck. They had rickets, anaemia, bad teeth; and they were also the children of famine. Climate change in the early 14th century meant they had suffered from repeated malnutrition in childhood. A perfect storm of circumstances came together and the people were ripe for the slaughter when the plague reached our shores.
There’s a second mystery about the Black Death. No one knows exactly how many people died. Archaeologist Dr Barney Sloane has been searching out the clues for 20 years: “It was the most lethal catastrophe in recorded human history. There are huge gaps in our knowledge. Historians have guessed, some of them at maybe 10 or 15%, medieval chroniclers were suggesting nine out of every ten people died.” Then he discovered the perfect source of information for London, hidden for hundreds of years. Every will made in the City of London in medieval times had to be registered at the Court of Hustings. These documents are a complete record of the wills of wealthy Londoners during the Black Death. They are touching and personal – as fishmongers and wax candle sellers, grocers and shipwrights hand on their property, their silver spoons and embroidered coverlets to their wives and children, as the plague fell like a dark shroud over the capital.
With painstaking detective work, Dr Sloane has worked out from the wills how death struck the city creating a precise timeline for the pandemic - the rise and fall of nine months of unprecedented terror. For the very first time, he’s also worked out exactly how many people died during the Black Death in London: an astonishing 60% of the population. In today’s terms, that would be very nearly 5 million Londoners dying in the course of just nine months.
What’s astonishing is that the city didn’t fall apart under the strain. As Sloane says: “How do you lose 60 per cent of a city and still have that city function?” You’d think the city would have collapsed under the strain of sometimes 200 bodies a day being buried in the Charterhouse emergency burial ground. Brand new ground penetrating radar reveals these skeletons were part of a giant emergency plague burial ground lost for centuries stretching right under today’s Charterhouse buildings The radar results show they were carefully buried according to Christian ritual and that great care was taken of the dead despite six out of every ten people dying in nine months of the horror. Contrary to received wisdom, dead bodies aren’t a danger to health: “The urgency around burying bodies is not so much one of disease control and medicine, it’s more around the psychological aspects that cause immense human distress when they see a large number of bodies left neglected.” London’s 14th century emergency managers worked on exactly that same principle.
As Tim Brooks, Public Health England, says, plague is far from an historical curiosity: “Plague has everything it requires to cause the Black Death. All it needs is the opportunity. It’s still there. It’s still the one that we used to have, it still has all the power and the threat that it used to have, and it’s only a different set of circumstances that’s keeping it in its place. Plague has what it takes. Plague can do it again.”
Notes to Editors
- *Tim Brooks was not involved in the research into the Crossrail skeletons and has not seen the research associated with the Crossrail skeletons
- RETURN OF THE BLACK DEATH: SECRET HISTORY is a True North production for Channel 4. Transmission: 8pm on 6 April on Channel 4
- Channel 4’s Secret History strand showcases the best in historical journalism.
- To view the programme and for clips please contact: Yad Luthra
- For stills please go to: www.channel4.com/info/press - click on images & then week 15
- For more information regarding the research into the Charterhouse skeletons please visit www.crossrail.co.uk