The Black Death, Coronavirus and Bishop Ralph

7th - 22nd July

Ralph of Shrewsbury – Bishop of Bath and Wells 1329

Died 1363 – Wiveliscombe

**Some comparisons with  the approach to The Black Death of 1348 and to Coronavirus 2020 – Mike King **

Bishop Ralph’s tenure, as the Bishop of Bath and Wells, coincided with the spread of  ‘The Black Death’ in 1348.

Ralph of Shrewsbury’s early life is not documented but he later studied at Oxford where he became a Doctor of Theology and Canon Law. This led to a successful career in the Catholic Church, becoming a prebendary in Salisbury Cathedral in 1297, a Canon in Wells in 1328, Chancellor of Oxford University in 1329 and elected Bishop of Bath and Wells later in the same year. He was not the first choice for that position as the Pope and indeed the King, Edward 111 were not in favour – they had  their own candidates in mind. If Ralph was to be successful, he had to apply a certain amount of persuasion of his own.

Letters were written to the Pope on Ralph’s behalf by notable English Catholics and in 1330 he paid the Pope two thousand florins as a good will gesture – he  approved. He next, had to win over the King. The King and Queen and their whole court were invited to spend Christmas in Wells in 1331. They travelled from Wareham to Glastonbury in December 1331, and three days later to Wells. They stayed there in the Bishop’s Palace, whilst Ralph moved out to his palace in Wookey. Banquets and entertainment were laid on in the Great Hall and members of the royal court lodged in the surrounding buildings on Cathedral Green. Christmas and New Year were celebrated in the Cathedral. The entertainment consisted of jousting, bear baiting, hunting, dancing, and feasting. Food, including 86 barrels of wine, 349 barrels of beer dishes of pike, eel, salmon and hake plus lamb, beef, boar etc This cost Bishop Ralph £6 10s 8d – approximately £9,500 in today’s money but good value when compared with the 2000 florins he had paid to the Pope.

All this left him short of capital and, as a result, one of his first administrative acts was to increase church taxes and tythes across his diocese – a very unpopular move. This unpopularity was to remain with him for the rest of his life.

The Bishopric of Bath and Wells provided an extremely good living for its incumbent Bishops. In fact, it was one of the most prestigious appointments in the country. Ralph’s income was generated from the six Wells town mills and numerous other mills associated with the city of Bath and surrounding areas. There were also tythes from the wool and textile industries, mineral rights from the lead on the Mendips and the coal mined in the Somerset coal fields around Midsomer Norton. Added to that was timber from the Mendip Forest and agricultural tythes from the extensive lands owned by the Church Commissioners. Along with the Bishops Palace in Wells, he also owned palaces in Bath, Wiveliscombe and Wookey.

After settling his differences with the Pope and the King, in 1333 he set about administering to his diocese and reinforcing his authority. He employed a small army of up to 100 clerical officers to support him. First, he moved to reform abuses in the monasteries and religious houses. He clamped down on the bribery, sodomy, conjugal intercourse, and unlawful sex that existed then amongst the clergy. He noted in his diary that he had particularly serious clerical issues to deal with in Banwell, Evercreech, Chew, Muchelney, Cannington, Keynsham and Ilchester.

He attempted to settle longstanding disputes concerning taxes and market rights and tolls and Sunday trading. The market towns of Wells, Yeovil and Taunton were heavily involved with this perceived illegal trading. His authoritarian approach was unpopular and created great unrest and even rioting amongst the town folk. His small army of clerical officers reinforced the law, punishing  miscreants with fines, public floggings, imprisonment and sometimes even excommunication.

During troubled or dangerous times, he  removed himself to his palace in Wiveliscombe, where he felt safe. This was only a temporary solution as his preferred his palace was in Wells. He continued working on the construction of the West side of the Cathedral and modernised and fortified his Palace there, to deter outside incursions. At great expense, he obtained permission from the King to crenelate and fortify the Bishops Palace. He created a mote, drawbridge, and a heavy gate, a portcullis and drawbridge, operated by machinery above the entrance, and spouts through which defenders could pour scalding liquids onto attackers. He also built  Vicars Close and had it enclosed at either end, building a covered over ground walkway leading directly into the Cathedral. This was to protect the choral vicars from the temptations of the town – St Thomas Street, just round the corner, was a notorious red-light district.

He had a large metal safe with several locks installed in the chapel of Vicars Close where Diocesan money would be secure. He also put a mechanical apparatus in place in the palace grounds to switch on and off the water supply to the fountain, freshwater outlets and water closets in the Market Place and surrounding buildings. Turning off the water would act as a deterrent to rebellious displays by the locals.

Disputes continued over the years and in 1343,  two major riots occurred in Wells and Yeovil where his officers were assaulted whilst trying to enforce jurisdiction over the fairs and markets and Sunday trading.

He did make one popular move however, and that was to deforest the Royal Hunting Forest of Mendip, close to the episcopal manors of Cheddar and Axbridge. All hunted beasts (deer, wild boar etc) were removed and this freed the poor from the oppressions of the foresters employed by the King. It also led to their employment in the timber trade and charcoal businesses and allowed free men grazing rights on the common grounds that were created.

In 1348, Somersetshire was one of the first areas of the country to experience the Black Death. It spread from Weymouth in Dorset that year all over the South West. The populace looked to the Church and, Ralph for a cure and an explanation. During the most devastating period of the ‘Plague’ or ‘Pestilence’, between November 1348 and May 1349, it was estimated that possibly a third of the population of his diocese died, and, ‘so bad was the shortage of priests, so few were clergy,’ that ‘Emergency’, or its Latin equivalent, was the word used by Ralph in January 1349, six months after the plague began in England. The monasteries, priories and abbeys were left deserted, their inmates had either died or fled to safer places.

Ralph was obliged to explain this devastating virus to the population in terms of the bible. His prognosis was that they were all sinners, and that this was an Act of God to punish them. People should pray loudly and often!  On 17 August 1348, he sent letters throughout his diocese ordering ‘processions and stations to be held in all churches on every Friday and offering indulgences to those who should, by prayers and almsgiving, seek to avert the divine wrath.’ The processions brought large crowds together and, it was quickly observed, that they resulted in even more virulence. Priests and people died like flies. Ralph had to halt the processions almost immediately.

During the worst of the plague, August 1348 to May 1349, he remained in his palace in Wiveliscombe (Socially Isolating), far away from the tragedy that was taking place.

As the plague progressed, in January 1349, Ralph, circulated a desperate letter to all surviving priests in his diocese,  trying to bolster their morale and reinforce his authority:‘The contagious pestilence of the present day, which is spreading far and wide, has left many parish churches and other livings in our diocese without parson or priest to care for their parishioners. Since no priests can be found who are willing, whether out of zeal and devotion or in exchange for a stipend, to take on the pastoral care of these aforesaid places, nor to visit the sick and administer to them the Sacraments of the Church … we understand that many people are dying without the Sacrament of Penance. These people have no idea what recourses are open to them in such a case of need and believe that, whatever the straits they may be in, no confession of their sins is useful or meritorious unless it is made to a duly ordained priest. We, therefore, wishing, as is our duty, to provide for the salvation of souls and to bring back from their paths of error those who have wandered, do strictly enjoin and command on the oath of obedience that you have sworn to us, you, the rectors, vicars and parish priests in all your churches, and you, the deans elsewhere in your deaneries where the comfort of a priest is denied the people, that, either yourselves or through some other person you should at once publicly command and persuade all men, in particular those who are now sick or should fall sick in the future, that, if they are on the point of death and cannot secure the services of a priest, then they should make confession to each other, as is permitted in the teaching of the Apostles, whether to a layman or, if no man is present, then even to a woman. We urge you, by these present letters, in the bowels of Jesus Christ, to do this …’

There follows an assurance that people shouldn’t fear to confess because the lay confessors are bound by the same canonical secrecy as the ordained, which if they break, should “incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the whole Church.” Then, even more interestingly,” The Sacrament of the Eucharist, when no priest is available, may be administered by a deacon. If, however, there is no priest to administer the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, then, as in other matters, faith must suffice.”

Pope Clement VI, the Pope at the time, was searching for a way to explain the Black Death to his vast empire. Ralph had sent him copies of his letter and the Pope was happy to adopt them as his own. He had them distributed, in Latin, across the empire. Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells became famous. He was controversial too, as he had acknowledged the role that women could play in these fearful times.

All the time Ralph was in Wiveliscombe, The Pope chose to stay safe in his palace in Avignon. He survived the worst of the plague, though a third of his cardinals died. His survival may have been due, in large part, to his doctors’ advice to sit between two huge fires, all day and night and even in through the heat of the summer.

The people continued to blame the Church for the Plague. But Ralph, stubbornly, continued with his strict enforcement of rules and regulations. On 25 November 1349, Bishop Ralph again visited Yeovil to shut down illegal Sunday trading. (Yeovil was thought to have been the hardest hit town in the area. It was estimated that fifty percent of Yeovil’s population died because of the plague.) A mob attacked the Bishop and his entourage. They were forced to retreat to the vestry of St John’s Church, where they remained all night. The following morning some of the rioters broke into the church. As one of the priests tried to talk with the mob, their ringleader, Roger de Warmwelle, struck the priest and the mob erupted. The event was recorded in the Bishop’s Register“…. the liberty of the Church was violated by a great multitude of people who, like armed conspirators, invaded it with bows and arrows, bars of iron, stones and other divers’ arms and attacked priests. Blood was sacrilegiously and unjustly spilt in the Church. Not content with this, they sacrilegiously, and with great tumult, not regarding his divine office, and like the Devil incarnate, injuriously abused the Bishop with contumelious words, and this tumult they continued until dark.”

There were dire consequences. The church itself was interdicted by the Pope and the townspeople, who had taken part in the riot, were excommunicated. De Warmwelle and several other rioters were made to do public penance and suffer humiliation on several Sundays in the marketplaces of Yeovil, Bath, Wells, Bristol, Somerton and Glastonbury. They were punished by ‘triple fustigation’ (to cudgel, or beat, with a short heavy stick). The  market disputes and Sunday trading arguments continued for the rest of Ralph’s life and up to his death. Nearing the end of his life, in 1360, he again threatened to excommunicate anyone who attended  Sunday markets.

Resentment remained, and the disputes continued. Bishop Ralph was never popular with the populace and died in his palace in Wiveliscombe on 14 Aug 1363. He is buried in Wells Cathedral, in an alabaster tomb with his effigy above. Perhaps, to make up for his actions in life, in his will, he left a third part of his estate to the poor, a third part to the mendicant friars, and a third to his poor relatives and servants.

Notice on the Website of Wells Cathedral April 2020 – Coronavirus Action.

“In line with guidance from the Government and National Church, Wells Cathedral is now closed for public access. Public worship has also been suspended. The clergy of the Cathedral continue to say their prayers in their homes, and they are praying for all in our society during this emergency.  Be assured of that. A pastoral network for support and care has been established here and if that would be a help to you, please make contact with [email protected]. **The Cathedral website and social media channels will continue to carry updates, with words from the clergy and music from the Choir. This comes with every blessing in challenging times and the assurance of God’s love for each one.”


Extracts taken from The Register of Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, 1329-1363. From the original in the registry at Wells by Catholic Church. Diocese of Bath and Wells (England). Bishop (1329-1363 : Ralph of Shrewsbury); Holmes, T. Scott (Thomas Scott), 1852-1918 ed

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