In the summer of 1665, as the great plague ripped the heart out of the medieval city of London, people were still managing to bury the dead in coffins, correctly aligned in the traditional Christian east-west position wherever possible, according to the evidence of newly excavated plague graves.
The proof from a plague pit at the Bethlem burial ground, where the last of 4,000 skeletons are being excavated before a new Crossrail station is built beside Liverpool Street station, contradicts apparent witness accounts of bodies having been thrown naked into pits.
Jay Carver, the head archaeologist on the Crossrail site, said: “There are many examples of head-to-toe burials, apparently adopted due to real lack of space, but mostly head west, east feet.”
But unlike other medieval plague pits, the Crossrail bodies were coffined even when space didn’t allow an east-west alignment. Carver said: “It seems that even at this time of crisis, people were making considerable efforts to give their dead a decent Christian burial.”
Plague generally left no marks on the skeleton, but at Bethlem the densely packed pit is also an indicator of plague deaths. In one particularly dense group, although the bodies were laid out in every direction, all were coffined.
The pit was found near a gravestone bearing the date 1665; a rare discovery in the cemetery where the original surface, and many of the burials, have been disturbed by later developments. Although hundreds of bodies are being recovered, the site of this last section of the excavation turned out to be smaller than expected because part of it proved to have been destroyed by a booking office wall from the Victorian-era station. The gravestone survived because it was re-used in a later wall.
Mike Henderson, a specialist in human bones at Museum of London Archaeology (Mola), said many skeletons believed to be from the layer of plague victims were being removed for laboratory analysis. Scientists have already extracted DNA from the skeletons of victims from earlier plague outbreaks, and hope to find out if the Bethlem bones reveal the same strain of the disease.
The careful burials appear to contradict vivid accounts by writers such as Daniel Defoe, who was a five-year-old child in 1665, but drew on the memories of family members, including his uncle, for his Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe described a man hysterical with grief, following the death cart carrying his wife and several of his children. “The cart had in it sixteen or seventeen bodies; some were wrapt up in linen sheets some in rags, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart and they fell quite naked among the rest.”
On 16 August 1665 the diarist Samuel Pepys recorded his terror at coming upon an uncoffined corpse being taken for burial. “To my great trouble I met a dead Corps, of the Plague, in the narrow alley, just bringing down a little pair of stairs … I shall beware of being late abroad again.”
At Bethlem – the burial ground built on the site of the old Bedlam mental hospital when it moved to nearby Moorgate – Carver’s team of Mola archaeologists is working through a 2-metre layer packed almost solid with 17th century burials. Many of them were from the great plague, which was the last of centuries of devastating epidemics to have ravaged the crowded city.
The burial ground had been opened a century earlier to relieve pressure on the already overcrowded parish church graveyards. By the end of the plague year, the clergyman Thomas Vincent wrote: “the churchyards were choked … stuft so full with dead corpses that they are in many places swell’d two or three feet higher than they were before”.
In the stifling heat of the summer of 1665 the death toll rose inexorably, tracked in the Bills of Mortality compiled weekly by each parish and preserved in the archives of the Guildhall Library.
The originals – brought to the king and the lord mayor by 8am each Thursday, and on sale at a penny a sheet or four shillings for an annual subscription by 10am – are now on display in an exhibition in the library, which has the largest collection of such records in the world.
The figures showed it was the worst outbreak in England since the Black Death of 1348. By the first fortnight of August 1665, deaths had reached more than 2,000 a week, and in September they reached their peak of more than 7,000. This compared with fewer than 100 in a week from all causes earlier in the year.
Officially 68,596 plague deaths were recorded, roughly 15% of the entire population of London, but the true total was probably more than 100,000 since people were desperate to conceal plague infection because of the dire consequences for their families. Many of the deaths recorded as fever, flux, or “griping of the guts” were almost certainly plague.
Many came to view the attempt to wall up infected people in their houses, along with their families and servants, as useless, as well as cruel.
As the plague swept through London , the parishes recorded the disaster in elegantly neat handwriting. Though one page reveals a very human tragedy: “In the middle of one week the handwriting changes completely,” the librarian Isabelle Chevallot pointed out. “The clerk was dead.”
• London’s Dreadful Visitation, Guildhall Library London, free, until 11 September
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