Over the course of eight days in August 1667, Elizabeth Hancock lost her six children and her husband. Covering her mouth with a handkerchief against the stench of decay, she dragged their bodies to a nearby field and buried them.
Hancock’s loved ones were victims of the Black Death, the deadly plague that intermittently reared its head in Europe between the 13th and 17th Centuries, killing an estimated 150 million people. The epidemic of 1664 to 1666 was particularly notorious, and the last major outbreak of the disease in England. Some 100,000 people, one quarter of the city’s population, died in London alone.
Amid the devastation, the sleepy Peak District village of Eyam, home to Hancock and her family, became the site of one of the most heroic acts of self-sacrifice in British history – and one of the main reasons the plague’s march was halted.
Today, in Eyam, located 35 miles southeast of Manchester, all seems well in the world. Children pick fat purple blackberries from the hedgerows just outside the village; cyclists speed down the treacherously steep roads, their wheels slicking over fallen leaves. A pretty commuter village of 900 residents, Eyam has all the requisite English attractions: pubs, cosy cafes and an idyllic church.
Stand here 450 years ago, though, and you would have looked down onto a village ravaged by the Black Death. You would have seen empty streets, the doors daubed with white crosses, and heard the wails of the dying from behind closed doors.
The plague reached Eyam in the summer of 1665 when a London merchant sent flea-infested cloth samples to the local tailor, Alexander Hadfield. Within a week, Hadfield’s assistant, George Vickers, had died a prolonged and agonising death. Before long, the rest of the household had fallen ill and died.