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The plague in Portsmouth – 1545

The loss of the Mary Rose wasn’t the only misfortune to strike Portsmouth in 1545…

Bubonic plague hit Portsmouth several times in the city’s history, with particularly nasty outbreaks in 1349, 1558, 1625 and 1665/6, but we’re going to take a look at the outbreak that hit Henry VIII’s fleet in September 1545.

Portsmouth, 11th September 1545

The Battle of the Solent had ended with the French withdrawal, efforts had been made to recover the Mary Rose (and failed), but a new shadow was being cast across the military encampment at Portsmouth…

A letter was sent to the king from Lord Lisle (see the bottom of the page for the full thing) telling him that plague “rayneth sore” in the land troops and the sailors on the remaining ships in the fleet. As nobody was willing to enter the infected ships, The plague was spreading quickly, and there had been many deaths. Interesting, despite their infected state, they were still going to collect their pay, as there is reference to them “comen to receyve ther money, full of the markes”. It seems surprising that high ranking officers would allow men with plague to come near them, but they remained unaffected, mainly due to black death being transmitted through lice and fleas, rather than through the air as was believed at the time.

The effects

903 mariners across nine ships in total were infected with the plague, although unfortunately their fates were unrecorded. The mortality rate for bubonic plague was between 50-70%, so while some of the infected may have survived, it’s more likely that a lot of them did not.

This caused a problem for the king, who wanted troops to go to Calais, yet the ones at Portsmouth were infected and sending them to fight would have spread the plague there too. The decision was made to move the uninfected soldiers to Southampton, where they could board a ship and be taken to Calais.

Since this was a military report, there is no mention of how this outbreak affected the civilian population of Portsmouth, but as there is little reference to this outbreak outside of these letters, presumably they got off lightly.

LISLE to KING HENRY VIII.; Portsmouth, 11 Sept. [1545.] The fleet infected with the plague. CCXXXVII.

PLEASETH it Your Majestie to be advertised, that synce the arryvall here of us, the Lord Admyrall, and Sir Thomas Semour, we have conferred with my Lord Chamberlein, upon the state of Your Majesties armye here; and also with Sir Thomas Clere, John Wynter, and others of the Councell of thAdmyraltie, concernyng the same: by whome we do perceyve, that the plage rayneth sore in this said armye, and that dyvers of those shippes, whiche Your Majestie appoynted for to kepe the seas with me, Sir Thomas Seymour, are infected; as it maye appere by the margyne of a boke Of the said shippes names, being noted with a pricke ageinst every of the said shippes; whiche bookel herewith Your Majestie shall receyve. And foras moche as it is thought that the same ships, so being enfected, wyll not be mete to send fourthe at this present, for that fewe or none will willinglie enter into them; and also we thinke that none Of those maryners be meate to be placed into other shippes, we therfore most humblie desire to knowe Your Majesties pleasour in that behalf. And as touching the musters, whiche shuld have ben taken before me, the Lord Chamberlein, and others of the Admiraltie, Of all the soldiours upon the shore, we have respected the same tyll this tyme, for lacke of money, that now is arryved here. And forasmoche as the plage begynneth to be universall within this armye, we have thought mete to mustre onelye the soldiours of those shipps which be not infect, and therupon to make our booke of the hole nombre, being clene, and Shall take the best ordre we can so to preserve them; albeit ther is no suerty therin, for that thei falle sicke nightly, and some have dyed before me, the Lord Chamberleyn, and the Admyraltie, when thei have comen toreceyve ther money, full of the markes. We verylie thinke that the musters of clene men will amount but to a fewe, in respect of those whiche Your Majesties pleasour is to have to Calice; and whether the same, commyng out of this infection, shall be mete to joyne with the rest of Your Majesties armye at Calice, we reserve it to Your Highnes great wisedome. And where Your Highnes hathe appointed the great hulke, that came last, to be one of the shippes that Your Highnes will have to the sea, and the same shippe to be unladen for that purpose, Your Highnes shall understand, that her ladyng is coper, and other marchandise, of great value, and the goodes of dyvers marchandes, harde to please : and therfore the capteyne, being therof moved at severall tymes for aunswer, saythe that Your Majestie maye do your pleasour, he will not be ageinst it, but he dare not take upon him to consent to the doyng therof; and if it shalbe Your Graces plesour to have it done, ther is no place to receyve it nerer than Hampton; whiche will have a long tyme, bycause the ship can not come nye the towne, and yet there must be one apointed to take the charge therof: wherin we desire the knowelege of Your Majesties pleasour. And thus the Holie Trynitie pre serve Your Majestie in long lif, helthe, and victorye, to reygn and contynew.

At Portesmothe, the 11‘h of September, 9 at clock at night.

Your Highnes most humble Servantes,

(Signed) JOHN LISLE. W. SEINT JOHN. T. SEYMOUR.

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