Eyam, August, 1666.
Dear Hearts,—This brings you the doleful news of your dear mother's death— the greatest loss which ever yet befell you! I am not only deprived of a kind and loving consort, but you also are bereaved of the most indulgent mother that ever dear children had.Thus begins the letter relating the death of Catherine Mompesson to her young children, George and Elizabeth. Its composer: husband, Rev. William Mompesson. The Great Plague had arrived a few months earlier, hidden in a box of infested cloth, but the Reverend and his wife, after some mutual pleading for the other to flee, both decided to stay. They sent their children away.
In Hone's Table Book, verse and prose detail Mompesson's concern for his flock and the new arrangements made for addressing them and delivering his regular sermons. One letter he wrote at the time reveals his personal commitment.
I intend (God willing) to spend most of this week in seeing all the woollen clothes fumed and purified, as well for the satisfaction, as for the safety of the country.
Tomb of Catherine Mompesson [d. August 1666], and nearby ancient cross
Over 7 months of misery, 259 Eyam villagers--four-fifths of the total population--suffered and died. Yet no one fled, and the contagious disease spread no further. Hone reports that Mompesson imported necessary supplies, thereby tempering the desperation with goods, as well as his persuasive words. In their notes to The Desolation of Eyam, William and Mary Botham Howitt suggest that the subject of their poem was more efficient than an army.
What a cordon of soldiers could not have accomplished, was effected by the wisdom and love of one man.* This measure was the salvation of the country. The plague, which would most probably have spread from place to place, may be said to have been here hemmed in, and, in a dreadful and desolating struggle, destroyed and buried with its victims.
Hone concludes his narrative with the following lines.
William Mompesson exercised a power greater than legislators have yet attained. He had found the great secret of government. He ruled his flock by the Law of Kindness.Since then, a few have had luck with those infected and disaffected, by insisting on living and working in the midst of social crisis.
Interview with James Cook [August 2011]
*Another individual, the Rev. Thomas Stanley, also aided his fellow residents of Eyam in their distress. After being forced into retirement for his beliefs, 4 years earlier by the Act of Conformity, Stanley received monetary support from most of the community.
[Table Book, pp. 655-661; 729]
Audio: The World Today (BBC World Service), August 10, 2011, 02:00 GMT