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Wallingford Castle - Christ Church's 'plague' house

Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Monday, March 9, 2020

Document of the Month - March 2020

Christ Church Archives, Maps Wallingford 1

For some strange reason, it seems an appropriate time to talk about plagues! We all remember the really big outbreaks of bubonic and pneumonic plagues in 1348 and 1349 (the Black Death) and in 1665 but, in reality, there was rarely a time when some sort of disease – including influenza, typhoid, malaria - wasn’t raging across the country and particularly in the cities. Medieval and later monarchs would leave London when things were especially bad taking refuge in country houses.

The Black Death came to Oxford in November 1348, five months after it had arrived on our shores at Weymouth and having travelled along the Thames and with merchants travelling from the coast through Winchester and on to the Midlands and London. It is probably no coincidence that a guild of barber-surgeons was incorporated in Oxford that year and maintained a light in the Lady Chapel. Oxford suffered particularly in the early months of 1349 but St Frideswide’s priory, and the other monastic institutions, probably fared better than most. The residents were better-fed and so healthier and, of course, could easily shut themselves off from the town.

Map showing Christ Church's holdings in WallingfordSoon after its foundation, the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church purchased a property in Wallingford specifically to be a place of refuge, at least for the senior members, during times of infection in Oxford. Far enough away to be safe but close enough for business to continue as usual.

It was quite a substantial property: the Dean’s Lodging had a hall, two parlours, gallery, buttery, kitchen and other chambers; the Priest’s House was similar in size and included the cloister of the old St Nicholas’s College which had been within the walls of the town’s castle; and the Clerk’s Lodging which had its own stables. There were gardens and orchards to keep the residence supplied with fresh fruit and vegetables. We know that at least some members of Christ Church were resident there for nearly half of 1564 and again in 1577.

In 1665, however, when the Great Plague took hold, Oxford was seen as a far better and healthier place to be than London so Charles II and his Court came here having decided that Hampton Court was not sufficiently distant. With him came Parliament and the judiciary. Charles was resident from September 1665 until February 1666 with the King in the Deanery and the Duke of York established in the brand new lodgings on the north side of the Great Quadrangle.

As late as 1918, influenza was causing chaos. The Armistice Day celebrations in the cathedral had to be postponed as the choir and organist were all down with the illness and quite a few members who served in the armed forces, and as medical personnel during the 1st World War died from flu rather than from injuries. But we are still here…!

Click the small image to view a larger version.