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The Great PlagueA People's History$

Evelyn Lord

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780300173819

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300173819.001.0001

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The Infected Summer

The Infected Summer

(p.55) Chapter 5 The Infected Summer
The Great Plague

Evelyn Lord

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the first plague victim in the parish of St. Clement. A group of teenagers who lived in the parish spent time congregating by the Great Bridge where they earned a few pennies holding horses for travellers or directing them to local inns. One of the teenagers on the bridge was Jacob, aged 14, son of Francis King and his wife Jane. It had been another exceptionally hot and sunny day when Jacob’s face became unnaturally red and a red spot appeared on his arm. That night, Jacob slept uneasily, sometimes shuddering and crying, and buboes appeared on his armpits. He died on August 15, 1665.

Keywords:   plague, St. Clement, Great Bridge, Jacob King, Francis King, buboes

IN THAT SUMMER of 1665 the riverside parish of St Clement had a smell all of its own: rotting vegetation on the riverbank and from the ooze of black mud where the river had dried up, mingled with the sweet malt smell from Thompson’s Brewery. The King’s Ditch re-entered the river here, and passers-by noticed and shuddered at the great number of dead rats lying around the ditch. The houses in St Clement’s were crowded together in courts, alleys and yards, and Bridge Street was one of the busiest streets in Cambridge. Shops, inns and the parish church fronted it, and it was always thronged with shoppers buying meat from James Wendy’s butcher’s shop, bread from John Hill’s bakery or drapery from Widow Linsey, or stopping for a drink at one of its many inns.1

A group of teenagers who lived in the parish were firm friends, and spent as much time as possible together. In summer, when their elders allowed them some free time, they went to Jesus Green to kick a leather ball about or, if it was too hot, to lie in the long grass by the river to banter and gossip, and share a jug of ale or a pipe of tobacco.

(p.56) On Jesus Green was a number of timber-framed huts set in a compound with a strong fence and a padlocked gate. The teenagers accepted these as part of the scenery; a few even squeezed through the fence to look inside, and reported that the huts were like empty houses, and some even had beds in them, a fact stored away for the future as a place where a girl could be taken for some privacy.

Earlier in the year there had been activity in the sheds. Holes in the roofs were repaired, the wattle and daub walls had been lime-washed and stouter padlocks added to all the doors. The teenagers and children of St Clement’s were told to stay way from Jesus Green on pain of a severe beating. The huts were pest houses being prepared for an epidemic of plague. Banned from Jesus Green, the teenagers took to congregating by the Great Bridge, where they could watch travellers arriving in town and perhaps earn a few pennies holding horses or directing people to local inns.

One of the teenagers on the bridge was Jacob, aged 14, the son of Francis King a tailor and his wife Jane. The Kings had lived in St Clement’s parish since 1646, and had buried two children in the parish churchyard, Alice aged two in 1648 and Francis, also aged two, in 1655, followed by their mother Jane in 1658, so that Jacob and his father were left to fend for themselves. Jacob ran wild until the parish overseers of the poor took him in hand and apprenticed him to David Bowen, a shoemaker.2 It took Jacob some time to get used to the discipline of work, but in 1665 with only a few years left of his apprenticeship he looked forward to becoming a journeyman and setting up on his own. When his friends asked him what he did, he leered and said he measured the feet of pretty ladies, but really he found great satisfaction in cutting out leather to exact measurements and creating a shoe which would last for years.

On the evening of Sunday 13 August the young people gathered on the bridge as usual.3 They included the Pawston brothers, Daniel, (p.57) Samuel and Luke, and their big sister Alice aged 15, Jennet Bird aged 13, her 11-year-old brother John and their little sister Ann aged seven; with them was Ann Austin, a mystery girl who had moved into the parish recently with her father Robert.4

It had been another exceptionally hot and sunny day. In the morning the group on the bridge had been to the parish church, as they were obliged to do, and had taken part in prayers for those visited by the sickness in Cambridge and London. Now they had a few hours of liberty before starting work on the Monday morning.

They were all brown as nuts from the sun, but Jacob King’s face was unnaturally red and he rubbed discontentedly at a red spot on his arm. A flea bite, he supposed. He decided he had had enough for one day and would visit his father and spend the night with him, as it would be a relief to get away from Bowen’s 19-year- old bully of a son, Thomas.5

Usually Jacob would have run home, but this time he walked because his legs felt heavy. He found his father sitting at the front door of his house which doubled as his tailor’s workshop. Jacob walked through the workshop to the kitchen at the back to get a drink of small ale from an earthenware jug standing in a bowl of water to keep it cool. A small spit and fire jack stood in the empty hearth, with a kettle beside it, and a warming pan hung nearby. There were a table and bench, some wooden platters, a bowl and knife on a hanging shelf. It was not luxurious, but it was comfortable. In a chamber up a short flight of stairs was his father’s wooden bed with its rope base and feather mattress, bolster and an old sheet, and beneath the bed was a pull-out trundle bed, which Jacob pulled out and lay on.6 When his father came up to see if he would like some bread and cheese, Jacob vomited.

Francis King looked at his son, whose face was burning, and decided to take some of his small hoard of cash and buy lotion from Peter Dent the apothecary who lived just across the road, in a house that backed on to Holy Sepulchre church (the Round Church). Dent (p.58) sold Francis a lotion of distilled water made from the leaves and flowers of borage, grown in Dent’s physic garden.7 Borage not only helped to reduce fever, but in the seventeenth century was also thought to reduce melancholy and depression, and melancholy was seen as a symptom of plague.8

It was during the 1665–66 plague that the trade of the apothecary became recognised as an honourable profession, as they stayed put while physicians fled from infected towns and cities. Apothecaries served a seven-year apprenticeship in which they learned about diseases, symptoms, and potions to help the sufferer. At the end of his apprenticeship the apothecary set up shop and not only sold medicines but also traded in other commodities such as dried fruit, tobacco, thread and oils.

There were five apothecaries in Cambridge during the 1665–66 plague outbreak. As well as Peter Dent there was Alderman Artemus Hinde who lived in St Giles parish, William Frisby and Martin Buck, friends of Samuel Newton, and Charles Gilman. Of these, Peter Dent was the most distinguished. A native of Cambridge born in 1629 he attended Trinity College between 1649 and 1650. It is not known where he served his apprenticeship, but he set up his own shop in Bridge Street in 1657. He was involved in town affairs, acting as inspector of tobacco at Stourbridge Fair in 1656, 1660 and 1667, and at Midsummer Fair in 1659. When he died in 1689 he was described in his will as an apothecary and Reader of Physic, having been given a licence to practise as a physician ‘on recommendation’. He left his business to his son Pierce and asked him to keep on his apprentice William Smith for his full term.9

Apothecaries needed a working knowledge of Latin and a good knowledge of plants as most of their remedies were herb based. Some of these might soothe the plague patient, but none could cure.

(p.59) During the night Jacob fell into an uneasy sleep, sometimes shuddering or crying out.10 The buboes appeared in his armpits. There was no doubt that it was the plague. On 15 August 1665 Jacob died. He was the first plague victim in St Clement’s. As the bell tolled for his passing, so news spread through the streets. Francis King was shut up in the house of death, and no one followed Jacob’s body to the churchyard, although as it passed the almshouses Widows Walker and Lamb whispered prayers for his soul. Plague victims in Cambridge had to be buried before sun-rising or after sun-setting, and no friends or neighbours were allowed to attend, enter the house of the dead, or gawp at the corpse from a doorway.11

As Jacob lay dying, Cambridge corporation decided to cancel the dinner to mark the election of a new mayor, and the Cambridge Bills of Mortality started to appear fortnightly from 10 August 1665 onwards. The Bill for 10–25 August 1665 recorded seventeen burials in the town of which five were of plague victims.12 Samuel Newton received the London Bills of Mortality for 15–22 August, and laboriously copied the figures into his diary. ‘Buried within the walls 538, whereof of plague buried 366. Buried in the 16 parishes without the walls of plague 2139.’13

On 24 August the corporation rather belatedly ordered that ‘in regard to information that plague is in every parish in the kingdom, for sundry measures in this town, all public meetings are banned’.14 This meant that the election of a new mayor was cancelled, along with the civic festivities that would have accompanied it.

The incubation period for the plague was 2–6 days after exposure, but it could be as long as 10–12 days; while death could take place within 1–2 days, some lingered in pain for much longer.15 The next two plague victims in St Clement’s may have been infected from the same source as Jacob King. Grace, the daughter of Joseph Gilbert, and the mystery girl Ann Austin were both buried on 30 August.16

(p.60) Two days later another of the teenagers on the bridge Daniel Pawston died, on 9 September seven-year- old Ann Bird, and on 13 September Thomas, son of James King.17

When Daniel Pawston died of the plague the house where he lived with his family was closed up, the door nailed shut, and the red cross and the words ‘Lord Have Mercy Upon Us’ painted across it. The house was guarded by watchmen who stood outside day and night to prevent anyone escaping.18 Inside were Daniel’s parents and his brothers and sisters, all suffering from the plague. In the heat of the summer they sweated and cried out for water. The buboes burst on Samuel, Daniel’s brother, leaving blood and pus to be cleared up by their already ailing mother, and little Alice Pawston could not breathe and died blue in the face and choking. Samuel died on 15 September, his mother the day after, and the last two Pawston children Luke and Alice on 18 September 1665.

The Pawstons’ house was deserted, and it remained empty until after forty days the bedding clothes and soft furnishings were taken out and burned and the house fumigated with limewash and pitch. In later life, Sir Edward Southcote wrote to his son: ‘I well remember when I was five years old, the time of the Great Plague of the smoking of the houses with pitch, and the dismal stories that were brought in of people lying dead in the highway that nobody dared bury.’19 This is corroborated by Samuel Pepys, who recorded in his diary that on 15 August 1665 he saw a plague corpse lying abandoned in an alley, and on the 22nd as he walked to Greenwich that he saw an open coffin, with a plague victim inside it, lying outside a farm.20

The Cambridge Bills of Mortality from 7 to 14 September 1665 reported sixteen plague burials of which six were in the pest house, eight in St Clement’s parish, and two in the parish of St Andrew the Great.21 The first two plague deaths in St Andrew’s were those of (p.61) Jonas Bayley and his three-year-old son George. They lived in a house leased from Jonas’s father George, a freeman and burgess of the town, who lived in a substantial house with five hearths in All Saints parish. Jonas had been made a freeman in August 1660, and could look forward to becoming a burgess and leasing a booth at Stourbridge Fair. This was not an impoverished family, and although their occupations are not known, they were in the middle rank of society. Jonas’s widow died of the plague on 26 September, leaving George senior to care for baby Alice, aged one year.22

St Clement’s was fast becoming the epicentre of the plague. By mid-September seven houses were closed and marked with the red cross, and at least one parishioner, Goodwife Bowring, died in the ‘old pest house’ at Ball’s Folly (Lensfield Road); others were in the pest house on Jesus Green, awaiting their fate.

Plague was identified across the river in St Peter’s parish as early as August 1665. St Peter’s was a small parish with much of its land taken up with pools of stagnant water and willow stands, breeding grounds for mosquito-borne infections, and its houses were mostly poor and crowded together in yards and closes. In particular there were three small houses built into Charles Day’s yard, and four families living in one cottage owned by Thomas Mace, the bailiff of Reach Fair and town treasurer.23

The churchwardens of St Peter’s, Henry Mulliner and William Goodes, were also overseers of the poor. As there were few ratepayers living in St Peter’s they had very limited resources, and no option but to send the infected to the pest houses on Jesus Green, where eight unnamed inhabitants of St Peter’s parish died in August 1665 and a further twelve in September. Their names are unrecorded; they appear only as numbers in the parish register and their deaths do not appear in the Bills of Mortality. But this parish of about 340 souls in two months lost 6 per cent of its population.24

(p.62) St Giles was one of the two parishes across the River Cam from the town centre. Its houses sprawled up Castle Hill and Castle End, around the castle itself, and beside the church on Chesterton Lane. Cambridge’s West Fields edged onto this parish, and the inhabitants of St Giles helped with the harvest in the fields, trudged out in the cold and mud to plough and sow, and sent their children to pick up stones and scare birds from the crops. They could supplement their diet by snaring a rabbit or two on the field, pick blackberries, crab apples and quinces from the hedgerows to turn into preserves, and the more adventurous might venture into the village of Girton to scrump apples and pears, or bag a duck from the Wash Brook.

The inhabitants of St Giles heard the bell tolling across the river in St Clement’s, but hoped they might escape infection this time. After all, they reasoned, the parish was self-sufficient, it had its own butcher, baker and fishmonger, and its own apothecary, so if they were careful and people did not wander into town they might be all right. Parents impressed on their children that they should not cross the river or meet their friends on the riverside quay, but they could not keep an eye on them all day long.

St Giles was another poor and overcrowded parish, and here the first plague death took place in a one-roomed hovel which Richard Palmer rented from Mrs Thurlowe. His little daughter Marie died of the plague on 12 September 1665, his two-year-old son Edward on 15 October and his wife Susanna on 15 November. The Palmers had been married in St Giles church on 14 October 1660. From Marie’s death to the death of his wife Richard had been shut up in his one room with the dying. He heard the cries of pain, but could do nothing. Pails of water were left for him, and the overseers of the poor left bread, as he had no money to buy provisions. The overseers shook their heads, and muttered that the plague would stretch their resources to the limit.25

(p.63) The plague had settled in St Giles. The next family affected were the Leakes. They were not wealthy, and were bringing up a family of four in a two-roomed cottage on Castle Hill. Robert was a labourer who picked up work where he could, sometimes as a porter on the Quayside and sometimes in the West Fields. When their daughter Alice died from the plague on 21 September, there was an air of resignation about her parents, as if they’d expected this to happen. Alice’s brother Robert died on 4 October, and their father a day later, leaving their mother to care for her two surviving children. Their cottage was rented from Thomas Archer, who was not best pleased when it was closed up for forty days and he received no rent.26

The infection continued in St Clement’s. Nathaniel Aungier who was a lodger in the parish died of the plague and was buried on 27 September 1665, and on the same day John, the son of Henry Gunnell, was buried. Henry Gunnell was the landlord of the Blackamoor’s Head, a popular inn on Bridge Street, owned by Peter Lightfoot a local fishmonger and alderman.27 Closing the inn for forty days meant a loss of revenue for him and a loss of employment for its potmen, cooks, ostlers and servants, as well as loss of trade for those shopkeepers who provided it with beer, bread, meat and cheese. The plague was an economic disaster as well as a tragedy for those who lost loved ones. When Henry Gunnell and his wife came out of quarantine they gave up the inn and moved across the road to St John’s Lane, where Henry died in 1667.28

The day after John Gunnell was buried, Ann Russell, ‘the bastard daughter of Thomas Russell’, joined him in the churchyard. Thomas Russell was an innkeeper in St Bene’t’s parish who was accused by Alice Bradman in 1658 of being the father of her child. He denied this, but as he was known in the town as a lady’s man he was made to swear an oath and give a bond to the parish overseers of the poor that (p.64) he would contribute to the upkeep of the child. He gave Ann his surname and put her out to be fostered with a family in St Clement ’s.29

Harleston Lane was a small twisting lane in the centre of St Clement’s, leading off from Bridge Street towards the King’s Ditch and Jesus Green. Here there was an enclave of shops and houses, some leased from St John’s College and then sublet by John Bullin, a haberdasher.30 One of his tenants was Luke Horne, who may have come from Wisbech where Horne was a common surname in the seventeenth century. The Horne family tried to avoid going anywhere near the closed-up houses, but to no avail. On 29 September 1665 Mary and Frances, Luke’s daughters, aged eight and ten respectively, died of the plague and were buried at the same time as John Stokes, Luke’s servant and also a plague victim. Luke’s wife Susan was taken away to the pest house on Jesus Green where she died, and Luke was left with one remaining daughter, Susan aged twelve. Luke died two years later, and was buried on 10 May 1668. Susan, left to fend for herself, disappears from the records.31

Like the Horne girls, many of those who died in the early stages of the plague in Cambridge were children or teenagers. Statistically there was a strong probability that children would be plague victims, as most households in seventeenth-century England contained children, usually at least two or three. There were children in the houses and children in the streets. Life was undertaken amidst a continual babble of childish voices and childish distractions – demands for food and drink, tears to be mopped up, cuts and grazes to be bathed, arguments to be settled. There were 13 children in the early plague houses in Holy Trinity, 11 in St Andrews’ and 30 in six plague houses in St Clement’s. When the children died, and their friends were stopped from going outside their houses for fear of infection, silence descended on the streets.

The ubiquity of children and the high infant death rate have led to the conclusion that children were not valued, their deaths were not (p.65) mourned as those of adults were mourned, and that it was difficult to establish warm personal relationships in the seventeenth century. Infants were often deprived of a mother-figure at an early age, sometimes at birth, so, it is argued, the high death rate for all ages meant that children quickly became wary of placing emotional capital in others. Rage, sensory, physical and emotional deprivation among children created an adult society of emotional cripples, with parents unable to relate to and love their offspring.32

This depressing view of seventeenth-century family life has been challenged as a myth, especially as the clergy preached the value of family bonds from the pulpit.33 Parental love for children is usually innate, and the loss of a child in any century causes parents great suffering and diminishes the family. The more literate members of seventeenth-century society recorded their grief on the death of children. On the death of his five-year-old son Richard, John Evelyn wrote, ‘Here ends the joy of my life, which go ever mourning to the grave’ and when his daughter Mary died at the age of 19, ‘Never can I say enough; oh dear, my dear child, whose memory is so precious.’34 Ralph Josselin the Essex clergyman of Earl’s Colne had ten children, of whom only three survived into adulthood. He recorded his grief for each child. On 21 February 1641 when his baby Ralph died he wrote, ‘This day my dear babe Ralph, quietly fell asleep.’ A grandmother, Mrs Elizabeth Freke, wrote that when one of her grandchildren died both she and her husband ‘were extremely melancholy for the fatal loss of our dear babe’.35

Most of the parents in Cambridge who lost children in the plague of 1665–66 could not record their feelings. However, it is possible to track the numbers of children who died and reconstruct some individual families. In the decade before the plague, for the three parishes in Cambridge where there were early plague deaths – All Saints, St Andrew the Great and St Clement’s – the burial (p.66) records show 191 burials in All Saints, of which 30 per cent were children, 187 in St Andrew’s (40 per cent children), and 257 in St Clement’s (49 per cent children). In St Clement’s between 1654 and 1663 fifty-nine families lost children, and some lost more than one. Lewis Covill a baker buried four children; George Skinner and Richard Scarrow and seven other families lost three children each, and a further ten families each lost two children.36

But those who could not write down their feelings could, if they were wealthy enough, hire a scrivener or a lawyer to write their wills, and these reveal that, despite the custom by which the eldest son inherited the family estate, land or business, strenuous efforts were made to divide the family assets between all the children. If the wife was pregnant when the will was drawn up, then provision was made for the unborn child.37 Seventeenth-century wills were couched in legal language, so that the phase ‘loving son’ or ‘loving daughter’ might be a legal construct, but to the testator and the beneficiary the phrase may have had real meaning.

Love did not stop parents from chastising their offspring. Slapping or beating a child was not a criminal offence in the seventeenth century. Parents expected obedience from their sons and daughters, and that they keep the commandment, ‘Honour thy father and thy mother’. The father ruled the household and his word was law, but the mother ran the household too: she cooked, cleaned and taught her children the way of a good life. Like parents everywhere, the parents in plague-ridden Cambridge wanted the best for their children, and during the plague children were doubly precious.

As September came to a close, the evenings drew in. The mist from the Fens chilled the morning air and the town looked forward to autumn and winter in the hope that the cold would dampen down the plague and allow life to get back to normal.


(1) . CA CB 1/A/8 Cambridge Corporation Common Day Book, f. 199; St John’s College Archives, Lease Book C 8/44, 70, 71, 475, 737; T.E. Faber, An Intimate History of the Parish of St Clements, Cambridge, privately printed 2006, 23, 169, 210, 857–60.

(2) . CA P 27/1/2 St Clement; CA P 27/14/1 St Clement Apprenticeship Indentures.

(3) . Matching days to historical dates can be done with C.R. Cheney, A Handbook of Dates for Students of History, London: Royal Historical Society, 1978, days for 1665 are on page 93.

(4) . CA P 27/1/2 St Clement.

(5) . Thomas son of David Bowen, baptised 1 March 1646, CA P 27/1/2 St Clement.

(6) . There is no will or probate inventory for Francis King; this account is based on several inventories taken in houses with two hearths as listed for King in the Hearth Tax, and from modest tradesmen with occupations similar to King.

(7) . St John’s College Archives, Lease Book C 8/800; Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1656), modern edn, W. Foulsham, n.d., 56–7.

(8) . M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976, 120, quoting from Francis Bacon and John Evelyn.

(9) . CUL UA VCCt Wills Register IV.

(10) . Description of the early onset of plague is taken from N. Hodges, Loimologia or an Historical Account of the Plague in London, 1665, trans. from the Latin, London, 1724, 91.

(11) . CUL UA CUR 54/7.

(12) . At least two versions of the Cambridge Bills of Mortality for 1665 to 1666 have survived. One version is in the University Archives CUL UA T.X. 21 and the other is in Clare College Archives, Safe C2.27.

(13) . J.E. Foster ed., The Diary of Samuel Newton, Alderman of Cambridge (1662–1717), Cambridge: Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 1890, 14.

(14) . CA CB 1/A/8 Cambridge Corporation Common Day Book.

(15) . S. Scott and C.J. Duncan, The Biology of the Plague, Cambridge: CUP, 2007, 67, 128.

(16) . CA P 27/1/2 St Clement.

(17) . CA P 27/1/2 St Clement.

(18) . CUL UA CUR 54/7.

(19) . W.G. Bell, The Great Plague in London, 1665–1666, London: The Bodley Head, rev. edn, 1951, 138.

(20) . R. Latham and W. Matthews eds, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1660–1666 (1665), G. Bell, 1965, Vol. VI, 189, 201.

(21) . Clare College Archives, Safe C2.27.

(22) . CA P 23/1/1/ St Andrew the Great; CA CB 1/13/B/2 Cambridge Corporation Lease Book B; N. Evans and S. Rose eds, Cambridgeshire Hearth Tax Returns, London: The British Record Society, 2000, 15; CA CB 1/A/8 Cambridge Corporation Common Day Book, 128, 129.

(23) . CA 1/13/B/2 Cambridge Corporation Lease Book B; Evans and Rose eds, Hearth Tax, 5 , 6; CA 1/A/8 Cambridge Corporation Common Day Book; Diary of Samuel Newton, 22.

(24) . CA P 33/1/1 St Peter; the Hearth Tax entries multiplied by 4.5 to get total number, which is 340.

(25) . CA P 29/1/2 St Giles; Evans and Rose eds, Hearth Tax, 9.

(26) . CA P 29/1/2 St Giles; Evans and Rose eds, Hearth Tax, 9.

(27) . Faber, 835; CA 1/A/8 Cambridge Corporation Common Day Book; Diary of Samuel Newton, 93.

(28) . St John’s College Archives, Lease Book C 8/273; CA P 27/1/2 St Clement.

(29) . CA P 27/1/2 St Clement; CA P 25/12/4 St Benet Bastardy Bonds.

(30) . St John’s College Archives, Lease Book C 8/273.

(31) . CA P 27/1/2 St Clement.

(p.150) (32) . This argument is put forward by Lawrence Stone in Past and Present Revisited, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, 314–15 and The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979. There is little evidence to support this view. Stone argues that changes in attitudes came about in the eighteenth century when children began to be recognised as individuals.

(33) . F. Mount, The Subversive Family, London: Unwin, 1982, 8, 10.

(34) . Quoted ibid., 115.

(35) . A. Macfarlane ed., The Diary of Ralph Josselin, 1616–1683, London: The British Academy, 1976, 201; M. Carter ed., Mrs Elizabeth Freke Her Diary 1617–1714, London: 1914, 200.

(36) . CA P 20/1/2 All Saints; CA P 22/1/1 Holy Trinity; CA P 27/1/2 St Clement.

(37) . Evidence from several hundred wills written by the residents of March, Cambridgeshire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and published in E. Lord, ‘Reading the Will’, Cambridgeshire Local History Forum, Review, No. 21, 2012, 16–25.