In early modern England outbreaks of infectious disease were a part of life. Plague, influenza and the mysterious sweating sickness broke out in varying degrees of severity throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has naturally garnered interest in past epidemics and brought the realities of living with infectious disease into sharp relief. There have been several fascinating articles by historians in the last year reflecting on these parallels and past methods for managing disease, for example Euan Rogers on Tudor social distancing and Tracy Borman on Henry VIII's stint in self-isolation. Insights into past management of infectious disease among the populace and royalty add vital detail to our understanding of everyday life in early modern England, but what of the government? If the city was struggling with an outbreak of plague, what did the institutions of government at the Palace of Westminster do before Zoom and online voting?
The instruments of government and administration had to continue working throughout the threat of plague, but it was not business as usual. In the late sixteenth century a practice of moving Parliament, the law courts and the Exchequer out of Westminster to Hertford Castle developed. This occurred five times between 1563 and 1593. Authorised by royal proclamation Elizabeth I ordered the moves for the avoidance of ‘inconvenience’ to the realm and ‘peril’ to her subjects. The goal was to enable government to safely continue to function by distancing its officers from infected places and persons.1
Hertford Castle was likely chosen due to the convenience of its location close to London and its capacity to accommodate all the government institutions within the castle walls. It was a royal residence that had suffered decades of neglect until Elizabeth’s reign. In the years before the first move to Hertford, the castle had to be extensively repaired for a visit from the Queen. Further works were carried out at the castle in the 1560s to build courtrooms and lodgings in its wings to accommodate its newfound administrative function. Extensive preparations were made before each move to the castle.2 Ahead of the transfer to Hertford in 1582 the Keeper of the Star Chamber conveyed furniture to furnish the court’s temporary chamber and several tuns of claret to furnish its officers from Westminster. Provisions were also made for the hundreds of minor officials and domestic staff working within administration. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, ordered a survey of the town and surrounding area to assess its capacity to accommodate the numerous staff and suitors of administration and concluded that 577 could stay in one parish and 541 in another provided they shared beds.3 More senior officials were provided with lodging within the castle, forming a ‘government bubble’ for the duration of term. Burghley, as Lord Treasurer, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Walter Mildmay, had large suites of rooms set aside for their use adjoining the temporary Star Chamber and Chancery. Lesser figures shared rooms or were given simple quarters of their own. The Auditor of the Receipt, Robert Petre, vacated his house in St Stephen’s cloister in favour of a considerably smaller office and dwelling chamber in the castle.4
The royal proclamation also laid down strict rules which reveal the state’s attempt to limit infections at the castle. The continuation of government business necessitated the movement of people as Members of Parliament travelled to debates and suitors and litigants came to address business in the courts and Exchequer. Individuals often travelled at length to settle their business. In 1582 Beatrice Lamb travelled over 150 miles from her home in Lincolnshire to Westminster to settle her case in the Court of Requests and followed the court to Hertford when it adjourned to the castle. Unfortunately her travails were in vain as she was branded a ‘suitor without a cause’ and orders were given to forcibly convey her ‘constable to constable’ back to her home in Scawby.5 Such movement of people presented significant risk – so how was government business conducted from Hertford Castle?
The royal proclamations prohibited anyone infected with plague or whose household was infected from travelling to Hertford. The only exception to this rule was individuals who were ordered there by legal process or on special orders. In those circumstances the individual was required to declare their infected state at the castle gate and to carry a white rod, one yard long, at all times or face imprisonment! To further enhance protection it was ordered that an area of eight miles radius around the town be kept clear of plague with local officials commanded to monitor the areas under their jurisdiction. The success of these restrictions is difficult to establish. In a letter written from the castle in November 1582 Burghley informed Sir Francis Walsingham that the only deaths in the town had been those of two notorious cutpurses who died by the ‘hand of justice’, and no one had died of disease. This suggests a degree of success, as does the repeated use of the castle albeit with minor adjustments. In 1592 the measures were refined so that infected individuals had to send a messenger ahead of their arrival to alert the town to their coming and the clear zone around the castle was expanded from eight miles to twelve. Then, as now, these measures reveal an emphasis on maintaining distance between people to limit the spread of infection and identifying the infected to reduce their contacts.
The last time the castle hosted administrative government was in 1593. Following Elizabeth I’s death, the castle ceased to be used as a royal residence and no longer provided sanctuary to the Westminster government. A further move was almost staged in 1605 when preparations were made to adjourn Michaelmas term to the castle after a difficult summer when plague raged across Westminster. However, it abated in time for the start of term, so the move was not necessary. The castle buildings, except for the gatehouse, were demolished by 1608 as can be seen on Simon Basil's plan of the site and the site left royal hands altogether in 1627 when Charles I sold it to William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury. Today only the Tudor gatehouse of the castle survives but whispers of the town’s administrative past linger in the town’s ‘Parliament Square’ adjacent to the remains of the castle.
1 Royal proclamations from 1563, 1582 and 1592 survive.
2 H. C. Andrews, The Chronicles of Hertford Castle (1947) pp.68-70
3 Cecil Papers, vol.162, 19 Oct 1582; SP 12/155 f.184
4 Cecil Papers. vol.203 f.462; TNA, E 407/68 1582
5 SP 15/27/1 f.200 12 Nov 1582