What Was the Impact of the Black Death on Britain?

History Hit

3 mins

29 Nov 2018

The Black Death had a catastrophic impact as it swept across Europe in the 1340s. Approximately 30-60% of people in Europe where killed and when it arrived in England it was no more merciful.

The death toll

The pestilence arrived in England, in 1348 and first hit the South West and particularly the port of Bristol. Here, as in other towns the slum like conditions made for a perfect breeding ground for the bacteria, and over the next two years the disease spread like wild fire. Whole towns and villages were laid waste.

Shields have taken many shapes and sizes over the thousands of years of their use. Their design isn't just random or aesthetic. What can the evolution of the shield during the Middle Ages tell us about how warfare itself changed in this turbulent period?Watch Now

For the people of the time this must have felt like the coming of Armageddon. If you caught the plague, you were almost certain to die. By the time the plague moved on, Britain’s population had reduced by between 30% and 40%.

Population recovery

Though the plague left in 1350 it came back many times over the next century. In 1361 it was particularly devastating, as a new form of the disease appeared to have evolved which had a particular tendency to attack young men.

Not only was England’s population being decimated, but so too was its capability to recover afterwards. In the years after the 1361 outbreak, reproduction rates were low and so the population was slow to recover.

Jason Kingsley has been fascinated by history his whole life, in particular the medieval period and the life of knights. But how much of what we see and hear on TV and in film is accurate? In this series Jason sets out to reveal the reality behind the myths.Watch Now

However, the dramatic population reduction had a number of different side effects. The first was to dramatically decrease the working population, which put those who survived in a strong bargaining position.

The economic consequences

Labour was in huge demand which meant peasants could go where the pay and conditions were best. For the first time, the balance of power was shifting in the direction of the poorest in society. In the immediate aftermath, the cost of labour increased.


A depiction of serfs at work during the harvest from the 14th century.

The reaction of the elites was to use the law. In 1349 the Ordinance of Labour was published which limited the freedom of movement for peasants around the country. However, even the power of the law was no match against the power of the market, and it did little to stop the lot of peasants improving. It meant that peasants were able to improve their station in life and become what’s known as yeoman farmers.

Political awakening

This new found independence encouraged the peasantry to become more vociferous in standing up for their rights. They were helped by a radical preacher John Wycliffe who believed the only religious authority was the Bible over and above either a King or a Pope. His followers, known as the Lollards became ever more vocal in demanding greater rights.


Radical preacher John Ball speaks to the forces of Watt Tyler. Tyler is shown front left in red with a black hat.

In 1381 the introduction of a poll tax sparked all out rebellion. Led by Watt Tyler the peasants marched on London and rampaged through the city. Although this rebellion was eventually quelled and Watt Tyler killed, it was a land mark point in English history.

For the first time the ordinary people of England had risen up against their overlords and demanded greater rights. It would not be the last and England was forever changed.