The Woodforde Family
The effects of the plague in Northampton in 1637 as recorded in the diary of Robert Woodforde
Robert Woodforde was an ardent puritan who worshipped at All Saints, Northampton, one of the major centres of puritan activity in the area in the 17th century. For almost five months from the autumn of 1637, the congregation at All Saint's had been in conflict with the two Diocesan commissioners appointed by the Bishop of Peterborough. There was a strong tradition of puritan defiance at All Saints; prophesyings were recorded at the church in 1571. In 1577, the year that prophesyings were suppressed by the Privy Council, the strongly puritan William Jennings was appointed vicar. In 1587, classes were set up in Northampton and there appear to be some associations between the puritan community at All Saints and those who printed at least one of the notorious Marprelate Tracts during the brief sojourn of the Marprelate printing press at Fawsley in the county.
The Canons of 1603 had struck at the very heart of puritan belief by requiring that the Communion Table be placed at the east end of the chancel of the church in the position occupied by the altar. In pre-reformation times the original stone altar at All Saints had in 1550 been replaced by a wooden table, situated in the body of the church, but the episcopal commissioners had demanded that the table should be moved back to the chancel.
During his conflict, the vicar of All Saints, the Revd Thomas Ball, who had succeeded William Jennings in 1629, had been summoned before the commissioners and admonished by them on several matters. In addition, the churchwardens had repeatedly refused to carry out the wishes of the commissioners and, as a result, had been excommunicated.
Finally, though the congregation appeared to accede to the commissioners' instructions and on 16 March 1637/8 the work on installing the Communion Table in its approved place was almost complete. Rails had been erected around it and the seats immediately in front of the table had been cleared away. It seemed that at last the puritan community of All Saints had conceded defeat; but on that same day an `Act of God' reached Northampton which was to affect every individual and every family in the town and would, perversely, enable the puritans to continue to disobey the episcopal commissioners. These two events - the installation of the new chancel rails and an outbreak of the plague - are reported in the same brief entry in the diary of Robert Woodforde:-The rayle in the chancell is now almost up, and its confidently reported that the sicknesse
is in towne. Oh Lord p(re)vent it or heale it if it be thy will, if not I pray thee give us to see the rod & him that smiteth with it.
Robert Woodforde was born in the Northamptonshire village of Old (or Wold) and baptised there on 6 April 1606. His family appears to be descended from the Woodford family of Leicester and Leicestershire, as several generations in Northamptonshire bore the same arms as that family. These had been acquired by purchase in 1317 with the manor of Brentingby near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. Robert Woodforde's mother, Jane Dexter, was a daughter of the lord of one of the two manors in Old, and the parish register of Old indicates that both families had been in the parish for at least four generations.
Robert had married Hannah Haunch, the daughter of a London gentleman, on 22 January 1637/38, and he was appointed Steward of Northampton in 1634 after agreeing to pay a pension to his predecessor. At the time of the outbreak of the plague they were living with their two young sons, in the town of Northampton. On 23 March 1637/38, Robert was able to confirm his suspicion that the plague had again broken out in Northampton, and in his diary he expressed the community's fears for the first time:-
Its certeynely reported that the siknes is
in the towne. I have besought the Lord to p(re)vent the spreadyinge of it if it be his will. Els in his mercye to dispose of me and my family to a hidinge place, & to sanctifye
the siknes to us.
Only three days after this entry the first deaths in the town were being attributed to the plague. There was also the suggestion that public gatherings such as fairs, where large numbers of people met with travellers from other towns, should now be avoided in order to reduce the risk of spreading the infection:-
The fair is here to day. One is dead to night its thought he dyed of the sikness, 4 have dyed out of Dannt's house, Lord looke uppon us in mercye for the Lord's sake.
In the months that were to follow, most public gatherings, including the fairs and the courts in Northampton and the surrounding villages were to dwindle or close because of the epidemic. However, it is significant that religious meetings apparently continued uninterrupted at All Saints, despite these services and lectures representing possibly the largest gathering together of people anywhere in the county.
Dr Samuel Clarke, one of the two Diocesan commissioners, wrote to the Dean of Arches on 17 June 1638 about the activity of the congregation at All Saints. The tone of the communication is more personal than formal and hints at a genuine fear and perhaps even a feeling of defeat. It reveals Clarke's obvious concern that the services were continuing at All Saints, and his evident exasperation that the puritan congregation were by then using the outbreak of the plague as an opportunity to disobey the commissioners' instructions regarding the Communion Table:-
The sickness is sore at Northampton.
They now do what they like in the church
service at All Saints.
Some very lately cut down the rail or chancel that was about the Lord's board
in pieces, and brought down the Lord's table into the middle of the chancel.
I long since advised the Mayor and his brethren that the Thursday lecture and sermons on Sunday in the afternoon should be forborne in these infectious times. They then raised a report of me that I was about to starve their souls.
Such was the charismatic appeal of the ministry of the Revd Thomas Ball that many hundreds of people apparently attended regularly his Sunday sermons and Thursday lectures even during the plague year when being present at any public events must have meant a greatly increased risk of infection. A report written by a layman who attended All Saints at that time (and who was obviously not in sympathy with the excesses of the puritans' actions) provides an indication of the high level of church attendance during the outbreak of the plague:-
At (that) sermon there were 800 and there are no fewer than 500 or 600 every lecture on Thursday, ... when the sermon begins, there is such a flocking into the church, where they unreverently squat down in their seats ...
If these figures are accurate it would seem probable that the meetings and lectures at All Saints brought worshippers from other parishes and from villages outside the town. They present a stark contrast with contemporary reports of poor attendance at church. Only a few years earlier, the future Archbishop Abbot had complained that, even in times of famine, few came to church "and these so carelessly and sleepily that they can scarcely be called present at all."
The constant movement of people from the rural areas surrounding Northampton into the town, twice weekly, often remaining to dine in the town with members of the congregation, must have assisted in the extension of the infection beyond the town's walls. Ironically, It would seem that the puritans' faith and their belief that they would be protected from the plague `if it was God's will' aided the extension of the outbreak beyond the limits of the town.
Given the deteriorating condition of the church building and the various unsavoury activities which the Commissioners had reported as taking place within its precincts, it would seem very likely that those who continued to attend the services at All Saints were at a higher risk of infection:-
The churchyard is basely defiled w(i)th excrements and it appeares that there is usuall evacuatinge ag(ains)t the church walls at the doores and at the most eminent ends and frontispieces thereof.
By the end of March, the epidemic was a major subject of concern and debate within Northampton and the surrounding area. Robert Woodforde noted on 30 March 1638 that whilst walking towards Kingsthorpe with fellow puritans Samuel Martin and Matthew Watts they discussed the `present Calamityes' and the state of the town `now in regard of the siknes feared.' The first official response to the epidemic is recorded by Woodforde on 3 April 1638 when the Northampton Court was adjourned and moved to Kettering because of fear of infection.
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© Stephen Butt 2004 - rev 29/02/04
Woodforde himself travelled on foot to Kettering to attend
the Court as Steward, and whilst lodging in Kettering on 5 April 1638
he received a letter from his wife:-
I wrote to and received a letter from my wife
Another one died in Washington's house to day.
On the very next day, an exodus took place from Northampton as Robert despatched his two young children to London, away from the danger of infection. Samuel aged two years and John aged eight months travelled in wicker baskets attached to the horses. The family's trusted friends Goodman Lamport and Goodman Wright led the way. The diarist's wife, Hannah, accompanied them as far as the town boundary to say farewell to her children:-
I prayed and my wife & I went alonge with
There is an apparent conflict in the way in Robert
Woodforde and the congregation of All Saints as a whole viewed the
plague. The frequent appeals to God within the diary suggests that
the author believed in the possibility of Divine intervention; but in
despatching his family away from the centre of the outbreak, Woodforde
obviously believed that the future for him and his family was not
pre-destined, and that human action could enable his family to escape
This infection proved not to be the plague and
Woodforde was recovered in time to attend the Sessions at
Wellingborough on 22 May where they were being held because of the
intensity of the sickness in Northampton. At these Sessions it was
agreed that a weekly allowance of £100 over and above the existing
payment of £47 6s 8d was to be paid to the towne for the relief of the
poor for the duration of the epidemic, this money to be raised by a
levy on those who lived in villages within five miles of Northampton.
Gradually, the diarist's every action was affected by
the fear of infection. When, for instance, he was about to enter the
shop of Mrs Crick in the town - a puritan member of the congregation
at All Saints - a friend warned him that there was someone sick
inside. Later, he was very concerned that his wife had eaten food
which he thought had come from `out of the chamber of the sick'.
Robert was 32 years old at the time of this entry. Whilst in London, Woodforde and his father-in-law
attempted to contact other Northamptonshire men who were in the
capital "to entreat their liberality to distressed Northampton". It
is recorded that Sir Paul Pynder gave £50 and that another group
raised £70 from various contributions. The diarist failed to find a
courier who was willing to carry the money back to Northampton and was
forced to carry it there himself.
Keepe me and (my family) from infecon in these
In the first week of August, Woodforde recorded that about twenty-five more people had died in the town and the fair which would have been held in Northampton on 15 August did not take place because of the fear of infection. In the first week of September the figure recorded is twenty people. In the third week of September, Woodforde heard of only two deaths attributable to the plague but as late as the first week of November, the infection was breaking out in fresh houses and appeared to be increasing again.
Finally, on 15 February 1638/39, the epidemic appears to have burnt itself out. It had lasted almost a year. For the greater part of that time Robert, Hannah and their children had lived away from the town. It is clear that the diarist now saw the plague as an act of God, punishing the nation for its corruption and wickedness. After almost every reference to the epidemic he adds the prayer:-
Lord stay thy hand at Northampton if it be thy will.
Again there is the allusion to the Old Testament narrative of the Angel of Death passing through the land and smiting the wicked. Yet in the biblical narrative, the Children of Israel had stayed indoors, within their own homes and with their families; in Northampton they had gathered together within their church.
From his younger brother John Woodforde (1637-1694), is descended another distinguished branch of the family which has included Sir Ralph Woodford, 1st Baronet of Carleby (d 1810), Field Marshall Sir Alexander George Woodford (1782-1870) who commanded a Coldstream battalion in the Battle of Waterloo, and the distinguished Masonic theologian and writer the Revd Adolphus Frederick Alexander Woodford (1821-1887).
In the years after this outbreak of the plague Robert continued to live in Northampton with his family and to work as Steward. He died in 1654 and his burial is recorded in the register for All Saints, Northampton on 17 November 1654 as "under-sheriff". He lived long enough to see the Revd Thomas Ball survive a summons to the Star Chamber in 1640. He witnessed the commencement of the Long Parliament in the same year and the impeachment and execution of Laud in 1645. No doubt he would also have heard that the Diocesan commissioner Sibthorpe had been deprived of his living at Burton Latimer in 1646, and he was, of course, alive at the time of the execution of Charles I in 1649.
The church of All Saints in Northampton, the focus of puritan activity for so many years, was almost totally destroyed in the great fire of Northampton in 1675.
Hannah Woodforde was thirty-seven years old at the time of her husband's death. In time, she remarried and moved to a new life in London near to her own family's roots. Her life with her second husband was to be far longer than the seventeen dramatic years she shared with Robert.