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1603: the Heminges Family in the Year of the Plague

by Meryl Faiers, 22 December 2022

On Tuesday 23 August 1603, Rebecca and John Heminges made the saddest journey for any parent as they walked to the church for the funeral of their toddler son. Bevis was just two years old. As was the case with so many families at the time, this wasn’t a new experience for the couple. They had already buried at least two babies at only a few weeks old: Mary in 1592 and John in 1598. The parents had probably also experienced the pain of miscarriage during their fifteen-year marriage. But what made this funeral quite so devastating for them was that it was the second in just three days. On Saturday 20 August they had also buried their seven-year-old daughter Joan. 1603 was a terrible plague year and in August the disease was raging at its peak; the parish register entries for both Bevis and Joan are marked with a ‘p’ to indicate a plague victim. The parents must have been extremely fearful for their other five children, but remarkably they all survived, from twelve-year-old Ales down to baby William.

The Heminges family lived in the heart of the City, on Addle Street, in the parish of St Mary Aldermanbury - Rebecca’s home parish. The daughter of a well-connected family, she was baptised at St Mary’s in 1571 and married her first husband, William Knell, there when she was just fourteen, only to be widowed a year later when Knell, an actor, was killed in a fight with another actor on tour. As a sixteen-year-old widow Rebecca married her second husband, John Heminges, in the same church. Her new husband was not only a member of the Grocers’ Company and a Citizen of London but also an actor, a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and colleague of Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare. The births of most of Rebecca’s many children are recorded at St Mary Aldermanbury and in 1619 Rebecca herself would be buried there, to be joined in 1630 by John ‘under the same stone which lieth in parte over her there’ situated ‘in the Chancell ground’.

But in 1603 the couple must have been relieved to live in the City. Across the Thames in Southwark, near the summer playhouse, the Globe, the parish of St Saviour’s (now Southwark Cathedral) experienced 1,773 plague deaths in 1603, 653 in August alone, whilst St Mary Aldermanbury had a total of just 70 for the year, 15 of those in August. But neither Joan nor Bevis was one of those 15 recorded burials and until now their fate has been unknown. Thus it was not to St Mary Aldermanbury that the grieving parents were walking on that summer day. Joan and Bevis were buried, not in that parish churchyard, but instead at St Michael Bassishaw. This accidental discovery in the parish register appeared anomalous until both geography and statistics were brought into play. St Mary Aldermanbury and St Michael Bassishaw were adjacent parishes and although neither church exists today, St Michael Bassishaw stood on Basinghall Street, almost at the junction with Aldermanbury. On 9 June 2022 it took just 51 seconds to walk from the plaque marking the site of St Michael’s to the footprint of the nave of St Mary’s, laid out in the grass of the memorial garden to Heminges and Condell.

It appears to make sense that if St Mary’s was unable to accommodate a Heminges child’s burial on either Saturday 20 August or the following Tuesday 23rd, Rebecca and John might have called on the minister of the adjacent parish to conduct the ceremony. However, running the two parish registers side by side it became clear that this was not the case. There were no burials at all at St Mary’s on 20 or 23 August and only one each on 21 and 22 August so there was no obvious reason for Joan and Bevis not being buried there. But there were eleven burials at St Michael’s from 20 to 23 August inclusive. So what was going on? Looking at the registers for August and then at the Bills of Mortality for the City and individual parishes for both the year and the month, the picture became clear: more than twice as many plague victims were buried at St Michael Bassishaw, 34, than at St Mary Aldermanbury, just 15. And 20 of the St Michael’s burials were of children. These are just the figures for August, but the pattern was repeated through the year and, more surprisingly, was also the case 10 years previously when plague had struck in 1593. So it appears to have been a clear local policy that the majority of plague victims from the streets surrounding these two churches were buried at St Michael’s rather than St Mary’s. Further research into the vestry minutes of both churches in due course may provide firm evidence of this. For now, at least, the most likely reason for this choice is the relative size and capacity of the churchyards which is suggested by parish records at St Michael’s where, from 1588, there is reference to burial in a new and, presumably, enlarged churchyard.

Of course the face of the City was dramatically changed by the fire of 1666. The streets that the Heminges family knew can still be walked today, but the buildings have evolved for four hundred years and it is impossible to know precisely the extent of the old burial grounds. Although the reason behind the burial location of Joan and Bevis Heminges remains unclear, a chance discovery has filled in the missing records of these two previously mysterious siblings. And even as she buried Joan and Bevis, Rebecca would have known that she was pregnant again - her tenth child, George, would be born in February 1604.

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