According to Einstein, the definition of insanity was continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. The same could be said for the use of quarantine and lockdown to combat COVID.

The Black Death

The earliest mention of the Plague in England was The Black Death in June 1348. Originating in Asia, it was spread along shipping routes by flea-infested rats. The first known case was a sailor who arrived in Weymouth from France, where the Plague had also taken hold. It quickly spread to London, and by the following summer, it enveloped the whole country. It then began to die down, and by December, it was gone.

The good news resulting from this particular Pandemic was the end of the 100 hundred years war. They just couldn’t get the staff.

Another pandemic hit the shores in 1361/62, and after that, it returned periodically during the 14th and 15th centuries. Sometimes in particular areas, and at other times it spread throughout the country, killing between 10 to 20 per cent of the population each time.

Henry VIII was a hypochondriac 

It seems that the population put up with the situation as it was until Henry VIII was in power. Other infections such as Sweating Sickness were added to the mix by the beginning of the 16th Century, and Henry became more and more obsessed with keeping the infection at bay.

Henry was not only terrified of Sweating Sickness but of all types of illness. His doctor had to examine him regularly and reassure him that he was in good health. When the Sweating Sickness showed up in his locality, he’d pack up whichever castle he was living in and hotfoot it to somewhere it hadn’t reached.

Moving from place to place was the only option for the wealthy, and they would often only move within a county

Sweating Sickness

In August 1517, Henry’s court became ravaged by this Sweating Sickness (its origins are still unclear). When 2 of the pages who slept in his bedroom died, Henry dismissed all the staff, bar a few essential workers. He also had a mortal fear of London, where the infection rate was soaring. Despite repeated calls from Parliament, he said he was quite happy where he was (in Abingdon) and would stay put.

When his mistress Anne Boleyn caught the dreaded disease, even his love for her couldn’t tempt him from self-isolation. He sent his doctor to look after her, and of course, she survived. I wonder if she regretted that later on?


St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle was a favourite destination for pilgrims and Henry believed they were bringing the Plague with them. In an effort to make the castle infection-free, he wrote to St George’s College, instructing them to come up with a solution. And so, the first instance of quarantine as a means of containing a virus was implemented.

Once a house was quarantined, only one person was allowed out to shop for essentials. That person had to carry an upright white rod. This had to reach four feet above head height so that people could see the person and socially distance themselves. Another pole which was at least 8 feet long, had to be fastened to the side of their house. This pole had to have wisps of hay or straw attached to warn the community that the house was infected and keep their distance. These measures were to remain in place until 40 days after the patients were given the all-clear.

In the absence of any other solution, London followed suit but went a step further with the poles – the one to be carried was to be 10 feet at least. A bundle of hay or straw rather than a wisp was required for the household pole.

Easing of Restrictions

The businesspeople of London didn’t take kindly to quarantine, and the King’s Council allowed the annual Friar’s Fair to go ahead. We have no data on infection rates from that.

The Pandemic seemed to strike mostly at young men and the wealthy – might it have come from food shipped to the country and may have been infected by the same rats that caused the Plague?

Non-essential Travel

It made its way to Ireland (but not Scotland), where the Lord Chancellor of Ireland at the time, Hugh Inge, was one of its victims. However, the sickness didn’t make its presence felt as it had in England.

We come full circle

The wealthy continued to use mobility as their primary defence against the disease until it eventually died out in 1551, but quarantine remained and continues to remain, a tool used by the government in their response to pandemics.

‘take special regard and make diligent search amongst you from time to time that there be no resort, sojourning, nor lodging of any strange persons within any of your houses in our said college which shall come from London or any other place where any infection is.’

 The first ‘state’ quarantine measures in England (1517): St George’s College Archives, Windsor, IV.B.2

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