As we have already seen with the civil war period account of Roger Cowling, accounts can provide new local perspective on well-known national events and trends. This example offers a rare narrative of an orphaned survivor of one of the most virulent plague epidemics of the 16th century, and its long aftermath.
|The accomptant furthe[r] sayth that the howse
wherein the deceased dyed of the plague, did belonge
unto this accomptant, which was burnt and consumed
with fire in clensinge thereof, and for reedifyinge
the same, this accomptant hath expended the
summe of 10 li, but never received satisfaction
for his losse and damage susteined thereby, and
therefore craveth allowance for the same in
The full account reveals that the plague took off Jarrard Browne, his wife, six children and a maidservant, leaving only a solitary daughter named Blanch to whom the accountant was appointed tutor. We know this because Marke Errington, the accountant, claims for the costs of coals, candles, bread and drink and the wages of a watchman during their sickness, and then for the costs of carrying them to the grave, for making the graves and the mortuary and burial charges. Such detailed lists of provisions and nursing charges are quite common in plague years, sometimes extending over several weeks, but this account stands out because of its last entry, revealing the final act of the tragedy.
As it makes evident, this involved the accountant burning down his own house (or more probably one of his houses) in which the deceased and his family had been quarantined in the course of disinfecting it. At this time this practice involved fumigating the house to drive out the pestilence or miasmic infection in the air (as was then believed). A probate inventory from the same year of a man from Durham City who also died of the plague itemises pitch, rosin and even frankincense used in cleansing the house - a volatile and expensive mixture.27 Errington sought, perhaps ambitiously, to reclaim the cost of re-building his house from the estate of the unfortunate Jarrard Browne, and which £10 discharge left in the final balance only 2 shillings and 10 pence in the hands of the young Blanch Browne.
While the inventory referred to in the charge does not survive in the archive, the Probate Act Books reveal that these events in fact took place around 1636 or 1637 some ten years or more before the account was exhibited. In 1636/7 there was a particularly bad outbreak of the plague in Newcastle, five miles from Newburn. So we know Blanch Browne survived long enough at least to bring a cause in the church court against her tutor: the period of her tuition may not have been a happy one. Errington had been granted administration 'for the sole use of Blanch Browne' on 13 May 1637, and her tuition was also entrusted to him on the same day. The account occurs in the diocesan records ten years later as a result of Blanch Brown herself compelling him to render it, as a prelude to pursuing him in the King's court perhaps on a allegation of devastavit or maladministration. However, Errington's liability as administrator was deemed to have expired by the ecclesiastical court, and whilst he did render an account the ecclesiastical cause ended there. Nevertheless, there are references in the Durham diocesan court records that indicate that Errington was still being pursued in the civil courts in 1649 on behalf of Blanch Browne, with unknown result.28
As we have seen, the probate account can be a very lively and informative source for historians, particularly when combined with a probate inventory and will, and can open up many other avenues of enquiry. While accounts do not survive, and perhaps were not submitted, in the same numbers as inventories and wills, they can reconstruct the lives and activities of individuals and their relations, as well as their social and economic environments in ways other documents can not, and as such are well worth making the effort to find, to understand and to use.
27 Inventory of Francis Watson of Framwellgate, Durham City (Ref: DPRI/1/1647/W5/3).
28 Documents relating to the administration of Browne's goods include: Probate Acts (DPRI/4/14 ff.258, 264; DPRI/4/16 ff.55, 65); copy of the 1637 administration bond (DPRI/3/1637/B70), subscribed with 1649 memorandum; 1649 bond to redeliver the administration bond (DPRI/3/1637/B69). The bonds are in a fragile and largely illegible state.