Chapter One

 Not Without Mercy The Black Death 

Unknown Stowaway

“Every man must do two things alone, he must do his own believing and his own dying.”   Martin Luther


A dirty grey cargo ship veiled by black fog slowly and silently swept across the Bristol Bay. As it anchored shrouded in a damp and musty breeze the noise of anxious workers began to fill the dock, welcoming its cargo of fine linen, cotton, silk, flour, exotic fruits and one unknown stowaway from the East.

The early morning sun slowly cut its way through the darkness of the fog. The black fog, thick and eerily dense, gradually lifted leaving behind the mark of an unwanted visitor whose presence had already impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands from Eastern Mongolia to Egypt, Western and then Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Today it disembarked into the unassuming modest shipping town of Bristol, England.

Once ashore it immediately left the ship and silently crept from one house to another. Unseen and unheard it quickly attacked its unsuspecting victim sinking its teeth deep into the flesh and inflicting a substance that caused slow and painful death, usually within hours or days. The victim welcomed death as an end to the lingering, agonizing pain and misery. Lethargy overcame the body accompanied by high fever, delirium, boils under the arms and in the groin, black circles on the skin and dried blood as flesh decayed from the inside out. The un-assaulted lived in unguarded fear of becoming the next prey of this virulent and unyielding blood-sucking killer. 

Thirteen Hundred and Forty-Eight was the beginning of the Pestilence of Great Mortality—as it became known in those days in England and all of Europe—only later to be called The Black Death.

Physicians used every remedy they knew and tonic they could concoct but nothing would stop the sickness from killing once it entered the blood stream. It appeared nothing would stop it from spreading.  Even the greatest minds of the day disagreed about its origins and none could agree on how it spread. For William, it seemed that the most pertinent question was "how did it spread from person-to-person and so quickly?"  Radical ideas on how to defeat it began to multiply throughout the land. Some believed that it was a curse from God to remove the tares from the wheat, the wicked from the righteous. Others thought it came as the result of the alignment of planets. There were also theories based on the idea that a cloud of bad air was traveling in the atmosphere. This theory may not have had merit as to where the plague came from but it was later determined that many contracted a form of the disease that lodged in the lungs and just breathing on another person transferred the disease. Some thought it was a reprehensible plan by the Jews who were accused of poisoning the water. They were later to be rounded up and burned at the stake by the thousands in Germany. Others still, thought it to be a virus-like menace carried by cats, the known companions of those who practiced witchcraft. Eventually decrees were issued throughout all of England to kill every cat. As the cat population decreased the rat population increased. Rats were already common in the land—a common pest that most simply learned to live with—and no one considered that the rat could be the host of the very thing that was spreading the disease. This nuisance had become the most familiar annoyance known to man, the most bothersome creature and its tiny little bite injected an even smaller and extremely vicious killer into the bloodstream. It was destined to create a horrific path of terror and to be the smallest, yet greatest, killer ever in the entire world: the flea.    

Bristol was William’s home. It was a lively seaport town on the East shore of England. In 1348 it was the second largest city in England and the main English port for trade throughout Europe and the known world. It received sailors, fisherman and travelers of all kinds who were eager to trade their goods and services. The city housed a population of approximately 10,000 full time residents and hundreds of travelers. It was a city filled with eager citizens engaged in sea trade and all types of commerce.  Her arms were opened wide to accept any and all who entered her ports, an invitation that proved to be deadly.

Thursday, June 20th 1348 was a typical day not unlike any other when William finished some early morning business he had with a local merchant. Sir William Beorn, at 38—a land-owner and successful businessman—earned his living producing crops, fruit orchards, cattle and sheep. His primary trade and fortune, however, came as a result of his ship-building business which made him one of the wealthiest men in Bristol. He owned a port on the River Frome in the Bristol shipyard that made it possible to build extraordinarily large ships that could be sailed into Bristol’s main harbor. He was a handsome man taller than average with a strong muscular build standing just over six feet tall and 190 pounds. He had thick wavy raven black hair and piercing dark blue-almost black eyes. His only physical flaw was a slightly crooked nose from an accident several years earlier. He had a small half-moon shaped birthmark just behind his left ear that was hidden by the shoulder length of his hair.

William was a good man, well respected and hard-working but not without his share of challenges.  His honesty, integrity and reputation for fairness made him a pillar of the community.

“Thank you Master Beorn. My family and I appreciate your business,” said Timothy as he handed William a large bag filled with assorted items including flour, cotton and linen fabric. 

Timothy Canter was an averaged sized man in his early forties, with thin reddish gray hair and a thick mustache that covered his top lip.  He owned a local store and had been a friend of William’s for many years.

“Timothy, it is always a pleasure to meet with you. And how is your family these days?” William asked as he looked deeply into Timothy’s eyes.

“They are well, my friend, despite the many around us who are not.”

Although William knew that the sickness was spreading, he did not know anyone personally who had acquired the disease. “You know of someone who has the sickness?" William asked. 

“Oh yes, I have known of many who have...” he paused, “or I should say had the sickness.”

“You mean you have known someone here in Bristol who has died of this?” William asked concerned at the closeness of the account.

Timothy shook his head as he said, “William, you spend too much time on the hill with your family.”

William smiled and mildly laughed in disagreement. “Timothy, on the hill I spend the exact amount of time that is necessary to tend to my estate and the needs of my family, no more, no less.” William did not get the reaction he had expected from Timothy.

Timothy, as if not listening to William, continued, “I’ve heard of the deaths of many.”

“Here in Bristol?” William asked for a second time with a look of distrust on his face.

Timothy shrugged, “No, thank the Lord, not here.  However, I’ve heard tales from men of some of the Genoese merchant ships that parts of Spain, Italy and even France have been hit hard by this pestilence.  Although those infected die in just days, the process is slow and painful. Black spots appear on different parts of their bodies. Some are calling it the Black Death.”

As William listened he felt the sting of a crisp salty breeze from the East. His eyes caught the ship that had just anchored at the docks not far from where he and Timothy were standing.

Timothy seemed surprised that William had not heard of the recent events, “Surely, you have heard this.” 

William was now looking at the ship and did not respond to Timothy.

“William, are you hearing me?” 

“Oh, please excuse me, Timothy. My mind was elsewhere.  I did not mean to be impolite.”

“It is fine, my friend."

“How many have died?” William thoughtfully asked.

“According to what I’ve heard the death toll may be in the thousands. No one seems to know what it is or how to stop it.”

William shook his head with a look of frustration and concern. He thought about the ramifications of the deaths of thousands in countries not far from Bristol. He personally knew and had friends all over Europe, many of whom purchased ships from his company in Bristol.  It didn’t seem true or even likely that there could be any sickness of this magnitude.  William thought about the cause of such a disease, something so potent and deadly to kill so quickly and spread so stealthily.  He had never known of any sickness so contagious.

Timothy spoke breaking William’s thoughts: “I’ve never heard of anything like this before, William.  It makes us all a bit leery of what the future will bring.”

The fog seemed to lift like a heavy cluster of dark bilious rain clouds ready to burst. It was an abnormal sight lifting just above the tallest mast of the ship while struggling with the weight to pierce a higher altitude. The two men were looking toward the ship and watched as men began to disembark the vessel. The ship was a 600-ton Carrack, the largest of the ships that William built. It had two masts, a single square sailed main mast and a large lateen or triangular shaped small mast. It had a large double door on the side of the ship for easy access to the main cargo bay.  The large doors were opened and a ramp from the dock had been placed next to the entrance, making it easy to load and unload cargo.  The crew formed a line from the doors of the ship that was tied to the dock. Nine men filed down the ramp and onto the dock ending with the last man standing next to a row of other men who were holding large wheeled carts.

The man at the top of the ramp turned toward the ship as a large bag of flour was tossed into his outstretched arms. He yelled to the man inside the cargo hold, “Toss it to me! C’mon, let us get this thing done!”

 After catching the flour he turned to the man next to and just below him and tossed the flour to that man.  Unintelligible conversation and shouting continued with each of the men as they caught and then tossed the cargo from one to another.  This assembly took place from man to man until the bag of flour reached the man at the bottom of the line who tossed the bag onto one of the many crates stacked in the loading dock of the port.

Two large cargo trailers were hitched to horses that waited next to the dock.  As the cargo was unloaded from the ship, a dock worker counted and checked off items as they were stacked on the dock.  Another worker assigned some of the items to the cargo trailers and checked them off his list as they were taken then loaded by other men from the trailers. The entire process was orchestrated and moved almost seamlessly.

William was intrigued at the procedure as the cargo moved swiftly down the line. When the ship was unloaded, some of the ship’s crew took a short shore leave.  Many headed off into the city and on to their favorite tavern. Another dock crew stood by to load the new cargo and two men relieved the men who had been keeping records of the new shipment. The new record keepers waited for those whom they had relieved to be off in the distance and they then placed the cargo and ship manifests down while they chided and fraternized with the other workers and left over ship’s crew.  William noticed that the new crew of men who loaded the ship were not as organized as those who had unloaded the ship.  In fact, they were disorganized and careless. One of the men in the port started to move a wheeled crate of beets and then realized that it could hold a few more bags.  He tossed four more bags onto the crate and began to wheel it up the ramp and into the cargo hold.  William watched as the laborer struggled to move the crate up the ramp.  Two of the other men stood at the top of the ramp and laughed at him as he slowly pushed and heaved, swerving from side to side and at one moment almost pushing the crate off of the ramp and into the bay. The man stopped in frustration and just barely saved the crate and its contents from a watery grave. The laughter of the other two men climaxed at what looked to be the very moment of his loss of control. He stood next to the crate in frustration and the other two men still in joviality joined him and the three of them pushed the crate the remainder of the distance rolling it up the ramp and then carelessly dumping it into the cargo hold of the ship.

William shook his head in disgust at the careless manner in which these paid dock workers performed their labors. Although he too liked to find joy in his labors, he always took work seriously, especially when it came to the property and livelihood of others. He thought to himself that these careless men could load just about anything onto the ship with complete disregard for the ship’s owner or pride in their work.

The ship was being loaded with beets, beans and various fabrics including wool and a relatively new fabric from France called denim.  Items had arrived from different ports on ships waiting to be transferred to new ships for other trade destinations.

Timothy broke the silence. “That is the Hodge's ship, fresh from London after a two-week trip all the way to Sicily. I believe that it was one of the ships you built, my friend.”

William, with a half-smile on his face nodded in agreement as Timothy continued,

“It normally arrives every Tuesday about this time, but this is the first time I have seen it on a Friday. Some of those vegetables have been waiting on the dock since Tuesday. I was beginning to worry if we were going to have enough grain to last us the week.  You have purchased my last bag.”

William looked back at Timothy. “Are you to say that this ship is three days late arriving?” William asked with a somber look on his face.

He squinted and raised his left eyebrow as if to catch Timothy in an exaggeration.

Timothy looked at William, slightly cocked his head and answered,

“Yes, and I am very happy that it has finally made it. I know that Mr. Tanner has been waiting all week for a shipment of leather from Naples.”

“Has he heard anything to explain the belatedness of the ship?” William asked. 

“William, this is becoming more and more common. It seems that all of the ships are arriving at odd times, and they are short manned with sometimes only half a crew.” 

William was feeling anxious and concerned with the information he was receiving from Timothy.  It had become obvious that the plague was more serious than Bristol or even England had known.  If in fact this sickness was spreading so quickly and attacking so stealthily, not only were the crews of the ships in danger, but everyone including William and his family and house were in danger.

William’s tone had now become very somber and serious. “Have you asked any of the ship captains what is causing their delay?”

 “No, I have not. But I suppose it may be linked to the sickness, no one is immune to it, you know.”  Timothy said as he watched the dock workers.

As William listened to Timothy’s words, the extreme thought occurred to him that the sickness was being transported by sea from town to town.

“Timothy, did you hear about the Italian ship several weeks earlier that ran ashore a few hundred yards from the port?  All aboard were found dead, including the Captain who had been found huddled in the corner on the floor of his chamber.”

  “Yes, I did!” replied Timothy, “And his right hand still clutched to a quill and his left to the ship's log. The last words he had penned were 'the devil himself has cursed us at sea…' The sentence ended with a wavy line of ink that ran off the page, as if he lost strength to finish the thought.”

Both men looked back at the ship in the dock and remained silent for a moment.

 “I tell you, William. Things are not looking good, not looking good at all.”

William felt the same as Timothy but also felt helpless to do anything to curb or stop the trend of sickness. He turned back toward Timothy and outstretched his hand. Timothy’s hand joined William’s and the two men shook hands.

“Thank you again, my friend. Please do what you can to protect yourself from this sickness.” William pleaded. “If it travels from person to person you are at a high risk due to the many people you are in contact with every day.”

 Timothy knew that William was seriously concerned about his welfare.

“Never you mind about me, William.  I will be fine. You take care of your family and house and I will see you next week when you return for more supplies.”

Timothy went back into his store leaving William standing on the street. As he entered the store he called out to Scott, his nephew, who also worked in the store. “Scottie, my boy, have you finished that inventory yet?” 

William could scarcely hear Scottie’s reply accompanied by Timothy’s hardy laugh.  The conversation faded as William turned his attention to other things outside.            



This is a work of fiction. Some of the characters and events described herein are imaginary and are not intended to refer to specific places or living persons.  This book is based on historical events.  It also includes characters that are real and who did exist, such as Pope Clement VI, King Edward II and many others.  The opinions expressed in this manuscript are solely the opinions of the author and do not represent the opinions or thoughts of the publisher. The author has represented and warranted full ownership and/or legal right to publish all the materials in this book.
Not Without Mercy
The Black Death
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2020 Phillip C. Wright
(Third Edition, 2020)
 Cover Photo © Holly Bailey All Rights Reserved – Used with permission.
 This book may not be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in whole or in part by any means, including graphics, electronic, or mechanical without the express written consent of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
 ISBN-13: 978-1541062542 
ISBN-10: 154106254X
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