*Spoiler Alert* Read on only after having read the novel if you want to discover what Catherine Mompesson’s life and fate for yourself.
The Historical Record
Catherine Mompesson is one of the three female protagonists in the historical fiction novel, ‘Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague’ by Jennifer Jenkins. Catherine was a real woman who lived through the plague at Eyam in 1665-1666. Some details of the life and death of Catherine is preserved in the historical record and the oral tradition surrounding those times of peril.
Catherine was the wife of Eyam’s rector, William Mompesson. Originally hailing from Cocken in Durham, she was the daughter of Ralph Carr Esquire and was baptised on 17th December 1633. Her husband, William, became the rector of Eyam the year before the plague arrived, in April 1664. The previous rector, Reverend Thomas Stanley, was still a resident of the village; a puritan minister forced out of the incumbency due to the Act of Uniformity of 1662. He remained a favourite of many in the village, making the arrival of William and Catherine in the rectory difficult for some. As well as this, the rector appointed between Stanley and Mompesson, Shoreland Adams, was neglectful of his flock at Eyam, staying in his other parish for much of the time. The Mompessons had to work hard to be accepted by their parishioners prior to the arrival of the pestilence.
Catherine was described as being beautiful but delicate, showing symptoms of pulmonary consumption. Her two pregnancies, with children Elizabeth and George, had also weakened her already frail constitution and yet she was a very active part of the village response to the epidemic, visiting the sick alongside rectors Mompesson and Stanley and delivering herbal remedies to those who sickened.
When plague appeared to be spreading at a frightening rate in the village, Catherine begged William for them to leave the village, but on seeing his resolve to stay she was resolute in her own commitment to remaining with him and instead their two children were sent to safety in Yorkshire to stay with J. Beilby Esquire, a relative of William’s.
The oral record states that days before her death, Catherine declared to William she could smell a sweetness in the air, an alarming symptom of plague as had been documented in previous plague outbreaks. Essentially, the olfactory system was detecting the overcoming of internal organs by bacteria causing decay. For William, it was a sure sign his wife had tragically been infected by the disease they had been fighting together for the past year.
Catherine did not linger long; her prior consumptive state rendering her body weak for fighting off the onslaught of the Yersinia pestis bacteria. She died at the tender age of 25, with William at her side, reportedly praying the catechism, declaring her faith and becoming the 200th victim of the Eyam Plague. The letter William writes to his children to inform them of the death of their dear mother is particularly harrowing and celebrates a woman who has been a most faithful wife, mother and Christian.
Catherine is one of few plague victims buried in the hallowed ground of the churchyard as it had essentially been closed to all others as one of the precautions set in place by Reverends Mompesson and Stanley. The inscription on her tomb is in Latin and reads:
Hvivs Ecclesiae Rect
Filia Randolph Carr
Super de Cocken in
Quinto die Mansis Avigh
Ano Dui 1666
The meaning of this inscription being: Catherine the wife of William Mompesson Rector of this Church, daughter of Ralph Carr, formerly of Cocken in the county of Durham, armiger. was buried here on the 25th day of the month of August A.D. 1666
Various symbols adorn her tomb, including hourglasses held between two expanded wings, symbolising the rapid flight of time, and beneath these the words Cavete, Nescitas, Horam. (take care, Ye know not the hour). At the other end a death’s head rests and the inscription, Mors Mihi Lucrum (Death is gain to me). The inscriptions, and the location so close to the Saxon Cross, epitomise the importance of faith in her short life.
Each year at the anniversary of her death, red roses are left upon her tomb. Plague Sunday, celebrated since the bicentenary of the plague outbreak in 1866, takes place around the anniversary of Catherine’s death, in keeping with the timing of the annual Wakes Festival.
In the typical retellings of the harrowing year of the plague visitation at Eyam, the Reverends Mompesson and Stanley typically take centre stage, cast as the heroes of the surrounding towns and villages, suggesting the cordon sanitaire and declaring a quarantine that would keep Eyam’s neighbours safe and place everyone kept within the village in the pathway of the pathogen. Catherine is the wife of William, faithfully accompanying him and paying the ultimate price for her devotion to his duties as clergy to an ailing flock. Quite frankly, I wanted more for her. Within the oral tradition there is talk of Catherine delivering herbal remedies to those who were overcome by plague or doing their upmost to avoid infection. My creative leap was to move her beyond just delivery and into the realms of apothecary herself. What if she actually learned to create herbal remedies herself, as an assistant and apprentice of Humphrey Merrill? Not only would this give her a purpose during the year of plague, it also provided her with a physical space beyond just her tomb in the churchyard. She learns the skills of apothecary and establishes her own herbal garden, a development hinted at on the cover with the addition of a plant.
In order to develop Catherine’s character I used the Myers-Briggs personality types to decide upon her likely personality traits based on what was known of her in the historical record. I settled on ISFJ; an introvert led by her senses and feeling. Whilst her sense of loyalty and tradition were strong, her need to do something practical during a time of such difficult was a real driver for her.
Catherine’s faith posed an interesting question for me, knowing it was such a strong feature of her death in the oral record. Did she always feel so sure and resolute in her belief and devotion? Could she have regarded faith alone as the way of tackling the insidious threat of an invisible foe or did she naturally seek for other ways of expressing her devotion and her compassion to the people of the village who suffered? The duality of faith and flora presented itself. Did these need to be either/or? Could these two things be combined in Catherine’s devout and devoted commitment to helping the village during its time of dire need?
The sending away of the Mompesson children created a tension in my mind as I considered how such a decision would have appeared to other parents in the village, trapped within the confines of the cordon sanitaire instigated by Catherine’s husband with their vulnerable children. Did the saving of Elizabeth and George Mompesson happen before the official quarantining or after? I use this in the novel to bring two of our protagonists into conflict. Elizabeth confronts Catherine in the street outside Humphrey Merrill’s house. This is the meeting of a woman who will lose all her children and yet survive and a woman who will save her children and forfeit her own life. It is the ultimate representation of maternal agony; to lose one’s children or to leave them. This conflict is resolved in the novel, not directly but through Catherine’s sincere sympathy at Elizabeth’s losses and Elizabeth’s empathy for William on learning of the death of his dear wife.
As part of her development, I wanted to give Catherine a friend. Noticing that Francis Frith was listed in the population record for the time (compiled by the later Eyam historian, John Clifford) as the churchwarden and would therefore be known to the Mompessons, it seemed only a tiny jump to suggest his wife, Elizabeth, might be a friend to the wife of the rector. For this friendship I drew upon one of my own cherished friendships with someone very precious to me and yet very different. On paper we may not appear as likely candidates for devoted friendship and yet in reality the closeness and commitment is cemented within the differences. It is a tragic plot device to have Elizabeth infect her friend through the gift of a handkerchief as an act of compassion towards someone she loved weakened by consumption. There are two clear origins of this idea for me: the wedding gift of a handkerchief embroidered with thistles symbolising the gift of a thistle a young Murron gives to William Wallace in Braveheart and the evil portent the handkerchief becomes in Shakespeare’s Othello. To think a handkerchief could symbolise love and friendship but also grief and disaster was too good an opportunity to pass by if Catherine must demise, and tragically history had deemed it so.
As a character, Catherine grew on me. I wrote her part of the narrative second after having already written Emmott. I was concerned she would end up sounding the same, or just sounding like me, but when Catherine spoke and moved and breathed it was clear she was her own person and through her struggles and finding something that was truly hers, she became for me a remarkable and memorable woman. If, when you visit her tomb in the churchyard at Eyam, remember that she is more than just the wife of William.