In the aftermath of the plague epidemic that swept across Britain and the rest of Europe in the mid fourteenth century, the church began to weaken as an institution. People started to seek a more personal relationship with God and questioned the need for the clergy more and more.
From 1348-1350, the Bubonic Plague swept across Britain, wiping out around one-third of the population. The ineffectiveness of the clergy during the crisis led many to believe that the clergy carried no special favour with God, especially as many people assumed that the epidemic was some form of punishment from above.
During the epidemic, many plague victims were buried without having their last rites read as a result of a shortage of priests. In 1349, the Bishop of Bath and Wells wrote to his clergy, stating;
“Priests cannot be found for love or money…. to visit the sick and administer the last sacraments of the church – perhaps because the fear they will catch the disease”.
He went on to say that sins should be confessed to a layperson if no clergy can be found and even, “to a woman if no man is available”!
Those that did stay and help the sick were more likely to catch the disease themselves, resulting in many of the good clergy dying. The bad ones, the ones absent when they were needed the most, were far more likely to survive. This led to a reduction in the effectiveness of the clergy in the aftermath of the epidemic and arguably reduced the faith that many survivors had in the church.
The rules for taking on new clergy became slack during and after the epidemic due to lack of numbers and often someone who was not properly qualified to become a member of the clergy was seen as ‘better than nothing’. The Hereford Episcopal register shows that in 1349-1350, great efforts were being made to strengthen the priesthood in the diocese of St David’s through mass ordinations. As far more ordinances happened in these years than was usual, it suggests that vacancies were being filled that had been created by the plague. These ordinances were also being pushed through quickly which also indicates that they are a response to the crises. These rushed appointments would have reduced the quality of the clergy, as people being hired would not necessarily be given their role in the church based on piety or ability to do the job required.
Added to the problems of low numbers of clergy was the greed shown by many. Henry Knighton wrote in his chronicles of the fourteenth century;