| May 23, 2024

Who Counts? Religion, Inclusion, and Exclusion in the Bills of Mortality

By Jessica Otis in analysis tagged otis, metadata, religion, background

On Wednesday August 30, 1665, the diarist Samuel Pepys ran into his parish clerk and asked how the plague was progressing within their parish. To his dismay, the clerk “told me it encreases much, and much in our parish.” Worst of all, the clerk admitted that the plague was so bad that he had falsified his weekly reports of parish plague deaths: “for, says he, there died nine this week, though I have returned but six.” Whether or not Pepys castigated the parish clerk in person, he recorded his condemnation of such “a very ill practice” in his diary. The numbers within the bills of mortality were a vital public health guide during plague outbreaks and it was imperative for them to be as accurate as possible.

No matter how diligent—or not—the parish clerks of London might be, there were practical limits to their attempts to collect comprehensive mortality statistics for their parish. Vagrants and travelers might slip through the cracks of the parish surveillance network, although any who left a body to be buried at the parish’s expense would be recorded. There was also the possibility of deaths being left unrecorded because there was no body to bury, although the bills were also full of bodies dragged out from the Thames or infants whose bodies were secretly disposed of and later discovered. But the most consistent and identifiable group of people who were not included in the bills of mortality were the men and women who deliberately placed themselves outside the structures of the Church of England: Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters or Non-Conformists. Indeed, the decreasing universality of worship within the Church of England was what eventually led to the bills of mortality being superseded by more comprehensive, secular mortality statistics.

When the printed bills first began in 1603, neither Roman Catholicism nor other Protestant faiths were much of a problem for the Church of England. Admittedly, “papists” were generally seen as a sociopolitical and religious threat—the 1605 Gunpowder Plot left a particularly enduring anti-Catholic mark on popular culture—but their overall number as a percent of the population was low. A 1603 survey of the variously 613 or 623 parishes Diocese of London (which includes but is not limited to the parishes in and around the city of London) indicated that there were only around 300 “recusants” who abstained from worship in the Church of England. An overwhelming 99.8% of the population within the geographical bounds of the diocese worshiped within and took communion at their parish church.1 This doesn’t mean they were all upstanding members of the Church of England. Many were likely “church papists” and other types of Protestants who occasionally conformed at their parish church but whose spiritual loyalty lay elsewhere. But regardless of their personal beliefs, their outward actions kept them engaged enough with their parish church and parish clerks that their deaths would have been included within their parish’s weekly burial count.

By 1676, the situation had changed dramatically. The intervening decades had seen the theological splintering of the Church of England, a series of civil wars, proliferating religious sects, theological repression, and failed attempts at toleration. The most recent Declaration of Indulgence, issued by King Charles II in 1672, was the latest in a series of back-and-forth legislation arguing over the legal status of, and secular penalties that would be applied to, Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters or Non-Conformists. The 1676 Compton Census was an immense undertaking that attempted to quantify the level of dissent actually present in England. Like the 1603 survey, it made no attempt to count how many people subscribed to specific church doctrines like transubstantiation, but rather how many people existed within vs. wholly outside the social and religious structures of parish life.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Compton Census, its data, and its limitations, should pick up a copy of Anne Whiteman’s The Compton Census of 1676. Long story short: like all data, it has some problems, but at a high level it seems to be a reasonably accurate representation of the over-aged-16 population. The number of children in each faith was likely proportional to the number of adults, as children generally follow their parents’ faith, especially at a young age. Overall, then, a mere 1 out of 178 people was Roman Catholic and a slightly larger 1 out of 22 were dissenters, but the vast majority of the population—a full 95%—was still worshiping at their parish church within the Church of England.2

London, however, was not and is not representative of England as a whole. It is well-known in the historiography that Catholicism in the post-Restoration royal court led to high levels of interaction with Catholicism in and around London, while levels of dissent were higher in London than in the rest of the kingdom. This would have absolutely had an impact on the comprehensiveness of the bills of mortality. But how much higher were these levels of religious nonconformity and how big were their impact? Well, thanks to Anne Whiteman’s painstaking work on the Compton Census, there’s an answer to that: London was 0.33% Roman Catholic and 7.58% non-conforming Protestants. Or flipped around: 92% of the population still worshiped and was recorded through the parochial infrastructure of the Church of England.

Even at that level, however, summary statistics conceal a wealth of information that can be gleaned by looking at the data on a parish-by-parish level. The massive suburban parish of St. Giles Cripplegate—population almost 25,000—contained an equally massive population of non-conforming Protestants and had the lowest conformity rate of all the parishes at 66.76%. That wasn’t much worse than St. Christopher’s 67.69%, but the clerk of St. Christopher had a mere 260 parishioners to keep track of and thus was much more likely to notice when one of them died, even if he didn’t have to bury them. The massive parishes of St. Olave Southwark, St. Martin in the Fields, and St. Mary Magdalen Bermondsy might not have as large a dissenting population as St. Giles Cripplegate (93.75%, 97.39%, and 97.88% conforming respectively) but their data collection problems probably bore a closer relationship to St. Giles Cripplegate’s than to other highly conforming but smaller parishes. It was much easier for a few bodies—or even a few dozen bodies—to slip through the cracks when the overworked clerks were dealing with hundreds of bodies a week. The clerks of St. Benet Sherhog and All Hallows Honey Lane, with their populations of a mere 59 and 50 parishioners, were much less likely to miss when someone died in their parishes, regardless of that person’s religious inclinations.

This blog post is more a first word than a final word on the question of how well the bills of mortality reflected the actual population of seventeenth-century London, but there are three main points to take away:

  1. Levels of conformity were nearly universal in 1603 and still extremely high even in the late 17th century, with an average of 92% across London’s population being encompassed by the parochial infrastructure that produced the bills; if we exclude St. Giles Cripplegate, the rate is an even higher 96.4%.
  2. While the data from the bills of mortality are not and could never have been perfect, they constitute a sample size of circa 9/10ths of the burials in London which is good enough for statistical analysis; it is unlikely that Roman Catholics or non-conforming Protestants were more or less vulnerable to specific causes of death than Church of England Protestants living in the same geographical spaces and under the same socioeconomic conditions.
  3. Massive disparities in the size of the parishes likely had as much to do with problems in the data as religious dissent, due to the greater difficulties of tracking thousands vs. dozens of parishoners; both factors should be considered when examining gaps in the data and breakdowns of the data collection apparatus in the early 18th century bills of mortality.

Table of Religious Conformity by Parish in 1676

Abstracted from Anne Whiteman’s The Compton Census of 1676.

Canonical DBN NameChurch of England aka ConformingRoman CatholicNon-Conforming aka DissentersPercent Conforming
St Giles Cripplegate1639020814066.76%
St Christopher17648067.69%
St Mary Mounthaw802080.00%
Holy Trinity Minories20194080.40%
All Hallows the Less2606081.25%
St Michael Queenhithe9111981.98%
All Hallows the Great499110083.17%
St Mary Rotherhithe300050085.71%
St Alphage4135787.87%
St Peter Poor440204088.00%
St Botolph Billingsgate2503089.29%
St Leonard Eastcheap1601989.39%
St Bride270030090.00%
St Mary Somerset2703090.00%
St Nicholas Cole Abbey901090.00%
St Dionis Backchurch4805090.57%
Christ Church110010091.67%
St Michael Cornhill45914091.80%
St Paul Covent Garden79064691.86%
St George Botolph Lane1381292.00%
St Margaret New Fish Street1541392.22%
St Anne Aldersgate10388292.68%
St Andrew Undershaft74934893.63%
St Giles in the Field24491263993.69%
St Olave Southwark1200080093.75%
St Mary Savoy2106893.75%
St Swithin37622294.00%
All Hallows London Wall50223094.01%
St George Southwark2600615094.34%
All Hallows Lombard Street32011894.40%
St Mary Colechurch1821094.79%
St Mary Bothaw150894.94%
St James Duke’s Place3802095.00%
St Pancras Soper Lane1342595.04%
St Thomas Southwark100025095.06%
St Saviour Southwark8000140095.23%
St Mary Lambeth300015095.24%
St Martin Ludgate56291995.25%
St Bartholomew Great7923595.77%
St Edmund the King4702095.92%
St Martin Vintry144696.00%
St Andrew Wardrobe2891196.33%
St Peter Cornhill62712296.46%
St Ann Blackfriars67671796.57%
St Dunstan East13504796.64%
St John Evangelist90396.77%
St Mary Aldermay3501196.95%
St Benet Fink2331697.08%
St James Garlickhithe2142497.27%
St Mildred Poultrey214697.27%
Christ Church Surrey120033097.32%
St Martin in the Fields1667219525197.39%
St Martin Orgar264797.42%
St James Clerkenwell42371010097.47%
St Katherine Creechurch91722197.55%
St Gabriel Fenchurch200597.56%
St Benet Gracechurch244697.60%
St Michael Bassishaw332897.65%
St Magnus4501097.83%
St Mary Magdalen Bermondsey14000330097.88%
St Dunstan West2419133997.90%
St Clement Eastcheap199498.03%
St Dunstan Stepney521529798.14%
All Hallows Bread Street340698.27%
St Lawrence Pountney286598.28%
St Peter Cheap2303198.29%
St Benet Sherehog59198.33%
St Michael Quern246498.40%
St Vedast alias Foster446798.45%
St Gregory by St Paul’s256498.46%
St Margaret Moses128298.46%
St Margaret Lothbury4022398.77%
St Andrew Holborn5928135998.80%
St Antholin4454198.89%
St Austin190298.96%
St Botolph Aldgate990010099.00%
All Hallows Staining594699.00%
St Andrew Hubbard326399.09%
St Katherine Coleman4461399.11%
St Mary Islington6951499.29%
St Margaret Pattens145199.32%
St Mary Magdalen Old Fish Street151199.34%
St Leonard Shoreditch19876799.35%
St Mary Staining159199.38%
St Mary Hill496399.40%
Bridewell Precinct341299.42%
St Martin Outwich348299.43%
St Mary le Bow3681199.46%
St Stephen Coleman Street11943399.50%
St Matthew Friday Street211199.53%
St Olave Hart Street224199.56%
St Bartholomew Less299199.67%
St Botolph Aldersgate32581099.69%
St Mary Woolnoth349199.71%
St Mary Aldermanbury359199.72%
St Sepulchre7042499.94%
All Hallows Barking540100.00%
All Hallows Honey Lane50100.00%
St Alban Wood Street250100.00%
St Benet Paul’s Wharf336100.00%
St Ethelburga200100.00%
St Helen450100.00%
St Martin Ironmonger Lane100100.00%
St Mary Abchurch270100.00%
St Mary Magdalen Milk Street500100.00%
St Mary Woolchurch300100.00%
St Michael Royal70100.00%
St Michael Wood Street200100.00%
St Mildred Bread Street150100.00%
St Nicholas Olave100100.00%
St Olave Jewry180100.00%
St Olave Silver Street200100.00%
St Peter Paul’s Wharf90100.00%
St Stephen Walbrook150100.00%
St Thomas Apostle240100.00%

NB: Some bill of mortality parishes are not listed because their counts are included with another parish, while others are genuinely missing data. For more on the gaps in the Compton Census data, see the “Introduction” in Whiteman, especially pages xlvi-xlvii.


The Diary of Samuel Pepys, https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1665/08/30/

Anne Whiteman, ed. The Compton Census of 1676: A Critical Edition (London: Oxford University Press for The British Academy, 1986).

  1. Anne Whiteman, The Compton Census of 1676: A Critical Edition, p. xcviii. ↩︎

  2. Anne Whiteman, The Compton Census of 1676: A Critical Edition, pp. lxxx–lxxxii. ↩︎