It is not known exactly when leprosy arrived in England, but by the 11th century it was a grievous plague. The first Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, founded a leprosy hospice at Harbledown sometime between his arrival in England in 1070 and death in 1089. Henry II of England had lepers burned at the stake without religious rites. Edward I, Henry’s great grandson, was more charitable. He allowed them ritual funerals. Afterward, he had them carted to cemeteries and buried alive. Henry IV, the first Lancastrian King of England, died of an ailment that many people thought was leprosy because a skin disease ravaged his face so severely. There is no proof he had leprosy, but in the eyes of his enemies, his disfigured face equated him with a leper.
Leprosy mainly affected people in the poorer areas, where they don’t get enough to eat and live in very rudimentary housing. The disease began to wane in Western Europe at the close of the Middle Ages. Once rampant in Britain, by the 18th century it lingered only in the Shetland Islands. The last reported case of leprosy in Great Britain was in the Shetland Islands in 1798. Even today there are approximately 300 patients being treated for leprosy in Britain, but none of them actually caught it while living there.
Though the physical disease receded, reverberations of moral corruption linger. There was a terrible stigma attached to leprosy which consequently added even more injury to the disease. The stigma perished for all time with the discovery that the disease occurs naturally in wild armadillos. Before then, many believed that leprosy was a unique punishment inflicted by God on humans for their sins. This attitude is reflected in many literary works, including poetry. An author wrote: “When nations are to perish in their sins, tis in the church the leprosy begins.” In the 19th century, Tennyson associated leprosy with morality in this phrase: “A moral leper, I, to whom none spoke.” Now leprosy must be looked upon as a bacterial infection devoid of religious significance, although even today, the words leper and leprosy carry overtones of evil.