Earthquakes in London
by Bill McCann
In 1382, “On 21 May, about the ninth hour, there was a massive earthquake in England where such things are rarely felt or heard. The tremor, which brought terror to many people, was of such great force in Kent that it shook several churches and caused them to collapse. Another quake followed on 24 May, just before sunrise, but this was not as alarming as the previous one.“. And in from an entry for 1439 we hear that “On 23 November in the same year, between three and four o’cock in the afternoon, there befell a terrible storm of wind and rain, thunder and lightning, with dense smokey fog. The appalling noise was heard all over the land causing great alarm. There was an earthquake, too, shaking the ground everywhere”.
There was another on April 6th in 1580 which struck London and the South-East. The actor, Richard Tarleton, who kept an ordinary (eating house) at Pater Noster Row, noted that two men sitting on a cannon at Tower Hill were thrown off, that a number of chimneys collapsed, that the animals of the city roared and that the stall-owners of the Royal Exchange shut up their businesses for the day. The only known fatality during an earthquake in London occurred when an apprentice cobbler, Thomas Grey, was killed by falling masonry at Christ’s Hospital in Newgate Street. In 1626 there was a slight tremor in the London area. On February 8th 1750 there was another slight tremor which caused minor damage and this was followed by another, stronger, tremor on March 8th.
Natural disasters and phenomena such as earthquakes were of major significance to the mediæval mind. They were inevitably seen as portents of calamity to come and evidence of God’s anger with a people or their rulers. It is not surprising therefore that all of the above earthquakes were subjected to some kind of public analysis which was accompanied by judgements dire predictions about the unfolding of events on the public and political stage. For example, the storms and earthquake of 1439 occurred during the French wars in the reign of Henry VI, the only sovereign to have been crowned in both England and France, when that unhappy king (and England) was about to lose France forever. There is no doubt but that the people of a country ridden with faction and political uncertainty would have interpreted the terrible storms and earthquake as a portent of impending disaster. Indeed the king’s madness and The War of the Roses were looming on the horizon.
In 1580, Elizabeth I was in a fierce dispute with Pope Pius V who had excommunicated her and claimed to have the power of deposing her and of putting Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. The earthquake of that year was therefore judged by Catholics and Protestants alike as a signal from Heaven and the streets were daily full of pamphlets arguing for one side or the other. The earthquake of 1627 occurred on the day Charles I was crowned at Westminster. The day did not begin well. Charles’ queen, Henrietta Maria, was a Catholic and refused to attend the ceremony. There was no traditional procession from the Tower to Westminster and the populace of London were unhappy at the lack of the usual spectacle such as that at the coronation of Edward VI in 1547 shown in the image below. (These events were normally accompanied by an air of carnival, undoubtedly helped by the traditional filling of the water conduits with free wine.)
Charles had chosen to come to Westminster by river instead but the royal barge fouled the landing stage at Parliament Stairs and he had to make an undignified landing from a hastily borrowed boat. The earthquake merely served to underline the general conviction that there were evil times ahead. One wonders whether memories of these portents were stirred twenty-two years later when Civil War had ravaged he land and Charles was beheaded in Whitehall.