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Story Of London

Earthquakes in London (Part 3)

Earthquakes in London
by Bill McCann

Page 3

Such attitudes and fears did not die out with the mediæval period. For example, extraordinary scenes occurred in London in 1750. When the second tremor struck exactly one month after the first the question on every street corner was “What was going to Happen on April 8th ?” The Bishop of London mounted the pulpit of St Paul’s to declare that the earthquakes were an expression of the wrath of the Divinity at the depravity of the citizens of London. The first Westminster Bridge was nearing completion much to the anger of the watermen who argued that it would deprive them of their livelihood. They had mounted a sustained campaign of sabotage against the bridge and will, no doubt, have argued that the earthquakes and whatever calamity loomed for April were an expression of Divine support for their cause.
The Gentleman’s Magazine decided that the tremors a result of “subterranean waters cutting new courses” and “the inflammable breath of iron pyrites and substantial sulphur causing thunder and lightning when they explode in the air”. Occasions of public panic usually throw up a visionary or two and this was no exception. A shoemaker from Carnaby Market declared that he had been visited by an angel sent to him directly by God. The Deity’s message was that the world would be dissolved on April 8th. Many were convinced by him, but he was far outdone by a mad guardsman who raised the populace to such a feverpitch with his prophecies that he had to be arrested and incarcerated. Whatever was coming the Londoners did not like it and many fled the city to places like Slough. April 8th was a Sunday (of course) and on the Saturday thousands took to hills – literally – and spent the night on the slopes of Highgate, Hampstead and Islington. The Sunday passed quietly of course but the growing fear and apprehension as the 8th day of each new month approached did not subside a long time.

Of the earthquakes above, those of 1382 seem to have been the most severe, leaving large areas of Kent in ruins. But they also threw a small a small echo into the twentieth century which itself caused a small disturbance to the people directly involved, of which the author was one. To begin with, these earthquakes did not fail to agitate the minds of the people at the time. As it happens, in May 1382 a synod, called by Archbishop Courtenay of Canterbury, was assembled in London at the Black Friars priory. They were there to consider twenty-four propositions extracted from the writings of John Wyclif and which touched on the thorny subjects of the eucharist, papal jurisdiction, lordship and grace. Many thought that these writings were heretical and the objective of the synod was decide the matter once and for all and commit Wyclif to trial if his writings were deemed to contradict the teachings of the Church Fathers. On the fourth day of their deliberations the first of the earthquakes struck and the synod was forced to evacuate the building. The next days were spent in a fierce argument as to whether the implied instruction from God was or was not in favour of Wyclif’s innocence. In the end a compromise was reached in which the writings were deemed either heretical or erroneous but Wyclif himself was not named in the judgement and was not sent for trial.

The Black Friars or Dominicans first came to London in 1221 and established a house in Holborn, on the west bank of the Fleet river. In 1278, they were given the land south of Ludgate where they established their new friary. The land was bisected by the stretch of the Roman city wall between Ludgate and the Thames and this was demolished to make way (and provide materials) for the new construction. Part of the licence of 1278 specified that the friars were to replace the Roman wall with a new one enclosing their precinct. The latter was not completed until 1320 and extended westwards from Ludgate to the east bank of the Thames and thence south to the Thames.

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