Comets in English history and beyond -harbingers of disaster, disease and death

Bayeux_Tapestry_scene32_Halley_comet_closeup.jpgHalley’s Comet made an appearance in 1066.  Chinese scholars had been noting its appearance since 240BC so Western Europe was a bit late to the party.  The Babylonians were in on the act as well.

The English thought that the comet was an omen for war in 1066.  William the Conqueror was much more optimistic he called it a “wonderful sign from Heaven” but then he’d taken the precaution of giving a daughter to the Church and persuading the Pope to call his invasion of England a crusade.

As luck would have it I am also in the midst of the seventeenth century at the moment so was mildly delighted when I came across Samuel Pepys account of a comet in 1664 seen above London.

So to the Coffeehouse, where great talke of the Comet seen in several places; and among our men at sea, and by my Lord Sandwic, to whom I intend to write about it to-night.

Sir Isaac Newton, a student at the time, searched the skies for the comet and Pepys hoped to see it for himself, not least because it had caused a plethora of prophesies – oddly none of them positive!

Mighty talke there of this Comet that is seen a ’night; and the King and the Queene did sit up last night to see it, and did, it seems. And to-night I thought to have done so too, but it is cloudy and so no stars appear. But I will endeavor it (December 17).

My lord Sandwich this day writes me word That he hath seen (at Portsmouth) the Comet, And says it is the most extraordinary thing that Ever he saw. (December 21)

Daniel Defoe mentions it as well in his Journal of a Plague Year – which despite appearances to the contrary is a secondary rather than a primary source.

 

120px-Tiger_Tail_Star_1665-01-10Essentially the Normans and the Londoners who saw the comets in 1066, 1664 and 1665 (there were two rather than one prior to the plague and Great Fire of London) believed that they were fiery messengers of the heavens – a direct line from God.  They were an indication of his irritation with humanity and a heavy hint that something extremely unpleasant was bound to follow.  If it wasn’t fire, war and plague then someone important was bound to die.

It wasn’t long before the doom mongers were proven correct in both 1066 and 1064.  In 1066 Harold Hardrada and William of Normandy both took the opportunity to launch an invasion of England.  In 1064 people started dying rather unpleasantly from the plague and let’s not forget that there were two comets so that covers the Great Fire of London as well.

Bill+Of+Mortality+From+1665+London.jpegThe plague began in Yarmouth in the winter of 1064.  By Christmas the disease had spread to London.  The weekly Bills of Mortality were about to become extremely depressing. Not that it was a surprise.  In 1065 the plague was endemic in England.  On average it put in an appearance every couple of decades.  There had been an outbreak in 1603 which rather quelled James I’s coronation celebrations.  In 1625 – the year James had died approximately twenty percent of London’s population had succumbed to the disease. The first official mortality of the 1665 outbreak was in St Giles in the Fields – plague and typhus started to take their toll the numbers recorded on the Bills of Mortality began to rise.  The Great Comet prophecy had been fulfilled – plague had arrived.

And just so we’re clear that fiery stars caused panic amongst the population here are a few more examples.  In 1456 the Ottoman Empire invaded Hungary –  their arrival pre-ordained by Halley’s Comet.  Pope Callixtus III ordered prayers to be said in an effort to counter-act the comet.

Halley’s Comet turned up in 1910 – slightly early for World War One and even the sinking of the Titanic.  Despite the fact that by the beginning of the twentieth century scientists had given the world a better understanding of what a comet was they could still cause chaos.  In 1908 for example panic broke out in Chicago because people thought that the comet they saw (Moorhouse’s Comet) signalled the end of the world and in 1910 when Halley’s comet arrived you could purchase an umbrella to protect you from the comet – which was slightly optimistic as some scientists believed that the tail of the comet was filled with poison gas that would kill everyone when the Earth passed through it.

Obviously Halley’s comet didn’t kill everyone – that would be silly.  No, it was just a sign that Edward VII was going to pop his clogs on 6th May in Buckingham Palace – not from comet miasma but from bronchitis.  He was a man in his seventies  who had over indulged for most of his adult life and who smoked heavily.  It probably didn’t require a comet to predict his death.

And finally Giotto managed to paint Halley’s Comet as the Star of Bethlehem in 1305 – always nice to see a more positive construction of its appearance. The painting can be seen at the Scovegni Chapel in Padua.

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One thought on “Comets in English history and beyond -harbingers of disaster, disease and death

  1. Defoe account on anything must be taken on with a twist of salt. He was a reporter of news only as he saw it having meddled in it beforehand. Six string Jack case is bit one case to mention. Defoe died in poverty after that. Good article well penned.

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