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.

halley-comet-as-nativity.jpg

 

Great Fire of London

pepysOn the 2nd September 1666, the Great Fire of London officially got to grips with the city.  Thomas Farriner had retired to bed thinking that his bakehouse fire had been damped down.  At 1.00am his servant discovered that the bakehouse was on fire.  The inhabitants of Pudding Lane were the first to have to flee as the flames consumed their homes.  Farriner’s family were forced to escape over the roofs but a maid was too scared to go with them so became the first known victim of the fire.  At 3.00am Samuel Pepys was awoken by his maid with news that a fire could be seen but he was unalarmed and went back to sleep again.  Famously he would bury his valuables including a large cheese in order to save them from the fire.

Unfortunately in a wooden framed town with thatched roofs and much else made from wood, fire was commonplace so initially the fire was just treated as any other old fire.  Unfortunately the summer had been hot and long and the wind was in the right direction.  By the afternoon the fire had spread as well as the rumour that the Dutch or French had set fire to the city and large numbers of people were fleeing for their lives.  Incredibly only ten or so people were recorded as being killed in the fire which destroyed four hundred (ish) streets.  John Evelyn said that he saw 10,000 houses on fire.

Extract from Pepys’ diary:

Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . .

 

Initially it was up to the Londoners themselves to put themselves out.  By the third day houses were being demolished in a bid to create a fire wall.  It was only when the wind dropped however that the fire was contained. Ultimately the fire was contained on the third day but some 13,000 houses were destroyed along with 87 churches and key landmarks.  The Stationers Company were particularly devastated by the loss of Old St Paul’s as they had moved their books there for safety thinking it was too substantial to be destroyed by fire.

 

https://www.pepysdiary.com 

23 December – Of Samuel Pepys, three nuns, a turkey and that man Cromwell.

pepysWith only two days of my metaphorical advent calendar to go I really should be getting a bit more festive – so with no further ado allow mw to introduce the turkey – property of one Samuel Pepys. In 1660 Mrs Pepys was troubled by the art of spit roasting the aforementioned bird. In fact you can read every single 23rd December that Pepys ever recorded should you feel the urge by following the link:

http://samuelpepystoday.com/?day=1123

 

A swift search of the net reveals that in the UK ten million turkeys are eaten each Christmas. I had thought it was a relative new comer to the Christmas table. After all, you only have to think of Ebenezer Scrooge and the prize goose that graced the Cratchets’ table to realise that the turkey has not always been the bird of choice but apparently, and I really am sorry about this because I had hoped to avoid him today, that the first turkey arrived in England in 1526 and, yes, the first monarch to eat turkey was Henry VIII though it was Edward VII who made them into a popular festive meal.  For more about festive birds read the History Extra article here.

Since it’s proved impossible to bypass the terrible Tudor I should probably also mention that Dr Legh, one of Cromwell’s monastic visitors, was wandering around Huntingdonshire on his way north on the 23 December 1535. He took it upon himself to visit Hinchinbrooke  Priory.  Sadly the prioress, Alice Wilton, was very unwell and the sight of Legh was enough to finish her off.  Legh promptly took charge of the keys and the money coffers before asking Cromwell what he should do next.

There being only three nuns in addition to the prioress and it being a poor establishment the priory was swiftly suppressed. Ownership passed on to Richard  Cromwell who was the son of Morgan Williams who married Katherine Cromwell, Thomas Cromwell’s sister. Richard took his uncle’s name and benefited from his uncle’s patronage to the tune of several large chunks of monastic land including Hinchinbrooke Priory and Ramsey Abbey.  Hinchinbrooke was to become famous as the birthplace a couple generations down the line of  Oliver Cromwell.
‘Henry VIII: December 1535, 21-25’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 9, August-December 1535, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1886), pp. 340-350. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol9/pp340-350 [accessed 6 December 2016].

‘Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of Hinchinbrook’, in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 1, ed. William Page, Granville Proby and H E Norris (London, 1926), pp. 389-390. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/hunts/vol1/pp389-390 [accessed 7 November 2016].

A captain, a cupboard and a viking – a cupboard full of Hubbards

charlesCaptain John Hubbard served upon seven royal naval vessels during the reign of Charles II when the country was at war with the Dutch.  In 1665 he commanded the Happy Return at the Battle of Lowestoft which saw a great victory.  In 1666 he was made captain of the Royal Charles, previously known as the Naseby (and one of Cromwell’s most prized vessels).   The following year he  joined the Rupert; then the Plymouth, the Milford, and the Assistance.  It was while on the Assistance that Captain John Hubbard was killed in action against some Algerine corsairs.  Pepys talks about Hubbard being killed as a result of being overly brave.

The Royal Charles became one of the Royal Navy’s biggest shames.  The Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames to Chatham in 1667.  They cut the flagship from the fleet and carried it away.  The ship was the Royal Charles.

But on to Old Mother Hubbard who went to the cupboard.  According to the rhyme she was going to fetch her doggy a bone. Of course the cupboard was bare.   Apparently Old Mother Hubbard was, in fact, Cardinal Wolsey, making the cupboard in this instance the Catholic Church.  The doggy (a.k.a. King Henry VIII) wanted an annulment from his queen – Katherine of Aragon – which was not forthcoming because the Pope found himself under the watchful eye of Katherine’s nephew.

That just leaves the viking.  Hubba the Horrible or Ubba was a brother of Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan. There is another school of thought that says it is a name that made its appearance with the Normans.  Whatever the case Internet research suggests that anyone with the surname Hubbard, Hubbert or Hobart is descended from one John Hubba who is recorded as living in Suffolk in 1274.  His family possibly descended from “Euro, filius Huberti” who can be found in the Domesday Book and who appear to have some familial link to William the Conqueror but I need to do much more research as yet.

All exciting stuff – but made even more so by the fact that, in so far as I can rely on parish records,  Captain John Hubbard is my eight times great grandfather…