Was it a spring tide in 1607? Was it a storm? No, it was a tsunami! Or was it….?

 

Contemporary ‘chapbook’ (Steve Rippon) The above church is the one at Nash, Monmouthshire, according to https://www.volcanocafe.org/the-bristol-tsunami-of-1607/ See also a photograph of this church below.

“….But the yeere 1606, the fourth of King James, the ryver of Severn rose upon a sodeyn Tuesday mornyng the 20 of January beyng the full pryme day and hyghest tyde after the change of the moone by reason of a myghty strong western wynde….” John Paul, Vicar of Almondsbury

St Mary the Virgin Church, Nash, Monmouthshire, as depicted in the woodcut above

In ‘A True Report of Certain Overflowings’ by Edward White, the author warns: ‘If this affliction now inflicted upon our Country, is more severe than before, use it: tremble, be warned in advance, be repentant, in order to avoid a more severe punishment.’

To what do all these dire words refer? An event that took place today in the year 1607, when there was a truly terrible flood in the Bristol Channel, Severn estuary and up the Severn itself to Gloucester and beyond. Yes, the day usually quoted for this catastrophe is 30th January, but that is by modern calculation. At the time of the event, the old date by the Julian calendar still applied, and that was the 20th. In 1752 everything changed to the more accurate Gregorian calendar, which added ten days. As the old calendar also reckoned New Year’s Day as 25th March, this also explains why the Great Flood is sometimes said to have happened in 1606.

Such technicalities aside—and to accept that this did not happen during the medieval period, but not long after— one fact remains: what happened that day was monumentally destructive, drowning thousands of people and animals and ruining villages, farms and land. In a period of five hours 2000 people died and over 200 square miles of land were destroyed by floods that rushed up to five miles inland, paying no respect to banks and defences, and engulfing everything in its path. This was not the bore as anyone had ever known it and the inundation left water standing 10 feet deep in some areas. Great swathes of the South Wales coastline from Cardigan and Laugharne to Chepstow were destroyed. North Devon coasts were similarly affected, from Barnstaple, up the coast of Somerset to Bristol and Gloucestershire. The cities of Cardiff, Bristol and Gloucester all suffered. It was to be many years before everything recovered.

Generally the reckoning is that the calamity commenced at around nine in the morning, but this applies to the area of the estuary where it really narrows to become the River Severn itself. For others to the south-west, it began much earlier, in the middle of the night, which must have been even more terrifying. “….This storme begane at 3 of clock in the morning and continue tyll 12 of clock on the same day….” Barnstaple Parish Register, 1607

So what happened? An oversized spring tide? A sudden storm of biblical ferocity? What follows now is in general based upon the version of it commencing at around nine in the morning. The day had dawned clear and bright, and (according to most accounts) almost windless. The Severn is of course notorious for its tidal range, which is the second highest in the world, but its tides and the famous Severn Bore had been in existence forever, and there was no reason to think it would be any different this time. Well, it was another spring tide, of course. These were always higher and fuller than at other times, and this wasn’t the first in the usual sequence, so other than the lowest riverside fields being awash for a while, no one anticipated anything out of the ordinary.

from https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1256/wea.133.05 (with apologies from me for the poor quality)

People were getting up and going about their daily business as usual. Housewives were looking after their homes and children, men were in fields or in towns, and everything seemed set for a fine January day. At first many believed they saw some strange mist in the distance, but it was something much more substantial and was to leave ‘many men who were rich when they got out of bed in the morning….impoverished before noon the same day’. As it pounded toward them, they realised it was a huge wave over seven metres or 22 feet high (according to some reports) roaring in from the sea, sweeping all before it, ‘as if the world’s largest mountains had overwhelmed the lowlands or marshy ground’.

But people’s realisation came too late, and they were caught up in its ferocity. The following examples of individual sufferings are taken from https://www.burnham-on-sea.com/history/1607-flood/ which in turn is taken from the findings of a Bath Spa University College study issued by Dr Simon Haslett FGS, FRGS:-

  • The breaking of the sea bank at Burnham-On-Sea led to some 30 villages being utterly inundated, and their cattle destroyed, and men, women and children besides. The accounts state that 28 people were drowned at Huntspill and 26 at Brean, a death toll that was repeated in many other villages.
  • At Appledore, Devon, a 60 tonne ship was well-laden and ready to sail and was driven by the wave onto marshy ground well above high tide, likely never to be recovered.
  • In Barnstaple, Devon, the wave burst open doors that were locked and bolted and knocked down many walls and houses, one of which was the house of a James Frost in that the roof and walls collapsed and killed both him and two of his children.
  • Near Newport, Gwent, a wealthy woman, Mistress Van, lived four miles from the sea and although she saw the wave approaching from her house she could not get upstairs before it rushed through and drowned her.
  • In Monmouthshire, “a maide child, not passing the age of foure years: it is reported that the mother thereof, perceiving the waters to breake so fast into her house, and not being able to escape with it, and having no clothes on, set it upon a beame in the house, to save it from being drowned. And the waters rushing in a pace, a little chicken as it seemeth, flew up unto it [the child], (it being found in the bosome of it, when helpe came to take it [the child] downe) and by the heate thereof, as it is thought, preserved the childe’s life”.
  • “Another little childe is affirmed to have been cast uppon land in a cradle, in which was nothing but a catte [cat], the which was discerned as it came floating to the shoare, to leape still from one side of the cradle unto the other, even as if she had been appointed steresman to preserve the small barke from the waves furie”.
  • “A certain man and woman having taken a tree for their succour, espying nothing but death before their eyes, at last among other things which were carried along, they perceived a certain tubbe of great bignesse to come nearer and nearer unto them, until it rested upon that tree wherein they were, committed themselves, and were carried safe until they were cast upon the drie shore”.
  • “More than did, had perished for want of food, and extreme cold, had not the Rt. Honble. Lord Herbert …. sent out boats to relieve the distresse …. himself going  to such houses as he could minister to their provision of meate and other necessaries”.

Walter Yonge (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Yonge_(died_1649)) wrote about the events at Barnstaple and elsewhere of that morning:-


“…..The 20th of Jan 1606-7, by reason of a great tempest, the sea brake in at divers places on the north side of this country, as at Barnstaple, where was much hurt done. At Bridgwater two villages near thereabouts and one market town overflown, and report of 500 persons drowned, besides many sheep, and other cattle. At Bristol it flowed so high that divers packs, which were brought thither against Paul’s fair, standing together in a common hall of the city, for such purposes, stood three foot deep in water….”
(Source: http://website.lineone.net/~mike.kohnstamm/flood/accounts.html )

In a document entitled ‘Gods warning to his people of England’, William Jones of Usk wrote:-

“….Then they might see & perceive a far of as it were in the Element, huge and mighty Hilles of water, tumbling one over another, in such sort as if the greatest mountaines in the world, has over-whelmed the lowe Valeys or Earthy grounds. Sometimes it so dazled the eyes of many of the Spectators, that they immagined it had bin some fogge or miste, comming with great swiftnes towards them: and with such a smoke, as if Mountaynes were all on fire: and to the view of some, it seemed as if Myliyons of thousandes of Arrowes had bin shot forth at one time, which came in such swiftnes, as it was verily thought, that the fowles of the ayre could scarcely fly so fast, such was the threatning furyes thereof….”

Flood plaque at Goldcliff Parish Church. Above plaque pic From: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/great-flood-1607-britains-tsunami-6265764

According to https://www.burnham-on-sea.com/history/1607-flood/ :-

“….Research into the devastating 1607 flood that affected Burnham-On-Sea and the Bristol Channel in January 1607 has been the subject of a study between Dr Simon Haslett, Head of Geography at Bath Spa University College, author of Coastal Systems and Dr Ted Bryant, School of Geosciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and author of Tsunami: the Underrated Hazard….” This new possibility was first suggested by Haslett and Bryant in a 2002 scientific paper published in the journal Archaeology in the Severn Estuary.

Well, one word in the above paragraph will surely have leapt out from the page. Tsunami. Well, was that what struck that day in 1606/7? Can there really have been a tsunami in Britain in the early 17th century? We simply don’t associate our islands with such dreadful natural disasters, and yet there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be as much of a target as anywhere else in the world. So it’s a frightening thought that the floods of which I write might have been more than simply an oversized spring tide or even a sudden storm. Were they in fact a spring tide that was overwhelmed by a tsunami?

Haslett and Bryant had a number of reasons for wondering if the 1607 flood was caused by a tsunami, not a spring tide or storm. Taken from https://www.burnham-on-sea.com/history/1607-flood/:-

  • Some historical accounts indicate that the weather was fine e.g. “for about nine of the morning, the same being most fayrely and brightly spred, many of the inhabitants of these countreys prepared themselves to their affayres” and a ship at Appldedore is unlikely to be ready to sail in stormy weather.
  • The sea appears to have been “driven back” i.e. retreated out to sea, before the wave struck, a classic precursor of a tsunami.
  • The wave appeared as “mighty hilles of water tombling over one another in such sort as if the greatest mountains in the world had overwhelmed the lowe villages or marshy grounds. Sometimes it dazzled many of the spectators that they imagined it had bin some fogge or mist coming with great swiftness towards them and with such a smoke as if mountains were all on fire, and to the view of some it seemed as if myriads of thousands of arrows had been shot forth all at one time.” This is very similar to descriptions of more recent tsunami, such as the tsunami associated with the eruption of Krakatau in 1883, where accounts refer to the sea as being ‘hilly’, and the reference to dazzling, fiery mountains, and myriads of arrows, is reminiscent of accounts of tsunami on the Burin Peninsula (Newfoundland) in 1929, where the wave crest was shining like car headlights, and in Papua New Guinea in 1998 where the wave was frothing and sparkling.
  • The speed of the wave appears to have been faster than a storm flood as the wave is ‘affirmed to have runne with a swiftness so incredible, as that no gray-hounde could have escaped by running before them’.

To read more about the reasons for considering a tsunami, read the Burnham-on-Sea link above, which goes into considerable detail. And which suggests the following as possible causes of such an event:-

“….A possible cause of the proposed tsunami is not yet known, but the possibilities include a landslide off the continental shelf between Ireland and Cornwall, or an earthquake along an active fault system in the sea south of Ireland. This fault system has apparently experienced an earthquake greater than magnitude 4 on the Richter scale within the last 20 years, so the chance of a bigger tsunami earthquake is a possibility. It may also have been a combination, in that an earthquake might have triggered a submarine slide….”

If you go to https://www.aforgottenlandscape.org.uk/projects/1607-the-great-severn-estuary-flood/ you’ll find a summary of a talk presented by Rose Hewlett on Tuesday 4 October 2016 as part of the Tuesday Talks series. She was researching the 1607 flood for her PhD at the University of Bristol. She is inclined to discount a tsunami. “….She felt sure that if an underwater earthquake had occurred and created a tsunami this would have been widely reported, much as the Dover Straits earthquake of 1580 had captured the public’s attention. While she accepted that physical evidence along the coasts of the Bristol Channel indicated that a sizeable event had occurred, she could not ignore the numerous and unconnected reports of the strong winds and a storm, and that also the same weather system appears to have caused a large surge on the evening tide at King’s Lynn, Norfolk….”

 

To read another  book on the subject, try https://www.amazon.co.uk/Severn-Tsunami-Britains-Greatest-Disaster-ebook/dp/B00FD3NNJO/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+severn+tsunami+mike+hall&qid=1609848081&sr=8-1 by Mike Hall of Redwick, Monmouthshire. He believes it was definitely a tsunami because it came on a “bright, sunny, cloudless day”.

Mike Hall outside St Thomas’ Church, Redwick, which has a flood mark from the 1607 disaster From https://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/news/10919882.redwick-author-tells-story-of-severn-tsunami-which-devastated-coastal-gwent-in-1607/#gallery0

So, what do you think, ladies and gentlemen? Was it a combination of things that altogether made one big thing? Or was it the ultimate big thing on its own, a tsunami?

For more further reading:-

https://static.rms.com/email/documents/fl_1607_bristol_channel_floods.pdf which is acomplete pdf with a lot of technical information.

https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.732.1422&rep=rep1&type=pdf ditto for information.

https://static.rms.com/email/documents/fl_1607_bristol_channel_floods.pdf ditto for information.

See https://www.slideshare.net/ProfSimonHaslett/the-1607-flood-a-tsunami-in-the-bristol-channel-3403592 for slides with photographs, maps and graphs that detail events. Also http://profsimonhaslett.blogspot.com/2011/01/great-flood-of-1607-tsunami-or-storm.html

And if you want to sleep with your life jacket on: https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/local-news/tsunami-warning-bristol-channel-alert-1905295

 

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