'God's warning to the people of England', 1607

First the 'grievous and most lamentable Plague' and then...

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Many men that were rich in the morning when they rose out of their beds, were made poor before noon the same day…

Recent weeks have seen serious flooding in parts of England and Wales, something which has sadly become a more frequent phenomenon. But the past of course saw major inundations, too. One took place 414 years ago – the Bristol Channel floods of 30 January 1607 (which are believed to have begun around 9am). Around ten accounts of this have survived. The cause of this flood remains disputed, a tsunami being one theory, although only of those ten accounts (see below) directly suggests that; otherwise perhaps it was a storm surge coupled with an unusually high spring tide. Regardless, the human cost was great – as many as 2,000 people are believed to have drowned, and many livelihoods were wrecked as crops and livestock were swept away across south Wales and south-west England.

Here’s an extract from a religious pamphlet by the Puritan William Jones, ‘God’s warning to his people of England’, published the same year (note he refers to the 20 January because this was the date in the older Julian calendar). I have modernised the spelling for ease of reading.

Many are the doom warnings of Destruction, which the Almighty God hath lately scourged this our Kingdom with; And many more are the threatening Tokens, of his heavy wrath extended toward us: All which in bleeding hearts, may inforce us to put on the true garment of Repentance… Therefore let us now call to remembrance the late grievous and most lamentable Plague of Pestilence, wherein the wrath of God took from us so many thousands of our friends, kindred and acquaintance… And lastly let us fix our eyes upon these late swellings of the outrageous Waters, which of late now happened in diverse partes of the Realm, together with the overflowing of the Seas in diverse and sundry places thereof: whole fruitful valleys, being now overwhelmed and drowned with these most unfortunate and unseasonable salt waters, do fore-show great Barrenness, and Famine to ensue after it…

Upon Tuesday being the 20 of January last past, 1607 in diverse places as well in the Western parts of England, as also in diverse other places of this Realm: there happened such an overflowing of Waters, such a violent swelling of the Seas, and such forcible breaches made into the firm-Land: namely into the bosoms of these countries following. That is to say, in the Counties of Gloucester, Somerset, together with the Countries of Monmouth, Glamorgan, Carmarthen, and diverse and sundry other places of South-Wales: the like never in the memory of man, has ever been seen or heard of: The sudden terror whereof struck such an amazed fear into the hearts of all the inhabitants of those parts, that every one prepared himself ready to entertain the last Period of his life’s Destruction: Deeming it altogether to be a second deluge: or a universal punishment by Water. 

For upon the Tuesday being the 20 of January last, as aforesaid, about nine of the clock in the morning, the Sun being most fairly and brightly spread, many of the Inhabitants of those Countries before mentioned, prepared themselves to their affaires, some to one business, some to an other: every man according to his calling. As the Ploughmen setting forth their Cattle to their labours, the Shepherds' feeding of their flocks, the farmers over-seeing of their grounds and looking to their cattle feeding therein, and to every one employed in his business, as occasion required. Then they might see & perceive afar of as it were in the Element, huge and mighty Hills of water, tumbling one over another, in such sort as if the greatest mountains in the world, has overwhelmed the low Valleys or Earthy grounds. Sometimes it so dazzled the eyes of many of the Spectators, that they imagined it had been some fog 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 Million of thousands of Arrows had been shot forth at one time, which came in such swiftness, as it was verily thought, that the fowls of the air could scarcely fly so fast, such was the threatening furies thereof. 

But as soon as the people of those Countries perceived that it was the violence of the Waters of the raging Seas and that they began to exceed the compass of their accustomed bounds, and making so furiously towards them, happy were they that could make the best, and most sped away, many of them, leaving all their goods and substance, to the merciless Waters, being glad to escape away with life themselves: But so violent and swift were the outrageous waves, that pursued one another, with such vehemency, and the Waters multiplying so much in so short a time, that in less than five hours’ space, most part of those countries (and especially the places which lay low) were all overflown, and many hundreds of people both men, women and children were then quite devoured by these outrageous waters… 

Many Gentlemen, Yeomen and others, had great losses of cattle, as Oxen, Kine, Bullocks, Horses, Colts, Sheep, Swine, Nay not so much as their poultry about their houses, but all were overwhelmed and drowned, by these merciless Waters: Many men that were rich in the morning when they rose out of their beds, were made poor before noon the same day… Many others likewise, had their habitations or dwelling houses all carried away in a short time, and had not a place left them, so much as to shroud themselves in. 

Moreover, many that had great store of Corn and Grain, in their Barns and Garners in the morning had not within five hours space afterwards, so much as one Grain to make them bread withall: Neither had they so much left as a lock of Hay or Straw to feed their cattle which were left…

Moreover, all or the most part, of the Bridges, between Gloucester and Bristol, were all forcibly carted away with the Waters: besides many goodly buildings thereabouts much defaced, and many of them carried quite away…

Many dead Carcasses, both there, and in many other places, of the country, are daily found floating upon the Waters, and as yet cannot be known who they are, or what number of persons are drowned, by reason of the same Waters, which as yet in many places remain very deep: so great was the spoil that these merciless Elements there wrought and made. 

In Bristol was much harm done, by the overflowing of the Waters, but not so much as in other places, many Cellars and Ware-houses, where great store of Merchandise was in (as Wine, Salt, hops, Spices, and such like Ware) were all spoiled. And the people of the Town were enforced to be carried in Boats, by and down the said City about their business in the Fair time there. 

[Although Jones’s pamphlet has a religious message, it reads much like a form of early journalism, and he continues with a series of little vignettes – the human interest angle – of individuals caught up in the flood, much as a newspaper report might. Here are a few examples to finish with.]

… many have been most strangely preserved. As for example, there was in the County of Glamorgan, a man both blind and… one which had not been able to stand upon his legs in the years before, he had his poor cottage broken down by the force of the Waters, and himself, Bed and all carried into the open fields, where being ready to sink, and at the point to seek a resting place, two fathoms deep under the Waters: his hand by chance caught hold of the Rafter of a house swimming by the fierceness of the Winds, then blowing Easternly he was driven safely to the land, and so escaped. 

Also in another place, there was a man Child of the age of 5 or 6 years, which was kept swimming for the space of two hours, above the Waters, by reason that his long Coats lay spread upon the tops of the waters, and being at last, at the very point to sink: there came by chance by (floating upon the tops of the Waters) a fat Wether [a ram] that was dead, very full of Wool: The poor distressed Child perceiving this good means of recovery, caught fast hold on the Wether’s Wool, and likewise with the wind he was driven to dry land, and so saved. 

There was also in the County of Carmarthen, a young Woman, who had four small Children, and not one of them able to help itself: And the Mother then seeing the furies of the Waters to be so violent to seize upon her threatening the Destruction of her self and her small Children (and as a Woman’s wit is ever ready in extremities) she took a long Trough, wherein placed herself, and her four Children: And so putting themselves to the mercies of the Waters, they were all by that means driven to the dry land, and by God’s good providence thereby they were all saved.

[Another, quite similar contemporary account, ‘Lamentable newes out of Monmouthshire…’, has similar reports, and gives names of the individuals. This report (from which the picture above comes) gives a little example of how people helped one another in the crisis…]

The number of men that are drowned, are as yet not known to exceed above twenty hundred. A mul­titude more than died, had perished for want of food, and extremity of colde, had not the right Honourable the Lord Herbert, son and heir to the Carle of Worcester, and Sir Walter Mountague, Knight, brother unto the Recorder of London, who dwell near unto the foresaid places, sent out boats (fet­ched ten miles’ compass upon Wains [i.e. brought on carts]) to relieve the distressed. The Lord Herbert himself (as the re­lation is) going himself, unto such houses as he could, that were in extremity, to minister unto them provi­sion of meat and other necessaries.