A Natural Disaster in Medieval London

Gregory DiPippo

On October 17, 1091, a very unusual natural disaster occurred in England; the city of London was hit by a tornado. From the accounts of it given by the monastic chroniclers William of Malmesbury and Florentius of Worcester, both active in the early 12th century, modern scientists estimate it to have reached an 8 out of 11 on the TORRO scale, the Richter scale of tornados. This would involve winds of up to 200 miles, but fortunately, although a great many buildings were damaged or destroyed, the tornado caused very little loss of human life. Here is William’s account from his Gesta Regum Anglorum (324), completed in 1125. He is rightly considered to be one of the most learned man of his age, and there is nothing about his Latin to bother even the purest of Ciceronian purists.

“Quid illud omnibus incognitum seculis? discordia ventorum inter se dissidentium, ab euro-austro veniens, decimo sexto kalendas Novembris, Londoniae plusquam secentas domos effregit. Cumulabantur ecclesiae cum domibus, maceriae cum parietibus. Majus quoque scelus furor ventorum ausus, tectum ecclesiae sanctae Mariae quae « ad Arcus » dicitur pariter sublevavit, et duos homines ibi obruit. Ferebanturque tigna cum trabibus per inane, spectaculo a longe visentibus, timori prope stantibus ne obruerentur. Quatuor tigna, sex et viginti pedes longa, tanta vi in humum impacta sunt ut vix quatuor pedes extarent. Notabili visu quomodo duritiem stratae publicae perruperint, eo ibi ordine posita quo in tecto manu artificis fuerant locata, quoad ob impedimenta transeuntium ad planitiem terrae sunt desecta, quod aliter erui nequirent.

(St Mary le Bow and surrounding neighborhood, from an engraving of 1750, reproduced in a book called Old and New London in 1887.)

But what was this thing unknown to all (previous) ages? A variance (or ‘strife’) of winds against each other, coming from the south-east, on October 17th, smashed up more than six hundred houses in London. Churches were being heaped on houses, and walls on partitions. The furor of the winds also dared a greater crime, and lifted off the roof of the church of called “St Mary at the arches” (St Mary Le Bow), and killed two men there. Rafters and beams were borne through the air, a cause of great surprise to those who watch from a distance, and of fear to those who stood close by, lest they should be crushed by them. For four rafters, each twenty-six feet long, were driven with such great force into the ground, that scarcely four feet of them remained visible. It was notable to see how they broke up the solidity of the public street, set there (by the winds) in the same position in which they had been placed in the roof by the workman’s hand, until they were cut down to street level, since they were a hindrance to those passing by, and could not be removed in any other way.”

St Mary le Bow, which takes its name from its stone arches (“arcus”, also “bows”, as in “bow-and-arrow”), was one of the oldest churches in London, dating back to the Saxon period; the crypt from that era still survives. After the tornado disaster, it was rebuilt, and later became the seat of the ecclesiastical court of the province of Canterbury, which, with the British genius for tradition, is still called the “Arches Court.” This new version of it was flattened by the Great London Fire of 1666; after the cathedral of St Paul, it was one of the very first churches to be rebuilt by the architect Sir Christopher Wren. It was severely damaged once again in 1941 during the London Blitz, but carefully restored to its previous appearance from 1956-64.

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