With so much of the country finding itself suddenly underwater earlier this month, it is no surprise that I couldn’t resist having a closer look at a book called “Of floods in England – 1607” when I noticed it in the stacks.
This little pamphlet, printed in London in 1607, commemorates the terrible events of 30 January the same year, when the Bristol Channel overflowed to truly devastating effect. Entire villages were reportedly swept away, hundreds of miles of farmland and whole herds of livestock were destroyed, and more than 2,000 lives were lost. Here in Cardiff, not much more than a fishing village in 1607, the wave reached up to four miles inland and washed away all before it, including the foundations of the parish church on St. Mary’s Street.
The author of the pamphlet paints a vivid picture of the chaos of that awful night: “Men that were going to their labours were compelled (seeing so dreadfull an enemy approaching) to flye back to their houses, yet before they could enter, Death stood at their dores ready to receive them. In a short tyme did whole villages stand like islands … and in a more short time were those islands undiscoverable, and no where to be found.”The pamphlet’s terrifying tales of watery death and destruction are thankfully tempered by a few stories of miraculous survival and community spirit: “Here comes a husbande with his wife on his back, and under either arm an infant. The sonne carries the father, the brother the sister, the daughter the mother, whilst the unmercifull conqueror breakes down the walls of the houses … yet like a mercifull conquerour, having taken the towne, it gave them their liues …”
While recent research has suggested that the great flood of 1607 may have been caused by a tsunami rather than a simple storm surge, contemporary reports tended to place the blame firmly on God’s shoulders and viewed the flood as a warning of His displeasure: “If this affliction laid vppon our Countrey now, bee sharper than that before, make vse of it: tremble, be fore-warned, Amend, least a more feareful punishment, and a longer whip of correction draw blood of us.”