History of Weather Timeline

As Winter settles in and we find ourselves shivering in our centrally heated homes, wearing our snug ultra light super insulated ski wear and dash from home to the warmth of our cars and heated seats we would do well to spare a thought for our ancestors as they struggled to cope with some pretty atrocious winters in the past. In fact it seems incredible that any of them survived to old age at all given the harshness of some of the weather they endured.

A cursory look at the history of weather reveals much.

In modern times in the UK, bad weather is mainly a bit of a nuisance, the trains don’t run, the airports are fog bound, the ferry can’t sail for a few hours and so on but by and large we are protected from the worst of it, most of us can find shelter and food until the worst is over. The lives of our ancestors however were dependent upon what the weather was doing. On a day to day basis keeping warm could take up a lot of time, finding firewood, keeping fires alight. Common people had few rights to fuel to keep fires alight, wood and turf belonged to the lords and barons although in 1297, the forest charters and the Magna Carta were consolidated into the ​”Confirmation of Charters”.  This gave free men protection to use the forest for basic needs by permitting foraging by pigs (pannage), collection of firewood (estover), grazing of livestock (agistment) and cutting turf for fuel (turbary) but it was all strictly controlled and you could be severely punished for taking firewood you were not entitled to.

So back to the weather.

Hot dry summers and cold wet winters could decimate harvests and lead to starvation. Bread was a staple food and poor harvests meant there was less but more expensive bread, often putting it out of reach to common folk. In certain years when there had been four to eight weeks of 0 – 10 degrees C in the spring, a fungus known as ergot was able to take hold among the cereal crops. At harvest time, a fraction of this fungi ended up in the flour with devastating effects, causing a disease known as ergotism or St Anthonys Fire.

St Anthony’s Fire.

Human poisoning was common in Medieval Europe as a result of this contaminated grain. The colder winters experienced during this period created the perfect conditions for ergot to take hold.
The symptoms of ergotism include intense burning, muscle twitching, spasms, altered mental states, hallucinations or delusions, sweating and long term fever. It is thought that the witch hunts of the Medieval period could well be associated with these symptoms.

The weather and witch hunts.

The little ice ages of the middle ages with protracted cold winter weather produced perfect conditions for the ergot fungi to take a hold. It was during this period that witch hunts took place in Europe when young girls were accused of controlling the weather and causing crops to fail. Weather seemed to be one of the main causes for prosecuting these women who may also have been exhibiting symptons of ergotism.

How did the weather change the course of history?

In all honesty there must be hundreds of examples of historic events that would have reached a different conclusion, were it not for the weather. Perhaps one of the biggest disasters was in 1812 when Napoleon assembled the largest army Europe had ever seen. More than 600,000 men gathered march on and attack the mighty Russia. They arrived in Moscow and quickly captured it but as they dallied enjoying the spoils of their victory so the weather began to turn. They turned to march back but the temperature plummeted to -40 degrees C. The horses died, as many as 50,000 in one day and 450,000 soldiers died. Napoleon’s empire was halted and Russia emerged as a serious power in Europe.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada 1588.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was for Britain, one of the most important moments in history. The Armada, had it been successful would have plunged the nation into a civil war that it would have struggled to emerge from. The Armada was in the first instance delayed by storms as it left Spain, then the King Philip of Spain sent his armada to collect his army from the Netherlands but the wind had other ideas and as it fought with the weather the British gained the upper hand. As the wind changed direction the Spanish were forced to retreat. They headed for home via the North Sea where they encountered a major hurricane. Over twenty ships were driven on shore killing many of those on board. The survivors were attacked and killed by British troops.

The importance of the weather forecast for D-Day.

The all important weather forecast that led to the critical decision on June 6th 1944 to launch the D-Day invasion of France. If the weather had changed and the invasion had failed then would Germany have been defeated? History would have turned on the vagaries of the weather.

Every day lives and the weather.

Many people around the world regard the British people as being rather obsessed with the weather but we had and still have good reason to be. Britain sits in a northerly latitude, subject to maritime influences, buffeted by low pressure systems sweeping across the Atlantic with our back turned to the winds from Siberia as they send bitterly cold weather towards us but always warmed by the jet stream which keeps us bathed in a false warmth.

history of weather

Family history and weather records.

Ever wondered why a baptism happened to be delayed or a burial didn’t take place soon after a death? Sometimes the answer is in the weather and newspaper records can be helpful in revealing storms or blizzards that stopped people travelling even a short distance with a young baby to the church or prevented a grave from being dug the ground was so hard. Reports of ships being driven onshore give clues of major storms, events that can be written into your wider history.

Central England Temperatures.

If you have never investigated this data set from the Met Office Hadley Centre. then be ready for a fascinating time. This data has been collected since 1659 of an area in the UK between Bristol, Lancashire and London. The monthly series began in 1659 and is the longest available instrumental record of temperature in the world. The daily mean-temperature series began in 1772.

So take a look at our history of weather timeline.

250River Thames froze for 9 weeks. This early chronology form 250 - 1063 comes from Charles Mackay in "The Thames and its Tributaries", 1840. Free and online http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007684316
291River Thames froze for 6 weeks
401River Thames frozen for 2 months
558River Thames frozen for 6 weeks
695The River Thames was frozen for 6 weeks.
827The River Thames was frozen for 9 weeks
908The River Thames was frozen for 2 weeks
923The River Thames was frozen for 13 weeks
998The River Thames was frozen for 5 weeks
1063The River Thames was frozen for 14 weeks
1076The River Thames was frozen.
1092In 1092, in the reign of William Rufus, is recorded a frost "whereby", in the words of an old chronicler, "the great streams of England were congealed in such a manner that they could draw two hundred horsemen and carriages over them; whilst at their thawing, many bridges, both of wood and stone, were borne down, and divers water-mills were broken up, and carried away.
1150A very wet Summer followed by a freezing Winter.
We are told that in the year 1150 the summer proved so extremely wet, that a dearth almost equal to famine ensued ; and the winter of this year was remarkable for a severe frost, which commenced on the ninth of December, and continued till the beginning of March, during a great part of which time, the Thames was frozen so hard as to admit of carts and other carriages passing over the ice.'
From a book written in 1806 - The History and Survey of London and Its Environs from the Earliest Period by B Lambert, 1806 - Available free to download http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011591677
1282In 1282 there was a most terrible frost, the like of which had never been known. The pressure of ice heaped up against [London] Bridge, and unable to pass through from the narrowness of the arches of the bridge, carried away five arches of it, and rendered it, of course, impassable for the time until they were rebuilt.
From London on Thames, G H Birch, 1903 - http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007696866 Available for limited search only
1410Winter of frost and frozen River Thames for 14 weeks.
Thys yere was the grete frost and ise and the most sharpest wenter that ever man sawe, and it duryd fourteen wekes, so that men might in dyvers places both goo and ryde over the Temse.
Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London. Available free to read online https://archive.org/details/chronicleofgreyf00londrich
1434In the year 1434 a great frost began on the 24th of November, and held till the 10th of February, following ; whereby the river Thames was so strongly frozen, that all sorts of merchandizes and provisions brought into the mouth of the said river were unladen, and brought by land to the city.
From a book written in 1806 - The History and Survey of London and Its Environs from the Earliest Period by B Lambert, 1806 - Available free to download http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011591677
1506Such a sore snowe and a frost that men myght goo with carttes over the Temse and horses, and it lastyd tylle Candelmas.
Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London. Available free to read online https://archive.org/details/chronicleofgreyf00londrich
156421st of December, began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year's eve people went over and along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster.Some played at the foot-ball as boldly there as if it had been on the dry land; diverse of the court shot daily at pricks set up on the Thames; and the people, both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in any street of the city of London.On the 31st day of January, at night, it began to thaw, and on the fifth day was no ice to be seen between London Bridge and Lambeth, which sudden thaw caused great floods and high waters, that bare down bridges and houses, and drowned many people in England.
From the Holinshed Chronicles http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/holinshed/
1616The summer was hot and dry there were drought conditions in some areas
1620The Winter was incredibly cold. Since the C13th several winters had been cold enough for the River Thames to freeze and allow fairs to be held upon it's waters. In fact between the 1309 and 1814 the river is known to have frozen over 23 times and is a period termed the mini ice age.
Many images exist of the frost fairs along with memorabilia which could be bought at the fairs. An excellent article in the Mail newspaper features many of the paintings and artefacts. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2524252/How-Londoners-celebrated-River-Thames-freezing-frost-fairs-ice.html
From Sunday, the tenth of January, until the fifteenth of the same, the frost grew so extreme, as the ice became firme, and removed not, and then all sorts of men, women, and children, went boldly upon the ice in most parts; some shot at prickes; others bowled and danced, with other variable pastimes, by reason of which concourse of people, there wore many that set up boothes and standings upon the ice, as fruit-sellers, victuallers, that sold beere and wine, shoomakers, and a barber's tent,. In these tents were fires. The ice lasted till the afternoon of the 2nd of February, when " it was quite dissolved and clean gon."
1626Another very dry, very hot Summer. The stench from the River Thames was 'repugnant'.
1635A very severe Winter when the River Thames once again froze over
1636A very dry year, months without rain and drought conditions in many parts
1644Heavy snow fell in late January
1647Very wet Summer. “This summer of the King’s being here was a very strange year in all His Majesty’s three kingdoms, if we duly consider the heavens, men and earth. I conceive the heavens were offended with us for our offence committed to one another for, from Mayday till the 15th of September, we had scarce three dry days together. His Majesty asked me whether that weather was usual in our Island. I told him that in this 40 years I never knew the like before.”
From the diary of Sir John Oglander. Free to view online https://archive.org/details/oglandermemoirse00oglaiala
1648Once again the River Thames froze over
1657A Winter of snow which lasted from December to March
1662A severely cold Winter
1664A severely cold Winter, the River Thames frozen with what is thought to have been one of the coldest days on record
1665The lowest recorded depression in London 931 millibars
1666Yet again the River Thames was frozen
1667More Frost fairs on the River Thames with people enjoying ice skating
1674A Winter of heavy and deep snow, with massive drifts that killed many sheep and trapped people in their homes
1676A blisteringly hot June
1677Another freezing Winter with the River Thames frozen over
1683This was destined to become one of the coldest Winters ever. The River Thames froze to a depth of several feet and indeed even in February the ice was still nearly a foot deep at London Bridge. It egan in mid December, a time known as the Great Frost.
John Evelyn's diary tells us about the weather of 1683 - 1684. There is an Ebook that can be bought from Google Books http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2Q9JAQAAQBAJ&pg=PT628&lpg=PT628&dq=1683+the+diary+of+evelyn&source=bl&ots=_cms-o7xHc&sig=c5ejAseIbnraMkdfeuL9GuQtp6I&hl=en&sa=X&ei=GYRkVIb3KKvG7Aac94HYAw&ved=0CDsQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=1683%20the%20diary%20of%20evelyn&f=false
1684As above
1690From now until 1699, 6 out of 10 Winters were described as severe with an average temperature of 3C between Dec and March.
1695A record breaking cold Winter
1703In November of this year a massive storm hit the southern counties. Wind speeds estimated in excess of 120mph caused massive damage and loss of life. It was catastrophic for ships at sea with many lives lost. The River Thames surged and hundreds of ships were lost.
Daniel Defoe reported on the storm of 1703. Available as a download http://www.e-booksdirectory.com/details.php?ebook=8
1708This was a very cold year. Winter temperatures down to -18C
1715A very wet Winter, the River Thames rose by 15ft
1725A severe Winter
1728The violence of a thunderstorm in May did immense damage as hail stones several inches across killed cattle. After a warm summer the Winter was another severe one
1739Back into the throes of a brutal Winter one of the worst seen with temperatures plummeting to -24C. The River Thames froze for months.
The Old Bailey online contextual information on the 1730's http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/London-life18th.jsp
1740The Autumn saw the coldest October on record
1748Severe frosts
1749Severe frosts
1775Severe Winter
1779Severe Winter
1783For the next 3 years the country suffered from severe Winters attributed possibly to the eruption of Icelandic volcano
1794Another severe Winter
1813A very snowy Winter accompanied by dense fog made travel around the country difficult
1816The year without a Summer, caused by the volcanic eruption of Tambora in the East Indies
1818Avery long hot Summer with drought conditions in parts.
1834Between now and 1838, a series of bitterly cold Winters
1836Christmas Day recorded snow drifts of between 5ft and 20ft
1849In April of this year a great snowstorm hit the southern counties, burying people, animals and carriages
1851From now until 1853 heavy snow and freezing temperatures
1867Another very cold Winter
1875A very snowy Winter that followed into the late spring of 1876
1881Blizzards recorded
1882Severe gales
1888Cold wet Summer with snow in southern parts in July
1890Very cold December lowest Dec temperatures recorded for 150 years
1894A year of bad floods
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