1607: The Great Severn Estuary Flood by Rose Hewlett

1607: The Great Severn Estuary Flood

Rose Hewlett

Meeting of 9 May 2019

Rose is studying the 1607 flood for her PhD at the University of Bristol, specialising in documents recording the flood and recovery from it at a local level. She has spent many years looking for evidence in all the less obvious places including land drainage and sea defence records.

The flood happened on the morning tide on a January morning and affected the coast from Cardigan and North Cornwall to Gloucester. Documentary evidence points to it being caused by a storm coinciding with a high spring tide, resulting in a surge. There are eye witness accounts, including from reputable church people, of strong winds and a 9-hour storm. The lunar cycle was at its peak, creating an extra big spring tide.

There is, of course, also the infamous tsunami theory proposed in 2002 by a geographer and a geologist who suggested that an underwater landslip off the coast of Southern Ireland caused a tsunami to travel up the Severn Estuary. Core samples of sediment and the movement of large boulders demonstrate that something big happened in the Estuary, but cannot be accurately dated.

The surging waters would have shifted the sand dunes along the Gower coastline and elsewhere. Aberthaw was a major port at the time, with direct crossings to Minehead. Its new sea wall (built only the year before) was totally destroyed. The Somerset Levels were flooded. Water surged up the Avon causing damage to the quay in Bristol and the bridge over the Frome. Many bridges across streams and ditches between Bristol and Gloucester were swept away.

Four hundred sheep were lost near Lydney – they were probably all together in a sheep house. Some people were stuck up trees for three days (in January!), others climbed onto their roofs for safety. Pamphlets report the water coming in “as fast as a greyhound”.

The news was produced in pamphlets printed in London (with titles like ‘Lamentable Newes out of Monmouthshire’). To aid sales, news was often sensationalised; Rose's thesis will provide a more balanced view of the flood as it focuses on records created by those who lived through it. The pamphleteers described the flood as God‘s warning for people to change their wicked ways, a common theme associated with natural disasters at the time. Locally, people attributed the flood to the coincidence of the stormy weather and spring tide. The image of the church that appears on the pamphlets is generic, designed to represent all affected churches.

Estimates in the pamphlets of the number of deaths vary from 2,000 to 500, and great numbers of livestock also lost their lives. The winter sown crops were contaminated by salt water.

Some contemporary ballads were written, but unfortunately none survive.