On this day, 492 years ago, the center of London was abandoned as some 20,000 people fled the arrival of a massive tidal wave that was to devastate the centre of the city.

But the flood never arrived.

So why did Londoners abandon their homes and workplaces with such a conviction that destruction was about to happen?

In the 1520s, astrologers were increasingly predicting that a mighty flood would rush up the Thames and destroy the city. And they put an exact date on when this calamity would occur — 1st February 1524.

It was claimed that “the waters of the Thames would swell to such a height as to overflow the whole city of London, and wash away ten thousand houses,”

The date was no idle whim though, for it marked a Grand Conjunction in astrological circles. The previous Grand Conjunction, of 1484 heralded the Reformation, so it seemed likely that the next one would be equally deadly to society.

In February 1524, all seven major planets would be in conjunction, and that would cause massive tides, so the astrologers claimed, which would inundate London.

Thus warned, an estimated 20,000 people fled the city on the days before the flood was expected, and made preparations. Many of the richer sort took up their abode on the heights of Highgate, Hampstead, and Blackheath; and some erected tents as far away as Waltham Abbey on the north, and Croydon on the south of the Thames.

For example, oft cited is the (disputed) story of William Bolton, prior of St Barts church who erected a tower at his home in Harrow as a refuge from the predicted floods. On the eve of the deluge, he took residence in the tower with his servants and stocked it with provisions to last out the disaster.

The mass awareness of the impending doom was aided by the then recent development of the printing press which made it easier to distribute seditious leaflets about the prediction, spreading the panic further than it might otherwise have reached.

The main protagonist was Luca Gaurico, who was an astrologer based at The Vatican — at a time when astrology was deemed to be perfectly sensible science — and it was his writings which were interpreted as predicting a flood.

Another astrologer, Johannes Carion published a pamphlet in 1521 showing the flood, followed by social breakdown as the peasants revolted and executed a clergyman.

Other pamphlets warned that the flood of 1524 was just the beginning of the end of days.

It’s estimated that more than 60 writers published predictions about the great deluge due to hit in 1524.

It wasn’t just London though, with most of Europe in an uproar, and reports of arks being built in Germany and Italy by the wealthy who were determined to ride out the storm.

Of course, as is often the case with the failure of an apocalypse to arrive, the prophets in this case blamed human error — their calculations were out, by a hundred years.

Following the failure of the flood to occur, rival astrologers accused Gaurico of exaggerating his findings, and censured him in the way that modern scientists are wont to do when faced with similar slights to their profession.

Weather wise, the year 1524 was actually dryer than usual.

PrognosticatioCarion2The title page of J. Carion’s ‘Prognosticatio‘, 1521

Sources:

Storming The Ark, by Dr. Romeo Vitelli

Hull Daily Mail, 29th March 1930

Esoterica, Vol.9 (2007)

History of the Apocalypse, by Catalin Negru

Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds, by Charles Mackey

The Environs of London: Kent, Essex, and Herts, by Daniel Lysons

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2 comments on “The Great Flood of London in 1524
  1. Veronica says:

    So the Ian Visits website has changed and it seems some people have comments to make about things I frankly don’t understand and also about stuff to do with the colour orange. You seem to know what they are on about Ian and have made some changes. I’ve noticed that this bit has changed but highly technical stuff has completely passed me by, which as far as I’m concerned is a good thing. I just want to know that my weekly email from Ian Visits will still keep arriving, which it has ,and that I can read it, which I can. Great website, great ideas for ‘outings’ and for goodness sake keep up the good work Ian. Should we be paying for this? I kinda think so. Is there a way to do this? If there is please let me know but give instruction that can be understood by a 5 year old!

  2. The Duke of Waltham says:

    Very interesting story. Apocalypse scares were definitely not unheard of in the Middle Ages, though I find Wikipedia’s “List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events” to be unexpectedly long, and I have trouble believing that most of these predictions had any noteworthy effect on the public. (Mary Bateman is one of the more curious “prophets” there, though of a later time: she contrived to make a hen lay eggs with the phrase “Christ is coming” etched on them.)

    When you say “In February 1524, all seven major planets would be in conjunction”, I assume that refers to the classical planets, which included the five planets visible with the naked eye as well as the sun and moon. It so happens that these very days, one can see the five planets aligned in the sky, along with the moon, in the hours before dawn!