A Natural Disaster


In 1607, a fearful tragedy brought suffering to rich and poor alike. On the morning of 20 January, tempestuous winds in the Bristol Channel whipped up the sea, creating a phenomenon similar to a tidal wave. An unknown chronicler of the day recorded the details of the disaster in a broadsheet, to which he gave the apt title, Woefull Newes from Wales. He wrote that the waters, "are affirmed to have run at their first entrance with a swiftness so incredible... that no greyhound could have escaped by running before them'. The flood was 24 miles in length and more than 4 miles in breadth, so that even on higher ground at Llandaff, where Mistress Matthews lost 400 sheep, no-one was spared from the impact of the deluge.

The Welsh and the English banks of the Severn were submerged and in Monmouthshire alone 26 parishes were "drowned'. Such was their fear amid the turmoil, that the wild animals no longer preyed on one another. Houses were destroyed, cattle perished, and the cost of the damage was estimated to be £40,000, an enormous sum in those days. The soil was ruined and more than five years were to pass before crops could be grown once more on land contaminated by the salt sea.

Amid the turmoil, there were tales of miraculous escapes. As the torrent swept into one house, a mother placed her naked daughter on a beam in the roof, where later she was found snuggling up to a chicken to keep warm. Another child, who was discovered in a cradle bobbing about on the water, was accompanied by a cat which jumped from side to side to balance the little crib. Elsewhere, a man and woman climbed a tree "espying nothing but death before their eyes'. To their great relief, an empty tub floated to rest against the tree, giving them a lifeline to safety.

Other people who climbed trees were less fortunate, as the water level rose much higher than anyone could possibly anticipate. Mistress Van of Llandaff, "a gentlewoman of good sort', saw the flood approaching but was overwhelmed by the surging swell before she could reach an upper room in her house. It was estimated that 2,000 people perished in the disaster or died of exposure afterwards. The death toll would have been greater but for the prompt action of Lord Herbert, son and heir of the Earl of Worcester, and Sir Walter Montague, both of whom dispatched boats to pick up survivors. Lord Herbert also provided food, clothing and other essentials to the homeless and distressed.

The people of Cardiff were accustomed to serious flooding, but never before had they experienced a calamity on this scale. On Speed's map of 1610, a corner of St. Mary's Churchyard is missing where it was invaded by the sea three years earlier. Speed did not comment on the flood, but observed that the Taff was "a foe of St. Mary's Church ... undermining her foundations and threatening her fall'. As late as the nineteenth century, there were macabre reminders of the tragedy, when the Taff washed across the former churchyard to expose fragments of human skeletons.

To the east of Cardiff, the village of Peterston Wentloog was severely damaged in the deluge. At the north-east corner of the parish church, using the old style of dating, a plaque commemorates "The Great Flood, January 20th, 1606'. A local legend claims that 200 bodies were found half a mile from Marshfield, where they were embalmed in the salt mud as the waters subsided.