On 6 April 1580, sometime around 6:00 PM, London was shaken by an earthquake that occurred in the Dover Straits. Contemporary accounts describe a relative short quake that damaged church steeples and chimneys, and caused the bells at Westminster to ring. According to most reports, only two people died: Thomas Gray, an apprentice shoemaker, and his fellow servant Mabel Everite. Nonetheless, this earthquake terrified London’s citizens. A number of authors composed pamphlets explaining the causes of the earthquake and interpreting its significance. In these pamphlets, the earthquake was commonly considered a sign of God’s displeasure, a sort of warning to the English to reform their sinful ways.
In the late sixteenth century earthquakes were meteorological phenomena, which Aristotle had discussed in the second book of his Meteorology. Earthquakes were caused by subterranean vapors, when they moved through underground cavities or escaped suddenly through caves and other porous ground. According to Aristotle, earthquakes occurred frequently in the spring or autumn, when the weather produced greater winds. Yet he also claimed that earthquakes occurred most commonly during calm and cool weather and when thin clouds appeared around sunset. Eclipses, he claimed, typically produced calm weather and, therefore, often preceded earthquakes. While Aristotle did not identify these as predictive signs, sixteenth-century authors refined his framework and tried discern predictive signs from merely attendant phenomena. Agostino Nifo turned many of Aristotle’s concomitant phenomena into predictive signs. Along with eclipses, Nifo pointed out unusual behavior of birds, the appearance of comets, and other astrological configurations.
While the basic causes were generally agreed on, authors struggled to distinguish earthquakes that ultimately had supernatural causes from those with merely natural causes. In the end, their sought to understand what the earthquakes signified. Were they signs of God’s general displeasure? Were they punishment for sins? Were they harbingers of the end of the world? Was there anything to be done? In different ways, the pamphlets published in 1580 typically considered the earthquake a gentle punishment and warning to the English.
The Crown and Church of England wasted no time in appropriating the earthquake in its efforts to encourage religious conformity. Apparently responding to orders from the Privy Council, the Church of England issued a pamphlet to guide prayer in parish churches throughout the realm: The order of prayer, and other exercises, vpon Wednesdays and Frydayes, to auert and turne Gods wrath from vs, threatned by the late terrible earthquake: to be vsed in all parish churches and housholdes throughout the realme, by order giuen from the Queenes Maiesties most honourable priuie counsel (London: Christopher Barker, 1580). The pamphlet used the earthquake as an opportunity to disseminate and put into practice a common prayer. Buried in the middled is a copy of Arthur Golding’s report of the earthquake without his broader commentary (see below).
The aptly named Thomas Churchyard rushed his pamphlet into print: A warning for the wise, a feare to the fond, a bridle to the lewde, and a glasse to the good Written of the late earthquake chanced in London and other places, the. 6. of April 1580. for the glorie of God, and benefite of men that warely can walke, and wisely can iudge. (London: John Allde & Nicholas Lyng, 1580). Like the Church of England, he considered the earthquake to be a warning from God. Churchyard dismisses the “fine headed fellowes” who will find a natural cause for the earthquake, as they have done with previous ones. The God fearing will recognize that this earthquake was caused by God’s displeasure, much like plagues, wars, comets, and monstrous births, all of which he mentions. By 1580 Churchyard had established himself as a soldier-writer. While serving in various armies he was a prolific author, writing histories of wars on the continent, romanticized memoirs of his soldiering, his capture and escape, composing poetry, and engaging in pamphlet controversies.
Arthur Golding’s pamphlet, A Discourse vpon the Earthquake… (see update below), was first published by itself and then as an appendix to the Church of England’s The order of prayer. Best known as a translator of religious works, Golding also considered the earthquake a warning from God. Rather than simply dismiss those who would seek natural causes, Golding explained what evidence demonstrated that this earthquake had been caused by God. He rehearsed Aristotle’s standard causes: vapors trapped in the bowels of the earth violently escape, usually drawn out by the sun’s attraction. But such tremors, Golding claimed, would be only local whereas the earthquake that struck London was felt far and wide:
If this Earthquake had rysen of such causes, it coulde not haue bin so vniuersall, bicause there are many places in this Realme, which by reason of their substancial soundnesse and massie firmnesse, are not to bée pierced by any windes fron wythout, nor haue any hollowenesse wherein to conceiue and bréede any such aboundance of vapors, specially in places farre distant from the Sea, or from Riuers, moores, marishes, fennes, or light & open soyles.
Golding was not the first to use the magnitude of the earthquake to determine whether it had natural or supernatural causes. In the early 1570s philosophers at the Ferrarese court used similar logic to determine the causes of earthquakes that struck Ferrara between 1570 and 1574. Pope Pius V had accused Duke Alfonso II of harboring Jews and false Christians. As punishment, God had struck Ferrara with a number of earthquakes. To refute the pope’s accusation, the duke turned to his courtiers for alternate explanations. While they admitted that God could cause and perhaps had caused earthquakes, as He had in Biblical times, such earthquakes were universal. By contrast, the Ferrarese earthquakes were local events. Therefore they must have natural rather than supernatural causes. Far from being a punishment sent by God, they were merely unfortunate but natural events. Golding inverted this argument. Since the earthquake had struck not just London but also more distant places in the kingdom, it was sufficiently universal to demonstrate its supernatural causes.
Moreover, Golding told his reader, natural earthquakes are preceded by certain signs and tokens. Borrowing again from the Aristotelian as it had developed in the sixteenth century, Golding lists as signs fair and calm weather, raging seas, cool temperatures, thin clouds just after sunset, stinking vapors from wells, and thundering or groaning sounds from the earth. No such natural signs had occurred before the earthquake, which therefore confirmed its supernatural cause.
Golding was eager to see the earthquake as a warning from God to the English. Although he mentioned examples from foreign lands—apparently the strange events in Naples in 1566, the earthquakes in Ferrara in 1570, the miraculous apparitions near Montpellier in 1573, and the terrible sights in Prague in 1579  were sufficiently renown that he could just gesture to them— he concentrated on terrible events from English history lest his reader think “that those [foreign] tokens concerne the Countreys where they befell, & not us.” The earthquake of 1580 was the latest in a long series of signs warning the English to stop sinning, to reform their habits, and to observe the God-given natural order in society. In the distant past the Britons were displaced for neglecting God’s word. God had warned English princes to mend their ways before sending in the Danes and then William the Conqueror to conquer them. More recently, God had used a famine during Queen Mary’s reign, a previous earthquake during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, monstrous births, a new star in the heavens, comets and eclipses, and strange lights in the night sky as warnings for the English to mend their ways. Their failure to see what these events signified, God had sent yet another warning sign.
In addition to these pamphlets that focused on the earthquake, other texts appeared that incorporated the earthquake into broader narratives about God’s punishments, living a proper and God-fearing life, and the end of the world. Some authors seemed merely to capitalize on the sensational event. Anthony Mundy, for example, tacked onto the end of his pamphlet a short account of the earthquake. Mundy’s pamphlet was an amazing list of murders and other signs and tokens of God’s anger: A vievv of sundry examples Reporting many straunge murthers, sundry persons periured, signes and tokens of Gods anger towards vs.. Along with murders, Mundy included a number of sensational suicides—a man who cut his own throat, an old woman threw herself out a window, two sheriffs who hanged themselves. In each case, these events revealed the Devil’s meddling with sinful people. Mundy reports only a few prodigious phenomena: a blazing star, a tempest in Prague, and the earthquake in 1580. Only insofar as the earthquake was a sign of God’s anger at people’s sinful behavior did it belong to Mundy’s catalog.
Other contemporary authors appropriated the earthquake for their own ends. Abraham Fleming claims to have collected reports from Robert Gittins, John Grafton, John Philippes, Francis Schackleton, Richard Tarleton, and Thomas Twine in addition to Thomas Churchyard, Arthur Golding. It would be interesting to see how the earthquake of 1580 was treated differently in longer, more theoretical texts on earthquakes.
UPDATE: I’ve created an EPUB of Arthur Golding’s A Discourse vpon the Earthquake. Right now, this is available as an EPUB only. When I get around to figuring out why the Kindle fouls up the formatting, I will post a Kindle version too. Download EPUB file. Return to post: ↩
For a discussion of these earthquakes and the contest between the duke and the pope, see Craig Martin, Renaissance Meteorology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), ch. 3. ↩
Golding is probably referring here to a violent storm that occurred in Prague in January 1579. According to one report, numerous church steeples and houses were destroyed and people hurt. Hailstones weighed as much as 3/4 of a pound. In the evening, a violent earthquake caused houses to shake for up to half an hour. See, for example, the report in Anthony Mundy, A vievv of sundry examples Reporting many straunge murthers, sundry persons periured, signes and tokens of Gods anger towards vs. (London: William Wright, 1580). ↩
Golding is probably referring to an earthquake reported to have struck Lincolnshire and Northampton, which was also reported in Abraham Fleming’s translation of Friedrich Nausea, A Bright Burning Beacon Forewarning All Wise Virgins to Trim Their Lampes Against the Comming of the Bridegroome.…(London, 1580). Fleming’s also text collected and redacted various contemporary pamphlets. Over 128 pages he surveyed ancient opinion on the causes of earthquakes, summarized what he considered actual causes, discussed different types of earthquakes, listed some of the signs and effects of earthquakes, reported some opinions about when the world would end, and suggested how people should prepare for the end of the world. ↩
Postscript: Churchyard, Golding, and Mundy all wrote texts on the duties and responsibilities of magistrates: Churchyard, Myrroure for Magistrates (1563 and again in 1587); Golding, A Woorke Concerning the Duties of Magistrates (unpublished); Mundy, The Mirrour of Mutabilitie, or, Principall Part of the Mirrour for Magistrates (1579). ↩