Walking past Bow church yesterday in the city of London – deserted still because of Covid lockdown – I was reminded of another disaster that hit the British capital a thousand years ago. Because in the year 1091, a huge tornado ripped through London demolishing an earlier wooden Bow church and then smashing up London Bridge. It’s a forgotten natural disaster but at a time of pandemic and concerns about the impact of global warming, one certainly worth recalling now.
The United Kingdom is famed for its fairly clement weather conditions. We don’t tend to get hurricanes, typhoons and certainly not devastating tornados. But in the year 1091, a tornado did indeed hit London. At this time, the population of London was under 20,000 – not unprecedented for a medieval city but below its previous Roman height. And the city was mainly constructed of wood. So, the tornado wreaked havoc with the relatively flimsy constructions in its path.
London tornado hits St Mary-le-Bow
The church of St Mary-le-Bow took a direct hit. For many centuries, this church has been a key landmark in London. Traditionally, you can consider yourself a true Londoner if you’re born within the sound of its bells. Those bells came crashing down during the Second World War when the Luftwaffe bombed the centre of London and largely destroyed the church built by Christopher Wren in the seventeenth century. That had replaced a church destroyed in another disaster that hit London – the Great Fire of 1666. So, it’s a place of worship that has been levelled over and over by wind and fire.
The king of England in 1091 was William II, known as “Rufus”. He was the son of William the Conqueror and it was asserted that he was homosexual. His relationship with the church was fraught and no doubt it would have been claimed that this destruction was divine wrath over his conduct. William was eventually killed in a hunting accident. A rather suspicious incident where a courtier somehow managed to shoot his arrow directly into the king.
London tornado – first ever recorded?
It’s often said that this medieval tornado was the first ever to be recorded – certainly in Europe. But Irish historians dispute this. They point to a recorded tornado that hit a place called Rosdalla in Westmeath in the year 1054. The Vikings were in Ireland at this time and one of their chroniclers talks about the tornado lifting a greyhound into the air and then dropping it, causing the poor dog’s death.
Here is a photo I took of St Mary-le-Bow yesterday.