The Bitter Spitalfields Winter

You might think we’ve had it bad weather-wise this year – what with the constant downpours that drenched the streets of London almost continuously from April to July.  Indeed, previous years have fared little better, heavy snow in winter and volcanic dust clouds drifting into our atmosphere bringing in its wake travel chaos as  air travel screeches to a halt.

But spare a thought for 13th century Londoners who found themselves afflicted by the fallout from one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the last millennium and were forced to endure a volcanic winter of unprecedented ferocity.

In the late 1990’s archaeologists from the Museum of London began excavating a cemetery in Spitalfields that was once closely associated with the priory and hospital of St Mary without Bishopsgate. This foundation later became known as St Mary Spital and gave the area around it the name Spitalfields. Founded in the latter half of the 12th century it had grown to become the largest hospital in London by the time it was swept away during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539.

A stone wall from the Priory of St Mary Spital in Spitalfields market.
Remains of St Mary Spital

At the time of its closure, an estimated 18,000 people had been laid to rest in the cemetery and, between 1998 and 2001, archaeologists uncovered the remains of some    10, 500 of their skeletons, giving this the distinction of being the world’s largest excavated cemetery.

Although the majority of those laid in the graveyard had been placed in individual graves and were laid out in neat rows, the archaeologists also discovered 140 large pits clustered along the eastern and southern boundaries of the cemetery. Each pit contained between 8 and 40 skeletons; and, the fact that they had been buried some distance from the priory buildings suggested that these were the remains of people whose living selves had died as a result of some dreadful contagion which the monks wanted to keep as far away from the living as possible. 

The first suspected culprit was the Black Death (the plague) of the late 1340’s. But radiocarbon analysis of the remains yielded a date of around one hundred years before the Black Death dating them to around the 1250’s.

In total over 2,300 people were buried in the pits. The earliest burials were consistent with reports of a famine that had struck London in 1252. The latter, however, were suggestive of something far more devastating and, furthermore, something of which 13th century Londoners would have been blissfully unaware until, in 1258, they found themselves in the grip of an horrendous volcanic winter.

Despite the fact that the volcanic eruption that plunged 13th century London into a prolonged winter ejected eight times as much ash into the atmosphere as Krakatoa, scientists and historians are still mystified as to the location of the volcano responsible. El Chichón in Mexico, Quilotoa in Ecuador and a site in Indonesia have all been put forward as possible contenders. What is certain is that,  in early 1258, this, as yet unidentified, volcano erupted with such an explosive force that between 200 and 600 megatons of sulphate were sent coursing into the Earth’s atmosphere and traces of it are in evidence all over the Globe today.

Wherever it was located, the effects of its ash cloud were soon being felt in England as the vast quantity of ash caused a phenomenon known as ‘dry fog’,” that blocked the sunlight, led to an increase in rainfall and enveloped the planet in a volcanic shroud which blighted crops and led to a cataclysmic famine.  

According to Matthew Paris –  a monk-chronicler at St Alban’s Abbey, and an inadvertent eye-witness to the aftermath of the eruption and its effects – the early months of 1258 saw  “such unendurable cold, that it bound up the face of the earth, sorely afflicted the poor, suspended all cultivation, and killed the young of the cattle…”

With the passing of April and May, and the arrival of mid-summer in June, the situation had not improved and Paris was lamenting that:-

“The north wind prevailed for several months…scarcely were there visible any of the small and rare plants, or any shooting buds of flowers; and, in consequence, but small hopes were entertained of the fruit crops. Owing to the scarcity of wheat, a very large number of poor people died; and dead bodies were found in all directions, swollen and livid, lying by fives and sixe’s in pigsties, on dunghills, and in the muddy streets…… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly. In London alone 15,000 of the poor perished; in England and elsewhere thousands died.” “

Paris writes of the method in which these bodies were disposed of:-

“When several corpses were found, large and spacious holes were dug in the cemeteries, and a great many bodies were laid in them together.”

Archaeologists now believe that some of the pits they unearthed were the ‘large and spacious holes’ that Paris described – meaning that the Spitalfields dig had, for the first time, given up tangible evidence of the human cost of the last millennium’s largest volcanic eruption.