Many of you may have travelled along the M4 between Cardiff and Newport. As you travel, one of the lesser-known areas of Wales meets the sea: the Gwent Levels. The lowland area stretches between the two Welsh cities. Archaeologist Stephen Rippon describes some of the unique features of this amazing landscape. Megalithic footprints were found here and in the flat terrain may be the work of Roman engineers who drained the landscape to enable them to graze their horses from the nearby Caerleon fortress. During the Norman period a series of ditches were established along the landscape and by the 13th century, the pattern seen today was created. The trenches locally are called ‘reens’ from the old Welsh word for trench, which is rhewyn.
It is a very historic area but early one morning on January 30th 1607 along the Welsh and English coast the landscape was destroyed by what many believe was a Tsunami or a massive surge storm. The event was a catastrophe for the area and if you have an opportunity there is still evidence of the horrific event which devastated the terrain.
To the inhabitants of the period the huge wave which surged inland was a punishment from God and the title of one of pamphlet published in the period reflects this: God’s Warning to his people of England by William Jones of Usk and also in another publication: A True Report of Certain Overflowings by Edward White, where the author warns: ‘If this affliction now inflicted upon our Country, is more severe than before, use it: tremble, be warned in advance, be repentant, in order to avoid a more severe punishment.’ Such pamphlets were sold at St Paul’s Cemetery using an image of a Gun painted on a sign near the north door of St. Paul’s. People would queue and search for the sign at the cemetery to purchase the pamphlet. Shakespeare’s work Titus Andronicus was also sold at the sign of the Gun.
On the 30th of January 1607 at around nine o’clock in the morning, the pamphlet tells us that people, when they went to work, saw a huge wave ‘as if the world’s largest mountains had overwhelmed the lowlands or marshy ground’. At first, it was thought it was mist. The report illustrates how horrific the event was. ‘Many men who were rich when they got out of bed in the morning were made impoverished before noon the same day.’ In less than five hours two thousand had died. Over 200 square miles were destroyed. The floodwaters reached up to 5 miles inland. The entire coastline from Laugharne to Chepstow was destroyed. The foundation of the church of St Mary’s church in Cardiff was severely damaged. The deterioration of the church fabric eventually caused the church to discontinue. It appears on the John Speed map of Cardiff in 1610. The main services were moved to St John’s church a few years later. When the Prince of Wales Theatre was built in Cardiff 1878 on the site of the old St Mary’s church out of respect and reverence to the old church, the outline of the church appears on the outside wall. Today it is a popular source of refreshment before an international rugby match.
We have detailed descriptions of the horrific event of 1607, and it is easy to imagine being caught at the exact location when the waters overflowed.
A memorial in St Mary’s Church at Goldcliffe records the date of the flood as January XX 1606 (but because of the Julian calendar the new year began on the feast of Mary on March 25th so corrected it is January 30th, 1607). The memorial records firstly that some £5,000 was lost in the parish (c. £650,000 today) reflecting the wealth of the parish then secondly the memorial indicates that 22 people drowned, perhaps an indication of the priorities of the time.
There are unbelievable stories of courage and miraculous redemption. Coastal counties were devastated along South Wales and Somerset. The reports of the time cite that in Chepstow ‘a great deal of harm were caused by the violence of the waters’. Irish mattresses destined for sale at St Peter’s Fair in Bristol were destroyed. People drowned in their beds such was the speed of the onrushing floodwaters.
An incident is recorded of a dairy woman in Monmouthshire milking her cows in the morning. As the water flowed rapidly inland, she managed to climb to the top of an embankment and had to stay there until eight o’clock the next morning. She was in danger of dying but ‘Almighty God in His infinite mercy and goodness saved her from such dangers.’ Her friends were able to tie two broad trunks together and two men with poles were dispatched, rowing frantically towards her. The poor girl’s suffering was not over yet: the author mentions dogs, cats, moles, foxes, hares, mice and rats also scouring the embankment seeking shelter with her from the waters. She tried to defend herself from the animals crawling on top of her. ‘She was not so much in danger with the Water on one side: with this vermin troubled the other.’ The author is amazed that the animals did not fight together as they sheltered on the high ground.
The main method adopted to avoid the deadly flow was to climb trees and some had to live there for three days until fatigue or hunger caused them to fall into the waters. The accounts record personal tragedies of those who had clambered into the safety of branches and saw their wives, children and servants swimming in the filthy waters seeking safety. Some watched their houses collapse under the power of the flood and witnessed their livelihoods disappear into the brown waters.
One man in Glamorgan was most fortunate; a blind man who couldn’t stand on his feet for over ten years. His cottage was demolished but he managed to grip onto a beam floating in the waters, the wind blew him and steered him safely ashore.
Another fortunate survivor was a boy, 6 or 7 years old. He managed to swim for two hours, his long coat spread on the surface of the water, he was about to sink under the waves until a dead ram floated by. The boy managed to hold onto the wool and the wind propelled him to the shore where he was rescued. A Carmarthenshire mother of four – and the author notes that a woman’s will is always ready in all extremes – saved her four children by placing herself and the four little ones safely inside a bread trough and floated on the flowing waters to the shore ‘through the good providence of God.
There are descriptions of the various methods used by the inhabitants to flee the devastation: some on the backs of dead cattle and some on wooden planks; some by climbing trees, some by gripping onto steep peaks and tall churches; others by fast horses, and some by boat. Although these events are over four hundred years the authors were able to convey the horrors of the flood and through these more detailed descriptions we are able to identify and empathise with the distress of our ancestors over four centuries ago.
The eyewitness describes the wave like the highest mountain in the world, much like today’s descriptions of a Tsunami. Others believe the damage was caused by a tidal surge. The tidal range of the Severn estuary is 13 meters the second largest in the world. There is the popular phenomenon of the ‘Severn Bore’, a wave that travels along the Severn valley allowing the bravest to surf along the river when there is a surge.
Whatever the cause, this cannot reduce the fear and horror of those who witnessed the terrifying events that morning in January 1607.
Hall, M. (2013) The Severn Tsunami? The Story of Britain’s Greatest Natural Disaster. Stroud, UK: The History Press.
Jones, W., of Usk (1607) God’s Warning to His People of England. London: W. Barley and Io. Bayly. Available at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A00015.0001.001/1:1?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.
Rippon, S. (1996) The Gwent Levels: The Evolution of a Wetland Landscape. York: Council for British Archaeology (CBA Research Report, 105). Available at: https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-281-1/dissemination/pdf/RR105.pdf.
Baker, E. E. (ed.) (1884 ) A True Report of Certain Wonderful Overflowings of Waters in Somerset, Norfolk, & Other Parts of England. A.D. 1607. Weston-super-Mare, UK: The Gazette. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=_dZCAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage.