For the last few years, when the vacation and holiday seasons come around and
the news stories start to dry up, I've looked back in time to previous centuries
to find something newsworthy. Today, please join me on a whistle stop tour 300
years back in time to the year 1709 ....
An usually cold weather front hit Northern Europe on January 6 (believed to be the coldest period for 500 years). The Great Freeze lasted three months but the effects were felt all year. The seas around the coast of Britain and Northern France froze over, crops failed and in Paris alone 24,000 died. In London, the Thames froze solid and markets took place on the ice. Some suggest that the freeze was caused by volcanic eruptions of Mount Fuji in Japan and, to a lesser extent, Santorini and Vesuvius in Europe.
Although it was a very cold winter it was not entirely out of character – 1709 was one of the 24 winters between 1408 and 1814 (a period broadly known as the "Little Ice Age") in which the Thames froze in London. Although the people at the time probably didn't think much of the weather, music lovers have reason to be grateful for the Little Ice Age as Antonio Stradivari created his finest instruments between 1698 and 1725 and it has been proposed that the particularly cold climate caused the wood used in his violins to be denser than in warmer periods, contributing to the tone of his instruments.
In February 1709, Scotsman Alexander Selkirk was rescued after being marooned on one of the Juan Fernández Islands off the coast of Chile for four years. Fortunately for him he didn't return to Great Britain (which had been formed in his absence by the 1707 Act of Union that joined Scotland and England together as one kingdom) until sometime after the Great Frost, but when he did he was interviewed by Richard Steele and the resulting article is said to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719); and his experience was also immortalized by poet William Cowper in The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk, the opening line of which gave rise to the expression monarch of all I survey.
I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea,
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
While Selkirk was celebrating his rescue, Richard Steele was busy founding
Tatler, which in its first incarnation was a satirical journal. It folded after two years but made repeated returns over the next two centuries until
being reformed as a society magazine in 1901, which it remains today.
Meanwhile, Europe was in the throes of the War of Spanish Succession. The war was caused by the possible unification of Spain and France under one monarch which would have resulted in a significant shift in the balance of European power. 1709 saw the bloodiest clash of the war when Great Britain, Netherlands and Austria, led by John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, defeated the French at the Battle of Malplaquet. Few today know of the Battle of Maplaquet but most will know the song For He's A Jolly Good Fellow which was composed following the battle using the same tune that the French were using to sing Mort et convoi de l'invincible Malbrough (The Death and Burial of the Invincible Marlborough) – a burlesque lament on the incorrectly reported death of Marlbough following the battle. Three hundred years later, For He's a Jolly Good Fellow is considered the second most popular song in the English language (after Happy Birthday) and apparently Mort et convoy .. remains one of France's most popular folk songs.
Back in England, Alexander Pope published Pastorals which brought him almost overnight fame, and his friend Jonathan Swift was busy with a number of writings including Baucis and Philemon and A Description of the Morning. Meanwhile the southern English counties of Kent and Surrey played the first inter-county cricket match; and further north in Shropshire, Abraham Darby pioneered a method of producing high-grade iron in a blast furnace fuelled by coke (rather than charcoal) which was a major step forward in the progress of the Industrial Revolution. While in London, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Anne, the first modern copyright act; the Worshipful Company of Fan Makers was incorporated by Royal Charter; and ten ships left London carrying over 4,000 people to the New York colony.
Elsewhere in Europe - in Portugal, Bartholome de Gusmao was immortalized as the Flying Priest after flying one kilometer over Lisbon in a hot air balloon believed to have looked something like this; Peter the Great of Russia won a pivotal victory against the Swedes at the Battle of Poltava, in the Great Northern War, effectively ending Sweden's role as a major European power and beginning Russia's; somewhere in France the folding umbrella was invented and in Italy 'genre painting' depicting everyday scenes such as Giuseppe Crespi's "The Flea" was growing in popularity.
Davina Morgan-Witts - BookBrowse Editor
More "This Year in History"
1. The Thames Frost Fair of 1683
2. Antonio Stradivari
3. Statue of Alexander Selkirk in Lower Largo, Scotland
4. John Churchill (c. 1685–1690) by John Closterman.
5. Alexander Pope (c.1727)
6. Jonathan Swift
7. The Passarola, the first known aircraft to fly - 74 years before the Montgolfier brothers' hot-air balloons
8. "The Flea" by Giuseppe Maria Crespi