1258: When History Erupts

Wax seal of Simon de Montfort, dated to 1255. From my personal collection.

1258 was a tumultuous year in England, one with enormous implications for the country’s future.  Many look to the Magna Carta year of 1215 as being the year of great significance in the evolution of the rights of common citizens. It should be remembered that John died just a year later.  The country was in open revolt at the time, as many of the barons had allied with France when John had persuaded the Pope to annul the Charter. Upon his death, most of these barons were brought back into the fold when the Great Charter was reissued and confirmed by his young successor, Henry III.  Magna Carta provided a mechanism to summon archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons to approve any “aid” a king might desire–in other words, a request for funds–but there was no sense that this would be any kind of regular governing body, nor that anyone below these high-ranking nobles should have a role.

This changed in 1258 with the Provisions of Oxford.  When Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, died in 1250, Pope Innocent IV had offered to financially support the claim of Henry III’s son Edward (the future Edward I) to the Kingdom of Sicily.  When Innocent IV died, his successor did not want to support Edward’s claim financially, but still held Henry to his obligation under threat of excommunication.  So Henry III turned to his own people to raise the aid in the form of taxes, and this is where controversy erupted.  A group of barons, led by Simon de Montfort, forced Henry III to adopt the Oxford Provisions.  For the first time, the King’s privy council would consist of 15 men from a pool of 24, 12 nominated by the King and 12 by the barons, and this council would confirm all ministers.  Additionally, for the first time what would soon be called Parliament, a body with a wider membership drawn from not just the great magnates, but also the “knights in the shires”–smaller landowners–would meet three times a year to monitor this privy council.  This was radical, and did not last long…

But England in 1258 had another struggle on its hands during this precise timeframe, if you read the chronicles of Matthew of Paris:

In this same year, the calm temperatures of autumn lasted to the end of January, so that the surface of the water was not frozen in any place during that time. But from about that time…the north wind blew without intermission, a continued frost prevailed, accompanied by snow and 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 to such an extent that it seemed as if a general plague was raging amongst the sheep and the lambs.

In this year the north wind blew incessantly for several months, when April, May, and the principal part of June had passed and 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 sixes in pigsties, on dunghills, and in the muddy streets. Those who had houses did not dare, in their own state of need, to provide house-room for the dying, for fear of contagion. When several corpses were found, large and spacious holes were dug in the cemeteries, and a great many bodies were laid in them together.

About the feast of the Trinity in this year, an awful and intolerable pestilence attacked the people, especially those in the lower orders, and spread death among them in a most lamentable degree…In the city of London, fifteen thousand of the poor had already perished….In fact, famine prevailed in England to such a great extent that many thousand human beings died of hunger, for the crops only arrived at maturity so late in the autumn, in consequence of the heavy rains, that the harvest was only got in by All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) in several parts of the kingdom, and a measure of corn was sold for sixteen shillings. On the eve of St. John the Baptist, a heavy storm of rain such as had never been seen swelled the stream of the Severn from Salisbury to Bristol to such a degree that the water burst forth (as some said, from the concealed gulfs of the infernal regions) and overflowed all the meadows and destroyed all the crops in the vicinity of that river. In this violent flood several men perished, a great may children, and animals of various kinds innumerable.

Had not corn been brought for sale from the continent there is no doubt but England would have perished in herself.

This description at first sounds a little like one of the periodic epidemics that bedeviled pre-modern society, but it soon becomes clear that what has happened here is a famine caused by the failure of crops, in turn caused by weather-related disasters–particularly cold temperatures, rains and flooding.

In the 1990s, a mass grave containing over 10,500 skeletons was found in Spitalfields, London.  The assumption was initially that this was a plague pit–not from the Black Plague, but from one of the periodic epidemics that swept through the world before the rise of modern medicine and sanitation.  Or perhaps they were casualties from a battle–although they had no signs of injury.  But radiocarbon data pegged the date of the pit around the middle of the 13th century.  And there, in Matthew Paris’ chronicle, was a description of just such an event at the right time that could have caused such casualties.

But what was the cause of that event itself?  As I mentioned, the deaths seemed to have resulted from famine, brought on by a failure of crops due to cold temperatures and an unusually rainy growing season.  This is where science and history began to converge–because we’ve heard this before. History records that 1816 was known as the “year without a summer” (or “Eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death,” in one other descriptive sobriquet.)  Widespread food shortages were experienced in North America and Europe, and outright famine in China, due to a growing season marked by a drop in temperature, unending rain, and even snow in the midst of summer.  Outbreaks of disease, particularly typhus, were also recorded.  Famously (and somewhat romantically), it was the unending rain that forced Byron, Polidori and the Shelleys to spend a planned summer holiday in Switzerland indoors, telling fantastic stories–one of which led Mary Shelley to write her novel Frankenstein.   And scientists knew that the catalyst for catastrophe had been the cataclysmic eruption of Tambora in Indonesia, which caused a drop of over 1 C in worldwide temperatures. This came on the heels of several other significant volcanic eruptions, which seem to have been affecting weather in the seven or eight years before the Tambora eruption.

It turns out that volcanologists already knew (as early as 1980) from examining ice cores that there had been a huge eruption in 1257 somewhere in the world that had left its signature in a huge sulfate spike – twice that of Tambora, in fact.  Tambora was considered to be the largest and most significant eruption in recorded history, with a Volcanic Explositivity Index (VEI) of 7.  The VEI measures the intensity of an eruption based on the amount of material ejected; a 7 on the scale means > 100 km3  was ejected. The more famous 1883 eruption of Krakatau had a VEI of 6, as comparison, ejecting > 10 km3.   Vesuvius and St. Helens were “only” 5 on the scale, ejecting > 1 km3of material. The volcanologists just didn’t know quite where the volcano in question was located at the time when the London burial pit was unearthed.   However, they were on the case. Each volcanic eruption creates a “signature” in terms of the chemical composition of the ejecta produced.  They suspected the volcano was located somewhere in the Pacific Ring of Fire.  A volcano in Tonga was ruled out as its eruption was too small to have created the amount of sulfates found in the cores. El Chichón in Mexico and Quilotoa in Ecuador were proposed as candidates, but their chemistry was wrong and they did not erupt during the correct timeline.  El Chichón erupted in the 14th century and Quilotoa erupted in a VEI 6 eruption in 1280.

In 2013 the mystery was conclusively solved, with the help of recorded history, as it turns out.  On the island of Lombok in Indonesia there is a cluster of volcanoes known as the Rinjani Complex.  Beside Mt. Rinjani is a caldera that today is filled with water and is known as Lake Segara Anak.  This caldera is what remains after the explosive eruption of a volcano called Samalas.   Based on the size of the caldera, volcanologists knew that this eruption likely had a VEI of around 7.  And when tested, the chemical footprint for the ejecta in the vicinity of the volcano matched that in the ice cores and could be dated to the correct timeframe.  Researcher Franck Lavigne had suspected that this volcano might be the cause of all the trouble because of historical accounts in a document known as the Babad Lombok, written on palm leaves in Old Javanese.  The source describes the creation of the caldera, along with pyroclastic flows and the fall of ash, that destroyed a kingdom’s capital, Pamatan, and killed thousands of people  There were likely four phases to the eruption, alternating ash plumes and pyroclastic flows, and Lavigne suggested that the eruption likely took place around September, 1257.  Per Lavigne, “At the local and regional scales, the socio-economic and environmental consequences of this cataclysmic event must have been dramatic. Significant parts of Lombok, Bali, and the western part of Sumbawa were likely left sterile and uninhabitable for generations. This finding might provide insights as to the reasons why the Javanese King Kertanegara, who invaded Bali in A.D. 1284, did not encounter any resistance by local population.”  Lavigne also suggests that the city of Pamatan might lay buried somewhere on Lombok waiting to be discovered, a “Pompeii of the Far East” that could offer insights into Indonesian history.  You can read Lavigne’s full article here.

Segara Anak, site of the Samalas eruption, today.  A new cone rises within the caldera, as is typical.  Photo: Petter Lindgren, via Wikipedia.

Bringing this post back to its beginning, certainly no one in 13th-century England knew that a far-away volcano was the source of famine and death in 1258.  One is left to wonder, however, how this impacted the historical events I described.  London is thought to have lost one third of its population, and London was a significant source of support for Simon de Montfort and the barons allied with him. We certainly know from many other times in history that widespread distress can produce social change in surprising ways–although we will likely never know if these events had any direct role. In any case, Henry III was able to throw off the constraints of the Oxford Provisions in 1261 when the papacy released him from his obligations in Sicily, leading directly to the Second Barons’ War.  Simon de Montfort effectively ruled England for 18 months starting in 1264 until he was defeated in 1265, although the monarchy was not abolished as in the 17th century.  The Dictum de Kenilworth annulled the Provisions, but the Statute of Marlborough of 1267, this time a piece of royal legislation, reinstated many of its key clauses, thus setting the stage for the growth of the medieval Parliament.  Henry III’s successor Edward I learned to use Parliament effectively to confirm support for his policies.

Here’s a link to an article in the Guardian in 2010 when the connection was first made between the mass grave and a volcanic eruption.


The universe winked at me while I was in the midst of researching this piece. In the Toastmasters group of which I am a part, a “traveling Toastmasters” post was taken on the island of Lombok (a place I’d barely heard of before learning about the Samalas eruption a few months ago).

One comment

  1. Simply an amazing bit of research. I get easily lost when reading things like Simon this and Edward the something that, especially when combined with one treaty, proclamation, statute, law or another. It all blurs together. My brain shuts off.

    Tell me about weird weather causing famine and large-scale death, and THEN link it to something bizarre on the other side of the world like a volcano… This is how someone like me has any hope of remembering 1258.

    Thank you.


Comments are closed.