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This article is copyright David W. Dewhirst, it originally appeared in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, Volume 90, pages 159-163, and is reproduced here by permission of the author.


Institute of Astronomy, The Observatories, Madingley Road, Cambridge, CB3 0HA

Two recent articles have proposed that the remarkable events of 1646 May 21 in East Anglia were caused by a meteorite fall. A more plausible interpretation is that one or more whirlwinds or small tornadoes occurred in the area. This meteorological explanation is supported by further contemporary records.


Two recent articles in the Journal have reprinted fascinating contemporary accounts of remarkable happenings in East Anglia in 1646 May. The first, by Dr N. P. Warren, gives an English translation of an account by Jonathan Jephcot (or Jephcote) of Swaffham Prior, and in the second[2] the Rev. C. D. Blount reproduces an assemblage of records compiled from "divers and severall Letters from persons of credit" and printed by T. Forcet in London in the same year. We may refer to these as the Jephcot account and the Forcet account, respectively.

Neither of them is easy to understand; both come to us in some measure at second or third hand, and like many similar early records they are blends of accounts given by eyewitnesses who did not understand what they saw and interpretations by more literate authors who did see in them, in this case, dire warnings of the wrath of God in sinful times. All the identifiable characters in the story are associated with the protestant sects and tracts of the Commonwealth and Restoration periods.

Nature of the events

There are various difficulties in interpreting the event as a meteorite fall. The event was seen and heard from widely separated places in the daytime. If it was a meteorite it must have been a fairly large one, yet there is no agreement on where any fall took place, indeed only the Jephcot account refers to actual stones and that in a very obscure way, while the events are variously reported as lasting for half an hour to an hour and a half, which is much too long for a flight path and descent.

An attractive alternative explanation is that the event was meteorological.

There are various kinds of highly localized windstorms of a rotatory nature. Over hot desert surfaces 'dust devils' caused by convection can raise pillars of sand and small stones into the air. A different phenomenon in temperate latitudes is the whirlwind, which over water takes the name of a waterspout; in its most extreme energetic form this becomes the catastrophic tornado or 'twister' of the Great Plains of North America. The exact mechanism of these highly localized circulatory storms is still imperfectly understood, but they seem to be associated with convectively unstable conditions and interacting masses of cold and hot moist air: a narrow twisting column of air develops with strong updraught and reduced pressure in the centre. The column only becomes visible by the condensation of water vapour, and in its lower parts by the dust and debris raised from the surface of the ground.

The observed phenomena are of great variety.[3] In a typical event of low energy (we are not concerned here with the fully developed American tornado) a funnel of twisting cloud develops and descends from a low layer of cloud; if the already existing rotating air column is moving over the surface of the sea or over loose surface soil a corresponding inverted funnel of water droplets or dust particles can be seen to ascend from below. Sometimes the phenomenon decays at this stage, but if it develops the visible descending and rising funnels extend to form a complete 'twister' or spout. As it travels over the terrain the column may break and lift, to descend again later; different parts of it may be light, dark or even coloured depending on its particle content, and a larger one may have electrical discharges around it. Several columns may form in an extended area and follow similar tracks over the countryside. The violent wind motions are strictly confined within the column; typical dimensions may be a few or some tens of metres in diameter, usually narrower in the middle part, and a few hundred metres high.

Compared with meteorite falls such events are not rare in England; they seem to favour the East Midlands, the summer months, and tend to travel from south west to north east. Since the conditions that give rise to them are typically, though not invariably, associated with a vigorous cold front advancing into warm humid air, a dark cloud sheet, line squall, violent lightning and hailstones are not unexpected concomitants.

The Forcet Account

In addition to the Colman Library copy seen by Mr Blount other examples of this pamphlet exist, at least in the British Library, the Bodleian, and Downing College, Cambridge.[4] If one now re-reads the whole of the Forcet account in terms of the phenomena just described, it becomes not only understandable but indeed a rather clear description: ". . . there was observed a pillar or Cloud to ascend from the earth . . . in a pyramidal form, and fashioned it self into the form of a Spire or broach Steeple, and there descended also out of the sky, the form of a Pike or Lance with a very sharp head or point to encounter with it. Also at a distance, there appeared another Speare . . . out of the Sky . . . but did not engage itself . . . in all these places there was very great Thunder, with Raine and Hailestones of extraordinary bigness . . . ."

". . . a Navie or Fleet of Ships in the ayre, swiftly passing under Sayle, with Flags and streamers hanged out" may reasonably be interpreted as low, fast-moving ragged scud cloud. It is uncertain whether one whirlwind formed and moved across East Anglia or whether several formed in different places, but either would account for the widely separated observations of similar happenings.

The Jephcot Account

The history of this account is rather more complicated. It seems first to have appeared in print as early as 1713, when Edmund Calamy the younger published an abridged biography of the English puritan divine Richard Baxter (1651-1691) and appended to it in a second volume numerous biographies of nonconformist ministers. In his biography of the Rev. Jonathan Jephcot he writes:[5]

"While he continu'd at Swaffham, there was an unusual kind of Meteor appear'd in the Field, in a violent hot Day, an account of which is here added in his own Words, out of his Papers, for the satisfaction of the Curious . . . ."

There follows the Latin text of Jephcot's account. In 1895 W. M. Palmer also published this Latin account.[6] It is not clear whether Palmer saw Jephcot's original papers or copied carelessly from Calamy's book (I think the latter); his literature reference to Calamy is inexact and his Latin wording differs in a few places from Calamy's version, usually in the sense that Palmer's Latin is even less grammatical. It is the Palmer version that is translated in Mr Warren's article,[1] but unfortunately Calamy's Latin goes only a little way to clearing up the numerous obscurities of the text.

There are three comments to make on Calamy's introductory paragraph quoted above. The word "Meteor" came to have its present exact meaning only in the nineteenth century, Calamy implies only something happening in the air;[7] ". . . in the Field" implies "in the open ground surrounding the town" and not in a particular enclosed field in the modern sense. Finally we note that it was "a violent hot Day", which adds to our suspicion that it is freak weather we have to deal with.

It is a pity that Jephcot did not describe what he saw in plain English. But sufficient of the original comes through to make the whirlwind explanation likely: "Cloud hanging over the town . . . pyramid shaped cloud pointed in shape at the top [i.e. at the apex of the inverted pyramid]. . . . The vapour emitted from it . . . never remaining still but twisting around, now faster now slower like a whirlwind's motion, carried two stones [Latin transmigravit in the sense of moved from one place to another]. . .".

It would be tedious here to compare the variant texts and discuss the translation, but in several places an alternative translation would seem acceptable. In particular if one allows, in the second English sentence "The vapour emitted from it [the upper pyramid] rushed against the surface of the ground with such force . . ." ["impetu fundi superficiem invasit"; fundus = ground, foundations, rather than = the bottom], then the rest of that passage becomes much more clear in terms of a descending column striking the ground and then drawing up a pillar of detritus.


On what day did it happen? The Forcet account twice says it was the afternoon of May 21; the English translation of the Palmer text says it was Thursday May 16. May 16 (Old Style) was, however, a Saturday. It is not clear where Palmer got the 16th from; the Calamy version of 1713 simply says Die Jovis Maii 1646 and we may settle for Thursday May 21 (see also the next section).

Among further uncertainties in the Forcet account are the location of "Stopham in the County of Cambridge aforesaid", and what happened there. There is no such village in East Anglia today, nor does the name appear in a comprehensive gazetteer[8] of 1677. Mr Blount's suggestion that it is a corruption of Swaffham is very reasonable. But in Cambridgeshire that would most likely be Swaffham Prior, which is also the source of the Jephcot account.

Here "a ball of wild-fire fell upon the earth, which burned up and spoyled about an aker of Graine, and when it had rolled and run up and down to the terror of many people . . . it dissolved and left a most sulpherous stinke behind it". Wild-fire has a specific meaning; it was an incendiary concoction of naphtha, saltpetre and similar ingredients used in warfare. Fallen meteorites are not usually incandescent, do not run up and down, and do not dissolve. But this does sound like an eyewitness account of something very unusual, and it is the most puzzling part of all the accounts. Was it a lightning discharge, or could it be ball lightning, with some descriptions of which it has features in common?


Even today there is a common misapprehension that physical objects ('thunderbolts') fall during violent thunderstorms. That a true meteorite should by chance fall during a violent electrical storm is an improbable coincidence. All the evidence suggests that there were freakish weather conditions over East Anglia, and Calamy further adds that it was a "violent hot Day". A cursory search for other contemporary accounts has not been successful, except that at Earl's Colne in Essex Ralph Josselin[9] thought it worth noting, after the account of his day's affairs, that Thursday May 21 was "an exceeding hot day". This supports both the date and the unusual weather. In sum, even the puzzling parts of the accounts are more readily understood in terms of a purely meteorological origin.


I am grateful to Mr Blount, who first drew my attention to the Forcet account some years ago (though I have differed from his interpretation of it), and to Mrs D. M. Owen, Archivist of Cambridge University, for a helpful discussion of the original texts.


[1] Warren, N. P., J. Brit. astron. Assoc., 89 (3), 285 (1979).

[2] Blount, C. D., J. Brit. astron. Assoc., 89 (6), 613 (1979).

[3] In an extensive literature see for example F. W. Lane, The Elements Rage, London, 1966, which has many illustrations and literature references.

[4] Wing, D. G., Short-Title Catalogue of Books . . . 1641-1700, New York, 1945. The Wing entry is S.3778.

[5] Calamy, E., An Abridgement of Mr. Baxter's History of his Life and Times . . . , London, 2nd ed., 2 vols, 1713. The Jephcot account is 2, 115.

[6] Palmer, W. M., The East Anglian (Notes & Queries), 6, 362 (1895/6).

[7] This early meaning of 'meteor' is nicely exemplified in Charles Hutton, Philosophical and Mathematical Dictionary, London, 1815, Art. 'Whirlwind': 'whirlwinds and waterspouts . . . are meteors arising from the same general cause'.

[8] Simons, Matthew, A Book of the Names of all the Parishes, Market Towns . . . & Smallest Places in England & Wales, London, 1677.

[9] Macfarlane, A., edit., The Diary of Ralph Josselin, 1616-1683, London, 1976.