The Great Frost of 1683-4

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The winter of 1683-4 produced one of the most notable of the Frost Fairs on the River Thames, known as the Blanket Fair. Others have covered that in great detail (e.g. the website), but my aim here is to present contemporary records of the frost as it affected other areas.

The London Gazette

England's twice-weekly official newspaper scarcely mentioned the Thames, but did provide, among all the political reports, a few hints about how the frost and its aftermath affected other areas at home and abroad.

31 Dec 1683- 3 Jan 1683/4:
Brussels, January 4 [probably= Dec 25 in England]. On Saturday last the Marquis de Grana received advice by an Express, that the French Troops withdrew from before Luxemburgh on the 27th past ... But it's very much feared if this hard Frost continues, the French will pass the Schelde and fall into the Country of Waes. ... the Country People are many of them retired into the fortified Towns, and others are fled into the Woods, where they suffer extreamly.

Brussels, January 7 [probably= Dec 28 in England]. They write from Bruges that the French at Dixmuyde intend to take the advantage of this frost to pass into the North Contribution between Bruges and Ostend, and that two or three small French men of War have appeared upon the Coast of Blankenberg, and that thereupon some Horse and Foot are drawn that way to hinder their descent, while other Troops are appointed to secure the Canall.

Paris, January 5 [probably= Dec 26 in England] From the Coasts of Provence we have an account that there hath been a very violent Tempest, or rather a kind of a Hurricane, in which several Ships have been lost.

7-10 Jan 1683/4:
Brussels, January 11 [probably= January 1 in England]. From Bruges we have an account that six small French Frigats have appeared upon the Coast of Blankenberg, where they endeavoured to make a descent, but were hindred by the abundance of ice they met with.

17-21 Jan 1683/4:
Vienna, January 9 [probably= Dec 30 in England]. We continue to work here, notwithstanding the sharpness of the Weather, to repair the Fortifications of this place, ruined during the late Siege.

24-28 Jan 1683/4:
Deal, January 25. There has been several days in the Downs a Vessel belonging to Lubecke (as we perceive by her Colours) which we fear is in great distress, being encompassed with great pieces of Ice. Some Deal men have tried to go off to her in one of our Yaules, but could not get through the Ice, so were forced to come back. The Sea is Frozen for above a mile about the Shore. The like was never known here.

Trinity-House, January
26. The Master, Wardens, and Assistants of the Trinity-House, do desire all persons concerned to take notice, That the Buoys in the South Channel, are either gone or out of place; And it's very probable that the Buoys in the North Channel are in the like condition, and that care will be taken so soon as possible, to have them all renewed and recovered. In the mean time all Masters of Ships, and others concerned are desired to take notice, that they may avoid running themselves and Ships into danger. [Repeated in next issue. The channels referred to were in the Thames estuary]

28-31 Jan 1683/4:
Plimouth, January 25. The 23 Instant arrived here the Elizabeth of Waterford, Thomas Hassey Master, from Roan. Here are above 80 Sail of Dutch Merchant Ships, some of which have lain here a long time.

We are wanting several Posts from France, Flanders, and Holland, as well as Ireland, the Pacquet Boats not being able to pass by reason of the abundance of Ice that is on the Coasts.

31 Jan-4 Feb 1683/4:
Deal, January 2. The sea is frozen here at least two miles from the Shore, many persons go upon it. And should any Ships come into the Downs, we could neither go off to them, nor they send ashore. The Sea is frozen over between the North and South Forelands, the like having never been heard of before.

Dover, February 1. Some days since put in here three Dutch Dogger Boats, not daring to attempt getting into any place on their own Coasts, the Ice lying so far off at Sea. the same day these Boats came in, most of the Ice in this Road drove away with the Wind at East. To morrow one of our Pacquet-Boats will try to get out, and see how they can deal with the Coast of France. From Dover Castle we can see that Shore quite covered with Ice.

Dover, Febr. 1 [= 2?]. This Road being almost clear of Ice, one of our Pacquet-Boats put to Sea yesterday with the Mails for Calais, though we cannot think they will be able to land them on that side; for from Dover Cliffs we can discern the Coast of France to be very full of Ice. The Men on board the Dutch Doggers, which we told you in our last were put in here, reported that on the coast of Holland, and particularly off Sceveling, the Sea was frozen eight Leagues from shore, and that in 16 fathom Water they had met with Ice strong enough to bear, and that some of them had been upon it.

4-7 Feb 1683/4:
Deale, February 1. The Downes has been very full of Ice, but is now pretty clear again, the Ice being most of it driven to the Northwards.

ON Saturday next, being the Ninth day of February, will come forth an Exact and Lively Map or representation of the Booths, and all the Varieties of Shows and Humours upon the Ice on the River of Thames, by London, during the late Memorable Frost; with an Alphabetical Explanation of the most Remarkable Figures curiously Engraven on a large sheet of Dutch Paper; Sold by William Warter Stationer at the Sign of the Talbot over against Fetter-lane end in Fleet-street.

7-11 Feb 1683/4:
Hague, February 8 [probably= Jan 29 in England]. We have nothing of moment from Flanders, the Weather has been excessive cold there as well as here, to that degree, that not only the greatest Rivers are frozen, but the Sea is covered with Ice for many leagues from the Shore.

11-14 Feb 1683/4:
Brussels, January 28 [probably= Jan 18 in England]. The Weather is most excessive cold, all sorts of Carriages pass the Schelde, and people come from the Hague to Breda upon the Ice.

Brussels, February 8 [probably= Jan 29 in England]. The Weather continues so cold, that the Burghers are forced to keep their Shops shut, and several persons have fallen down dead in the Streets with the extremity of the cold; The like not having been known in these parts.

Brussels, February 15 [probably= Feb 5 in England]. We expected to have heard ere this, that the French had attacked Mons with their Bombs, but it has been so excessive cold that the Troops have not been able to march. Last night the Weather changed.

Paris, February 16 [probably= Feb 6 in England]. From Flanders we have an account, that our Troops have several times begun to march, but not being able to endure the Weather, were forced to return into their Quarters.

Plimouth, February 8. Last Tuesday night [Feb 5] a Dutch Ship of 300 Tuns, laden with Wine and Brandy, was cast away about ten miles to the Eastward of this place, all the men saved; and another Dutch Ship was cast away a little to the Westward. the same night were likewise lost a small Collier from Wales, and a Vessel belonging to Scilly from Virginia.

Weymouth, February 9. We have an account of two Dutch Merchant Ships that have been lately cast away upon these Coasts, the St. John of Amsterdam, of 400 Tuns, laden with Wine and Brandy, all the men lost; and the Juffrow of Amsterdam, a Galliot of 150 Tuns, laden with Chestnuts and Walnut Planks, all the men saved except one:
Last Tuesday night [Feb 5] it blew a very violent storm, during which two Ships were cast away near Scilly; the one called the Young mans Endeavour, belonging to Scilly from Virginia, the other not known; And not far from Plimouth two Ships more, the one a Dutchman of 300 Tuns, the men saved, the other not known, but supposed to be bound from Bourdeaux, by the Wine and Brandy that was driven ashore. A Ship of Falmouth with Coales from Wales was likewise lost, the men all drowned.

Deale, February 10. Within these three days, above 50 Sail of Merchant Ships are arrived in the Downes, among which is the Persian Merchant, Captain Bowers Commander, from the East Indies. Some of these Ships have been two Months between the Soundings [the western limit of the English Channel] and the Downs.

Parish register of Néville-en-Caux, northern France.

My translation of French text transcribed by Serge Osmont for a French local history website.

In the leap year sixteen eighty-four arrived the greatest winter that was ever seen, both for its duration and its rigour. It started to freeze to ice from St. Denis' day, ninth October, which did not last; the freezing started again from the beginning of the month of December 1683, which eased a little before Christmas, and the day after Christmas Day snow started falling so abundantly that one could hardly go from one village to the next, and at the beginning of the said year 1684, the freeze started, so strong and so furious that there was no river that was not frozen, the pools and fishponds drying up as the ice thickened, even right along the coast and in the ports and harbours of St. Valery, Veules and Dieppe the sea was frozen as far as could be seen, some six or seven leagues distance from the port, so that not a vessel could leave or enter, and thus the sea remained well frozen for a month, during which the ebb and flow of the sea entered the port without the ice breaking, rising only a little when it entered, and sinking when it went out. The great rigour of the cold lasted until the end of April; they held a fair, market and entertainment on the Seine at Rouen, and the same on the Thames at London: horse racing, carriages, fox-hunting and wolf-hunting. My curate of Néville testifies to this, from what he has seen and has read in accounts and journals that came from various places; numerous people died of cold, or were ruined, and in Paris, by order of Louis the Great, King of France, 14th of that name, now reigning, and by his charities, in which he was followed by many persons of quality, they lit a number of fires in the streets for the relief of the poor, all of which I testify is true and have written to benefit posterity, in good faith of which I sign, Raulin le Charpentier, curate of Néville en Caux

From a letter by Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné

My translation of French text from M. Monmerqué (comp.) "Lettres de Madame de Sévigné ...", Volume 7, Paris, 1862 (letter 925).

Paris, 1 March 1684
To President de Moulceau [of the Court of Accounts at Montpellier, an old friend of the writer],
The Pont Rouge [the old bridge over the Seine opposite the Louvre in Paris] has begun to revenge itself upon us: it has left for Saint-Cloud, having not at all withstood the fury of the break-up [of the ice in the river] which has ravaged it completely. Such a terrible winter has never been seen; your lovely region has not been exempted; and if the Cardinal de Bonzi has found dead bodies on the road from Montpellier to Lyon, the courtiers have found many on the road to Versailles; and we bourgeois have not been able to prevent the freezings and deaths at night in the streets- many paupers and little children; thus it pleases Providence to make its hand felt from time to time.

From a letter by Guillaume Fillastre, monk at Fécamp.

My translation of French and Latin text from Vincent Thuillier (comp.) "Ouvrages Posthumes de D. Jean Mabillon et de D. Thierri Ruinart" Volume 1, Paris, 1724 (page 467). The Latin quotations (all but one from Ovid's "Tristia" book 3, part 10, with occasional misquotations; the exception is from Virgil's "Georgics" book 3) are presented here in bold italics.
Curiously, although the compiler has headed this letter "Winter of 1684" and placed it there in the chronological sequence, the letter as printed ends "At Fécamp the 12 April 1672." Although there was, for example, a severe hailstorm in southern England in December 1671, there do not appear to be any signs that the winter that year was unusually bad, so the 1672 date may be a mistake.

Dom Guillaume Fillastre to Dom J. Mabillon.
Reverend Father,
You have done me the favour of writing to me on returning from your German voyage ... The lovely season gives you at present the means of employing the health you enjoy to continue your Works, and to make public the beautiful discoveries you have made on your journey, for I believe that the rigour of the winter would have prevented you from travelling, at least if it was as harsh at Paris as here, where not only has ink frozen close to the fire, but even the cooking pot nearly freezes on one side while the other side boils. No joke; we have seen soup which has accidentally spilled while being stirred, freezing at one side while the other still steams. I no longer have trouble believing what travellers report of the glacial seas, and what the poets say in apparent exaggeration of the coldest lands and the most rigorous winters. We have seen and experienced all that right here.

We saw ice freeze a great sea.
To see was not enough, we trod on its solid surface.

It's a novelty that even our oldest sailors have never heard spoken of. Thus we have had the pleasure of walking dry-shod on the sea, without a miracle.

And the wave-crest was not wet under foot.

People in Dieppe, particularly, have amused themselves with such promenading, with growing confidence- after the thaw, icebergs eleven feet thick were observed. Also

We have seen fish stuck fast and bound in ice,

and we have even been obliged to eat them. We have seen a vessel attempting to depart, with the benefit of a high sea and tide, halted by the ice at the mouth of the harbour. What is even stranger is that we have watched, with compassion, prisoners of the ice more than two leagues out to sea.

Ships stand enclosed in ice like marble,
Their oars cannot climb [
mistake for cleave] the frozen waters.

And the men aboard them were only saved from this danger by a sort of miracle. Here is the story in brief: Some sailors from St. Valery en Caux, setting out to go fishing, were surrounded by ice nearly three leagues out to sea, opposite the port of Veules, from which people could see them indicating by signs the danger they were in, but could not give them any help. In this extremity, they risked returning to land on foot, across the ice; which they achieved, happily, thanks to two planks which they placed one after the other as they advanced, to serve as a bridge over the icebergs, which were by no means neatly joined.

What shall I tell of stilled streams, congealed in the cold,
And of brittle water dug out from the ponds?

In fact, in the countryside people have been obliged to split the ice with blows from an axe and melt it over the fire to get water. But what will surprise you more, is that people have been seen going to find fresh water at sea, and carry lumps of it in sacks, for most of the icebergs are not the least bit contaminated, as many have pointed out. Finally, people have told me of seeing, at Rouen and Le Havre, wine and cider bursting the casks, retaining the shape as ice so hard that it can only be broken with an axe. It's just what Virgil and Ovid have handed down to us as the signs of the most rigorous winter.

They cut up with axes the moist wine. Virgil

Nude stands the wine, keeping the form of the urns;
Undiluted, they drink not draughts, but the chunks they are handed.

That's enough to make you see that even the Poets have not been able to imagine a more cruel winter than that which we have had in reality.

From "The World of Wonders: A Record of Things Wonderful in Nature, Science, and Art ..." (London, 1869)

The first part of the article "Wonderful Frosts" on page 22 of this book appears to have been based on an article in the 11 Jan 1861 issue of the London "Express" newspaper, which I have not yet been able to obtain:

In 1684 the frost was so severe that nearly all the birds perished; the Thames was covered with ice eleven inches thick; at a fair held upon it, printing-presses were erected which struck off verses and inscriptions commemorative of the event, several of which memorials are still extant. A private letter of the date of February the 9th of that year, mentions the appearance of a great deal of ice in the Channel, adding that it was reported that the ice between Dover and Calais was within about a league of joining.

"Notes and Queries" Second Series, volume 11, page 219 (16 March 1861)

Here, however, as transcribed in 1861 by correspondent "W.S.", is the letter referred to in "World of Wonders" (my thanks to Eric Stevens for finding the reference)

The following letter, which I have found amongst a large collection of contemporary date, illustrates the memorandum in the old Bible*:

Lyd [Lydd] ffeby 9th, 1683/4.
Loving Cossin,
... The frost broke w'th us last tuesday, which being more noteable than any since the memory of man, take a small account as followeth: the first Instant Mr. Shoesmith told me that the tide for some dayes had not been seen to flow neer folstone [Folkestone] towne by 3 leagues, by Reason of the Ice which lay there; that the Ice lay some miles off in the sea ag'st Romny [Romney], and that there was uppon the topp of the Steeples to be seen and [sic] Islands of Ice, one the West of the Light many miles long; but the next day, when I was at the Light, I took a boat-hook in my hand, and seeing the Ice lying soe thick I went on till I was about 2 rods uppon the sea, so far that Thomas Smith judged there was 3 faddom of water undr me; if I had been there at full sea (which was an hour or more before) I might have gone out a mile, the flakes joyned so close together, and where I put my staf between them I felt Ice underneath. This was, as old Quick judges, about a league in breadth ag'st the poynt, but at farly poynt it seemed to be at least 3 leagues; in length it was as far as I could see from East to West, and 'tis verily believed was the same from dover to the land's end. Old Quick observed some flakes to begin to come about 12 days before from the Eastward, which increased every day, and upon the fall of the tide went always toward the West, w'ch by Reason of the wind never return'd again. About 2 houres after I was uppon it, I observed that when the wind and tide went together, then all the Ice moved as fast as I could ride foot pace along by the side of it, and did drive most part of it from the shore directly towards beachy poynt [Beachey Head]. I judg it must come from holland or other eastern p'ts, w'ch by Reason of a continued eastally wind was brought this way. A great deale of it remanes yett to be seen in the sea, but not soe much but that the vessells now pass againe, which was more (as I was told) then the pecquet boats did for some weeks. ...
'Tis said that Ice between dover and Callis [Calais] joyned together within about a league.

* Correspondent Joseph Rix had reported, in the issue of February 16, page 139, the find of a piece of paper pasted on the back of the Old Testament title-page in an old Bible, printed as follows:
Mrs [name omitted].
Printed on the Frozen THAMES,
February the 5th, 1683/4

So far, I have only been able to find tantalising hints from the rest of Europe. Many websites indicate that the 250-metre deep lake, Bodensee, on the Swiss-German border, was frozen over that winter (and Wikipedia reports that the same was true of Zurichsee), but as yet I have not tracked down contemporary descriptions. Newsgroup contributor Peter Alaca has suggested two books which provide more information on the situation in the Netherlands, both by historical geographer Jan Buisman: "Bar en Boos. Zeven eeuwen winterweer in de Lage Landen" (Baarn, Bosch & Keuning NV, 1984) and volume 5 of "Duizend jaar weer, wind en water in de Lage Landen" (Franeker, Uitgeverij van Wijnen, 2006). Among other things, Buisman informs us that the open water of the North Sea could not be seen from even the highest dunes, and that harbours on the Dutch coast remained closed for some eight weeks, reopening around 20 February.