Floods, storms and environmental nasties in medieval Worcestershire

Floodwaters over the Powick Hams, 6 Jan 2013

Floodwaters over the Powick Hams, 6 Jan 2014

It’s hard to escape the news – and physical reality – of the floods and storms currently drenching Britain, which, according to the Met Office, are the worst in some twenty years and aren’t being helped by climate change and swingeing cuts to flood defences. That said, so far we’ve got off relatively lightly in Worcestershire, road closures and drenched fields notwithstanding. This makes a mild and welcome change from the norm in a county whose topography and drainage – bearing more than 1700km of streams and rivers amidst large lowland floodplains – have historically made it ripe for both farming and flooding.

Given this objective situation, it’s unsurprising to see the impact of floods, storms and other environmental events on everyday life in Worcestershire inscribed in the medieval documentary and archaeological records. The river Severn, at the centre of the county’s waterways, provides particularly abundant clues, and one of its earliest recorded floodings on 4 June 1258 is vividly described in the Flores Historiarum. Triggered by ‘a terrible storm of wind, accompanied by torrents of rain’[1], the Severn broke its banks from Shrewsbury to Bristol, flooding all the meadows and cornfields along its route and destroying all the crops. These were not the only victims; ‘some men were even drowned in the violent waters, and innumerable boys, and great quantities of animals of every sort’. The deluge was of a scale unseen in living memory, and to the eyes of locals had only one origin – ‘the secretest gulfs of hell’. Further floods are recorded, albeit on a much smaller scale; in 1374 flooding of the Severn caused severe damage to the bridge at Evesham[2], and recurrent floods at the vill of Strensham resulted in a 1395 indult allowing residents to bury their dead at the nearby chapel rather than the parish church of Pershore Abbey[3]. In some cases even these could have severe results, with repeated flooding in the late 14th century leading to the eventual abandonment of the mill complex at Bordesley Abbey[4]. Sometimes, however, it had its upsides; in 1325 it meant that the ruined mill at Naunton Beauchamp could finally grind cereals once again[5].

For such a perennial problem it’s equally unsurprising that people should find ways to overcome nature’s difficulties – or at least to work around them. If the raised floor levels of the transept at Bordesley Abbey constitute a low level damage mitigation policy[6], the earthwork defences erected parallel to the Severn at Bushley are of a quite different scale, with linear banks and draining ditches stretching out in sections over roughly 1115m[7]. However, in a time when flooding could be attributed to devilry, perhaps the best alternative approach to risk-mitigation was spiritual; amidst heavy rains in 1437 the Prior of Worcester ordered a procession of the shrine of St Oswald across the city, just as ‘hyt hath byn afore this time for cessying of such continual reyne’[8]. At least in agricultural terms, however, perhaps a more straightforward approach was to avoid cultivating the most risky floodplains altogether. The photo below of today’s flooding along the Powick Hams might reveal this strategy in action; ridge and furrow earthworks extend down the slope of the hill in the foreground, terminating along a boundary beyond which the land is a lot more sodden – and lacking the obvious marks of cultivation.

Sheep grazing amidst extant ridge and furrow along the Powick Hams, 6 Jan 2014

Sheep grazing amidst extant ridge and furrow along the Powick Hams, 6 Jan 2014

Where does Bayton fit into all this? Although the medieval vill is sited some 400-600 ft above sea level, the presence of the river Rea and several tributaries – principally the Shakenhurst, Tanner’s and Mill Brooks – in its immediate vicinity do pose occasional flood risks, proven in practice in June 2012 when lower lying areas of the parish were left flooded after facing as much as 63.2mm of rain in a single day[9]. As these were the locations where mills – such as that recorded at Shakenhurst in 1275 – were sited, it is easy to imagine the risk posed by flash-flooding along the Rea to the local economy, disrupting food production and causing grave consequences in the incomes of millers and mill owners. How residents dealt with these challenges is as yet uncertain, although we can easily imagine that, like elsewhere in the county, both practical and spiritual works had a role to play.

Bibliography

Astill, G. 1993. A medieval industrial complex and its landscape: the metalworking watermills and workshops of Bordesley Abbey. York: Council for British Archaeology.

Averill, M. 2012. More record floods in 2012. Wyre Forest Study Group Review 2012. pp 26-27.

Lloyd, D. 1993. A history of Worcestershire. Chichester: Phillimore.

Page, W., and Willis-Bund, J.W. 1924a. Parishes: Naunton Beauchamp. In W Page and JW Willis-Bund, eds. A history of the county of Worcester. Vol 4. London: Victoria County History. pp 143-7.

Page, W., and Willis-Bund, J.W. 1924b. Parishes: Strensham. In W Page and JW Willis-Bund, eds. A history of the county of Worcester. Vol 4. London: Victoria County History. pp 202-8.

Rahtz, P., and Hirst, S. 1976. Bordesley Abbey, Redditch, Hereford-Worcestershire. First report on excavations, 1969-72. Oxford: BAR

Rudge, E. 1820. A short account of the history and antiquities of Evesham. Evesham: J Agg.

Yonge, C. 1853. The flowers of history, especially such as relate to the affairs of Britain. Vol. II. A.D. 1066 to A.D. 1307. London: Henry G Bohn


[1] Flor. Hist., p 357

[2] Rudge 1820, p 108

[3] Page and Willis-Bund 1924b

[4] Astill 1993, p 54

[5] Page and Willis-Bund 1924a

[6] Rahtz and Hirst 1976, p 71

[7] WSM46806

[8] Lloyd 1993, p 45

[9] Averill 2012, p 26