British Isles aurorae, 1560–1715, Part II: 1645–1715

This is the second of two papers in which, together, 28 previously unrecognised cases of probable aurorae seen in the British Isles between 1560 and 1715, and >100 new candidate cases, are presented. Part II covers 1645–1715 and provides a resumé of the documentary sources for that period, from which 17 nights of probable aurorae are identified and documented, with extracts from original sources and full references. Of these, 14 are previously unrecognised. 113 less certain candidate cases are presented briefly, of which 89 are previously unrecognised. Misdated, misinterpreted and untraceable catalogued aurorae are also documented. An analysis of all the observations between 1560 and 1715, by time of year, phase of the Moon, direction and timing within the ~11-year Schwabe cycle is also presented. For the probable aurorae, the results are consistent with modern observations.


This is the second of two papers that present previously unrecognised cases of possible aurorae witnessed in the geographical British Isles during 1560–1715.1 Together they aim to provide a documented baseline of auroral observations in the British Isles for that period, for future researchers to use and refine. The first paper sketched a brief history of such observations up to around 1800 and detailed how these were compiled into catalogues, then discussed criteria for assessing historical reports, and presented cases from the period 1560–1644.

Both papers provide extracts from original descriptions found in published sources of the period, as well as noting cases where there are contemporaneous reports of aurorae from outside the British Isles. This paper examines reports from 1645–1715 and presents 17 probable aurorae (counted according to the number of nights), of which 14 are previously unrecognised. A set of 113 candidate cases (of which 89 are previously unrecognised) is also briefly reviewed. These are cases where either the source might be unreliable or where the account, whilst consistent with an aurora, suggests that some other phenomenon is more likely. There is then a short section noting 20 previously claimed aurorae that are now rejected, comprising misdated, misinterpreted and untraceable reports. All the above cases are listed chronologically in summary tables.

The paper ends with an analysis that tests to what extent the probable and candidate cases from the entire 1560–1715 period tally with later, more scientific observations. The usable information is limited mostly to the reported dates. These are used to analyse the cases according to the time of year, the lunar phase and the time difference with estimated dates of Schwabe cycle maxima. The directions, times and durations of probable aurorae, where known, are also examined.

As explained in the first paper, all dates after 1582 October quoted here (unless in reported text) follow the Gregorian calendar; the texts themselves invariably use the Julian calendar, which was 10 days in arrears from 1582 until 1700, then 11 days until 1752 when the Gregorian calendar was introduced in Britain.



Three related anonymous publications called Mirabilis Annus provide almost a third of the material for this period, but cover only 1660 August to 1662 October. This could give a very skewed impression of auroral activity during the Maunder Minimum, usually assigned the dates 1645–1715.2–4 Compiled by a group of London printers and stationers known as the ‘Confederacy Press’, allied with a number of radical London ministers, the Mirabilis Annus were written as propaganda.5

They include accounts of well over 100 ‘signes and apparitions’ seen in the heavens. Bestsellers in their day, they were long regarded by historians as nonsense.6 However, Justin Schove, writing in the Journal in the 1950s, argued that some of the reports were of credible aurorae, coinciding with independent reports from Europe.7 He published extracts from the first of the three publications.

Schove claimed that the authors acted as a ‘seventeenth-century Aurora Section’, but James Paton, then Director of the Aurora & Zodiacal Light Section, argued that one of his suggested aurorae was more likely a thunderstorm.8 Certainly, the Mirabilis Annus publications should not be dismissed. Where they mention major weather events the information seems reliable, judging by independent reports of the time. Verifiable astronomical details, for example the phase of the Moon on a particular date, are accurate. However, the authors may have taken care to be accurate in reporting details that could be readily checked by readers, whereas accounts of strange phenomena, some remote from London, would be much harder to verify. In examining these publications a cautious approach has therefore been adopted. They provide 34 cases where apparently auroral features are described, and these are assessed only as ‘candidate’ cases, whilst three of the 14 reports cited by Schove are rejected. Schove cited aurorae seen in Europe in support of his case, but none occur on the same date as any reported elsewhere.

Another major source is John Goad, an astrologer. He kept a daily weather diary from 1652 to 1685, initially in Oxfordshire where he was a clergyman, and from 1661 in London, where he was headmaster of Merchant Taylors School until he was dismissed in 1680 for his supposed part in the fictitious Popish Plot. He published extensive extracts in his book Astro-meteorologica in 1686.9 It was a notable attempt to test and demonstrate astrological weather lore using real data, albeit in the days before statistical analysis. At this time the discipline of astrometeorology was taken seriously by the contemporary astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, who were tasked with providing weather forecasts for their patrons.10 Goad’s occasional and very brief notes such as ‘red clouds at night’ and ‘bright night’ provide another 34 candidate aurorae. However, only one of these observations has any corroboration elsewhere.

The other sources comprise published news pamphlets, personal diaries, histories, and compilations of natural phenomena. From around 1700, reports of aurorae are found in scientific papers of the time. Full references are given in the text.


Probable aurorae

This section documents cases of probable aurorae observed between 1645 and 1715. It comprises three previously identified cases and 14 that are presented here for the first time. The dates are all adjusted to the Gregorian calendar.


1652 August 29, Edinburgh & Dalkeith

Sir Archibald Johnston (Lord Warriston) was a leading Scottish statesman but was hanged for high treason in 1663. He and his household were eyewitnesses to an aurora, which he described in his diary as follows:

At night, about 9 a’clok, I was suddenly called by the servants of the house to see the yokings and feyghtings of airmyes in the lift, wherin I did see, three or four tymes within a quarter of an hour’s distance of another, the lykest to a battel that could be by som cloudes coming up in two bodyes the on from above the Castel of Edinburgh, the other from above Halton, meiting midwayes and feyghting, both as it wer be bodyes and partyes al throw uther, with the speidyest motion and the lykest to pousse of pick, and befor that lyk the shooting of great canons first by great smoak coming from them as a great and light fyre, at the end of that having a short swift motion throw the uther as an bullet out of a canon. This sight maid me praye agayne to the Lord in my familye. Whatsoever it portends I know not, but it was very uncoue.’11

His description clearly depicts an active auroral display, lasting perhaps up to an hour. It was apparently seen towards the west, since Johnston lived near the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh, and from his location, the castle was due west. ‘Halton’ appears to be a reference to Haltoun House, near Ratho, to the west-south-west of Edinburgh.

Portrait of Lord Warriston
Figure 1. Contemporary portrait of Lord Warriston.

Johnston wrote in Middle Scots. The word ‘yokings’ (written ȝokings in Middle Scots) referred to the act of engagement in combat; ‘lift’ (in the west and south Midlothian dialect of Middle Scots) meant the sky; ‘pousse of pick’ meant a thrust of a pikestaff; and ‘uncoue’ is Johnston’s spelling of ‘unco’, in this context probably meaning strange, remarkable or weird.12

A letter (author unknown) that very probably relates to this aurora, but seen in Dalkeith, some 10km from Edinburgh, was received in London eight days later by Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke. He summarised it as follows:

Of strange Apparitions in the Air at Dalkeith, shapes of Men clashing together as in a Skirmish, a great Light in a Circle.’13

No other reports of this aurora have been found in European sources, but a catalogue of Chinese astronomical observations compiled by Beijing Observatory lists an aurora seen in Zhejiang province (eastern China) on August 28, stating:

‘夜, 赤虹见’: ‘At night, a red rainbow was observed’ (author’s translation).

This is the only known report from China of an aurora in that year.


1654 September 13, Hull

An anonymous pamphlet gives an account of a phenomenon seen by soldiers garrisoned in Hull. The author of the pamphlet was a ‘Minister of the Gospel’ in Hull.15

The lengthy account (about 600 words) begins as a simple description of the state of the sky, but then introduces imagery that is typical of many other accounts of this period. This imagery – armies, horses, and battles – was sometimes used in descriptions of thunderstorms and other meteorological phenomena. Nevertheless, in this case it probably refers to an aurora. The following extract gives some of the key features of the display:

…between nine and ten of the clock at night … on a sudden the skie seemed to be of a fiery colour, and to cast forth many streams … and after such fiery streams, a great Battel of horse and foot appeared in the air … in the East appeared a huge Body of pike-men … Suddenly they beheld in the north-west another Army, the which seem’d unto them to march towards the Eastern Army with extraordinary speed … Afterwards both Bodies did engage … breaking thorow one the other backwards and forward … so that for an half quarter of an hour, there was a most terrible Fight … both these Armies seemed to be of a Red colour. Within a little while, there appeared another Army from the north-west, greater then the former, which marched directly to the place where the former Battel was fought. This Army was black: and here they perceived horse as well as foot … A little beneath these Armies, not far from the earth, upon a black cloud, appeared Horse-men, and amongst them they could perceive nothing, but rising of fire and smoak, and a multitude of spears as it were standing upright.

The September event is associated with the questioning of the pre-eminence of Oliver Cromwell, which may raise doubts about its authenticity, as would the fact that it fell on the anniversary of the battles of Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651).16 However, an aurora was seen in Germany on the same night.17

In the report, one eyewitness remembers having seen a similar phenomenon ‘a little after the sitting of the first Parliament’: probably a reference to the ‘Barebone’s Parliament’, which sat from 1653 July 14 to December 22, Gregorian. The sighting probably occurred either in late December of 1653 or early in 1654, but without further corroboration it must be regarded as a candidate aurora.

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