Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Holy Shittlington! Great ball of fire, 1628

The following rather spectacular anecdote of ball lightning occurs in An apology, or, Defence of the divine art of natural astrologie being an answer to a sermon preached in Cambridge, July 25, 1652. ... / written by the learned and ingenious mathematician, Mr. George Atwell; and now published by a friend (1660).

Atwell is answering the objection made to astrology to the effect that the stars were simply made by God as an ornament. He confutes this idea by telling the story of what he clearly believes to be a star – a fiery sphere – let loose for some inscrutable diving purpose in Bedfordshire, in the village of Shithlington (it used to be Shittington, and has become present-day Shillington):

“Or was that Star of fiery Foot-ball what to call it I know not, that came July the 25, 1628 to Shithington in Bedfordshire, the young men having appointed a Match at Foot-ball with Luton, and to meet in the midway to get together, they goe to ring, in the midst of their zeale comes this Star, first up a narrow lane to the Churchyard, where it overthrew a little Maid named Hester, but did her no harm: it comes unto the Churchporch where it overthrows on Mr. Malineux, and took the ring off his finger, it goes into the Church where Mr. Parrat the Minister was praying at the corner of the Mid-alley, it past him and did him no harm, it goes into the Belfree, layes dead every one of the Ringers, it strikes against the wall and breakes to pieces, whereon fell such thunder, rain, and lightning as I never heard before: the first that came to live again, was one Kitchiner a Shoemaker & kindsman of mine, all recovered save one Deare that made the Foot-ball, who never revived, was this Star an ornament either to heaven or earth. I think all the paper in the town will not hold what I can say for it, if time and meanes would serve.”

The event did not go without other notice:

“I heare of two barnes fired by lightning, and burned down, near wetherfield; as also a confirmation of ye miraculous lightning in Shithlington, in Bedfordshire, and ye consequents thereof, which you have ere this heard of.” This was the pro-astrology divine Robert Gell, writing from Christ’s College. August 9, 1628 to Sir Martyn Stuteville, in a letter preserved in The Autobiography and correspondence of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, Bart. The editor, J. O. Halliwell, refers to a ballad about the event, which I haven’t myself seen: ‘In the Bodleian Library is a curious contemporary ballad, entitles ‘Strange and wonderful news from Bedfordshire, being a true relation of the wonderful judgement of God shown at Shithington, &c’

Ann Geneva, without quoting the whole passage, makes a joke about it in a footnote to her book on Lilly, along the lines of the star being sent by God to uphold ‘The Booke of Sports’. But there is nothing here to indicate that it was a Sunday, and


indicates that 25th July 1628 was a Friday. The ball lightning doesn’t harm the footballers, floats off towards the church, knocking over the little girl and Mr Malineux, leaving the minister unscathed as he prays, but then in the belfry, causes all the bell-ringers to fall down as if dead, and one of them apparently does not recover. That he was the man who made the football takes us back to the first sighting. But it hardly makes an argument for divine pleasure or displeasure at football. It was certainly more hazardous to be in church than in the ‘ring’ (interesting expression) for football.

As far as I can tell, that great bell-ringer and pious man of Bedfordshire, John Bunyan, does not mention this. It happened in the year of his birth, but the story might have cropped up locally, as Bunyan debated with his newly tender conscience whether bell-ringing was a vain activity (Grace Abounding, paragraphs 33 and 34).

Nor do any of the many sites about ball lightning discuss this early exam, though they do get the disaster in the church at Widecombe, discussed by me here at:




My image is of the overthrow of Professor Tarragon in the Tintin adventure, The Seven Crystal Balls. My resident authority points out to me that Hergé used this motif twice, here extensively, but as a wild deus ex machina in the earlier adventure, The Broken Ear (where one comes down the chimney and blasts a bound-up Tintin out of a window just as he is about to be shot).


Adam Roberts said...

Not to impugn the expertise of your resident authority (expertise I know is greater than mine), but I've a hunch that there's a third appearance of balled lightning in Tintin. My memory's hazy, though. Doesn't Captain Haddock not have a discussion with somebody about balled lightning whilst on the bridge of a ship? Possibly in a storm? (Red Rackham's Treasure maybe? Shooting Star? Coke en stock? I'll have to chase the memory down.)

Adam Roberts said...

More to the purpose: I like the idiom 'overthrows on' ('...it comes unto the Churchporch where it overthrows on Mr. Malineux ...') Unusual. Or maybe not so, in early modern times?