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When the Protestant Wind blows. David Horspool

Blog | Jun 02, 2023

Britons are obsessed with the weather, so why doesn’t it play more of a part in our view of history?

As far as British history is concerned, that might be because extremes of weather have been quite rare. By the standards of the tropics, or the unforgiving polarities other countries have to put up with, we are, or at least have been, pretty lucky.

That is not to say that weather hasn’t played a part in our history – or been assigned one by historians and chroniclers when convenient. A book to be published later this year by the global historian Peter Frankopan – The Earth Transformed – set me thinking.

Frankopan’s canvas is as broad as it possibly could be: the whole of human history across the whole globe, tracing interactions between environment, climate and historical change.

But he also remarks that, at the level of the individual historical event, we tend to ignore the part weather plays. He gives as an exception the original kamikazes – ‘divine winds’ the Japanese said kept Kubla Khan at bay – and Russia’s General Winter, popularly believed to have done for both Napoleon and Hitler.

In both cases, Frankopan suggests myth-making has a lot to do with our understanding. The kamikaze played into a later providential view of Japanese history, while supply lines, strategy and communication had more to do with Napoleonic and Nazi failure than snow and ice.

A third example – Xerxes lashing the storm-tossed Hellespont when it hindered his Persian fleet’s invasion of Greece – Frankopan sees as a likely bit of orientalising; a story told to emphasise the tyrannous barbarism of the foreign king. In fact, the story that a storm destroyed Persian bridges doesn’t seem beyond belief. In any case, it didn’t stop Xerxes; merely delayed him a bit.

The weather used to play more of a part in our historical imagination, though. Before modern conveniences improved our lot, from housing and heating to roads, electrification and communications, we had to pay more attention to it.

More of us worked the land, too. Even in 1851, there were almost twice as many people employed in agriculture (1.7 million) as in the next biggest sector, domestic service (just over 1 million).

For many years, the British celebrated their own kamikazes – ‘Protestant winds’. They not only blew the Spanish Armada off our shores in 1588 but, 100 years later, blew William of Orange on to them – a helpful easterly brought him to undefended Torbay.

The Protestant Wind crops up elsewhere in Britain’s historical mythology. It’s mentioned in the marching song Lillibullero (‘Ho by my Shoul ’tis a Protestant Wind’), where it was blowing a Catholic – the Earl of Tyrconnell – away, rather than a Protestant in.

And it blew again in 1796, when the French first attempted to invade Ireland at the request of the United Irishmen.

For a maritime nation, wind is a perennial issue. So is fog. The most famous part played by misty conditions in British history was at the Battle of Jutland in the First World War, when the combatants often had little idea of what was happening all around them.

As one seaman described the battle, ‘I remember we could hear the firing and firing. But it was so misty we didn’t see the actual ships.’

What about our favourite climatic condition, rain? Has that played a part in our history, or are we so used to it that we hardly notice?

The most catastrophic example dates back to 1315, when it rained for months, beginning in the spring and continuing with barely a break through into the New Year. Crops were ruined, starvation was rife and famine spread across Europe.

Historians think this unusual weather was part of the transition between two climatic periods – the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age – and due also to the eruption of a volcano in New Zealand, neither of which people in the 14th century had any clue about. They viewed it as a judgement from God.

There is one instance when rain changed the course of high political history. In 1483, Richard III’s erstwhile ally the Duke of Buckingham started a rebellion against him from his estates in Wales. His uprising failed in large part because it rained so much that he was unable to cross the River Severn to join his brother, combine forces and march east. Buckingham was tracked down, tried and executed by a vengeful king.

But Richard couldn’t rely on the weather for ever. One of the conspirators who failed to join up with Buckingham was Henry Tudor, unable to land from Brittany because of the same storm. But he came back.

General Rain, it turns out, is rather less mighty than General Winter.