Astronomical Society of Edinburgh
Journal 43

An Account of the Aurora
Seen in London in the Year 1716

That day was the last Tuesday in February, when London, just after dark, was attracted by strange flashes of light in the North-West. The light was diversly compared to the dawn of day, to that of the moon breaking throught the clouds; and a newspaper philosopher cheerfully describes it as 'darting many streams towards all parts of the sky, which looked like smoak'. Its progress was towards the South-East, and it died out at the witching hour of night. Superstition sharpened or deceived the eyes of beholders in all parts of the country. The London Jacobites hailed this Aurora as a message from Heaven to cheer them after the depression cause by the execution of sentence on the Jacobite leaders. The London Whigs did not know what to make of it, but men of both parties, whose eyes were made the fools of other senses, agreed in seeing in the field of the sky armies fiercy engaged, giants flying through the ether with bright flaming swords, and fire-breathing dragons flaring from swift and wrathful comets. They swore they heard the report of guns; they were quite sure they smelt powder. What one man said he saw, another assented to, and proceeded to see something monstrous .... the scientific critics saw nothing but what was natural, and they schooled the Londoners in this wise: "The Sun having been hot for two days past, and particularly that afternoon, by which various vapours were exhaled both from the Earth and Water, and the sulphurous Particles mixed with them, taking fire, might occasion that Light, and some coruscations, as it is very common upon marshes in fenny places, in Spring and Summer nights."

But nobody looked on that northern aurora in the way prescribed. Sentiment connected it with an individual. The aurora might not be an omen of good for a party, yet it might be a symbol of grief for an individual, and an assurance that Heaven had taken to its glory what men had destroyed.

Lady Cowper described the spectacle more simply than scientifically. "First appeared a black cloud, from whence smoke and light issued forth at once, on every side, and then the cloud opened and there was a great body of pale fire, that rolled up and down and sent forth all sorts of colours - like the rainbow on every site; but this did not last above two or three minutes. After that it was like pale elementary fire, issuing out on all sides of the Horizon, but most especially at the North and North-West, where it fixed at last. The Motion of it was extremely swift and rapid, like Clouds in their swiftest Rack. Sometimes it discontinued for a While; at other Times it was but as Streaks of Light in the Sky, but moving always with great Swiftness. About one o'Clock this Phenomenon was so strong that the whole Face of the Heavens was entirely covered with it, moving swiftly as before, but extremely low. It lasted until past four, but decreased will it was quite gone. At one, the Light was so great that I could, out of my Window, see People walking across Lincoln's Inn Fields, though there was no Moon. Both Parties turned it on their Enemies. The Whigs said it was God's Judgement on the horrid Rebellion, and the Tories said it came for the Whigs taking off the two Lords that were executed. I could hardly make my Chairmen come home with me, they were so frightened, and I was forced to let my glass down and preach to them as I went along, to comfort them! I am sure anybody that had overheard the Dialogue, would have laughed heartily. All the People were drawn out into the Streets, which were so full One could hardly pass, and all frightened to Death."

(Extract from London in the Jacobite Times, Vol 1, by Dr Doran, London 1877)
Supplied by Alison Duncan