If your social media feeds are like mine, you’re seeing a lot about the upcoming solar eclipse. Incidentally, I’m not likely not going to be able to see it in Spain, so I’m hoping for lots of pictures. Throughout history people have been fascinated by the movement of the stars. They’ve searched for answers to philosophical questions, and seen omens in the celestial bodies. Astrologers and astronomers were the same, interpreting the stars to understand life.
When massive astronomical events happened, it goes to figure that it would often be upsetting to people. It could mean omens of war, famine, or disease. Or it could mean an important birth, or invasion. Here is a list some of the major astronomical events in English history, and how they were interpreted.
First, a really important solar eclipse of the 12th century. King Henry’s Eclipse.
Henry I was the son of William the Conquerer, and he died in 1133. At the same time there was a total solar eclipse lasting over 4 and a half minutes. In the manuscript “Historia Novella,” William of Malmesbury recounts that the “hideous darkness” agitated the hearts of men. After the death, a struggle for the throne threw the kingdom into chaos and civil war known as the period of The Anarchy. This would be the period where Matilda fought for her right to the throne against her cousin Stephen, leaving a really sour taste in the mouths of Englishmen over women rulers. Matilda’s experience would affect Henry VIII and his quest for a male heir four hundred years later..
In the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” a passage also recounts this eclipse: “In this year King Henry went over sea at Lammas, and the second day as he lay and slept on the ship the day darkened over all lands; and the Sun became as it were a three-night-old Moon, and the stars about it at mid-day. Men were greatly wonder-stricken and were affrighted, and said that a great thing should come thereafter. So it did, for the same year the king died on the following day after St Andrew’s Mass-day, Dec 2 in Normandy,” according to a NASA statement.
Just a few years later William of Malmesbury would record another eclipse, on March 20 1140. Malmesbury thought this foretold King Stephen’s capture in the Battle of Lincoln in 1141.
In 1433 Scotland experienced The Black Hour.
The “Black Hour” was one of the most celebrated eclipses in the Middle Ages. It plunged Scotland, even down to some of Yorkshire, into darkness. The darkness supposedly arrived at 3 pm on June 17, 1433 and was very deep.
Twenty years later there was a major lunar eclipse right before the fall of Constantinople.
In 324 Roman Emperor Constantine moved the capital of his realm to ancient Byzantium, and he renamed it Constantinople. This new capital survived the Fall of Rome and ruled the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region for more than a thousand years. The Roman government remained strong in this region even after it fell in Europe.
The Ottoman Turks first laid siege to the city on April 5, 1453. On May 22 there was a lunar eclipse viewable from Africa, Asia and Europe. Supposedly the moon stayed in a crescent shape – the sign of Islam – for several hours. Both the Christian inhabitants of the city, and the besieging army saw this as an omen. Several days later there was a thick fog around the city, which was unheard of at that time of the year. Chroniclers believed it was the Holy Spirit leaving the city. Constantinople finally fell on May 29.
On March 16, 1485 there was an eclipse in London right after Richard III’s wife Anne Neville died. Many of Henry Tudor’s supporters saw this as a bad omen for the Yorkist cause, and it encouraged them in their invasion plans.
In 1572 Danish astronomer Tyco Brahe identified a bright new star in the constellation Cassiopeia, which was even brighter than Venus.
It appeared to everyone that it was a newly formed star. But then the star faded after several months. This seriously confused the astronomers of Renaissance Europe. People like John Dee wrote out descriptions with their calculations, and the mathematics behind them. Even Queen Elizabeth summoned the mathematician and astrologer Thomas Allen to “have his advice about the new Star that appeared in Cassiopeia to which he gave his Judgement very learnedly,” according to the antiquarian John Aubrey.
Turns out they weren’t looking at a new star at all, but a supernova. Scientists still study the light remnants to see what those early astronomers saw.
Copernicus published his work on the movement of the planets in the mid 15th century. This would literally turn the interpretation of our place in the universe on its head, rocking both the religious and scientific communities. Many astronomers in newly-broken-with-Rome England adopted the Copernican position that the earth rotated around the Sun, most notably John Dee.
Whatever your plans to watch the solar eclipse, keep in mind that as you experience it you’re participating in an event that had tied humanity together since the beginning of life. Do you get goosebumps thinking about it? Let me know in the comments your thoughts about these sorts of universal human experiences! Will you be watching the eclipse? Tell me about it.