Great Frost of 1709

Great Frost of 1709

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The Great Frost or (as it was known in France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

) was an extraordinarily cold winter
Winter is the coldest season of the year in temperate climates, between autumn and spring. At the winter solstice, the days are shortest and the nights are longest, with days lengthening as the season progresses after the solstice.-Meteorology:...

 in Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

 in late 1708 and early 1709, and was found to be the coldest European winter during the past 500 years. The severe cold occurred during the time of low sun spot activity known as the Maunder Minimum
Maunder Minimum
The Maunder Minimum is the name used for the period roughly spanning 1645 to 1715 when sunspots became exceedingly rare, as noted by solar observers of the time....



William Derham
William Derham
William Derham was an English clergyman and natural philosopher. He produced the earliest, reasonably accurate estimate of the speed of sound.-Life:...

 recorded in Upminster
Upminster is a suburban town in northeast London, England, and part of the London Borough of Havering. Located east-northeast of Charing Cross, it is one of the locally important district centres identified in the London Plan, and comprises a number of shopping streets and a large residential...

, near London, a low of -12 °C on the night of 5 January 1709, the lowest he had ever measured since he started taking readings in 1697. His contemporaries in the weather observation field in Europe likewise recorded lows down to -15 °C. Derham wrote in Philosophical Transactions: "I believe the Frost was greater (if not more universal also) than any other within the Memory of Man."

France was particularly hard hit by the winter, with the subsequent famine estimated to have caused 600,000 deaths by the end of 1710. Because the famine occurred during wartime
War of the Spanish Succession
The War of the Spanish Succession was fought among several European powers, including a divided Spain, over the possible unification of the Kingdoms of Spain and France under one Bourbon monarch. As France and Spain were among the most powerful states of Europe, such a unification would have...

, there were contemporary nationalist claims that there were no deaths from starvation in the kingdom of France in 1709.

This winter event has drawn the attention of modern day climatologists in the European Union
European Union
The European Union is an economic and political union of 27 independent member states which are located primarily in Europe. The EU traces its origins from the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community , formed by six countries in 1958...

's Millennium Project
Millennium Project
The Millennium Project is an independent international think tank with 40 "nodes" around the world that gathers and accesses information on futures studies that produces the annual State of the Future report since 1997 and the Futures Research Methodology series Versions 1-3.The Project was formed...

 because they are presently unable to correlate the known causes of cold weather in Europe today with weather patterns documented in 1709. According to Dennis Wheeler, a climatologist at the University of Sunderland
University of Sunderland
The University of Sunderland is located in Sunderland, north east England. The university has more than 17,500 students, including 7,000-plus international students from some 70 countries....

: "Something unusual seems to have been happening".

The severity of the winter is thought to be an important factor in the emigration of the German Palatines
German Palatines
The German Palatines were natives of the Electoral Palatinate region of Germany, although a few had come to Germany from Switzerland, the Alsace, and probably other parts of Europe. Towards the end of the 17th century and into the 18th, the wealthy region was repeatedly invaded by French troops,...

 from central Europe.

Anecdotal events

  • Chickens' combs froze solid and fell off.
  • Major bodies of water like lakes, rivers and the Baltic sea
    Baltic Sea
    The Baltic Sea is a brackish mediterranean sea located in Northern Europe, from 53°N to 66°N latitude and from 20°E to 26°E longitude. It is bounded by the Scandinavian Peninsula, the mainland of Europe, and the Danish islands. It drains into the Kattegat by way of the Øresund, the Great Belt and...

     froze solid or froze over.
  • Soil froze to a depth of a metre.
  • Livestock died frozen in barns.
  • Trees exploded
    Exploding tree
    Exploding trees occur when stresses in a tree trunk increase leading to an explosion. These explosions can be caused by three different factors: cold, lightning, and fire.-Cold:...

     from the extreme cold.
  • Sailors aboard English naval vessels out at sea died from the cold.
  • Fish froze in rivers, game died in the fields, and small birds died by the millions.
  • Herbs and exotic fruit trees died, as did hardy oak and ash trees.
  • The wheat crop failed.
  • People went to bed and woke to find their nightcaps frozen to the bedstead.
  • Bread froze so hard it took an axe to cut it.
  • When famine arrived, the French government forced its gentry to pay for soup kitchens for fear of a general peasant revolt.

Françoise-Marie de Bourbon
Françoise-Marie de Bourbon
Françoise Marie de Bourbon, Légitimée de France was the youngest legitimised daughter of Louis XIV of France and his maîtresse-en-titre, Françoise-Athénaïs, marquise de Montespan. Originally known as the second Mademoiselle de Blois, that style eventually gave way to the name Françoise Marie de...

, the Duchess of Orleans, is said to have written a letter to her great aunt in Germany describing how she was still shivering from cold and could barely hold her pen despite having a roaring fire next to her, the door shut, and her entire person wrapped in furs. She wrote, "Never in my life have I seen a winter such as this one."

European Union Millennium Project

One of the key aims of the European Union Millennium Project is climate reconstruction. This objective has gained significance in recent years because scientists are exploring the precise causes for climate variations instead of merely accepting they are within an acceptable historical range. Modern climate models do not appear to be entirely effective for explaining the climate of 1709.