An ‘Earthquake’ in Britain in 664
By David Woods
Peritia, Vol.19 (2005)
Abstract: There is good reason to doubt the soundness of a record in the Irish annals of an earthquake in Britain in 664. It appears that a metaphorical reference to a disturbance in the church there, namely, the contentious synod of Whitby, has been interpreted literally and misunderstood by the compiler of the record that lies behind the extant annals.
Introduction: The Annals of Ulster (AU) record the occurrence of a series of ominous events or natural disasters in 664, including an earthquake in Britain:
Tenebrę in kl. Maii in nona hora, 7 in eadem ęstate coelum ardere visum est. Mortalitas in Hiberniam peruenit in kl. Augusti. Bellum Lutho Feirnn, .i. i Fortrinn. Mors Cernaigh filii Diarmato mc. Aedho Slane; et terremotus in Britannia; 7 Comgan moccu Teimhne, 7 Berach ab Benncair. Baetan moccu Cormaicc, abb Cluano, obiit. In Campo Itho Fothart exarsit mortalitas primo in Hibernia. A morte Patricii .cca .iii., prima mortalitas .cxii. ‘Darkness on the Kalends [1st] of May at the ninth hour, and in the same summer the sky seemed to be on fire. The plague reached Ireland on the Kalends [1st] of August. The battle of Luith Feirn i.e. in Fortriu. Death of Cernach son of Diarmait son of Aed Sláne; and an earthquake in Britain; and Comgán moccu Teimni and Berach, abbot of Bennchor, [rested]. Baetán moccu Cormaicc, abbot of Cluain, died. In Mag Ítha of Fothairt the plague first raged in Ireland. From the death of Patrick 203 [years, and from] the first mortality 112 [years]’.
The Annals of Tigernach (AT) and Chronicon Scotorum (CS) record the same catalogue of events, although the CS dates them to 660. Furthermore, CS locates the earthquake in Ireland rather than in Britain. However, the agreement of AU and AT suggests that they best preserve the original wording of their common ancestor in this matter, so that the so-called ‘Iona Chronicle’ had probably located this event in Britain. One may also prefer this reading on the grounds that is the lectio difficilior, that is, that it is hard to understand why an Irish editor or copyist might have changed an original reference to Ireland to one to Britain, although it is easy to understand how the opposite might have occurred.