Ball Lightning in Early Modern England: The Curious Case of Nicholas Walsh, MP

In their work our researchers have discovered many strange and unusual causes of the death that have befallen parliamentarians over the centuries; one such case is the subject of Dr Andrew Thrush‘s new blog. Here, the editor of our Lords 1558-1603 project describes the unexpected fate of the unfortunate Walsh family in 1556...

It’s probably no surprise that by the time they sat in Parliament, many members of the Commons were (or were likely to become) the beneficiaries of inherited wealth. Either they were the eldest son at birth, or they stepped into the shoes of an older brother (or brothers) who predeceased them. Normally this was the result of illness, but just occasionally the circumstances surrounding the elevation of a young man to the top spot in the family pecking order were peculiarly tragic. Take the case of Edward Greville (1556-1634), the second son of Lodovick Greville of Milcote, in Warwickshire. According to the seventeenth century antiquary Sir William Dugdale, young Edward became his father’s heir-apparent as a result of an unfortunate accident. While practising at archery, he inadvertently killed his elder brother. Far from being shocked, his father is said to have laughed, telling Edward ‘it was the best shoot he ever shot in his life’.

Of all the incidents which resulted in a future MP inheriting his father’s estate in the sixteenth century, perhaps the most bizarre is that which reportedly involved Nicholas Walsh, who went on to sit for Gloucestershire in the Parliament of 1563-66. Walsh was one of the younger sons of Maurice Walsh of Little Sodbury. According to the 1712 account of the Gloucestershire historian Sir Thomas Atkyns, Nicholas was dining at home one day in 1556 with his family – his father and six or seven of his brothers and sisters – when a fierce storm struck. As they were eating ‘a fiery, sulphureous [sic] globe’ rolled into the dining room through the parlour door, killing one member of the family immediately and injuring six others so badly that they subsequently died of their wounds. The sole survivors were Nicholas and his younger brother Henry.

Ball lightning. Image from Joe Thomissen, via The New Scientist

There is no doubt that Nicholas inherited his father’s lands as a result of the destruction of most members of his immediate family. He was declared by the crown to be the heir to his older brother Anthony, who was among those who succumbed to their injuries. However, whether his father and siblings were killed by a ball lightning strike – for that is what Atkyns describes – is now impossible to say. Ball lightning is an extremely rare and little-understood phenomenon associated with electrical storms. Commonly witnesses describe seeing during a thunderstorm a ball of light about the size of a human head moving slowly parallel to the earth. Sometimes these balls, which exist for no more than a couple minutes, explode, leaving behind a sulphurous smell. Recent scientific explanations include the suggestion that ball lightning consists of microwaves trapped within a plasma bubble or perhaps super-heated photons enveloped in a bubble of air.

Wells Cathedral, West Front

Whatever the truth of the matter may be, the 1556 case appears to be the first known incident of a ball lightning strike in England. However, there were certainly other sightings in early modern England. Some forty years later, in December 1596, one such event apparently took place at Wells Cathedral during the middle of a sermon. Although no-one was killed, many members of the congregation were burned, the bell-tower was damaged and the metal work of the clock was melted. Unlike the 1556 episode, this incident was documented by a contemporary chronicler, John Stow, who published the story as part of his Annals of England in 1600. Stow admittedly made no explicit mention of a fiery globe, though he does state that the body of the church seemed for a short while to be alight and also that there was a ‘loathsome stench’. However, in an expanded version of Stow’s account, published thirty years later by Edmund Howes, we are told that ‘there entered in at the West Window of the Church a darke and unproportionable thing of the bignesse of a footeball, and went along on the wall on the pulpit side, and sodainly it seemed to breake, but with no lesse sound and terreur, then if an hundred double Canons had been discharged at once’.

Ball Lightning, or ‘Globe of Fire Descending into a Room’, from The Aerial World by Dr. G. Hartwig 1886

The best documented case of a ball lightning strike in early modern England occurred in October 1638, at the church of St Pancras, in the Devon village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor. As with the episode involving Wells Cathedral, the strike occurred during divine service and in the midst of a violent storm. Unlike the Wells Cathedral episode, though, there were fatalities, just as there were at Little Sodbury in 1556. The skull of the local warrener was cloven in three, ‘his braines throwne upon the ground whole’ and his hair plastered to the wall or nearby pillar. A woman was so badly burned that she died of her injuries. One Master Hill was also killed, his head being dashed against a wall. News of the whole gruesome episode quickly spread, thanks to an enterprising anonymous writer whose pamphlet on the subject was published before the end of the year. That is a point worth stressing. Had the printing press been more commonly available in 1556, we might have been afforded the luxury of a contemporary account. As it is, we must rely upon the writings of Sir Thomas Atkyns more than a century-and-a-half later to learn of the fate of Maurice Walsh and most of his children.


To read about the parliamentary impact of another natural phenomenon, this time in the 15th century, click here.

Follow the research of our Lords 1558-1603 project through the Elizabethan Lords tab on our blog.

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