The Great Comet

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History on 1st February


Oxford English Dictionary 1st published

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The Great Comet

Peterborough, Cambridgeshire The 1st of February 1106 AD

Along with more earthly matters like the births and deaths of the great and good, and their fortunes in war and marriage, our forebears recorded celestial phenomena in annals such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and a Welsh equivalent, the Brut y Tywysogion. One such of particular note is the Great Comet of 1106, its existence and impressive appearance noted by writers in China, Japan and Korea among others.
The Peterborough Chronicle, compiled by the monks of Peterborough Abbey as a continuation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, relates that an unusual star was observed on February 16 1106, appearing in the South West, the star itself not very significant, but its tail directed North East very bright, “Like an immense beam.”
In the Brut y Tywysogion, thought to have been written by monks in either Strata Florida Abbey near Tregaron , or Llanbadarn Fawr near Aberystwyth , the tail is described more poetically and understandably as the thickness of a pillar and of exceeding brightness. Understandably given the superstitious nature of those times the Welsh writer suggests the comet signals the death of one of the great monarchs of Europe.
The Peterborough version, however, includes a detail that is of great interest to contemporary astronomers: “One evening it appeared as if this beam were forking into many rays toward the star from an opposite direction.”
It is now thought possible that what was observed was a great comet dividing into smaller pieces, that may be what are now known as Kreutz (after a German astronomer) Sungrazers, comets that pass very close to the sun, often to be swallowed by it. Halley suggested in 1680 that the great comet of that year was the return of the one seen in 1106.
The comet of 1106 is variously recorded as being visible for anything between 15 and 70 days, though 25 days is thought the most accurate estimate, so it would have left our vision by March 12 or thereabouts. Intriguingly the Peterborough records contain a further observation dated March 22 1106 that has sparked speculation about its relation to the Great Comet: “Two moons were seen in the heavens before day, one to the east, the other to the west, both full; and the same day the moon was 14 days old.” Broken off pieces of the Kreutz Stargazers’ progenitor comet?

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