WE are facing the worst drop in economic output for 300 years, said Rishi Sunak on Wednesday as he hinted at the depths of the problems that lie ahead.

Our national income will fall by 11.3 per cent this year – the biggest drop since Queen Anne was on the throne in 1709 when it fell by about 14 per cent.

And what was the cause of that historic catastrophic collapse?

The weather. The whole of Europe iced over for four months.

The British called it “the Great Frost”; the French, who bore the brunt as more than 600,000 peasants died, called it “le Grand Hiver”.

It began on January 5, 1709, when the temperature plummeted to -12 degrees. From Italy, where the canals of Venice were turned into ice skating rinks, to Sweden – where 2,000 soldiers who were invading Russia froze to death on one night – all Europe was blanketed by frost and snowfall until April.

The soil froze to a depth of one metre, with fatal effects on crops and animals and so knock-on starvation among humans in country and then city.

Liquids also froze – except, of course, those containing alcohol. King Louis XIV, sat in Versailles covered in furs before a huge fire, shivered as he wrote, getting his priorities right: “Never in my life have I seen a winter such as this one, which freezes the wine in bottles.”

Britain, then at war with France, didn’t get it quite so badly. Longstaff, the great Victorian Darlington historian, doesn’t mention the Great Frost of 1709, although he does mention the frightening thunderstorm of 1694 when people were “fearing only a terrible wetting, great hailstones fell down to the bigness of pigeons eggs in great abundance and divers people were sore hurt”. He also mentions the big freeze of 1780, when the Tees was iced over for eight weeks.

Still, for much of the 1709 Great Frost, England was well below freezing.

Of course, Boris Johnson’s country is very different from Queen Anne’s nation when there wasn’t a prime minister. There weren’t any central banks, so there was nowhere for the Lord High Treasurer to borrow from to keep the economy going, as Mr Sunak has done at again historic levels.

But such even then was our closeness to our European neighbours, that we caught their economic cold.

So 1709 could give us pointers as to what may lie ahead. The starvation and poverty among ordinary people lasted long after the weather finally released its icy grip in mid-April. Such was their desperation that there was increased interest in incendiary speakers, like the Reverend Henry Sacheverell who urged them to rise up against the “fanatick enemies” he saw on all sides.

This led to social unrest, which in turn led to The Riot Act of 1714, which we have all read to our children.

Partly because the people were so physically weakened by poverty, the Great Frost was followed by waves of flu pandemic, and Nature then rubbed salt into the wounds by introducing an outbreak of the plague as well.

So good luck, Mr Sunak, in steering us through the twists that lie ahead of our historic downturn.