Tuesday 19 May 2015

The medieval 'New England': a forgotten Anglo-Saxon colony on the north-eastern Black Sea coast

Although the name 'New England' is now firmly associated with the east coast of America, this is not the first place to be called that. In the medieval period there was another Nova Anglia, 'New England', and it lay far to the east of England, rather than to the west, in the area of the Crimean peninsula. The following post examines some of the evidence relating to this colony, which was said to have been established by Anglo-Saxon exiles after the Norman conquest of 1066 and seems to have survived at least as late as the thirteenth century.

The location of the medieval 'New England' and the route taken by the Anglo-Saxon exiles in around AD 1075 (image: C. R. Green).

The evidence for a significant English element in the Varangian Guard of the medieval Byzantine emperors has been discussed on a number of occasions. The Varangian Guard was the personal bodyguard of the Byzantine emperor from the time of Basil II (976–1025), founded to provide the emperor with a trustworthy force that was uninvolved in the internal politics of the Byzantine Empire and thus could be relied on in times of civil unrest. Whilst initially made up of Rus' from Kiev, with Scandinavian warriors subsequently forming an important part of the guard through the eleventh century, from the late eleventh century onwards it had a significant English component too. Indeed, the 'English Varangians' appear to have continued to constitute a high proportion of the Varangian Guard right through the twelfth century and up until the siege of Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade.(1) This is, in itself, of considerable interest, but even more intriguing is the question of why substantial numbers of English warriors entered the Varangian Guard in the later eleventh century, for the answer to this is thought to lie in a number of sources that indicate that there was, in fact, a sizeable emigration of Anglo-Saxons from England to Constantinople in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Key references to this post-1066 emigration from England to the Byzantine Empire include a brief account by Goscelin of Canterbury, written in the 1090s; another by the Anglo-Norman historian Ordericus Vitalis (b. 1075), written in the first half of the twelfth century; a more detailed narrative included in the Latin Chronicon universale anonymi Laudunensis, written by an English monk at Laon in the early thirteenth century; and a related, but probably not directly derivative, account in the Edwardsaga, or 'Icelandic Saga of Edward the Confessor' (Saga Játvarðar konungs hins helga), which is thought to have been composed in the fourteenth century but drew on an earlier text that may well have had its origins in the early twelfth century and be the source of the Chronicon Laudunensis too. Although a number of minor details—such as the name of the leader of the exiles and the exact route that they took to get to Constantinople—vary between the latter two accounts in particular, in general the available sources all paint a complementary and consistent picture.

The church of Bogdan Serai, Istanbul, often identified as the church of St Nicholas and St Augustine of Canterbury that was built and used by the English Varangians in Constantinople (image: Project Gutenberg)

According to these sources, what seems to have occurred is that, in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a group of English lords who hated William the Conqueror's rule but had lost all hope of overthrowing it decided to sell up their land and leave England forever. Led by an 'earl of Gloucester' named Sigurðr (Stanardus in the Chronicon Laudunensis), they set out with 350 ships—235 in the CL—for the Mediterranean via the Straits of Gibraltar. Once there, they voyaged around raiding and adventuring for a period, before learning that Constantinople was being besieged (either whilst they were in Sicily, according to the Edwardsaga, or in Sardinia, as the CL). Hearing this, they decided to set sail for Constantinople to assist the Byzantine emperor. When they reached there, they fought victoriously for the emperor and so earned his gratitude, with the result that they were offered a place of honour in his Varangian Guard.

This sequence of events appears to underlie all four of the sources mentioned above and is moreover supported by contemporary Byzantine sources too, as Jonathan Shepard has convincingly argued.(2) As to the date of this emigration of disgruntled Anglo-Saxon lords and their followers, Christine Fell makes a good case for it having taken place in the mid- to late 1070s, after the death of King Sweyn of Denmark in c. 1074 (who the English had hoped would come to their aid), with the Chronicon Laudunensis actually assigning a date of 1075 to the arrival of the English in Constantinople. If so, then they arrived in the reign of Michael VII (1071–78) and the siege that they helped relieve was that of the Seljuk Turks, which occurred in his reign and would makes sense of the fact that the Edwardsaga states that Constantinople was being besieged by a 'heathen folk'. The main objection to this is that both the Edwardsaga and the Chronicon Laudunensis both claim that the English arrived early in the reign of Alexius I Comnenus (1081–1118); however, as Fell points out, this does not fit with their description of the besieging of Constantinople by 'heathen folk' nor the Chronicon's stated date for their arrival. The simplest explanation is probably that the English emigrants arrived in the mid-1070s under Michael VII, relieving the siege by the Turks then, but their later extensive use by the more famous Alexius I Comnenus—as documented in Byzantine sources—led to the wrong name becoming attached to the reign in which they arrived.(3) With regard to their leader, the English form of the Edwardsaga's name Sigurðr was Siward/Sigeweard and is usually considered to be the original name attached to the tale, not least because the name Siward was borne by a number of high-status men in mid-eleventh-century England, unlike the Chronicon Laudunensis's Stanardus. Indeed, there were two English lords called Siward who are known to have joined Hereward the Wake's rebellion in 1071, and it is by no means impossible that 'Sigurðr, earl of Gloucester' was one of these two, as a number of commentators have suggested, especially as one of them owned extensive lands in Gloucestershire.(4)

A twelfth-century depiction of the Varangian Guard, from the Madrid Skylitzes (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Thus far the story, as outlined above, is clearly intriguing, and moreover largely supported by all of the available sources, both northern and Byzantine. However, perhaps the most remarkable and interesting part of the tale is found only in the Chronicon Laudunensis and the Edwardsaga, both of which may derive from a lost early twelfth century account, according to Fell. The Edwardsaga states that whilst some of the exiled Anglo-Saxons accepted the offer of joining the Varangian Guard, some members of the group asked instead for a place to settle and rule themselves:
[I]t seemed to earl Sigurd and the other chiefs that it was too small a career to grow old there in that fashion, that they had not a realm to rule over; and they begged the king to give them some towns or cities which they might own and their heirs after them. But the king thought he could not strip other men of their estates. And when they came to talk of this, king Kirjalax [Alexius I Comnenus] tells them that he knew of a land lying north in the sea, which had lain of old under the emperor of Micklegarth [Constantinople], but in after days the heathen had won it and abode in it. And when the Englishmen heard that they took a title from king Kirjalax that that land should be their own and their heirs after them if they could get it won under them from the heathen men free from tax and toll. The king granted them this. After that the Englishmen fared away out of Micklegarth and north into the sea, but some chiefs stayed behind in Micklegarth, and went into service there.
     Earl Sigurd and his men came to this land and had many battles there, and got the land won, but drove away all the folk that abode there before. After that they took that land into possession and gave it a name, and called it England [Nova Anglia, 'New England', in the Chronicon Laudunensis]. To the towns that were in the land and to those which they built they gave the names of the towns in England. They called them both London and York, and by the names of other great towns in England. They would not have St. Paul's law, which passes current in Micklegarth, but sought bishops and other clergymen from Hungary. The land lies six days' and nights' sail across the sea in the east and north-east from Micklegarth; and there is the best of land there: and that folk has abode there ever since.(5)
Needless to say, the description of New England as lying 'across the sea in the east and north-east from Micklegarth' suggests that the lands that Alexius gave to the English exiles lay somewhere in the region of the Crimean peninsula. This is supported by the sailing time specified too, as the fourth-century AD 'Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax' estimates six days' and nights' sail as the length of the sea-journey from Constantinople to the western tip of the Crimean peninsula. Such agreement in these incidental details is, of course, interesting. So the question becomes, is there any other supporting evidence for the establishment of a 'New England' in the region of the Crimea by the Anglo-Saxon exiles who travelled to the Byzantine Empire in the late eleventh century?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer to this question is a 'yes', as Jonathan Shepard has demonstrated in another important article.(6) First, there is evidence that the Byzantine Empire did indeed see a restoration of its authority in the Crimean peninsula and Sea of Azov area at the turn of the eleventh century, possibly after a brief period of Turkish influence there. Such certainly seems to be implied in the letters of Theophylact of Ohrid (d. c. 1107) to Gregory Taronites, and a contemporary eulogy of Manuel Straboromanus to Alexius I Comnenus alludes to his restoration of Byzantine influence in the north-east of the Black Sea by the Cimmerian Bosporus (the modern Kerch Strait on the east of the Crimean peninsula, leading to the Sea of Azov).(7)

Extract from an Italian portolan atlas of 1553, showing the Crimean peninsula, the Cimmerian Bosporus (Kerch Strait) leading to the Sea of Azov, and the north-east coast of the Black Sea; forms of the names Susaco, Londina and Vagropolis are included on this portolan (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Second, there is actually place-name evidence from the Crimea and the north-eastern Black Sea coast that can be cited in support of the narrative offered in the Edwardsaga and Chronicon Laudunensis. This takes the form of five place-names that appear on fourteenth- to sixteenth-century portolans (coastal charts made by Italian, Catalan and Greek navigators) in the north and north-eastern portions of the Black Sea. Two of these names, Susaco and Londina, are of particular importance. Susaco—or Porto di Susacho—is found on the earliest charts, from the fourteenth century onwards, and is thought to involve the name 'Saxons', perhaps deriving from the Anglo-Saxon folk- and region-name 'Sussex' (the 'South Saxons').(8) Londina is found close to Susaco on the fuller, more detailed charts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and has been plausibly viewed as being just what it looks like, a version of the English place-name 'London' (with this probably being applied originally to a city on the Black Sea coast and then transferred to an associated river—as sometimes occurs in with English place-names and river-names—hence the fact that the name Londina is frequently preceded by flume or flumen on the portolans). It need hardly be said that this evidence is of considerable interest in the present context, with these two names seeming to offer a significant degree of confirmation of both the Edwardsaga/Chronicon's general narrative of an Anglo-Saxon settlement of this area and the specific claim that:
To the towns that were in the land and to those which they built they gave the names of the towns in England. They called them both London and York, and by the names of other great towns in England.
As to the locations of both Susaco/Porto di Susacho and Londina, the portolans clearly map them on the north-east coast of the Black Sea, east of the Cimmerian Bosporus (Kerch Strait).(9) In contrast, two of the other three relevant place-names to be discussed here were located to the west of this strait, on the Crimean peninsula, and at least one other was located to the north on the Sea of Azov. All of these other names seem to ultimately have Varang- as their first element, taking the forms Varangolimen, Vagropoli, and Varangido agaria. The first of these, Varangolimen, contains the Greek word for a harbour and seems to indicate a port belonging to Varangians, and both it and the second, Vagropoli, are mapped on the Crimean peninsula itself, whilst Varangido agaria lay on the Sea of Azov, just to the south of the mouth of the Don river. Although all three of these Greek names refer only to Varangians and don't replicate English place- or region-names, Shepard has argued persuasively that these three names are most plausibly linked to the 'English Varangians', rather than Scandinavian Varangians or Russians.(10) The implication of all this would thus seem to be that the Nova Anglia, 'New England', of the Edwardsaga/Chronicon Laudunensis did indeed exist and that it encompassed at least a number of cities stretching from the Crimean peninsula through to the southern shore of the Sea of Azov (described as 'the Warang Sea' in a Syrian map of c. 1150) and down the Black Sea coast east of the modern Kerch Strait.

The Vulan River in Arkhipo-Osipovka, on the north-eastern Black Sea coast, which is sometimes suggested to be the location of the portolans' Londina (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Third and finally, there are independent historical references to a 'land of the Saxi' (terram Saxorum) being in this part of the world in the thirteenth century, with the Saxi stated to be Christians and portrayed as dwelling in well-fortified cities. These references are found in the accounts of the Franciscan friars who were sent on a mission to the Mongols by Pope Innocent IV in 1246–7, and the consistent name of the Saxi in these accounts, the fact they are said to be Christians (rather than Muslims or pagans), and the implication that they lived in the area of the Crimea and/or around the Sea of Azov, combine to strongly suggest that the Saxi were, in fact, the Anglo-Saxons of 'New England', rather than any other people. Needless to say, this is again important. Not only does the presence of the Christian Saxi in the area of the Crimean peninsula/Sea of Azov offer further support for the historicity of the Edwardsaga/Chronicon narrative, but it also suggests that the Anglo-Saxon exiles who reportedly founded 'New England' in c. 1100 continued to be identifiable as a separate people with their own 'land' as late as the mid-thirteenth century, which is interesting in itself. Indeed, they seem to have still been a military force to be reckoned with, to judge from the friars account of the Saxi's resistance to an attempted conquest of them by the Tartars:
When we were there we were told that the Tartars besieged a certain city of these Saxi and tried to subdue it. The inhabitants however made engines to match those of the Tartars, all of which they broke, and the Tartars were not able to get near the city to fight owing to these engines and missiles. At last they made an underground passage and bursting forth into the city they tried to set fire to it, while others fought, but the inhabitants posted a group to put out the fire, and the rest fought valiantly with those who had penetrated into the city and, killing many of them and wounding others, they forced them to retire to their own army. The Tartars, realising that they could do nothing against them and that many of their men were dying, withdrew from the city.(11)
Of course, such a survival of 'New England' into the thirteenth century is perhaps not entirely surprising if it did indeed exist, as 'English Varangians' were still identifiable as a distinct group at Constantinople into the thirteenth century. In fact, the continued existence of English settlements on the Black Sea coast might well help explain the continued presence of English Varangians at Constantinople, with this force perhaps being renewed in each generation from Nova Anglia. Indeed, the author of the Edwardsaga clearly thought that the descendants of the English exiles still lived there in the fourteenth century ('that folk has abode there ever since'), and the mid-fourteenth-century De Officiis of Pseudo-Codinus related that the Varangians who existed then still constituted a separate people and that, at Christmas, they wished the emperor length of life 'in their native tongue, that is, English'!(12)

In conclusion, the above points would seem to add some considerable weight to the case for the existence of a 'New England' on the northern and north-eastern coast of the Black Sea in the medieval period. Not only does it seem that the Byzantine Empire regained control of that portion of the Black Sea coast in this period, just as the Edwardsaga/Chronicon Laudunensis claim, but there also exists a quantity of medieval place-name evidence from this region that offers significant support for the establishment of English Varangian settlements there and a thirteenth-century account that appears to refer to the continued existence of a Christian people named the Saxi in this area, who occupied defended cities and were militarily sophisticated. In such circumstances, the most credible solution is surely that the medieval tales of a Nova Anglia, 'New England', in the area of the Crimean peninsula and north-eastern Black Sea coast do indeed have a basis in reality. This territory would appear to have been established by the late eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon exiles who had left England after the Norman Conquest and joined the Byzantine emperor's Varangian Guard, and their control of at least some land and cities here apparently persisted for several centuries, perhaps thus providing a regular supply of 'English Varangians' to the Byzantine Empire that helps to explain why the 'native tongue' of the Varangian Guard continued to be English as late as the mid-fourteenth century.


1    See, for example, C. Fell, 'The Icelandic saga of Edward the Confessor: its version of the Anglo-Saxon emigration to Byzantium', Anglo-Saxon England, 3 (1974), 179–96; J. Shepard, 'The English and Byzantium: a study of their role in the Byzantine army in the later eleventh century', Traditio, 29 (1973), 53–92; and J. Godfrey, 'The defeated Anglo-Saxons take service with the Byzantine Emperor', Anglo-Norman Studies, 1 (1979), 63–74.
2    Shepard, 'The English and Byzantium', especially pp. 60–77; Fell, 'The Anglo-Saxon emigration to Byzantium', 192–3.
3    Fell, 'The Anglo-Saxon emigration to Byzantium', 193–4; Godfrey, 'The defeated Anglo-Saxons take service with the Byzantine Emperor', 69–70. Shepard,  'The English and Byzantium', 81–4, suggests an alternative scenario involving a feared, but never actually realised, siege of Constantinople by the Pechenegs, a Turkic people, in 1090–1. This has, however, failed to find much favour as a candidate for the siege that the English exiles relieved, not least because not only was it not an actual siege, but it also took place so long after the Norman conquest and the period of significant English resistance to the Normans (as Godfrey, for example, notes, pp. 69–70).
4    See further Fell, 'The Anglo-Saxon emigration to Byzantium', 184–5, and especially p. 185, fn. 3, on the identification of Siward/Sigurðr and the potential solution to some of the issues with this.
5    G. W. Dasent (trans.), Icelandic Sagas: Vol. III. The Orkneyingers Saga (London, 1894), Appendix F, pp. 427–8. See Fell, 'The Anglo-Saxon emigration to Byzantium', 189–90, for the relationship between the Edwardsaga and the Chronicon Laudunensis and the suggestion that both derive from a lost early twelfth-century source.
6    J. Shepard, 'Another New England? — Anglo-Saxon settlement on the Black Sea', Byzantine Studies, 1 (1978), 18–39. Much of what follows is based on this important but somewhat difficult to obtain article, which offers a convincing and in-depth analysis of the evidence for a medieval 'New England' in the region of the Crimean peninsula and the north-eastern Black Sea coast.
7    Shepard, 'Another New England?, 21–6.
8    Shepard, 'Another New England?', 27–8; G. A. F. Rojas, "The English Exodus to Ionia": the Identity of the Anglo-Saxon Varangians in the Service of Alexios Comnenos I (Marymount University MA Thesis, 2012), p. 50.
9    More exact locations are difficult: it has been suggested that the river that took on the name Londina was the modern Vulan and this is probably the most plausible solution, with Susaco then necessarily lying to the south-east of this on the basis of the portolan charts. On the other hand, one early nineteenth-century traveller seemed clear that, so far as he knew, the early eighteenth-century Turkish fortress of Sudschuk-ckala'h—Sujuk-Qale, built in 1722 and now the site of Novorossiysk, Russia's main port on the Black Sea until 2014was the modern descendant of the portolans' Porto di Susacho. If so, then Londina can't have been on the Vulan, as Sudschuk-ckala'h/Novorossiysk is located to the north-west of this river. See further Shepard, 'Another New England?', 27–8, and J. von Klaproth (trans. F. Shoberl), Travels in the Caucasus and Georgia, Performed in the Years 1806 and 1808, by Command of the Russian Government (London, 1814), pp. 264–5. Note, Susaco continued to be marked on maps of the region well into the eighteenth century; see, for example, Io Baptista Homann's 1715–24 map Imperii Persici in Omnes Suas Provincias and Johann Gottlieb Facius's 1769 map Carte exacte d'une Partie de l'Empire de Russie &c.
10    Shepard, 'Another New England?', 30–1.
11    C. Dawson (ed. and trans.), Mission to Asia: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (New York, 1966), pp. 42 (quotation), 80. There is an extensive discussion of the various suggestions that have been made as to the identity of the Saxi in Shepard, 'Another New England?', 34–8, who demonstrates that none of the other candidates are really credible, given the name, faith, location and character of the Saxi in the friars' accounts.
12    S. Blöndal & B. S. Benedikz, The Varangians of Byzantium (Cambridge, 1978), p. 180; Shepard, 'Another New England?', 39.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2015, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Sunday 10 May 2015

The drowned villages and eroding coastline of Lincolnshire, c. 1250–1600

Previous posts on this site have looked at the coastline of Lincolnshire in the palaeolithic and early medieval eras. The following post continues this theme by examining the changing coastline of Lincolnshire in the later medieval period, from around AD 1250 until 1600, with a particular focus on some of the medieval and early modern villages and churches that were lost to the sea and drowned in that era.

The coastline of Lincolnshire in the thirteenth century, drawn by C. R. Green after S. Pawley, Lincolnshire Coastal Villages and the Sea c. 1300–1600: Economy and Society (University of Leicester PhD thesis, 1984), with slight modifications. This map includes one depiction of the possible number and extent of both the offshore barrier islands that are often thought to have protected the coast of Lincolnshire through until the thirteenth century and the calmer, lagoonal conditions that they are suggested to have created to their west, which protected the Lincolnshire coast from the full erosive force of the North Sea.

Up until the thirteenth century, the coast of Lincolnshire is thought to have been protected by a series of offshore coastal barrier islands. These islands extended south-eastwards from Spurn Point—potentially as far as the coast of north-western Norfolk (see map, above)—and are argued to have shielded the Lincolnshire seaboard from the full ferocity of the storms and tides of the North Sea, creating a sheltered tidal lagoon between themselves and the main coastline that was characterised in part by saltmarsh, wide sand and mud flats, and tidal creeks and estuaries.(1) However, this protection appears to have failed during the 1200s, as the offshore islands were finally destroyed by an unprecedented series of storms and floods in that century. The debris that resulted from their destruction is believed to have been cast up along the foreshore of the Lincolnshire Outmarsh as broad 'storm beaches' and sand dunes, and the coastal landscape of Lincolnshire witnessed a sudden and dramatic changes in its nature. No longer did it look out on to a sheltered lagoon, but rather to the open sea. As Simon Pawley puts it,
a coastline, sheltered for four and a half millennia and topographically and geologically unprepared for the experience, was now exposed to whatever forces of tide and weather had formerly operated on the line of the barrier islands. More floods and coastal disasters were an inevitable result, especially since the stormy conditions of the thirteenth century continued into the fourteenth.(2)
It is against this background that the events described in this post took place, as the coast of Lincolnshire started to suffer under the same sort of erosive forces that have led to the loss of significant amounts of land, and a large number of villages, along the unprotected coastline of the East Riding of Yorkshire since the Iron Age/Roman period.(3) With the foreshore no longer protected by a sequence of coastal barrier islands and a sheltered tidal lagoon, the sea began to make significant inroads into the land here, reclaiming a mile or more from the coast between Mablethorpe and Skegness by the end of the sixteenth century and destroying a number of low-lying coastal settlements in the process.

The storm surges of 1287 and 1288 are usually considered to be the events that finally overwhelmed the offshore barrier islands, and those years certainly saw significant damage to the Lincolnshire coast in the area of the two neighbouring medieval parishes of Mablethorpe St Peter and Mablethorpe St Mary. The church of Mablethorpe St Peter lay offshore from the modern dune-top Golf Road/Quebec Road car park, around a mile to the north-east of the current Mablethorpe St Mary's church. According to the Louth Park Abbey Chronicle, the church of Mablethorpe St Peter was 'rent asunder by the waves of the sea' in 1287, an event that seems from other references to have taken place on on the night of New Year's Day 1287. The Hagnaby Abbey Chronicle similarly relates that 'the church of St. Peter of Mablethorpe was wholly destroyed, the chalice and pyx, in which the body of Christ was served, being found crushed under a heap of stones.' Moreover, the next year saw equally dramatic marine flooding in the Mablethorpe area, with the Hagnaby Abbey Chronicle recording that there was, on the 4 February 1288,
a flood of the sea ... [that] reached as far as Maltby field and totally destroyed the church of St. Peter of Mablethorpe, and that day perished many men, uncounted sheep, and an unknown number of cattle ... Also on the eve of the Assumption [14 August 1288] the sea caused very great damage in the territory of Mablethorpe.(4)
Despite its obviously vulnerable coastal position in the aftermath of the loss of the protective barrier islands, the rebuilding of Mablethorpe St Peter's church appears to have been begun a short time after these latter floods and on the same site, with money from the local tithes and offerings assigned to this from May 1290. Whether the church of Mablethorpe St Mary was also damaged in these floods is unrecorded, although it may be significant that it too was being rebuilt in the early 1300s; in this case, however, the rebuilding was taking place on a brand new site. The present church presumably stands on this new site and it has been plausibly suggested that the recorded rebuilding of the church of Mablethorpe St Mary from November 1300 onwards reflected a 'strategic withdrawal' inland by the parish from a dangerously exposed coastal position for its church too, with the aim of avoiding the fate suffered by the church of Mablethorpe St Peter.(5)

The view over Mablethorpe beach from the modern Golf Road/Quebec Road car park; the settlement and church of Mablethorpe St Peter is said to lay offshore from this spot (image: Geograph, copyright Richard Croft and used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

The sea continued to exert a destructive influence on the Mablethorpe area throughout the rest of the medieval period. For example, in August 1335 the waters broke through the medieval sea-banks at Mablethorpe for at least two days, drowning sheep and crops; in 1425, the sea-banks were 'torn apart' by the flood and almost the whole of Mablethorpe was submerged in both January and October; and in 1443, the lord of Mablethorpe manor was exempted from offices and services 'in consideration of his loss of land in Mablerthorp through the irruption of the sea and of his costs in repairing the coasts'. In 1500, the Commissioners of Sewers for the province of Lindsey indicated that both Mablethorpe and Skegness were 'in very great danger of the sea', and the truth of this judgement was demonstrated in the the late 1530s, when the church of St Peter, the village of 'Mawplethrop', and the greater part of its parish were 'overflown with water in the sea' and never recovered. As late as the 1870s, the church ruins could still be seen from the dune-top at Mablethorpe, and it was said in the 1930s that the sea continued to occasionally throw up carved stone from the church onto the foreshore.(6)

A similar calamity befell 'old Skegness' in the early sixteenth century too, this being described by contemporaries as 'a great haven toune' and 'a towne waullid, having also a castelle'. Probably originally a Roman site of some significance, Skegness was located on a creek at the western entrance to the Wash, where it was sheltered by a 'ness' or promontory and network of dunes and beaches running south from the Ingoldmells shore.(7) As was noted above, in 1500 Skegness was thought to be 'in very great danger of the sea', and in 1517 the sea 'rushed at last over the barriers that had been raised on this level shore, and recovered his ancient possession.' This was followed in 1526 by even greater destruction, when the 'church and a great part of the parish was submerged' according to a contemporary ecclesiastical subsidy. By 1540, the town seems to have been entirely swallowed up by the waves, although 'manifest tokens of old buildinges' were said to be visible at low tide, located around half a mile or so out to sea. Some, at least, of the stones from the old, drowned church were apparently carried away to build a new church (St Clement's) well inland, along with a new settlement of Skegness that was considered but 'a pore new thing' in 1540. Much of the fabric of the old church must have been left in situ, however, as sailors in the early seventeenth century reported encountering parts of the old church's steeple at some distance beyond the low water mark, probably at a spot out to sea opposite the end of the modern pier.(8)

The drowned coastline, churches and settlements of the Lincolnshire, c. 1250–1600, drawn by C. R. Green after D. N. Robinson, The Book of the Lincolnshire Seaside (Buckingham, 1981), with minor modifications and the addition of selected modern settlements. The thirteenth-century coastline, in orange-brown, is set against the modern coastline (green), showing the extent of the erosion on the east coast. Also depicted are a number of lost settlements and their modern equivalents.Note, the 'new lands' to the south of Skegness were created via reclamations from c. 1555 onwards.

If Skegness, as a significant walled 'haven town' that traded in Baltic timber—importing the wood and wainscots used for the building of Lord Cromwell's castle at Tattershall in the 1430s, for example—was a major loss in the 1520s, and Mablethorpe St Peter was swept away soon after in the late 1530s, they were not alone nor the last of Lincolnshire's coastal settlements to be destroyed in this manner. Not only were two hamlets within Skegness parish, called East and West Meales, also taken by the sea in the early sixteenth century, but Sutton-in-the-Marsh clearly suffered a parallel fate in the middle of that century too. In the 1630s, the parishioners of Sutton wrote to the Privy Council complaining that the sea-banks that protected their village were in decay and warning that some 80 years previously they had paid dearly for such neglect, as at that time:
our ancient parish church, some houses inhabited, and very much of the best grounds in our said town was destroyed by the sea and is now sea.
This claim was corroborated to a significant degree in 1953–4, when a number of building sites were revealed at low water after the sand of the modern beach was washed away by storms, and it is noteworthy that finds made at low tide from the tidal flats at Sutton include a section of Late Saxon wattle hurdle (fencing) and a sheep bone that are most plausibly seen as coming from an animal pen associated with an earlier phase of the drowned settlement here.(9) Needless to say, within a century little remained to be seen of the destroyed 'ancient parish church' or the 'houses inhabited' of Sutton, and as at Skegness it would seem that a new church was constructed inland of that which had been lost, this forming the core of the present-day Sutton on Sea. The cost of defending the remaining parts of Sutton parish from the sea did, however, mean that the settlement remained significantly impoverished through the Early Modern era—the new Sutton church was, for example, described as 'a most wretched church of stud and clay with a wooden ruinous steeple' in the eighteenth century.(10)

The pier at Skegness as it appeared in the 1890s; 'old Skegness'  is generally thought to have been located at a spot out to sea opposite the end of the pier. Note, Skegness pier is nowadays significantly shorter than it was, due to damage it sustained during the severe storm of January 1978 (image: Wikimedia Commons).

An equivalent tradition from nearby Trusthorpe relating to the destruction of that church by the sea in the sixteenth century is likely to be based in reality too. In particular, it is noteworthy that the first building on the site of the current Trusthorpe church was constructed in 1606—which would fit with it being an inland rebuilding of a lost church, as occurred at Skegness and Sutton on Sea—and traces of medieval activity have been recorded from the clay underlying the modern beach at Trusthorpe after especially severe tides have temporarily stripped away the covering sands.(11) However, perhaps the most dramatic and informative account of a Lincolnshire coastal village being destroyed by the sea comes from the former Mumby Chapel, located halfway between Sutton and Skegness (modern Chapel St Leonards). In 1570, the worst storm of the sixteenth century appears to have almost completely levelled the settlement here, as Holinshed related in his contemporary Chronicles:
This year [1570] the fifth of October chanced a terrible wind and rain both by sea and land ... Mumbie chappell, the whole town was lost, except three houses. A ship was driven upon an house, the sailors thinking they had been upon a rock, committed themselves to God: and three of the mariners leapt out of the ship, and chanced to take hold on the house top, and so saved themselves: and the wife of the same lying in childbed, by climbing up into the top of the house, was also saved by the mariners, her husband and child being both drowned. Likewise, the church was wholly overthrown except the steeple ... Master Pelham lost eleven hundred sheep at Mumbie chappell.(12)
This, then, was the fate of the most-exposed part of the Lincolnshire coast, between Mablethorpe and Skegness, in the period from the probable destruction of the offshore protective barrier islands in the thirteenth century through until the later sixteenth century. A previously sheltered coastline was left vulnerable to the full force of the storms and tides of the North Sea and consequently saw a very significant degree of flooding and erosion, resulting in the loss of a number of settlements, churches and a strip of coastal land perhaps a mile or more wide by the end of the sixteenth century. Subsequently, there was a degree of reclamation of land from the sea, but in the main this took place outside of the area discussed here, most especially to the south of Skegness, where land was deliberately reclaimed from c. 1555 onwards and the old, destroyed 'ness' gradually reformed and extended southwards to create the first Gibraltar Point. In contrast, the best that the Mablethorpe–Skegness region saw was a degree of stablisation in the coast after c. 1600, and the continued vulnerability of the coast here into the modern era was dramatically demonstrated by both the extensive flooding (up to 10km inland) seen in 1953 and the subsequent construction of a 19km-long concrete sea wall to try to defend against similar inundations in the future.(13)


1    These coastal barrier islands were first suggested by H. H. Swinnerton, 'The post-glacial deposits of the Lincolnshire coast', Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 87 (1931), 360–75. See also D. N. Robinson, The Book of the Lincolnshire Seaside (Buckingham, 1981), pp. 13, 17 (map), 20; S. Pawley, Lincolnshire Coastal Villages and the Sea c. 1300–1600: Economy and Society (University of Leicester PhD thesis, 1984), pp. 69–70, 73–5, 80; S. Bennett & N. Bennett (edd.), An Historical Atlas of Lincolnshire (Hull, 1993), p. 8; Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies, Humber Estuary & Coast (Hull, 1994), p. 33; H. Fenwick, The Lincolnshire Marsh: Landscape Evolution, Settlement Development and the Salt Industry (University of Hull PhD Thesis, 2007), pp. 54, 160, 174, 181–2, 189, 199, 202, 267, 304; and Natural England, NA 101: Bridlington to Skegness Maritime Natural Area Profile (Sheffield, 2013), pp. 11, 21.
2    Pawley, Lincolnshire Coastal Villages, p. 75.
3    It is estimated that up to six kilometres have been lost from the Holderness coast since the late prehistoric period: T. Sheppard, The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast (London, 1912); R. Van de Noort et al, 'The "Kilnsea-boat", and some implications from the discovery of England’s oldest plank boat remains', Antiquity, 73 (1999), 131–5 at p. 131.
4    A. E. B. Owen, 'Mablethorpe St. Peter's and the Sea', Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 21 (1986), 61–2 at p. 61. On the location of Mablethorpe St Peter church, see T. Allen, History of the County of Lincoln, 2 vols. (Leeds, 1830), vol. 2, p. 153.
5    Owen, 'Mablethorpe St. Peter', p. 61.
6    Robinson, Lincolnshire Seaside, pp. 20–1; Owen, 'Mablethorpe St. Peter', pp. 61–2; W. A. B. Jones, 'Mablethorpe', The Lincolnshire Magazine (Lincoln, 1932–4), vol. 1, pp. 203–06 at p. 204; Pawley, Lincolnshire Coastal Villages, p. 83.
7    B. Whitwell, Roman Lincolnshire, 2nd edn. (Lincoln, 1992), pp. 51–3; A. E. B. Owen & R. Coates, ‘Traiectus/Tric/Skegness: a Domesday name explained’, Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 38 (2003), 42–4; J. Leland, The Itinerary of John Leland the Antiquary, ed. T. Hearne, 9 vols. (c. 1538–43, Oxford, 1770), vol. 7, p. 152; Pawley, Lincolnshire Coastal Villages, p. 80. Note, a small number of Roman finds have been recovered from the Skegness foreshore and reported to the local Historic Environment Record including, most intriguingly, a 'brothel token' that was found 'near to the pier' (Lincolnshire Historic Environment Record PRN 41709); this is one of only two examples of Roman brothel tokens recorded from Britain, the other being found a few years ago at London.
8    Pawley, Lincolnshire Coastal Villages, pp. 80–3; A. E. B. Owen, 'Coastal Erosion in East Lincolnshire', Lincoinshire Historian, 9 (1952), 33041, esp. p. 340; Robinson, Lincolnshire Seaside, pp. 18, 20–1; W. Kime, The Book of Skegness (Buckingham, 1986), p. 12.
9    Pawley, Lincolnshire Coastal Villages, p. 83 and fn. 31; Owen, 'Coastal Erosion', p. 334; Lincolnshire Historic Environment Record PRN 43148, and newspaper clippings from the 1990s; Robinson, Lincolnshire Seaside, p. 44. The wattle hurdle was made of oak and was found in 1995; it has been radiocarbon dated to Cal AD 800–975.
10    Quoted in Robinson, Lincolnshire Seaside, p. 22.
11    Robinson, Lincolnshire Seaside, p. 21; Dave Lascelles, personal communication and photographs, 2011.
12    R. Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 6 vols. (1577, ed. London, 1808), vol. 4, pp. 254–6 (with modernised spelling). Note, the date of the disaster at Mumby Chapel is often given as 1571, but this is a mistake: see A. E. B. Owen, 'Chapel St Leonards and the Flood of 5 October 1570', in C. Sturman (ed.), Lincolnshire People and Places: Essays in Memory of Terence R. Leach (Lincoln, 1996), pp. 87–90.
13    Robinson, Lincolnshire Seaside, pp. 21, 27, 35, 12537; J. Lyon, Beach Replenishment and Derived Archaeological Material: Mablethorpe to Skegness Beach Replenishment Scheme (London, 2005), especially pp. 38–44.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2015, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.