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)
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  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), 330–41, 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, 125–37; J. Lyon, Beach Replenishment and Derived Archaeological Material: Mablethorpe to Skegness Beach Replenishment Scheme (London, 2005), especially pp. 38–44.
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