Monday 22 February 2016

Ravenserodd and other lost settlements of the East Yorkshire coast

The aim of the following post is primarily to share a map of the villages, towns and lands that have been lost to the sea along the east coast of Yorkshire since the Roman period, along with some details of what is arguably the most interesting of these lost settlements, the medieval 'island town' of Ravenserodd. The post also includes some maps of the potential far-future coastlines of this region if coastal erosion and sea-level changes continue in the manner that they are expected to.

The lost towns and villages of the East Yorkshire coastline, based on the map in T. Sheppard, The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast (London, 1912), with some modifications. The coastline at the end of the Roman period is shown in orange-brown and is set against the modern landscape (green), showing the extent of the erosion on the east coast. Also depicted are the lost settlements of this coast and some of the major population centres today. Note: the 'new lands' on the north side of the Humber were created via reclamation from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries (image: C. R. Green).

The above map is a simplified version of that published by Thomas Sheppard, the first curator of Hull Municipal Museum, in his Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast (London, 1912). Shown on it are 29 towns and villages that Sheppard considered lost, or partially lost, to the sea along the coast of East Yorkshire—some in the medieval period and others, such as Old Kilnsea, much more recently—along with a depiction of the potential amount of land lost from the east coast since the Roman era. Although each of the lost settlements mapped on there has a potential story, perhaps the most interesting (and certainly one of the best documented) is that of Ravenserodd, or Ravenser Odd, a town and port that was not only destroyed by the sea but also apparently born from it, being said by near-contemporary witnesses to have been founded on an island thrown up by the waves in the mid-1230s:
[B]y the casting up of the sea, a certain small island was born, which is called Ravenserodd, which is distant from the town of Grimsby by the space of one tide. And afterwards fishers dried their nets there, and men little by little first began to dwell and stay there, and afterwards ships laden with divers kinds of merchandise began to unload and sell there... 
The above account is taken from an inquisition of 1290, and the same source goes on to give further details of the foundation of the town, stating that:
forty years ago a certain ship was cast away at Ravenserodd, where no house was then built, which ship a certain man appropriated to himself, and from it made for himself a hut or cabin, which he inhabited for so long a time that he received ships and merchants there, and sold them food and drink, and afterwards others began to dwell there. 
The exact location and nature of Ravenserodd is open to some debate, but it is often believed to have been located to the east of the present-day Spurn Point and was said in the fourteenth-century Chronica Monasterii de Melsa to have been 'distant from the mainland a space of one mile and more', with George de Boer considering it part of a cyclical history of Spurn Point, although his model of the development of Spurn has been disputed by other researchers. Whatever the case may be, it appears clear that the settlement on this new island or semi-island at the mouth of the Humber expanded rapidly under the lordship of William de Forz, Count of Aumale, and his heirs, who obtained a charter for a market and a fair at Ravenserodd in 1251. Certainly, it had begun to seriously threaten the trade of Grimsby by 1290, with the men of that Lincolnshire port accusing those of Ravenserodd of piracy, stating that the Ravenserodd men arrested 'with a strong hand' any merchant ships headed to Grimsby and 'by fear and force have compelled and daily do compel them to turn aside to the aforesaid new town, and to sell their merchandize there', leading to the growth of Ravenserodd and the partial desertion of the port of Grimsby!

Detail of Spurn Point and Grimsby at the mouth of the Humber in the late sixteenth century, from the pocket atlas of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, dated 1595; click for a larger view (image: BL).

Despite these complaints, Ravenserodd continued to prosper as a significant mercantile centre, and in 1299 it received a borough charter from Edward I and a 30 day fair, purchased by the people of the town for £300. Indeed, it is perhaps telling with regard to its importance in the early fourteenth century that the first port marked north of The Wash on Pietro Vesconte's c. 1325 map of England—which is based on his earlier portolan chart and mariners' reports—appears to be Ravenserodd. Nonetheless, by the mid-fourteenth century the tide had quite literally begun to turn. As a number of contemporary documents detail, the island port suffered increasing erosion and destruction by the sea from the 1330s onwards, barely a century after it had reportedly first emerged from the waves. In 1346, for example, it was stated that two parts of the tenements and soil of the town of Ravenserod had been destroyed by inundations of the sea, with the town being 'daily diminished and carried away'. A subsequent writ from 1347 indicates that the destruction had begun in the eighth year of Edward III (1334/5) and that over 200 buildings and properties had been lost by the mid-1340s. The final destruction of the town and port came in the following years and is recorded by the fourteenth-century Chronica Monasterii de Melsa ('Chronicle of Meaux Abbey'). This relates that:
the inundations of the sea and of the Humber had destroyed to the foundations the chapel of Ravenserodd, built in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that the corpses and bones of the dead there horribly appeared, and the same inundations daily threatened the destruction of the said town.
The Abbot of Meaux was consequently directed to gather up the disinterred bodies from the chapel yard of Ravenserodd and rebury them in the churchyard of Easington in 1355, and the Chronicle records that 'the whole town of Ravenserodd' was not long after 'totally annihilated by the floods of the Humber and the inundations of the great sea', giving a broad summary of the nature of the place and the supposed reasons for its undoing as follows:
that town of Ravenserodd, in the parish of the said church of Easington, was an exceedingly famous borough devoted to merchandise, as well as many fisheries, most abundantly furnished with ships, and burgesses amongst the boroughs of that sea coast. But yet, with all inferior places, and chiefly by wrong-doing on the sea, by its wicked works and piracies, it provoked the wrath of God against its self beyond measure. Wherefore, within the few following years, the said town, by those inundations of the sea and the Humber, was destroyed to the foundations, so that nothing of value was left.
With regard to the date of this 'total annihilation', the last evidence for commercial activity at Ravenserodd comes from 1358, when 'ships from Ravensrode' are mentioned as being made to carry wool from Boston to Flanders, and its final abandonment appears to have taken place by 1362, when a number of men were brought before Easington manorial court for 'throwing down and rooting up the timber of the staithes at Ravensrod', implying that the town was by then derelict.

The end of the road at Aldborough, East Yorkshire, showing the continuing coastal erosion here (image: British Geological Society, used under their non-commercial licence).

If Ravenserodd thus represents the most dramatic tale from the Yorkshire coastline, a town and port that was said to have risen from and fallen back into the sea in the space of little over a century, there are nonetheless numerous other instances of the destructive power of the sea that might be cited too. For example, Hyde, in the manor of Skipsea and Cleeton, was totally destroyed by the sea as early as 1396, having suffered damage from at least as early as 1344–5, whilst St Mary’s Church at Withernsea was lost to the sea in around 1444 and that of Owthorne (or Sisterkirke), located immediately to the north of Withernsea, was finally demolished in 1816, after the last traces of the village were destroyed by the waves in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Similarly, the settlement of Hornsea Beck is mentioned in the early thirteenth century and rivalled Hornsea itself for size in the late fourteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries, but in 1609 it was said that 38 houses had been destroyed since 1547 and by 1695 all but one or two houses had been washed away. On the other hand, it is worth noting that the settlements of Northorpe and Southorpe by Hornsea probably weren't eroded by the sea as Sheppard thought, but instead were simply deserted, with traces of both still to be found on the ground according to the recent Victoria County History account of this parish.

Turning finally to the question of any potential future losses along the coastline of East Yorkshire, this has been the subject of a number of studies. The continuing erosion of the coast here is reportedly occurring at the fastest rate seen in Europe and is part of a long-term trend that began at the end of the last 'Ice Age', as has been discussed in two previous posts on this site. Looked at from a historical, multi-millennial perspective, the continued erosive force of the sea on the glacial till of Holderness is thought likely to result in the drowning and loss of a significant part of the coastline here over the next 5,000 to 10,000 years, as the following two maps depict. The first shows the suggested natural end-point of the erosion of the east coast, assuming no further significant sea-level rises, with a wide bay ultimately taking shape between the two hard headlands at Flamborough and Cromer, Norfolk, over the course of the next several thousand years. The second map shows the likely final coastal retreat if there is a significant degree of sea-level rise on a multi-millennial scale, which the Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies indicates will deepen the offshore waters and thus cause the eventual retreat of the coastline back to its pre-glacial position. With regard to these two scenarios, it is worth noting that the present-day climate appears to be approaching 'a level associated with significant polar ice-sheet loss in the past', as one recent study put it, something that may ultimately imply six metres or more of future sea-level rise spread over the next several thousand years. If so, then the second scenario could well be the most credible of the two outlined below, albeit one set perhaps 10,000 or so years in the future.

Two possible scenarios for future coastal erosion of East Yorkshire on a multi-millennial scale, as per the Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies, Hull, and assuming that the sea defences on this coast are unsustainable in the very long-term: A, the scenario if there is no significant future sea-level rise, after IECS, Humber Estuary & Coast (Hull, 1994), p. 7; B, the scenario assuming significant sea-level rise on a multi-millennial scale, based on the pre-glacial coastline during MIS 5e (images drawn by C. R. Green).

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2016, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Thursday 11 February 2016

A brief note on Britons and wealhstodas

The following is just a very quick post about the historically interesting Old English word wealhstod, 'translator' or 'interpreter' (plural wealhstodas), which is used of a variety of people including St Jerome, who is praised by Ælfric in the late tenth-century as the 'first wealhstod between Hebrew, Latin and Greek'; the seventh-century king St Oswald of Northumbria, who is said by Ælfric to have acted as wealhstod for St Aidan because he, unlike the churchman, knew both Old English and Gaelic; and King Alfred the Great, who is described as the translator—wealhstod—of the Old English Boethius in the Prose Preface to that work.

The entry for wealhstod from J. Bosworth, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, ed. T. N. Toller, Oxford 1898, p. 1174 (image: Bosworth-Toller). 

The historical interest of OE wealhstod, 'translator/interpreter', stems primarily from its likely early origins and etymology. With regard to the former, it is worth emphasising that this occupational term occurs several times as a personal name for people who lived in the later seventh and early/mid-eighth centuries. So, we read of in both the Anonymous Life of St Cuthbert and Bede's Prose Life of St Cuthbert of a seriously ill but faithful monk of Lindisfarne named Wealhstod (Walhstod, Walchstod) who was healed by St Cuthbert and was there at the saint's death in 687. Similarly, a Glastonbury charter (S1410) dated AD 744 is witnessed by a priest named Wealhstod (Walcstod), who may also have been an early abbot there, and Bede and other sources refer to a man named Wealhstod (Walhstod, Walcstod) who served as 'bishop of the people who dwell west of the river Severn', i.e. Bishop of Hereford, in c. 727–36 (HE v.23). It thus seems clear that a personal name Wealhstod was in existence by the mid-seventh century at the latest, when Wealhstod of Lindisfarne was presumably named, and this in turn implies that the occupational term wealhstod is of even greater antiquity, given that 'such a name could not become used as a baptismal name until it had become first used as a "nickname" or occupational name', as J. R. R. Tolkien long ago observed.

These indications of an early origin for the term wealhstod become even more interesting when one turns to the etymology of the word, as wealhstod is based upon Old English wealh/walh. Although wealh/walh gained the generalized meaning of 'slave' by the end of the ninth century, this is a later, secondary development of an original sense of 'Briton' or 'Welsh-speaker', and it is with this sense that the word is found in the late seventh-century Laws of Ine and in English place-names such as Walton, 'the farmstead or village of the Britons'. In this light, the word wealhstod is clearly of some potential historical interest: given that it appears to have its origins in the mid-seventh century or before, wealhstod must—as Margaret Faull notes—'originally have referred to someone who could understand the languages both of the Wēalas [the Britons] and the English and so could act as the medium between the two'. Of course, the probable existence of such bilingual individuals in the post-Roman period is nowadays largely uncontroversial, especially as it is now usually agreed that 'Anglo-Saxon' immigrants from north-western Europe cannot have made up the majority of the population of what became England in the fifth and sixth centuries and that there must have been a significant degree of British acculturation and bilingualism during the pre-Viking era, but it is nonetheless intriguing to note that the Old English word for translator/interpreter seems to directly reference this!

Image from NLW MS. Peniarth 4 (The White Book of Rhydderch), 84r, showing a section of Culhwch ac Olwen that reads 'Gỽrhẏr gỽalstaỽd ieithoed ẏr holl ieithoed aỽẏdat', 'Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd—he knew all languages' (image: National Library of Wales, Public Domain).

Finally, by way of a conclusion, it is worth pointing out that this early medieval word for a translator was not confined only to Old English speakers, but was actually borrowed by the Britons (Welsh) themselves at some point too. The most frequently discussed evidence for this comes from the early Arthurian prose tale Culhwch ac Olwen, the extant redaction of which is generally placed in the late eleventh century. One of the recurring characters in this tale is Arthur's interpreter, Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd, literally Gwrhyr the 'wealhstod of languages' or 'interpreter of tongues', with gwalstawd representing Old English wealhstod borrowed into Welsh. Moreover, Gwrhyr's character in Culhwch ac Olwen lives up to this billing, with Arthur himself stating that not only does Gwrhyr 'know all languages', but that he 'can speak the same language as some of the birds and the beasts' too, something that Gwrhyr proceeds to do as part of the quests undertaken in Culhwch ac Olwen. However, this is not the only evidence for a Welsh borrowing of Old English wealhstod. Indeed, whilst wealhstod appears to have been superseded as a term for a translator in England—replaced by latimer, translator and drugeman—the word actually survives in Wales through to the end of the medieval period and beyond. So, for example, there was a Walstot/Walstottus of the Carmarthen commotes of Elfed and Widigada in the later medieval and early modern eras, who is variously described as an official interpreter/translator or steward and whose title reflects Welsh gwalstot/gwalstawd from Old English wealhstod, and the word continued to be recorded and used in both its original sense and a new one into the modern era as well, as the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru notes.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2016, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.