The Sunken Sites of Ravenser Odd and Ravenspurn

One of the seminars I remember most vividly from my uni days was one where we discussed sunken villages on the East Yorkshire coast. 

As I sat, wide-eyed, listening to my lecturer and imagining stony, submerged Atlantis-like ruins threaded with billowing seaweed and maybe the odd eel, I realised that coastal erosion isn't only a modern problem: our Medieval ancestors suffered its effects, too.

Photo by Rob Pumphrey on Unsplash. Spurn Point. 

Looking out at the waters around Ravenspurn today, it's hard to imagine that just past this stretch of wobbling, salty water was once the scene of a huge port town, studded with wooden ships and sailors rolling barrels into cellars. In its day it was even more important than nearby Hull. The town of Ravenser Odd had a bustling economy, a church and town bailiffs that reported to the king. Ships docked here, bringing with them trade: one of them was a vessel named La Mariole, which was recorded as having docked in the town in 1321.(1) Ravenser Odd also had a fair and a market. Its name pops up in royal records from the early to mid-fourteenth century and then all mentions of it suddenly vanish.

The town, which had been founded in the mid-1200s, found itself overwhelmed by the sea some time in the 1340s. The Meaux Chronicler reports that "At that time the chapel of Ravenser…. and the majority of the buildings of the whole town of Ravenser, by the inundations of the sea and the Humber increasing more than usual, were almost completely destroyed," recording that the sea washed up the graves in the churchyard, so the bones of the dead littered the saturated, soaked land. In 1362 the final traces of the busy port town were claimed by the sea in a violent storm, and that was the end of Ravenser Odd. (2)

A little way further south is another sunken town, Ravenspurn, just off the spit of land that still exists today, at Spurn Point. Reported as the place where the exiled Henry Bolingbroke landed from France to usurp Richard II and where the future Edward IV arrived from the Netherlands to confront the ailing Henry VI, it's mentioned in Shakespeare's plays as 'the naked shore at Ravensburgh' (Henry IV part 1). A notation on a map dating from the end of Henry VIII's reign in 1546-7 adds the warning that visitors to the shore didn't always mean well, and that "In calm weather ships of good burden may ride and land here to do annoyance to the country." (3)  Whether the Tudor scribe meant pirates, unscrupulous traders or invaders isn't recorded. Eventually, the shifting coastline washed this historic land away, and its site is now under the water somewhere near where the Humber and North Sea meet. 

There were other lost, sunken towns and villages, too. Just north of Ravenser are the sunken settlements of Sunthorpe, Kilnsea and Hoton and there are four more further north on this stretch of coastline alone. (4)

It's pretty devastating that whole Medieval settlements have been washed away and valuable archaeological evidence has been undoubtedly lost to natural erosion. But there's some excitement in the chase of it, and the prospect of what, if anything, exists after 700 years under the undulating sea. How intact these sunken villages are is uncertain. The act of erosion is often quick, violent and disruptive, as reports from the Meaux Chronicler - and our own experiences of modern erosion show. I haven't been able to find any archaeological surveys proposed or carrried out to discover more about these lost sites. With advances in underwater archaeology, hopefully one day the North Sea will give up some of the secrets of these lost, sunken Medieval settlements and the traces of the people that fled their waterlogged, crumbling homes.

Like this? You might also like: The Rebel Nuns of Medieval Yorkshire and a Review of Ladies of Magna Carta

Sources: 

1. "Close Rolls, Edward II: August 1321," in Calendar of Close Rolls, Edward II: Volume 3, 1318-1323, ed. H C Maxwell Lyte (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1895), 390-401. British History Online, accessed August 5, 2021, 

2. I've been unable to find a source for the Meaux Chronicles but they are mentioned in this article at Heritage Daily, along with other useful information about Ravenser Odd

3. "Appendix," in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 21 Part 2, September 1546-January 1547, ed. James Gairdner and R H Brodie (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1910), 454-475. British History Online, accessed August 5, 2021, 

4. http://www.hullgeolsoc.co.uk/gordon.htm


Comments

  1. Absolutely fascinating stuff, thank you. Terrifying, too. Tales of long-gone church bells to be heard on stormy nights and all that. And, beyond that, the even older drowned mysteries of Doggerland.

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