This is a re-blog of an article first published on Teresa Nielson-Hayden’s website last year:
Medieval storms and changing coastlines
by Teresa Nielson-Hayden
I’ve visited Rye in Sussex. It’s a charming little town that used to be one of the Cinque Ports, and overlooks what used to be Romney Marsh. At any rate, that’s what I was told when I was there; and when I climbed up on top of Rye’s church tower, I could see green fields stretching off in all directions. It is therefore a bit unnerving to discover how violently all that happened.
From the Guardian, on the great storms of 1287:
There were two “great storms” in 1287. One was on the east coast: it killed hundreds of people in England and drowned thousands on the other side of the North Sea. This disaster was similar to the 1953 flood, when an extreme low pressure coinciding with a high tide caused a storm surge.The other storm, on England’s south coast, must have been ferocious, because in a single night it fundamentally changed the geography. The harbour at Hastings was destroyed, the old town of Winchelsea, which was already under attack from the sea, was abandoned, and the coastline realigned.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the damage was that the thriving port of New Romney was turned into a landlocked town. Massive quantities of shingle from Dungeness, along with mud and soil, inundated the town, completely filled the harbour, and left New Romney nearly a mile from the sea.
The river Rother, which ran through the town, was stopped up by the storm and found a new outlet to the sea at Rye, 15 miles away, a course that the river still takes. In New Romney (a Saxon name, so not very new) there is still visible evidence of this extreme event. It is a draw for archaeologists, because the silt and gravel covered and preserved the town.
From the always-interesting VillageNet Local History site: The Changing Face of Romney Marsh, 10,000 BC – 2000 AD, in eight steps, with maps and diagrams.
A slightly more technical short article on the geology and geography of Romney Marsh.
A map of the medieval harbor of Rye.
A fuller account of the storms that year, also from VillageNet, is 1287: A Terrible Year for Storms:
In Feb 1287, a storm hit the southern coast of England with such ferocity that whole areas of coastline were redrawn – towns that had stood by the sea now found themselves landlocked, while others found themselves in possession of new harbours.In Hastings, the storm caused the cliff and with it half the Norman castle to fall into the sea, blocking off the harbour and ending the town’s days as a port. The old town took over as the port, but the protected inlet was totally destroyed. The old harbour is where the Shopping Centre in Hastings can be found.
Further along the coast, the port of Old Winchelsea , an island which was where the current Winchelsea Beach can be found was completely destroyed. It was later rebuilt several miles inland, where it became the first example of town planning in England being built on a grid system familiar to our American friends. Despite its new hilltop position Winchelsea still retained its place as a Cinque Port .
The most dramatic change wrought by the great storm was to the towns of Rye and New Romney . Before the storm New Romney was a thriving harbour town with the River Rother flowing through it into the English Channel. The storm silted up the harbour completely and diverted the river away from the town to enter the sea at Rye about 15 miles away. More or less overnight New Romney became landlocked, a mile from the coast.
So much silt was deposited by the flood that the land level in the town rose by 5 inches. If you visit the parish church, which is the only building in the town pre-dating the flood, you will find that the floor of the church is several inches below street level. The pillars in the church provide further evidence of the flood – the level the water reached can still be seen on them. The River Rother that had previously entered the sea at New Romney, changed course and now entered the sea at Rye, creating a brand new harbour. …
14 December 1287, North Sea Countries: A mighty storm sends a high storm surge onto Holland, drowning a reported 50,000. In East Anglia, England, 500 lives are lost.
Hickling, Norfolk: in 1287 a great flood engulfed the village, and 180 people were drowned. The waters rose a foot above the high altar of the Priory Church. Hickling was one of the townships that suffered most severely from the tremendous storm of December, 1287, no fewer than nine score persons being drowned there. In the priory the water rose more than a foot above the high altar, and all the canons fled away except two, who stayed behind and managed to save the horses and other property by bringing them up into the dormitory over the vaulted undercroft.
Few great weather events in British history were as devastating as the “Grote Mandrenke”, the great drowning of men, which took place in mid January 1362. A huge south-westerly gale originating in the Atlantic Ocean swept across Ireland, Britain, the Low Countries, and northern Germany, causing at least 25,000 deaths.The first warning of the storm came from Ireland, where homes and buildings in Dublin were devastated by the high winds. Next to experience the brunt of the storm was southern England, where thousands of trees were blown down. Massive damage was caused to the few high buildings, notably churches, and many spires or towers were destroyed. Most famously, the wooden spire of Norwich Cathedral fell through its roof.
Worse was to come. As the storm reached the North Sea, it combined with high tides to produce the phenomenon most feared by coastal communities, a storm surge.
Ports all along the east coast of England, and across the North Sea in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, were destroyed, as the power of the wind and waters changed the shape of the coastline.
“Changed the shape of the coastline” doesn’t begin to cover it. Wikipedia has a good plain account of what happened:
The Grote Mandrenke (Low Saxon for “Great Drowning of Men”) was the name of a massive southwesterly Atlantic gale which swept across England, the Netherlands, Northern Germany, and Schleswig around January 16, 1362, causing at minimum 25,000 deaths. …An immense storm tide of the North Sea swept far inland from the Netherlands to Denmark, breaking up islands, making parts of the main land into islands, and wiping out entire towns and districts, such as Rungholt on the island of Strand in North Frisia. This storm tide, along with others of like size in the 13th century and 14th century, played a part in the formation of the Zuider Zee, and was characteristic of the unsettled and changeable weather in northern Europe at the beginning of the Little Ice Age.
An interesting article on the Grote Mandrenke’s role in the opening of the Zuider Zee — and thus, indirectly, the rise of Amsterdam as a great trading city.
Generally, though, the chaotic weather at the beginning of the Little Ice Age was catastrophic for low-lying communities. Check out these maps of the coastline of Holland and Frisia in 500 CE and 1555 CE; ditto, two 17th C. maps of Schleswig, “the one on the left showing the coast and lands as they were c.1240, compiled from parish records and reliable local information, the other showing the contemporary view and the outline of the drowned lands.” As it says on the site which reproduces them:
The North Sea incursions were catastrophic on a Hollywood scale: sea surges punched through the dunes (you can see the relics of the old coast in the line of islands off the west coast of Holland, Germany, and Denmark), killed perhaps 100,000 people, and turned vast agricultural districts into reed seas. In 1231, the sea flooded up river channels into the inland lake of Holland and by 1300 it had become a bay. In 1287, thirty villages in the lower Ems basin were drowned and the Dollart formed. In floods in 1240 and January 1362, sixty parishes in the diocese of Schleswig were overwhelmed, amounting to half the agricultural land of the realm, and perhaps 30,000 people died. The 1362 stormflood was the Grote Mandrenke, the “Great Drowning.” The island of Heligoland was 60 kilometers across in C.E. 800; by 1325 it was only 25 kilometers in diameter at the widest, half the loss having come in a single storm in January of that year. Today it is only 1.5 kilometers at the widest. The English ports of Ravenspurn and Dunwich drowned about the same time.
The vanished trading city of Rungholt in Nordfriesland has achieved legendary status. Archaeological remains show it to have been a wealthy and substantial settlement for its time, though it wasn’t the Atlantis of the North Sea some have imagined. It was erased by the storm surge of 1362, along with the land it stood on. Perhaps inevitably, local lore says that if you sail across that stretch of water on a stormy night, you can still hear the bells of Rungholt ringing.