Ravenser Odd – The Town Under the Sea

Today’s tale, an extract from my book ‘Close to the Edge – Tales from the Holderness Coast’  is of the 13th/14th century lost town of Ravenser Odd, now lying under the North Sea, off the Humber estuary in East Yorkshire


By and large they were a bad lot in Ravenser Odd:
“The town of Ravenser Odd was an extremely famous borough, devoted to merchandise with many fisheries and the most abundantly provided with ships and burgesses of all the boroughs of that coast. But yet, by all its wicked deeds and especially wrong-doings on the sea, and by its evil actions and predations, it provoked the vengeance of God upon itself beyond measure.”

Such was the verdict of the Chronicler of Meaux Abbey in the mid-14th century when documenting the destruction of the town. The Abbey records reveal that the town began life as a sandbank, probably an island, thrown up by the tides and currents between the river Humber and the North Sea. Located off the tip of Spurn Point and about a mile off the Holderness coast, at some point it became accessible from the mainland.

The sandbank grew and was initially inhabited by a handful of enterprising souls selling provisions to passing ships. Around 1235 the Count and Countess of Aumale whose fiefdom embraced Holderness, recognised the strategic possibilities of the site and started to build the town. A few years later the monks of Meaux Abbey got in on the act and acquired buildings there for storing fish and other provisions.

The town prospered. Its position between the Humber and the North Sea was perfect for fishing, trading and servicing shipping. Perhaps being at the outer reaches of the Holderness coast and away from any regular attention of the law, the men of Ravenser Odd were able to develop their own approach to trade by intercepting merchant ships and “persuading” them to berth at their port rather than at Hull or Grimsby. This practice, called forestalling, became a bone of contention with the merchants of Hull and Grimsby who saw their own trade suffer. In 1290 the King instituted an Inquiry into the deeds of the Ravenser Odd men. Grimsby merchants asserted that the Ravenser Odd men would:
“go out with their boats where there are ships carrying merchandise and intending to come to Grimsby with their merchandise. Said men hinder those ships and lead them to Ravenser Odd harbour by force when they cannot persuade them amicably”.
The men of Ravenser Odd triumphed at the Inquiry with all charges not proven and even commended for their entrepreneurship.

The town flourished with more than 100 houses, warehouses, quays and other port buildings. It was granted borough status in 1298/9 for which the then huge sum of £300 was paid. It is in keeping with the spirit of the town that little of the money was actually handed over.

Yet there is still some evidence that the Ravenser Odd men found it hard to shake off old ways and become model citizens. Around 1300 two Norwegian merchants petitioned the English king claiming that when their ship was driven ashore off Ravenser Odd:

“men came from there with force and arms and stole our ship and goods.”

The petition ends with a plaintive request for remedy and compensation for their goods as they “have nothing from which to live”.

Under the King’s patronage, whatever piracy and misdemeanours were committed were ignored and the town grew in importance, wealth and prosperity. The town was represented by two MPs in the Model Parliaments of the time and supported the king in the wars against the Scots by providing ships, provisions, arms and men.

However by the middle of the century it became clear that the golden years of Ravenser Odd were drawing to a close. Merchants started to move away as the flooding by the sea became more regular and more serious. There were a number of petitions made for the lowering of taxes because buildings and land had been washed away.

In 1355 flooding damaged the chapel in the town exposing bones and corpses. These were removed for reburial elsewhere. The chapel itself was ultimately washed away but not before some of the townsfolk looted many of its artefacts.

The town was abandoned soon after and, unsurprisingly, it became something of a pirates’ lair until the coup de grace was applied in 1362. In January of that year a south-westerly gale raged across the UK. This storm known as the Great Drowning of Men combined with unusually high tides, produced a storm surge that swept the last stones of Ravenser Odd back to the sea. The town founded on a sandbank vanished without trace.

spurn across the binks1

21 thoughts on “Ravenser Odd – The Town Under the Sea

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  2. I understand that you are writing a book on Ravenser.
    I have information that may be of interest.
    Phil Mathison.
    Sorry for the repeat E-mails, but no direct E-mail address to contact you!

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  6. In my opinion, the reason the town was forgiven so many times for its nefarious actions may be attributed to the De La Poles, whose origins lay in Ravenser Odd. William 1302-1366, moneylender to the King, and his son Michael, who became 1st Earl of Suffolk.

  7. Are you aware of Phil Mathison’s interesting publication “The legendary lost town of Ravenser? He makes a very strong and compelling case for the ruins of Ravenser Odd to be inside the estuary itself. I am planning an exploration by Drone of the place he claims are the ruins of the town for next summer to add to my own theory concerning archeological architecture recovered in medieval times and installed in one of Holderness’s churches. If I manage to obtain evidence of ruins I intend to lobby for a Lydar survey in the future. I am an amatuer local historian and have been studying this subject for over twenty years
    People often forget that the theory of cyclical renewal of the Spurn peninsular every 250 years or so is just that…a theory, nothing is proven.
    There is every indication that the stretch of northern riverbank between Patrington Haven and Kilnsea is little changed over the last thousand years beyond being stabilised by embankments as recently as 1953 in some places. Certainly the site of Birstall Priory which was established in around 1215 on the riverbank replete with its own docking facilities is still on the bank of the Humber today. The last remnants of stonework were used to strengthen the riverbank after the disastrous flood of ’53.

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