A Saxon (left) tries to repel a Viking raider (from a contemporary manuscript)

Oesewalum and the Vikings-revised 31.05.2019

Oesewalum was held by Earl Aldberht (also: Ealdbeorht, Ealdberht), and his sister, Selethryth (also: Seleðryth ,Seleðryð), Abbess of Minster on Thanet, and Southminster (also Suthminster), now generally accepted as having been at Lyminge). Oesewalum had either been inherited from their father, a Kentish noble and land-owner, or granted to them along with other extensive estates by King Offa of Mercia for their support in quelling a Kentish revolt against him during the mid-880′s. Aldbert is recorded on some documents as being a minister or advisor to Offa.

For political reasons Aldberht and Selethryth made a grant of Oesewalum to Wulfred (also Uulfred), the Archbishop of Canterbury,  with the grant entailing that the Archbishop was to gain possession of the manor after both their deaths. This grant was made around 805, and Selethryth died not long after it was made. She was survived by Aldberht, who eventually entered the monastery at Folkestone and died there around 820. After Aldberht’s death the deeds of Oesewalum were seized by Oswulf, a relative of Aldberht and Selethryth, who appears to have inherited their interests and later became an earldorman.  After seizing the deeds Oswulf took them to Southminster Abbey and gave them to Cwoenthryth, the daughter of King Coenwulf of Mercia (also Cenwulf, Kenulf, Kenwulph) and overlord of Kent, who had followed Selethryth as Abbess of the Abbeys of Southminster and Minster on Thanet.  King Coenwulf of Mercia was at that time involved a long running dispute with Archbishop Wulfred over whether laymen or clergy should control religious houses.
Ceolwulf,  Coenwulf’s brother, succeeded to the throne of Mercia in 821, but only reigned until 823 when he was usurped as King of Mercia by Beornwulf, and Baldred (Bealdred), possibly a Mercian kinsman of  Beornwulf’s, became the king of Kent.
Cwoenthryth  had retained possession of Oeswalum for some four years or so under the protection of her father and uncle but in 824 Beornwulf, the new king, agreed to resolve the dispute of ownership of various manors and estates between Cwoenthryth and Wulfred at the Council of Clofso (Cloveshoe) where Oesewalum, written as Oesuualun in the charter, was one of the estates returned to Wulfred.

This protracted struggle over the possession of Oesewalum, which Wulfred apparently referred to in at least one contemporary document as a small piece of land, may indicate the previously unrecognized importance of the manor to the abbeys of Minster and Southminster. Dr. F. W. Hardman, a respected East Kent antiquarian of the early 1900’s alludes to this importance in the manuscript of an unpublished book on Nonington held in the Kent Archaeological Society (KAS) archives at MaidstoneMuseum. Dr. Hardman believed that Oesewalum was in fact an inland refuge for the inhabitants of Minster Abbey from raids by Vikings. By inference it would also have served the same purpose for inhabitants of Southminster as Dr. Hardman, in common with other antiquarians of the time, believed that Southminster and Minster on Thanet were one and the same. Dr. Hardman also believed that this use as a refuge was the origin of Nonington, with the name probably deriving from something like Nunningatun, the Nun’s manor.

In Roman times the Wantsum Channel, which separated the Isle of Thanet from the rest of Kent was two miles wide in places. The first bridge to Thanet was not built until 1485 and a ferry ran from Sandwich to the island until the mid-1700’s. Minster had been an active port until the Wantsum silted up in the 13th to 15th centuries. Oesewalum would have been well suited for use as a refuge as it was far enough from the Wantsum, five miles or so, to be safe from a quick raid from the sea but easily accessible from Minster via the port of Sandwich and then by an ancient road via Woodnesborough to Eastry and then Chillenden and then to Oesewalum. The exact location of this sanctuary at Oesewalum has yet to be positively identified,  but was most likely in the vicinity of St. Mary’s Church in Nonington.
The ancient roadway from Sandwich then runs past St. Mary’s church in Nonington to Womenswold, across to the east side of Barham, on through the Elham Valley through the old market “town” of Elham  to the abbey at Lyminge, which was successively under the control of Selethryth and Cwoenthryth.

The churches on the route also have the name of their patron saint in common with the first Minster Abbey, St. Mary the Virgin. Sandwich’s oldest church and the site of a lost convent on Strand Street which was on the Wantsum’s edge, Eastry, Nonington, Elham, and Lyminge are all dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, with Lyminge being jointly dedicated to St. Mary and St. Ethelburgha, its founder.

A Saxon (left) tries to repel a Viking raider (from a contemporary manuscript)

A Saxon (left) tries to repel a Viking raider

(from a contemporary manuscript)

The first Viking raid on Kent recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was an attack on the Isle of Sheppey in 835, but it appears that Kent had been subjected to raids from the sea since at least the 790’s. Evidence of this can be found a charter of King Offa of Mercia.
King Offa issued a charter in 792 confirming the exemption of the Church in Kent from various services, most likely given to help placate the church in Kent to accept his rule. However, one exemption the Church did not receive was from the service of “an expedition within Kent against sea-borne pagans arriving with fleets, or against the East Saxons”. This reference  in the charter is compelling evidence that raids by sea on the coast of Kent were perceived as a serious threat by the early 790’s. These “sea-borne pagans” were presumably Scandinavian in origin, either Danes or Norwegians.

These raids appear to have quickly become a problem to the nuns of  Lyminge Abbey as in 804 they were granted land for a sanctuary in Canterbury, and Lyminge suffered so badly from “Viking” incursions that the nuns moved to Canterbury taking St. Ethelburgha’s relics with them.

There were some reports of Vikings building fortifications in Kent by 811, and the situation must have become serious because when King Coenwulf  granted Archbishop Wulfred land in 822 he maintained an obligation for Wulfred to destroy fortifications built on the land by pagans, by this time almost certainly Danes.

Wulfred left his property to his kinsman, Werhard, with the specific instruction that Werhard should in his turn leave the property to ChristChurch, Canterbury. In his will written in the early 830’s Werhard states that a charity was begun by Wulfred, and that he intended to continue it as Wulfred wished. Wulfred specified that Oesewalum, again written Oesuualun, should provide seven paupers with “enough to eat be given each day as is convenient and over the year let each pauper be given twenty-six pence for clothing”.
Werhard also instructed that a mass be celebrated for his soul every day and that on his anniversary 1,200 paupers should each be given food of a loaf of bread, some cheese or butter and one penny (£.5.00 in total for 1,200 paupers, a large sum). After Werhard’s will Oesewalum seems to disappear as an entity, the name does not appear in any surviving documents.

In 851 and 854 the Danes overwintered on the Isle of Thanet and by 865 the raids were so bad and East Kent was so badly ravaged that the inhabitants offered the Vikings a large bribe to leave them in peace. However, during the negotiations the Danes changed their minds and rampaged through East Kent. Along with other minsters and abbeys in Kent  the abbey at Minster in Thanet fell into decline because of Danish incursions and its lands either fell into disuse or were sold off. It must have taken a real “frontiersman’s” mentality to have wanted to own and work land within such easy reach of the Danes.

That part of East Kent that became the Parish of Nonington must have received more than one visit from raiding Danes as it lay within easy reach of the coast. Perhaps evidence of such depredations will soon come to light?


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