The origin of the name Oesewalum has been the subject of discussion for many years, some scholars believe the name is derived from oisc; a deity or semi-deity, and walum; a bank or ridge, giving a literal meaning of the ridge or bank of the god(s). The connection to a semi deity may possibly derive from an association with descendants of Hengist, the founder of the Jutish Kingdom of Kent.
Tradition holds that Hengist and his brother, Horsa, led the Jutes who came to Kent from what is now Northern Germany and Denmark at the invitation of King Vortigern of the Britons to serve as mercenaries against Picts. Hengist and Horsa, whose names meant “stallion” and “horse” respectively, had a white horse standard which became the standard of the Kingdom of Kent and is now the standard of the present County of Kent. The brothers were said to be the sons of Victgilsus, whose father was Vectaand, a son of Woden or Wodin, a widely venerated pre-Christian Germanic god.
According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (ASC) the brothers landed at Ipwinesfleet (Ebsfleet) on the Isle of Thanet in 449, and King Vortigern initially gave them Thanet as payment for their services. However, the brothers soon fell out with the king and seized additional land on the mainland. This led to further conflict and in 455 the brothers fought and defeated King Vortigern at the Battle of Aegaels threp, now Aylesford in Kent. Horsa was killed during the battle which left Hengist to rule the newly acquired lands with Æsc, whom Anglo-Saxon historians variously record was either his son, or grand-son. These newly conquered lands became the Jutish Kingdom of Kent.
Hengist is said to have died around 488, and the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede believed that Hengist’s son, whom other Anglo-Saxon scholars believed was Hengist’s grand-son, was in fact called Oeric, cognomen (surname or nickname) Oisc, which is cognate with Æsc and is said to mean “god”. This would have applied to Hengist’s son and his descendants as they could claim direct descent from Woden through Vectaand. Subsequently from Oisc’s time until the direct male line died out in the late 8th or early 9th century the Kentish royal family was known as “the Oiscingas”.
Æsc also meant ash tree or ash spear or spear shaft in Old English, so the name may simply derive from Æsc walum: ash tree bank or ridge or possibly spear shaft bank or ridge. The later interpretation could mean that the ash trees growing there were noted for their suitability for use as spear shafts or that the bank or ridge ran as straight as a spear shaft, which for most of its length it does.
Oesewalum lay on the western boundary of the Hundred of Eastry and was therefore presumably part of the old kingdom, later a sub-kingdom, of Eastry (East rige-eastern province). The present Eastry Court is said to be the site of an ancient royal palace where around 666 Ecgberht (Egbert), King of Kent, allowed the murder of his two pious young cousins, Ethelbert and Ethelred (Aethelbert and Aethelred), by Thunor, a Royal advisor. After the murder Ethelbert and Ethelred’s bodies were buried in a shallow grave in the palace’s hall. Almost immediately after the burial a strange holy light appeared to emanate from the grave revealing its location and subsequently the fate of the King’s cousins.
This apparent divine intervention trouble the King’s conscience and he eventually admitted complicity in the murder of Ethelbert and Ethelred which made him liable to pay weregild (literally ‘the price of blood’, or blood-money) to their sister Æbbe, also known as Domneva.
In payment Æbbe chose to have as much land as her pet doe could encompass in a day, which amounted to some 80 sulungs on which she founded the dual monastery of Minster-in-Thanet in 670.
As for Thunor, the actual perpetrator of the double murder, he did not escape retribution as the ground is said to have opened up and swallowed him when he tried to prevent the doe from running her course. The place where Thunor met his demise was for a long time after known as “Thunner’s Leap” near Minster.
(Thunner’s Leap is said to be the Minster chalk pit, at the roundabout by the Prospect Inn. More recently it is said to have had connections with smugglers).
After two centuries or so as one of the seven most powerful kingdoms in England (the Heptarchy) Kent eventually declined and became a part of the Kingdom of Wessex around 825.
Towards the end of the 8th century Oesewalum, or at least a large part of the property there, was held by Earl Aldberht (also: Ealdbeorht, Ealdberht), and his sister, Selethryth (also: Seleðryth ,Seleðryð), Abbess of Minster on Thanet and Southminster (also:Suthminster-Lyminge Abbey at Lyminge in Kent), and was either 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-780′s. Aldbert is recorded on some documents as being a minister or advisor to Offa.
For political reasons Aldberht and Selethryth granted the property at Oesewalum to Wulfred (also Uulfred), the Archbishop of Canterbury, around 805 with the grant entailing the Archbishop’s possession of the manor after the deaths of both Aldberht and Selethryth. Selethryth is believed to have died soon after the grant, but Aldberht lived on for many years eventually entered the monastery at Folkestone and dying 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. Oswulf took the deeds to the Southminster Abbey and gave them to Cwoenthryth, who had succeeded Selethryth as Abbess of the Abbeys at Southminster and Minster.
Cwoenthryth was the daughter of Coenwulf(also Cenwulf, Kenulf, Kenwulph), King of Mercia and overlord of Kent, who was at this time involved in a long running dispute with Archbishop Wulfred over whether laymen or clergy should control religious houses.
Cwoenthryth had retained possession of Oesewalum for some four years or so under the protection of her father and uncle. Ceolwulf, Coenwulf’s brother, had succeeded to the Mercian throne in 821, but was overthrown in 823 by Beornwulf, who made Baldred (Bealdred), possibly one of his Mercian kinsmen, the King of Kent.
This loss of protection was to prove detrimental to Cwoenthryth in her dispute with Wulfred. In 824 the new king Beornwulf agreed to resolve the dispute over ownership of various manors and estates between Cwoenthryth and Wulfred at the Council of Clofso (Cloveshoe) where Oesewalum, referred to as Oesuualun in the subsequent charter, was one of the estates returned to Wulfred.
King Beornwulf of Mercia attacked the West Saxons in 825 but was badly defeated in battle at Ellandun by Ecgbert, King of Wessex. This defeat ended Mercian supremacy and changed the course of English history. Æðelwulf, King Ecgbert’s son, invaded Kent and expelled Baldred which brought Kent under the control of Wessex.
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 archives at Maidstone Museum.
Dr. Hardman believed that Oesewalum was in fact an inland refuge from “Viking” raids for the inhabitants of Minster Abbey and so by inference would also have served the same purpose for inhabitants of Southminster. In common with other antiquarians of the time, Dr. Hardman believed that Southminster and Minster on Thanet were one and the same. He also believed that this use as a refuge was the origin of Nonington, with the name deriving from something like Nunningatun, the Nun’s farm or manor.
The Wantsum Channel, which separated the Isle of Thanet from the rest of Kent was two miles wide in places in Roman times. The first bridge to Thanet was not built until 1485, and a ferry ran from Sandwich to the island as later as the 1750’s. Minster had been an active port until the silting of the Wantsum in the 13th to 15th centuries.
The Abbeys property at Oesewalum would have been well suited for use as a refuge. Some five miles or so from the then Wantsum channel it was far enough inland to be safe from a quick raid from the sea and was easily accessible from Minster via the port of Sandwich and then by road via Woodnesborough; Eastry, and Chillenden, from where it is a straight road of just over a mile to St. Mary’s church in Nonington, a possible site of the refuge as it is situated in the hamlet of Nonington, called Nunningatun [the nuns farm or manor] in the 1070’s. From the church the road continues on to Womenswold and then across the ancient Canterbury to Dover road past the east side of Barham and then along the Elham Valley through the old market “town” of Elham and on to Suthminster [Lyminge Abbey], successively under the control of Selethryth and Cwoenthryth. There is also a direct route from Nonington/Nunningitun to the walled city of Canterbury some nine miles away via Adisham and Bekesbourne where they were granted land for a sanctuary in 804.
The churches on the route also have the name of their patron saint, St. Mary, in common. The first Minster Abbey was built on the site of St. Mary’s church, St. Mary the Virgin. Sandwich’s oldest church and the site of a lost convent on Strand Street is on the Wantsum’s shore across from Minster, and Eastry, Nonington, Elham, and Lyminge are all dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, with the Lyminge church jointly dedicated to St. Mary and St. Ethelburgha, founder of the abbey there.
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 as can be seen from a charter of King Offa of Mercia given in 792. The charter, probably given to help placate the church in Kent to accept his rule, confirmed the exemption of the Church in Kent from various services with the exception of “an expedition within Kent against sea-borne pagans arriving with fleets, or against the East Saxons”, evidence that raids from the sea were already well in progress. These “sea-borne pagans” were presumably Scandinavian in origin, either Danes or Norwegians.
The raids became such a problem to the nuns of Lyminge/Suthminster Abbey that in 804 Abbess Selethryth was granted land [charter ref: s160] for a sanctuary in Canterbury by Cenwulf, King of Mercia, to serve as a refuge. The abbey suffered so badly from these “Viking” incursions that the nuns moved to Canterbury taking St. Ethelburgha’s relics with them.
By 811 there were some reports of Vikings building fortifications in Kent and the situation must have worsened 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.
Archbishop Wulfred left his property to his kinsman, Werhard, with the specific instruction that Werhard should in his turn leave the property to ChristChurch, Canterbury. Werhard’s will, written in 830, recorded the details of charities founded by Wulfred in various manors and of Wulfred’s instructions to continue with the donations. The number of beneficiaries varied from place to place.
At Oesewalum [Oesuualun] Wulfred had specified that seven paupers should be provided 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”. The Archbishop also required that a mass be celebrated for his soul every day and that on his anniversary 1,200 paupers should each be given a loaf of bread, some cheese or butter and one penny” (a total annual bequest of £.5.00 in total, a large sum. At the time an acre of land could be bought for four pence).
After Werhard’s will Oesewalum seems to disappear as an entity, the name does not appear in any known surviving documents but it appears to have remained a part of ChristChurch’s holdings as part of the Manor of Wingham.
The wide ranging ravages of the Danes during the next couple of centuries would have made a sanctuary at Oesewalum of little use. 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 bride 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 the Danes incursions and its lands either fell into disuse or were sold off, but it must have taken a real “frontiersman’s” mentality to have wanted to own and work land within reach of the Danes.