Oesewalum and the Vikings-revised 28.10.2019

Oesewalum was held by Aldberht (also: Ealdbeorht, Ealdberht) and Selethryth (also: Seleðryth ,Seleðryð), Aldberht’s sister, who were both members of the Kent nobility.  Aldberht was often described in charters as being Aldberht “comes”, which translates as a minister to the king. Selethryth was Abbess of the Abbeys of Minster on Thanet, sometimes referred to as Southminster, and Lyminge. It is now generally held that Minster-in-Thanet and Southminster are actually one and the same, and that the name Southminster was used in some documents to differentiate between the abbey at Minster on the Isle of Thanet and that at Minster on the none to distant to the west Isle of Sheppey.
Aldberht and Selethryth may have either inherited Oesewalum from their father, a Kentish noble and land-owner, or had it 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 Oesewalum after both their deaths. This grant was made around 805, and Selethryth died not long after it was made. Aldberht survived his sister and  eventually entered the monastery at Folkestone, 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.  After seizing the deeds Oswulf is said to have taken them to Southminster Abbey and given them to Cwoenthryth, the daughter of King Coenwulf of Mercia (also Cenwulf, Kenulf, Kenwulph),  who had succeeded
Selethryth as Abbess of the Abbey of Minster on Thanet, also known as Southminster.
King Coenwulf, who in addition to being the king of Mercia was also the over-lord of Kent, 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 abbey of Minster, also Southminster.

Dr Frederick William Hardman, LL.D. F.S.A.,a respected East Kent antiquarian, alludes to this importance to the abbey in the manuscript of an unpublished book on Nonington held in the Kent Archaeological Society (KAS) archives at Maidstone Museum. He believed that Oesewalum was in fact an inland refuge for the inhabitants of Minster Abbey from raids by Vikings. 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.

Over the centuries it has silted up and the Wantsum Channel is now represented by the River Stour and the River Wantsum. The River Wantsum is now little more than a drainage ditch lying between Reculver and St Nicholas-at-Wade and joins the Stour about 1.7 miles (2.7 km) south-east of Sarre. The larger River Stour discharges into the sea near Sandwich, one of the Cinque Ports. Before the silting up of the Wantum Channel the port of Sandwich, which is at the eastern end of the old Wantsum, was one of England’s most important ports.

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 proposed sanctuary at Oesewalum has yet to be positively identified,  but would most likely have been 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.

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.
In an article entitled “The Vikings come to Thanet”  in volume 63 of “The Archaeoligia Cantiana”, published in 1950, Dr.  Gordon Ward  refers to a charter issued by King Offa in 792 which confirmed, amongst other things, the exemption of the Church in Kent from various services and taxes. This charter most likely issued to help placate the church in Kent to accept his rule.
However, one exemption the Church did not receive in this charter was from  ” Army service within Kent against the heathen of the seas with their roving fleets or, if need be, in Sussex, and the building of bridges, and the defence of forts against the heathen within the confines of Kent.” This reference appears to provide 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, most likely Danes.
Dr. Ward also refers to “The History of Thomas of Elmham”, a scholarly  monk and official of the Abbey of St. Augustine in the early 1400’s whom Dr. Ward held to be an accurate recorder of abbey’s records and history, which is prefaced by a chronological list which dated the first  raid by Danish raiders on Thanet to 753, some forty years before Offa’s charter.
Dr. Gordon Ward, 1885-1962, was a doctor of medicine and a respected Kent historian. He was well known as a translator of Anglo-Saxon charters and often collaborated with Dr F.W. Hardman, 
a lawer, and also a noted East Kent antiquarian.

Seaborne Danish raiders appear to have  become a problem for the nuns of  Lyminge Abbey by the early 9th century as in 804 they were granted land   within Canterbury’s walls as a sanctuary from raids, and Lyminge itself suffered so badly from Danish incursions that the nuns eventually moved to Canterbury taking St. Ethelburgha’s relics with them.
However, Dr. Ward appears not to have subscribed to  Dr. Hardman’s theory as to the possible origins of Nonington as there is no mention in
“The Vikings come to Thanet” of Oesewalum as a refuge from Danish incursions for the nuns of Minster in Thanet and Lyminge abbeys .

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, would have raided into the neighbouring areas for supplies and booty. Oesewalum was within easy reach of Thanet, only some six or seven miles inland from the Wantsum Channel and would have without a doubt suffered from the depredations of the Danes. However, the worse was yet to come.

In late 865, the Great Heathen Army encamped in the Isle of Thanet and overwintered there. East Kent was so badly ravaged that the inhabitants offered the the invaders a large bribe to leave them in peace. However, during the negotiations the Danes changed their minds and rampaged through East Kent. In spring the following year the Danes moved on to East Anglia and from there began an invasion of the rest of England which was to last intermittently for over three decades and led to the establishment of Danish rule over large sections of eastern and northern parts of England. The famed King Aelfred managed to retain a tenuous control over part of the Kingdom of Wessex which he used as a base to begin the long fight to free England from the by then well established Danish invaders.

These Danish incursions were catastrophic for the abbey at Minster in Thanet. It fell into  a decline which eventually led to its abandonment.  All over East Kent church lands  fell into temporary disuse.  It must have taken a real “frontiersman’s” mentality to have wanted to own and work land within such easy reach of the Danes. The raids appear to have had such a detrimental effect of Kent that it seems to disappear from English history for some two decades or so after the Danish incursions of 865.

Lying as it does within easy reach of the Wantsum the area that became the old  Parish of Nonington must have received frequent visits from Danes raiders.  Perhaps evidence of their depredations will soon come to light!

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