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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Legend of Esonstad

When, on a moon-clear night, on top of the dyke at Lake Lauwersmeer, you look out over the water, you just might see in the distance the spire of the former city of Esonstad above the water. A drowned city, also written as Ezonstad, and in the early-seventeenth century known as Esonstadium. The modern hamlet of Ezumazijl and the neighbourhood of Iezumbuorren remind of the name of this lost and splendid city, called Iesum in the Mid-Frisian language.

Start of the Camino de Santiago

Esonstad was located on the shores of the Lauwers bight, today called Lake Lauwersmeer. It is the River Lauwers, that flows out in the Wadden Sea, where the Milky Way galaxy begins and which shows you the way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. A glow of stars that starts at the 'Sea of the Frisians', as the Wadden Sea was named in the Early Middle Ages. Leading you via Gaul, Aquitaine, Gascony, Bask Country, Navarre, and Spain to Galicia where Saint James is buried. All this, according to none other than Charlemagne himself. In a vision, the Angel of Saint James appeared at Charlemagne and explained to him all this (Lasance 2012, Nijdam 2012).

Now the reader knows why the mythical city of Esonstad on the coast of the Wadden Sea or, indeed, the Frisian Sea, is the true starting point of the long-distance pilgrim's trail Camino de Santiago.

Besides being the true start of the Camino de Santiago, the mouth of the River Lauwers was in the year 1217 also the starting point of a large crusade fleet of Frisians departing for the Holy Land to fight (Jansen & Janse 1911). If interested in the Frisian share in the crusades, check our post Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea.

History of Esonstad

Legend has it that the city of Esonstad was built as a trading post in the year 335, or 339 by the Frisian hertoga 'duke' Odilbaldus I, who himself was seated in the city of Stavoren in the southwest of the modern province of Friesland. Back then, Esonstad was known as Waarden, also written as Waerden or Warden, and it must have been a thriving trading place. Legendary Esonstad was also a garrison place with a watch and troops to protect Frisia against raids of the heathen Norsemen.

Odilbaldus I, Duke of Frisia

In the year 357, the city burned down. Twenty years later, in 377, hertoga Udolphus Haron rebuilt the city. From then on the city is known as Esonstad, or as Mararmanos. According to others, Esonstad was not rebuilt until 834. This would have been done by chieftain Hayo Cango also known as Cammingha. Cango also had his castle built there which he named, of course, after himself: Camminghastate ‘Cammingha Burgh’.

Esonstad suffered a lot from the raids of the Norsemen and the incusrions of the wild sea. This was for example the case in the year 797, when Vikings invaded and plundered these areas via the River Lauwers. As revenge, the Frisian cities of Dokkum, Stavoren and Esonstad are said to have sent out a fleet which returned from the north with rich booty raided from the Danes.

According to the monk and Welshman Wizo Flandrensis, who travelled in 1159 through Frisia, it was around the year 800 that two big whales washed up on the shores near Esonstad during a great flood. One whale measured twelve meters in length, and the other whale was almost nine meters long. Since then, the people of Esonstad have been whale hunters. Even during the second half of the twentieth century, many young men from the northeast of the province of Friesland embarked on whaling ships (Breteler 2018). Read our post Happy Hunting Ground in the Arctic to understand the very long-standing tradition of the different Frisian lands when it comes to commercial Arctic whale hunting.

In the year 806, or 803, Esonstad also fell prey to the Saint Thomas Flood. In total, five hundred people drowned, thirty-five houses drifted into the sea and were destroyed. In addition, all the grain for the winter was lost. Maybe this must have been the historic Christmas Flood of December 26, 838, because this flood is the oldest documented flood of Frisia (check also the site of the Watersnood Museum). The Christmas Flood of 838 was documented by the contemporary Galindo from Spain, who later became known as Prudentius, and who was the bishop of Troyes in central France. He wrote that almost the whole of Frisia, the area along the Dutch coastline, was inundated with much destruction. The great flood is also recorded in the ninth-century Annals of Xanten, an abbey in Germany.

In the year 808 or 809, Danes and Norsemen unexpectedly invaded the River Lauwers region and set the city on fire. Only twenty-four houses "die van hard dak waren”, i.e. those that had tiled roofs, were spared. The remaining houses, covered with reed and straw, were lost. Esonstad was rebuilt that same year with the help of the rich city of Stavoren. Again, the cities of Esonstad and Stavoren took revenge, and they plundered Jutland and Denmark, and came back with rich booty.

Around the year 860 potestaat, i.e. magistrate ruler, Ugo (or Igo) Galema deployed a strong garrison at Esonstad. At his farewell he must have said to his soldiers:

Haadet goede wacht tyan da Nordera Oort, want vuyt da Grimma herna comt ws all quaad voort.

Keep a close watch on the north, because all evil comes from the grim corner.

In the year 948, the city seems to have suffered again from another invasion by the Norsemen. The true end of this legendary city came with the flood of 1230. Chronicler Martinus Ylstanus wrote:

Ick hebbe tot Dockum int clooster van de Premonstratensen op haar liberie aengeteekent gevonden zeer oude monumenten, waeronder oock verhaelt stondt, dat, hoe als men duizent twee hondert en dertich schreef, is Esonstad aen de Louwerts zee gelegen deur een ongehoorden zeer hoogen waetervloedt ende stormachtigen tempeest geheelijck vergongen ende wech gedreven, oeck alsoe geheelijck verdroncken, zoe datter geen tien huizen staande bleven. Die poorten ende wallen storten omme, die grachten spoelden toe, zoe dat men niet mochte zien, datter er een stadt geweest hadde, dan die seer dicke muuren van een out vergangen slot, dat Camminghaburch hiete, wandt die helft van dien was noch blijven staan.

In the library of the monastery of the Premonstratensians at Dokkum, I have found very old monuments/documents, under which it was also stated that, how in 1230, Esonstad at the Lauwers Sea perished completely and drifted away by an flood of unheard proportions and a wild tempest, so that not ten houses were left standing. The city gates and walls crumbled, the moats washed up, so that no one could see that there had ever been a city, except those very dark walls of a wrecked castle that was named Cammingha Burgh, because half of it was left standing.

Cammingha burh

Legend has it that the Cammingha Burh was rebuilt in the year 1238. At the end of the fourteenth century, this castle appears to have been taken by the Hollanders (i.e. Dutchmen) in one of the wars against Duke Albrecht of Bavaria. However, the Hollanders got into a fight with the Frisians and “in the first storm of the raging crowd” the castle was taken by the Frisians and the occupation force slaughtered.

In the year 1421, the Schieringer (i.e. a factional party during the Frisian civil war) nobleman Sikke Sjaerda was accused of teaming up with the scum in the village of Eesmerscyl (present-day hamlet of Ezumazijl) against the city of Groningen. At the same time, mention is made of freebooters who harmed commerce and shipping, especially that of the Hanseatic cities Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen. The presence of pirates in these regions in this period is, in fact, historical. Only a few decades before, the two illustrious captains of the Victualienbrüder, also Victual Brothers, Klaus Störtebeker and Godeke Michels were sailing these shores. Read our posts Yet another wayward archipelago and It all began with piracy if interested in the regional piracy history.

To combat these freebooters, troops were raised and led by the East-Frisian chieftain Ocko tom Brok. On February 2, 1422 all lands of Frisia agreed that the burh in Eesmerscyl would be destroyed. In the summer of that year, the burh was indeed taken and razed to the ground. After that, nothing is heard anymore of the Cammingha Burh. The legendary port city of Esonstad also disappears into thin air.

Eighteen little stories of Dokkum

Since Esonstad, or Iesum, had disappeared from the earth, many stories that originally were from Esonstad, were attributed over time to the town of Dokkum. Eighteen such everyday pastimes have been documented in the collection Rimen en Teltsjes 'rhymes and tales' by Justus Hiddes Halbertsma and Eeltsje Hiddes Halbertsma in the year 1871.

In conclusion

The whole story of Esonstad is without doubt fabricated by the sixteenth-century organist Andreas Cornelius from the city of Stavoren. In the year 1597, he published a chronicle called Croniicke ende waarachtige Beschrijvinge van Vrieslant ‘Chronicle and truthful description of Friesland’. The word ‘truthful’ in the title already makes you suspicious.

Of course, the legend of Esonstad has parallels with the (historic) drowned town of Rungholt in the region of Nordfriesland in the fourteenth century. Read our post: How a town drowned overnight. Or, with that of the town of Reimerswaal in the province of Zeeland (see featured image of this post), which drowned in the sixteenth century.

Today, near the hamlet of Ezumazijl near the small village of Oostmahorn, a holiday park has been built carrying the name Esonstad. It is a park designed as a copy of an old town. With this recent commercial enterprise Esonstad has become reality. Finally!


Note 1 – We took the version of the legend of Esonstad as was published in Van Anigheim tot Anjum (Idema 1977).

Note 2 - The fictional Welshman Wizo Flandrensis is part of a diaspora originating from Flanders. This is based on history. When the region of Flanders became leading in the production of broadcloth, the supply of wool to cities like Brugge, Ieper and Ghent was crucial. Wool was imported in great quantities from the British Isles, including Wales. Wool production along the coast of Flanders dates back to the Early Middle Ages, when the north-western coastal area of Flanders belonged to Frisia. Read also our post A Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders.

Suggested hiking

For information about the pilgrim trails, check the sites Santiago aan het Wad 'Santiago at the Wadden Sea' and Jabikspaad 'Jacob's path'.

Suggested music

Dua Lipa, Levitating (2020)

Further reading

Breteler, A.G., De traanjagers. Herinneringen van naoorlogse walvisvaarders (2018)

Buisman, J. & Engelen, van A.F.V. (eds.), Duizend jaar weer, wind en water in de Lage Landen. Deel 1: 764 – 1300 (1995)

Dykstra, W., Uit Frieslands volksverhalen. Van vroeger en later (1966)

Idema, H., Van Anigheim tot Anjum (1977)

Jacobs, T.J.M., Friese vorsten (2020)

Jansen, H.P.H. & Janse, A. (transl.), Kroniek van het klooster Bloemhof te Wittewierum (1991)

Lasance, A., Wizo van Vlaanderen. Itinerarium Fresiae of Een rondreis door de Lage Landen (2012)

Nijdam, J.A., ‘De gemaskerde Wizo: vervalsing, mystificatie of pastiche?’. Bespreking van: Wizo van Vlaanderen, Itinerarium Fresiae (2012)

Wiersma, J.P. (ed.), Rimen en teltsjes by Bruorren Halbertsma (1969)


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