Legend of Esonstad
When, on a moon-clear night, on top of the dike at Lauwersmeer (Lake Lauwers), 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.
Esonstad was located at the shores of Lauwers Bay, today called Lauwersmeer. It is the River Lauwers where the Milky Way galaxy starts 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 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 (Carolus Magnus, Karl der Große, Karel de Grutte, Karel de Grote) himself. In a vision, the Angel of Saint James appeared at Charlemagne and explained all this to him. This story about Charlemagne is documented by the Welshman Wizo Flandrensis in the year 1159.
Now the reader knows why the mythical city of Esonstad at the coast of the Wadden Sea or, indeed, the Sea of the Frisians as it was called in the Middle Ages, is the true starting point of the long-distance pilgrim’s trail Camino de Santiago. For information about the pilgrim trails, check the sites Santiago aan het Wad ‘Santiago at the Wadden Sea’ and Jabikspaad ‘Jacob’s path’.
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 modern province Friesland. Back then, Esonstad was known as Waarden, also written as Waerden or Warden, and it must have been a thriving trading place. Legendary city Esonstad was also a garrison place with a watch and troops to protect Frisia against invasions of the heathen Normans.
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 Normans and 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 Welshmen Wizo Flandrenis, who traveled in 1159 through Frisia, it was around the year 800 that two big whales washed up at the shores near Esonstad during a great flood. One whale had the size of twelve metres, and the other whale was almost nine metres long. It is since then, that the people of Esonstad are whale hunters. And, indeed, even during the second half of the twentieth century, many young men from the northeast of province Friesland embarked on whaling ships (Breteler, 2018). But also read our blog 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 aslo fell prey to the Saint Thomas flood. In total five hundred people drowned, thirty-five houses were destroyed, and all the grain for winter was lost. Maybe this must have been the historical Christmas Flood of December 26, 838, because this flood is the oldest documented flood of Frisia (check also the sit 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 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. According to legend, a piece of land containing thirty-five houses of Esonstad drifted into the sea.
In the year 808 or 809, the Danes and Normans 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 pludered Jutland and Denmark, and came back with rich booty.
Around the year 860 potestaat, i.e. magistrate ruler, Ugo Galema deployed a strong garrison at Esonstad. At his farewell he must have said to his soldiers:
“Houdet goede wacht tegen da Noordera Oort, want uit da Grimma Herna comt alle queet 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 Normans. The true end of this legendary city came with the flood of 1230. The 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.
Legend has it that the Cammingha Burgh 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. the 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 scums 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. Presence of pirates in these regions in this period is, in fact, historical. Only a few decennia before, the two illustrious captains of the Victualienbrüder, also Victual Brothers, Klaus Störtebeker and Godeke Michels were sailing these coasts. 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 burgh in Eesmerscyl would be destroyed. In the summer of that year, the burgh was indeed taken and razed to the ground. After that, nothing is heard anymore of the Cammingha Burgh. The legendary port city of Esonstad also disappears into thin air.
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 Nordfriesland, Germany in the fourteenth century. Read our blog post: How a town drowned overnight. Or, with that of the town of Reimerswaal in province Zeeland, the Netherlands (see featured image of this blog post), which drowned in the sixteenth century.
Today, near the hamlet of Ezumazijl at 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 real, 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 Welshman Wizo Flandrensis is of course part of a diaspora originating from Flanders. When Flanders became leading in the production of broadcloth, the supply of wool to cities like Brugge, Ieper and Ghent was crucial. Wool was important in great quantities from the British Isles, including Wales. Wool production along the coast of Flanders dates back to the Early Middle Ages, when parts of West Flanders were part of West Frisia. Read also our post A Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders.
Breteler, A.G., De traanjagers. Herinneringen van naoorlogse walvisvaarders (2018)
Buisman, J. & Engelen, van A.F.V. (ed), Duizend jaar weer, wind en water in de Lage Landen. Deel 1: 764 – 1300 (1995)
Idema, H., Van Anigheim tot Anjum (1977)
Jacobs, T.J.M., Friese vorsten (2020)
Lasance, A., Wizo van Vlaanderen. Itinerarium Fresiae of Een rondreis door de Lage Landen (2012)