Water has a destructive nature that is hard to contain – calm and peaceful in one moment, it can turn violent in another. These days, however, many coastal cities and regions have effective, modern protection from flooding. But what of the past? In medieval times, flood protection was crude at best, and did little to stave off the utter destruction of the rising floodwaters. One of the most devastating floods in human history occurred in 1287, in the Netherlands. Known as St. Lucia’s food, it claimed thousands of lives, and is a great insight into the vulnerability of coastal regions in ancient times.
St. Lucia’s Flood – The Great Dutch Tragedy
For centuries, the Netherlands had the nasty reputation of being rather low-lying in comparison to the neighboring sea. That is why today, we know it as the land of many canals, and equally as many islets and islands. However, not all is perfectly fine. This seaside nation is losing ground, and if the water levels continue to rise globally, many parts of this country will be forever lost under the sea. The current map of the country was not always so. In the early Middle Ages, there were many more exposed parts of the coast, and many more extant villages near the sea. But one catastrophic event changed that forever. It was a major flood, instigated by a storm tide which happened exactly on the day of St. Lucia.
A storm tide is a big threat in the North Sea. These are coastal floods connected with cyclone winds. And if all the parameters meet together – such as the timing of the tides, the path of the storm, or the depth of the sea – such a storm tide can truly wreak havoc. And in 1287 – it did.
St. Lucia’s flood occurred on 13th December 1287 AD, exactly on the day when the Dutch people celebrated the Feast of St. Lucia. A terrible storm erupted, coinciding with the tides, and creating a catastrophic coastal flood. Immense areas of the coast were quickly swallowed by the water – entire villages and cities were submerged, with great destruction and loss of life. Accurate estimates of the period state that between 50,000 and 80,000 people perished in this flood. Low sandbanks and coastal dunes could not withstand the great wave of water, and were eroded with ease. Entire plains were submerged, and those villages that were not swept away – had to be evacuated.
The Total Reformation of Dutch Landscape
The flood brought chaos to the Netherlands. Those cities that were not destroyed were now in an entirely new position – as the geography of the coast was totally changed. The water that did not recede now created a number of islands and lakes that remain to this day. Most notable was the emergence of the Zuiderzee (Southern Sea), a shallow bay that extended up to 100 kilometers inland. Before, it was only a small freshwater lake, connected to the sea by the River Vlie. St. Lucia’s flood completely destroyed this river. And this meant that the once-powerful trading ports on the river’s banks were now left to dwindle. This was the fate of the powerful trading port of Stavoren, which now no longer had a river to trade upon.
Following the St. Lucia’s flood, a new focus was shifted on the IJssel River, upon which emerged new trading cities, such as Zwolle, Deventer, Kampen, and Doesburg. It also signaled the rise of a new trading port called Amsterdam, which began from zero almost instantly after the flood’s changes. Today, that city is the Dutch capital!
Today’s Dutch capital port, Amsterdam (Alf van Beem/ CCO)
In neighboring Frisia, destruction was even greater. Many small islands that were inhabited were now gone forever, and loss of life was enormous. The coastline shifted many kilometers inland. For example, Harlingen, before the flood a landlocked city, suddenly found itself on the coast of the sea! From the flood onwards, the city became a port! And the nearby island of Griend, which had many inhabitants, a walled settlement, and a monastery, was entirely devastated, with only 10 houses left standing.
A map of the Zuiderzee works in the Netherlands. ( Public Domain )
Devastation Across the North Sea
Holland and Frisia were not the only ones affected. Coastal parts of Germany suffered as well, with entire villages in the region of East Frisia disappearing forever. Deaths were numbered in the thousands. Those that survived found the landscape changed, and their traditional way of life was no longer possible. Many survivors fled inland, where they had to begin entirely new lives.
And even those across the North Sea were not spared the effects of the storm. England’s coast suffered greatly, and its map was entirely redrawn. The town of Old Winchelsea, in its time a busy and prosperous port – was now gone for good. In the small village of Hickling, 180 villagers perished, and the water was recorded to have reached a foot above the high altar in their priory. The trading port of New Romney suddenly found itself being a landlocked town: the storm silted up the harbor, diverting the nearby river some 15 miles to the west! The level of the land in the town rose by 5 inches – such was the amount of silt thrown at it.
And in historic Hastings, the storm caused half of the cliff to tumble down, destroying great parts of the extant Norman Castle. The town’s days as a busy port were over ever since, as the protective inlet was wiped away by the storm. One of England’s major ports, Dunwich (once a capital of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of the East Angles ), began its rapid decline around this time. The storm of 1287 was the final nail in its coffin – coastal erosion and flooding ended its days as a leading coastal town. The river which was its lifeline shifted several kilometers to the north. Dunwich was gradually abandoned ever since, and is now a simple village of 180 inhabitants – where once it had over 3,000.
Untamed Wrath of the Nature
Nature is unpredictable. One day all might seem fine, and the next – tragedy erupts. Such is the unpredictable character of mother nature, and those living by the coasts of the North Sea could never know when something so fierce could hit. In 1287, their fears came true.
It can be safely said that St. Lucia’s Flood is one of the biggest catastrophes in the history of Europe. With more than 50,000 people dead and drowned, with dozens of villages erased from the face of the Earth, and geographical maps completely redrawn, we can safely say that this event was one of nature’s fiercest fit of rage. And from it, people learned valuable lessons to defend themselves from future floods.
Top image: A storm tide in the Netherlands caused a devastating flood in 1287. Source: Zacarias da Mata /Adobe Stock
By Aleksa Vučković
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