If you are, on a moon-clear night, on top of the dike at the Lauwersmeer (Lake Lauwers) and you look out over the water, you can just see in the distance, the spire of the 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 the Lauwers bay, today the Lauwersmeer. It is the 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, leading you via Gaul, Aquitaine, Gascony, Bask Country, Navarre, and Spain to Galicia, there 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 all this to him (Wizo Flandrensis, AD 1159). And so, you know why the trail Pieterpad starts at the nearby village Pietersburen. Even more, why the mythical city of Esonstad at the coast of the Wadden Sea, or indeed the Sea of the Frisians, is the true starting point of the long-distance pilgrim’s trail the Camino de Santiago. Check also Santiago aan het Wad.
Legend has it that the city was built as a trading post in the year 339, or 335, by the Frisian hertoga ‘duke’ Odilbaldus I, who himself was seated in the city of Stavoren. Then, the town was known as Waarden, Waerden or Warden, and it must have been a thriving trading place. This legendary city would also have been a garrison place with a watch and troops to protect Frisia against invasions of the Normans.
In 357 the city burned down. Twenty years later, in 377, hertoga Udolphus Haron rebuilt the city, from then on known as Esonstad or Mararmanos. According to others, Esonstad was not rebuilt until 834. This would have been done by chieftain Hayo Cango also known as Cammingha, who also had his castle built there which he named, of course, after himself.
Esonstad suffered a lot from the Normans and the sea. This was the case in 797, when the Vikings invaded and plundered these areas via the river Lauwers. As revenge, the cities of Dokkum, Stavoren and Esonstad are said to have sent out a fleet, which returned from the north with rich booty.
According to the monk and Welshmen Wizo Flandrenis, who traveled in 1159 through Frisia, it was around the year 800 that 2 big whales washed up at the shores near Esonstad during a big flood. One whale had the size of 12 meters, and the other whale was almost 9 meters 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).
In 806, or 803, also Esonstad fell prey to the Saint Thomas flood. In total 500 people drowned, 35 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 that is the oldest documented flood of Frisia, check: Watersnood Museum). It was documented by the contemporary Galindo from Spain, who became known as Prudentius, and 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 storm flood is also recorded in the ninth-century Annals of Xanten in Germany. According to legend a piece of land containing 35 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 24 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 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 end of this legendary city came with the flood of 1230. The chronicler Martinus Ylstanus writes about this:
“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 10 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 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 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 illustrious captains of the Victualienbrüder (also Victual Brothers) Klaus Störtebeker and Godeke Michels were sailing these coasts (read our blog post: It all began with piracy).
To combat these freebooters, troops were raised and led by the East-Frisian chieftain Ocko tom Brok. And, 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 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 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.
We took the version of the legend of Esonstad as was published in Van Anigheim tot Anjum (Idema, 1977).
- Breteler, A.G., De traanjagers. Herinneringen van naoorlogse walvisvaarders (2018)
- Jacobs, T.J.M., Friese vorsten (2020)
- Lasance, A., Wizo van Vlaanderen. Itinerarium Fresiae of Een rondreis door de Lage Landen (2012)