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Lost and Layered Histories

This spring, the Hull History Centre is hosting an exhibition which places the medieval history of Kingston-upon-Hull alongside that of its neighbour: Ravenser Odd, an island that emerged at the mouth of the Humber in the 1230s. Dr Emily Robinson (University of Sussex) is co-curator of  the exhibition ‘Hull/Ravenser Odd: twin cities sunken pasts’ with Dr Kathryn Maude (The National Archives), on display at the Hull History Centre until 30 May 2024.


Emily writes: Both towns became Royal Boroughs on the same day: 1 April 1299. But while this was the first of many Charters for Hull, leading eventually to its recognition as a city, Ravenser Odd did not survive to enjoy the same fate. By the end of the 1350s, it had ceased to exist -- a victim of the storms of the Little Ice Age, which repeatedly overwhelmed its flood defences, until eventually it was ‘annihilated’ by the waters of the sea and the Humber.


In putting together this exhibition, the question of survivals and traces has been at the forefront of our minds. As a Royal Borough, the records of Ravenser Odd were kept centrally and so outlived the island itself. We have manorial accounts, wills, and property valuations; letters between the King and the burgesses, and from the king on behalf of the burgesses to foreign rulers; and royal inquiries into both the conduct of its citizens and the state of its flood defences. And we have the Chronicle of Meaux Abbey, which gives a particularly gruesome account of the final days of the island, which its author deemed a divine punishment for the islanders’ ‘wicked works and piracies’. And yet, there are few material traces of the island itself. We do not even know where it stood; a University of Hull search for its physical site has so far proved inconclusive.


Hull’s story is rather different. Although only a tiny part of the medieval town survives (the rest lost to dockland development in the nineteenth century and catastrophically heavy bombing in the twentieth) its outlines can still be seen beneath the shape of the contemporary city. We were, therefore, delighted to be able to display a copy of the Historic Towns Trust map of the city as part of the exhibition. It shows where the medieval walls ran, and where the houses of prominent merchants stood – some of whom had links to, or perhaps even roots in, Ravenser Odd. Most famously, William de la Pole was said by the Chronicle of Meaux Abbey to have been ‘instructed at Ravenser Odd in the knowledge of merchandise’. This is apt, because the de la Pole family appeared apparently from nowhere, and became extremely rich and powerful. Just like the island itself! Several de la Pole houses are shown on the map – as is the Abbot of Meaux’s hall.


We might even be able to see some of these people in the surviving fabric of medieval Hull. Hull Minster, formerly Holy Trinity Church, has a chantry founded by wool merchant and mayor of Hull, Richard de Selby, and his brother in law, Richard Ravenser, Archdeacon of Lincoln. It is likely that the effigies on a nearby tomb show de Selby and his wife, Emma Ravenser. Both families can be traced to Ravenser Odd. There is also a De la Pole chantry and one for another Ravenser Odd family: the Rotenheryngs.


As a lost town, Ravenser Odd forces us to think about the relationship between the specificity of place and the mystery of absence. But, of course, this is true of all history – and perhaps of local history in particular. The interest is always (at least partly) based on the contrast between what is and what was. The Historic Towns Trust maps are fascinating because of the way they layer time over space. Watching people move around our exhibition, I have seen the way they are drawn to the map: how they slowly work out what it is showing them, and begin to look for the landmarks they know, and to add on this new historical information to their own memories of those places.


While the presence of a busy, prosperous island off the coast of the present-day Spurn Point remains almost inconceivable, the map helps us to imagine its citizens as real people, walking the streets of medieval Hull. We might simultaneously visualise their successors (perhaps even descendants) treading the same paths, even as the buildings which line those streets have changed around them.



Emily will be giving a free public talk on ‘Ravenser Odd: revisiting Hull’s sunken twin’ at the Hull History Centre 12.30pm, 21 May. Call 01482 317500 to book. A free public event ‘Imagining Ravenser Odd’, will take place at the Humber Street Gallery, Hull at 7pm on 21 May. Online registration required.


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