A brief history of the Great Fenland Monasteries – before the Normans

The story of the Great Fenland Monasteries has been told many times in many ways over many centuries.  This telling is my way and comes as a result of my ten years as a tutor for the WEA (Workers Education Association). I presented multi-session courses across much of East Anglia and this story was one of most popular. As many of the groups were in the Fenlands I must admit that I learned a heck of a lot from my students.  Some was based on what they told me – and a lot more was the result of them asking questions that caused me to do more researching!

I no longer do the talks but I still research and learn the stories.  The following over the next few weeks is the combined result.

In the Beginning – Saxons, Danes and Saxons

A few random finds with the Chi Ro mark show there had been a Roman Christian presence in the Fenland area. Then came the, so called, ‘Dark Ages’. The period from the mid 7th century to the Danish raids of 870 is often called the ‘Age of the Saints’. They certainly had an impact on Fenland.

The first undisputed Christian church in the Fenlands was at Medeshamstede [Peterborough]. The local chronicles link the foundation to Peada, the first Christian king of Mercia. Bede credits the foundation to Saxulf well before 673. Whoever was the founder, their Christian teaching would have been based on the Ionian – Lindisfarne Celtic style, a very austere life-style with rigorous discipline and a daily round of continuous worship? Medeshamstede was probably a ‘double monastery’ as 7th century burials of both sexes have been found. But why was it built here? There are two theories. There was cornbrash rock for a firm base; it was on the fen edge with food sources & waterways; Roman road to the west; close to the powerful kingdom of East Anglia. It could also have been a ‘worthless’ bit of land Peada was happy to give away.

Ely was the second foundation – and the first ‘saintly’ monastic settlement in the Fenlands. We have nothing to tell us about the first buildings, but we do know quite a lot about the life of the founder of the monastic settlement. Etheldreda – or, more properly, Ethelthrith – was the third and most celebrated of the saintly daughters of King Anna of East Anglia. Anna was a Christian who did much for the conversion of his own kingdom, and that of Wessex. His chief enemy was Penda, pagan King of Mercia & father of Paeda..

Etheldreda held a personal dowry estate at Ely, & after a second, political marriage to 14 year old Egfrith, second son of Oswiu, King of Northumbria went wrong she settled there and created a double monastery with her as Abbess. On her death in 679 she was followed by her sister Sexburga as Abbess. In 696 Etheldreda’s body was taken from its tomb and found, not only undestroyed, but with a youthful freshness which had long departed from the face of the living Etheldreda. Many miracles were wrought at her side and, as her successors were princesses of the same family, the abbey of Ely was, for many years, very famous and very rich.

The first religious site at Crowland comes from the story of St Guthlac as told by later recorders. The result of Guthlac’s ‘trials, tribulations and piety’ made Crowland a place where ‘miracles’ could happen. The claims that future King Ethelbald sought Guthlac’s advice both before & after Guthlac’s death, & that when he became King he gave extensive lands to the monks of Crowland, may or may not be true. The nearby village of Peakirk is named after the hermitage that we are told was founded there by Guthlac’s sister Pega. Nothing of any original buildings remain.

Despite this – the Saints behind Crowland & Ely; the might and influence of Medeshamstede including its associated site at Thorney – all were destroyed, and virtually all the incumbents killed, in 870 by the raiding Danes – the Vikings.

Desolation covered the whole area.

The sites went into a century of disuse. Nature took them back – but the memories remained.

Three men combined to drive the re-foundation of monastic life in England – King Edgar, St Dunstan & St Aethelwold. In the early 10th century Glastonbury was a popular place for Christian pilgrimage & also of Christian learning. The young Dunstan was educated there & then joined his uncle Athelm, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the royal court of King Athelstan. He took holy orders in 943. Aethelwold also became a member of Aethelstan’s royal household and was ordained a priest by Bishop Aelfheah of Winchester around 938. At the death of Athelstan Aethelwold withdrew from Court life & became a monk at Glastonbury. When Edgar succeeded to the English throne in 963 all pieces were in place for the re-formation of monastic life to begin.

It can be argued that Crowland was the first of the old monasteries to be re-founded. We are told that in 948 the Northumbrians rebelled & King Edred sent his chancellor Turketyl to resolve the problem. On his journey he came upon the ‘old monastery’ of Croyland where three aged monks greeted him & showed him the relics of Saint Guthlac. Turketyl promised aid to the monks & appealed to Edred for help. In due time Turketyl became Abbot of Crowland – but probably much later than the year 941 quoted in the Crowland Abbey official guide.

Hugh Candidus – a contributor to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – records the 963 re-foundation of the monastery at Medeshamstede, telling how Aethelwold, was instructed by God to go to the land of the Middle Angles to restore to its former state a certain ancient monastery of St Peter. Aethelwold reached Oundle and thought he had found the place. In a dream he ‘was told’ to go further along the river until he came to the very walls of a burnt monastery. There he found stalls of cattle & sheep and the whole place filled with foulness and unclean. Meadshamstede grew; became a fortified Saxon town and, as a result, changed its name to Burgh – often recorded as Burch. In 972 Dunstan consecrated the new church of Burgh, which became increasingly wealthy, with no little help from its collection of Holy Relics – so that it became known as Gildenburgh.

After his visit to Medeshamstede, Aethelwold moved on & set in progress the repair of the church in Ancarig [an island of recluses or solitaries]. However, in the years since the Danish events the name had been converted to the English tongue and, by virtue of the fact that thorns grew all around the old site, it was now known as Thorney. Aethelwold ‘bought the place for a price and made it fit for monks’, installing as their Abbot Godman. When the new abbey was built Aethelwold consecrated it in 972 & endowed it with ‘the possessions of all good things’, including land.

According to Hugh Candidus, Aethelwold next went on to Ely and, ‘with a great sum of money he bought it, as he had bought all the others, of King Edgar, settling there no small company of monks over whom he ordained his reeve Byrhtnoth as abbot. He then built anew a fair and goodly monastery, richly endowed with the possessions of lands, and confirmed in the enjoyment of the privilege of liberty forever, commending it also to Almighty God.

The new foundation received its charter from King Edgar in 971. Transferred in the charter was a right of the abbey to an annual gift of 10,000 eels from Upwell & Outwell which had previously been due to the King.

There had not been a religious community at Ramsey in the pre-Danish time. There seems no reason for doubting the tradition of its foundation, about the year 969, by Aylwin, foster-brother of King Edgar, and duke of East Anglia. The story goes that Aylwin met St. Oswald of Worcester, the patron of the monastic revival of that period, at Glastonbury and, encouraged by his praise of the regular life, confided to him that he had already erected a hermitage on the isle of Ramsey, under the guidance of the blessed Benedict himself.

Delighted at the news St. Oswald promised to add to the company twelve monks from Westbury, and a prior experienced in the observance of the holy rule. A wooden chapel was built and, in 974, the house was dedicated to Our Lady, St. Benedict and all holy virgins. For twenty-four years from the foundation, St. Oswald himself was nominally abbot, but the affairs of the abbey were really managed by the two priors Ger­manus and Aednoth.

The monastery was generously endowed by Aylwin, by his wife, by St. Oswald and other benefactors during the first few years of its existence, and all its privileges were confirmed by charter of King Edgar before his death in 975. Before the close of the 10th century Ramsey was a notable monas­tery, famous for its seemly order and disci­pline, and the children of many noble families were sent to be educated within its walls. Three of its monks became bishops of Dor­chester during the 11th century, and another was made abbot of Evesham and afterwards bishop of London.

All these new foundations were created as male only monasteries following the Rule of St. Benedict. Presented in 73 chapters the Rule laid down the pattern of life, work & worship for the monks of the order, not austere but very structured and controlled.


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