Fenland Monasteries and the height of their powers

For the established monasteries across Britain, the period between 1200 and the early thirteen hundreds was a time of expansion, stability and responsibility and also a time of ‘high farming’. The Fenland Monasteries built tithe and storage barns to hold their crops; vineyards were planted; gardens & orchards were created with cherry and pear trees being popular.

In 1310 Abbot Godfrey of Peterborough began to enlarge a garden at their manor at Eye, enclosing it with a wall and making four pools within it. In 1311 he took more ground outside the wall to make an orchard, planting it with a variety of fruit trees and surrounding the whole with hedges & ditches.

Markets also boomed in this period – in numbers, trade and the income they generated for the monasteries. By 1300 Peterborough & Ramsey each had markets in half a dozen or more different places. Even the greatest houses of other orders rarely had more than a couple of markets each. Needless to say, squabbles were frequent. Many conflicts arose out of attempts to establish new markets within the hinterland of existing ones. In 1227 the burgesses of Huntingdon objected to competition from the abbot of Ramsey‘s new market at St Ives. Although the abbot of Thorney‘s market at Yaxley was 15 miles away, he also complained saying that many shipmasters we preferring to travel up the River Ouse to dock at St Ives rather than up the Nene to Yaxley.

Weekly markets were important but annual Fairs attracted buyers & sellers from a much wider area and were, therefore, more profitable. In 1249 Peterborough acquired rights to hold a fair at Oxney while by the end of the century Ramsey’s Easter fair at St Ives was of international importance with stalls erected all along the main street of the town. Disputes could be long lasting – one between Ely, by now a cathedral with a priory rather than an abbey – and St Edmund’s Abbey [in the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds] regarding a market at Lakenheath simmered for almost 100 years. In the same period Croyland Abbey maintained a gallows at a cross-road between Dry Drayton & Oakington, some 30 miles distant as the crow flies. Excavations there have found the remains of many bodies.

The great Monastic houses also had significant community responsibilities, including those related to law and order. The first reference to the Abbot’s Gaol in Peterborough is in 1275, when it is described as – ‘a court house and prison with the gaol being for felons and serious crime’. Within the ‘Liberty of Peterborough’ the Abbot answered only to the King and had the right to appoint Justices and Coroners. This upset the Sheriffs of Northamptonshire because it deprived them of their powers in the north of the county. As a result they periodically tried to interfere.  In 1274 a new Abbot – Richard of London- was appointed at Peterborough and a squabble over a crime was one of the first incidents that brings him and this conflict into perspective. At some time in 1275 a man was killed in a riot in Nassington – a village midway between Peterborough and Northampton. The Sheriff of Northampton arrested the culprits and gaoled them at Northampton. The Steward of the Liberty of Peterborough applied to the Court on this matter, won the case, and the prisoners were transferred to him in the Abbot’s Gaol. It is recorded that “the Sheriff, with all his might assailed the Liberty” and that “the Abbot took the matter to the King and the Sheriff was forbidden to interfere.”

However, the trouble was not always between the monastic hierarchy and the lay population – often it was between the houses themselves. Disputes could be long lasting – one between Ely, by now a cathedral rather than an abbey – and St Edmund’s Abbey [in the town of Bury St Edmunds] about a market at Lakenheath simmered for almost 100 years. In the same period Croyland Abbey maintained a gallows at a cross-road between Dry Drayton & Oakington some 30 miles distant as the crow flies. Excavations there have found the remains of many bodies.

During this time the monasteries were also often responsible for roads and waterways. The medieval bridge over the River Nene – the river that runs through Peterborough – at Irthingborough still shows the crossed keys of Peterborough Abbey on one of the cutwaters. Also on the Nene, on the outskirts of modern-day Peterborough, are the ‘Robin Hood’ & ‘Little John’ stones. These mark the area where stone from the quarries of Barnack and others was held prior to co-operative trading between the abbeys of Peterborough & St Edmund’s.

In this 13th century we also find the Kings and Princes of England were using the great monasteries as high class hostelries as they travelled through the country. The following is a sample of the records:

It was in 1234 that King Henry III visited Ramsey.  He arrived on the feast of St Matthias, and remained for four days. Quite when in the year he came is unclear as St Matthias has ‘days’ on February 24/5th, May 14th and August 9th!

In 1302 Edward I & his second wife Margaret of France stayed at Peterborough costing the Abbey more than £235 including the cost of jewels and other gifts. Prince Edward [later Edward II] + Piers Gaveston visited about the same time. At a later visit, by the then King Edward II, a single entertainment for him and his courtiers cost the abbey £1,543 13s. 4d.

1309 saw Isabella de Valois, wife of King Edward II, and daughter of the King of France, staying at Ramsey for eighteen days – ‘to the great expense of the Abbot [John of Sawtry] we are told!

In 1327 15 year old King Edward III, accompanied by his mother (Isabella), his brother, and his two sisters, had set out for the North when he issued a proclamation that:- ‘All the forces of his kingdom should meet him at Newcastle-on-Tyne, to commence his wars with Scotland ‘. That document is dated from Ramsey. Just to put this in context: – the invasion of the North of England by Robert the Bruce ended the war.

Edward spent Easter with his mother, his sisters, three bishops and the whole of his court at Peterborough for 10 days at a cost of £437 6s 5d. A year later, on 1st March 1328, at a Parliament at York, Edward III issued letters patent which set out the core of an agreement that Edward would sign a Treaty on 1st May 1328, which recognised the independence of Scotland with Bruce as King.

In 1330 costly Royal visits continued when Queen Isabella, now the widow of King Edward II and often referred to as the ‘She-Wolf of France’, and Princess Eleanor her daughter stayed at Ramsey Abbey for two days. Isabella had been Queen Regent with Roger Mortimer for four years but now her son, Edward III, was getting the upper hand and she was heading for the ‘safety’ of Nottingham Castle. [We’ll talk about this another day.]

In 1334 – King Edward III and his entire household ‘visited’ Ramsey for four days.

So – the country was booming, the wealth and power of the monasteries was unquestioned and everything was going reasonably well. However, things were about to change as we shall explore next week.


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