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A Monk Drowned in the Fens

1104

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The Annals of the Abbey of Thorney recorded important events for the monks of Thorney Abbey. In 1104 they stated a monk named Master Walter, and five servants, were shipwrecked and drowned in the mere called Saltana. Mere is an old name for a lake. The lake, now drained, was probably south of Whittlesey. The annals do not state how the monk drowned, but monastic clothing is not particularly well-suited to swimming.





Saved by the Bells

1727-1781

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Living on Westgate in the Mansion House, Matthew Wyldebore was Peterborough’s MP. He lost his way in the Fens in the dark and fortunately heard the bells from St. John’s Church and was able to find his way home safely. To give thanks to the church he bequeathed £1 for the bell ringers to ring the bells on the anniversary of his death and for the vicar to give a sermon to give thanks for his safe return home. He died on 15th March 1781 and the bells still ring on that date to remember him.





Expanding Settlements in the Nene Park Area

800BC-43AD

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During the Iron Age, tribal culture began to take hold and people needed to defend their territory against their rivals. The tribe which held the Nene Valley, the Corieltauvi, may have had allegiances to the large and powerful tribe to the south, the Catuvellauni, but we don’t know about their other neighbouring tribes. The settlement within Nene Park (mainly on what is now Coney Meadow at Ferry Meadows) became more defensive, as we can see on geophysical survey results. Ditches almost a kilometre in length were built across a meander in the River Nene, so that the settlement would be protected on all sides. The Iron Age is also when we can first start to see similarities between how people lived then and now: the Celts wore linen and dyed wool, used coins as currency and enjoyed continental luxuries, including Roman wine.





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The Iron Age

800 BC- 43AC

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The Iron Age is the last of the Three Ages of British later prehistory. It begins with the arrival of the new metal, iron, around 800 BC and ends with Roman troops landing on the shores of Kent, in AD 43. The Romans gave the British writing and with writing came recorded history – which is why prehistory is said to cease with their arrival. People in Iron Age Britain are sometimes described as Celts and they spoke Celtic languages, which survive today in Breton, Welsh, Gallic (Scotland) and Gaelic (Ireland). The working of iron requires greater control of very high temperatures which led to improvements in pottery firing and less regionalised pottery styles.  The Iron Age saw the  appearance of ditched enclosed farmstead-type settlements as at Itter Crescent, open settlements characterised by roundhouses and pits as at Fengate, and the building of the hillforts like the earthworks at Newborough. Societies were hierarchically organised in this period, having moved from the extended clan to the chiefdoms and the earliest named rulers. These are the tribes the Romans encountered when they came to Britain in the first century. The best known of these rulers was Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe/kingdom. She led a popular rebellion against Roman rule, in AD 60-1. Environmentally, the Iron Age sees increased flooding and higher groundwater levels in the fens.





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Flag Fen

1300-900 BC

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Flag Fen is a superbly preserved Bronze Age structure. It consisted of a causeway whose posts were arranged in five rows running in a straight line from Fengate to Northey a distance of a kilometre. In the middle of this causeway was a huge wooden platform. The construction of this causeway started in 1300 BC (at a time when Tutankhamen ruled Egypt) and continued for 400 years. The structure was probably a boundary as well as a causeway and may also have formed a defensive palisade to protect the richly resourced Flag Fen Basin. It is, however, likely that it was also used as a shrine or temple, as hundreds of offerings of high status and valuable items, bronze tools, weapons and jewellery, were offered to the waters between the great posts. This continued long after the causeway itself had gone out of use.





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When Cow Dung Fuelled the City

1698

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When Celia Fiennes travelled through the city in 1698 she noted that local people near 'Mrs St John's house' (Thorpe Hall) were using cow dung for fuel: 'as I passed the Road I saw upon the walls of the ordinary peoples houses and walls of their out houses, the Cow dung plaister'd up to drie in Cakes which they use for fireing, its a very offensive fewell (fuel), but the Country people use Little Else in these parts.'  Cow dung was a free and effective fuel for the people of rural Peterborough, but the smell would not have been popular! There had been a shortage of wood since the 1550's, so burning cow dung was a sensible alternative for the very poor who were unable to afford expensive wood supplies, or cut down their own wood. Other alternatives for fuel would have included peat, charcoal and coal, none of which were particularly pleasant on the eyes or lungs. Animal dung has been used as a fuel since prehistoric times, with evidence from the Ancient Egyptians using dung as fuel and even references to it being used in the bible. Many areas of the world use animal dung as fuel.





Notes and Queries About the Fenlands

1889

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The journal 'Fenland Notes and Queries' was first published in April 1889 and printed in Peterborough by George Caster. The journal, published quarterly, was created to bring together facts and stories relating to the fens. The information was provided by a large group of contributors, many of them clergy, some women and some anonymous. The fenland area covered by the journal included the counties of 'Huntingdon, Cambridge, Lincoln, Northampton, Norfolk and Suffolk.' (1) Intended to be of interest to antiquarians, the journal also proved popular with 'others interested in the history and folklore of the district.' (2) The journal, or magazine as it was termed, was compiled into volumes, the first covering the years 1889 to 1891. In total seven volumes were created, the last completed in 1909. The first issues were edited by W. H. B. Saunders, who was succeeded by Rev. W. D. Sweeting of Maxey. Thankfully all of the volumes are available to read online and can be searched easily for places and people. There are many references to Peterborough and surrounding villages which can tell us more about life in the past. In Volume Seven the lyrics and notes are written relating to a May Day Garland Song which it was claimed was 'sung by the children when carrying the garlands round the city'. (3) The recording of songs is an often forgotten element of recording and one of the many features that makes the volumes so valuable.
References
(1) Fenland Notes and Queries, Vol I, Ed W. H. Bernard Saunders, Publisher G. Caster, 1991, preface (2) Fenland Notes and Queries, Vol I, Ed W. H. Bernard Saunders, Publisher G. Caster, 1991, p2 (3) Fenland Notes and Queries, Vol VII Ed. Rev. W. D. Sweeting, Publisher G. Caster, 1909, p24-25





The First Neolithic Lowland Hut Built

3000BC

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The first people to discover the benefits of Fengate were Neolithic farmers in around 3,000BC or 5,000 years ago. Fengate is to the east of modern Peterborough, now mainly industrial land, but perfect farmland in the past. The neolithic people farmed the area and built a small rectangular lowland hut. The hut was wooden and around seven metres square, so large enough to be a home, although there is no evidence to prove this. However, a few years after the hut was discovered, archaeologists found a family of Neolithic skeletons in a grave nearby. It is likely that they were the people who lived in the hut, or at least used it. The adult male in the group of skeletons appears to have been murdered: was he killed defending his wooden hut? The hut is the only Neolithic example found in the Fens, but similar huts have been discovered in other parts of England, primarily in the south and east.  





Saint Pega Dies

719

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Saint Pega was the sister of Saint Guthlac of Crowland Abbey and the daughter of Mercian nobility. Her name is remembered in the village of Peakirk, or Pega's kirk, an earlier word for church. Pega created a hermitage in what is now Peakirk. The hermitage was based on the edge of the desolate fens, close to Car Dyke. From here she could guarantee a quieter life and one full of many challenges due to the boggy fens. The church of Saint Pega was built after her life, but contains the base of a Saxon cross. It also contains fragments of a monument similar to the Hedda Stone in Peterborough Cathedral. These were said to have been created in her honour. She was said to have sailed to her brother's funeral in Crowland, along the river Welland. Whilst there she cured a blind man from Wisbech. Sometime after the funeral Pega travelled to Rome. She died there in 719. It is rumoured that Pega's heart was returned to the village and kept in a box there as a relic. Her saints day in 8th January. Picture attribution: John Salmon / St Pega, Peakirk - Stained glass window





Maxey Castle Built

1370

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Maxey Castle was built by Sir William de Thorp around 1370 and was a small defensible castle. The castle buildings have long disappeared, but many documents relate to the house and land. There are remaining earthworks that hint at the former majesty of the site which include a moat and fish ponds. The castle, or manor, sat on an island in the middle of a large moat, which remains on three sides. A drawing exists of the castle from 1543 suggesting it consisted of a keep or tower surrounded by high stone walls and towers.  However, it was only in use for a couple of hundred years before falling into disrepair. Some of the stones may have gone to Conington and been incorporated in a castle there. (1) Documents in national and local record collections detail the leasing of lands around Maxey Castle to Richard Cecil by Henry VIII who was also 'Constable or Warden of Maxey Castle and Bailiff of the lordship of Maxey'. (2) Later the lands were leased to William Cecil by Princess Elizabeth; items leased included 'Ladiebridgclose' in Maxey and the 'greate garden of Le Marre' (3) which was part of the grounds of Maxey Castle. They originally belonged to Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, who was Henry VIII's grandmother and owned many properties in the area. The site is scheduled and in private hands, so it is not possible to view the moat, which is now obscured  by trees. However, a public footpath takes walkers close to old fish ponds belonging to the castle. References:
  1. 'Parishes: Conington', in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 3, ed. William Page, Granville Proby and S Inskip Ladds (London, 1936), pp. 144-151. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/hunts/vol3/pp144-151 [accessed 23 November 2018].
  2. Northamptonshire Archives F (M) Charter/2285
  3. Northamptonshire Archives F (M) Charter/2286