History and the Fens


This is a work in progress. Please note that I live in Australia and have relied on various sources, some of which are old and may be incorrect.

The Fens encompass the south eastern portion of Lincolnshire, the northern part of Cambridgeshire, the south western portion of Norfolk, the north eastern corner of Suffolk, the north western part of Huntingdonshire, and the north eastern tip of Northamptonshire. The total area covering 680,000 acres. It contains the lower drainage basins of the River Witham and Welland in lower Lincolnshire and the River Nene and Great Ouse in Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire. On a lesser extent it also forms the lower drainage basin of the Little Ouse, bordering in parts, Norfolk and Suffolk.

The Fens have played a major part in English history. Places like Crowland, Wisbech, March and Ely crop up again and again in the unfolding of English history. The early history of the Fens, as for England as a whole is sketchy as recorded history starts at the time of the Roman era. The Fens in terms of geology, language, place names, have been shaped by the invasions or immigration of various people, over the many thousands of years.

The first invaders of the Fens and what was to become the island of Briton were possibly the Celts, then the Romans, and after their civilisation floundered, the Angles and Saxons took there place. Then came the Danes (Vikings), then lastly the Normans. The shaping of the Fens now came from within England itself, especially around the reign of Henry VIII in the fifteenth century and later in the seventeenth during the reign of James I, Charles I, Oliver Cromwell during the Civil wars period.

During the seventeenth century another influx of people came to the Fens. Either they were Scottish or Dutch prisoners or the Huguenots who were seeking asylum from the Protestant persecutions in mainland Europe.

Another major influence on the Fens is Christianity. The Angles converted to Christianity around the seventh century, but they were invaded by the pagan Danes, then Christianity flourished again with the Normans. The Christians built great Abbeys and Cathedrals around the Fens, they being Crowland, Thorney, Peterborough, Ramsey, Chatteris and Ely. Peterborough and Ramsey are located behind Carrs Dyke, but the rest of them were built on the high ground, which became Island from the ninth to eleventh century after the flooding of the Fens. 

At the end of the last ice age, the chalk hills of Dover were connected to Calias by a land bridge. The Thames flow north into the North Sea to join up with the Rhine. The Fens rivers would have joined the Thames on it's path. The sea level was much lower, so the Fens rivers would have been fast flowing, and coming through timber forest. Traces of these forest are seen in archaeological records under the peat of the present Fens. Over the next few thousands of years, the sea levels became higher flooding the area of the Fens, and thus beginning the battle between the waters of the Fens rivers and the North Sea.

The Iberian races are considered by some sources to be one of the earliest inhabitants of Britain, dating back before the bronze age. In this era the Icknield Way was walked along, being a track few the once heavily forested Briton . It runs from near Dersingham in Norfolk all the way to Avebury in Wiltshire, it runs close to the eastern border of the Fens and allowed commerce's to flow too and from the early inhabitants of the Fens and the neighbouring chalk hills in Norfolk an Suffolk and the inhabitants much further west in England.  The Celts invaded England from the sixth century BC. One tribe of Celts who invaded in a second wave were from the tribe called the Brythons, thus giving the island of Briton it's name and the inhabited of this island being the Britons. From the intermixing of the Iberians and the Celts, such tribes such as the Iceni would be formed. The routes of invasion and the intermixing of races would have been made up and down the Icknield Way .

The Roman name for or description of the Fens was Metaris Estuarium, or River Estuary. But instead of it being a river estuary, it is actually a silted up bay of the North sea, the Wash being the last part of this bay. The Roman occupation of the Fens spaned from the age of the Roman conquest, completed in 47AD until 409AD, when the Roman empire was near it's end. By some sources, they are accredited with the construction of Carrs dyke and the sea walls that protected the Fens from the waters of the Wash, but these constructions may have been built before the Roman era.

The Iceni were a tribe of the early Britain's, that endured the Roman occupation. They fled into the Fens for refuge during the invasion by the Angles from the North and the Saxons from the South in the fifth century. In the refuge of the Fens the Iceni  formed themselves in the Girvii

The Angles were a tribe of people from the area of Europe which would later become Denmark. England derives it's name from the Angles as the Engle-land. The Angles, along with the Jutes and Saxons started invading England in the mid fifth century and continues into the sixth century. As with the Celts , these tribes use the Icknield Way and the Ouse as one avenue for invasion into Briton. The Angles formed the rival Kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, but later the Angles and Saxon would intermix. The kingdom of East Anglia converted to Christianity in the late seventh century, thus causing a division between itself and the Kingdom of Mercia which was still Pagan. The river Cam, Ouse and the Fens formed the boarder between the two Kingdoms. It came to a head between the King Panda of Mercia and King Anna of East Anglia. King Anna ruled from Exning in Suffolk, not far from Ely. King Anna's daughter was Etheldreda, who was the queen of the King of Northumbria, before she fled her husband and returned to her home in the Fens. She founded a Monastery on the Isle of Ely.

The Danes along with the Norwegians, together referred to as the Vikings (Pirates), began raiding Europe and England in 735. In 865 the Danes led together by Halfdan and Ivarr the Boneless landed in East Anglia. They then took their Army up to the north of England, invading Northumbria. They then descended onto East Anglia again in 869 to 870, and with this raid, ended the Angle-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia. In the early tenth century under the reign of Edward the Elder, the English fought back, taking East Anglia, then Lincolnshire and other nearby counties. In 1005 and the 1010 the Danish raided east Anglia again and by 1016 the Danish had defeated the English with King Canute (Cnut) ruler of England.

Under Construction. The Fens was the last area in England captured by William the Conqueror. It was at Ely that Hereward the Wake made his last stand against the forces of the Conqueror. It is largely due to the geology of the Fens in this period that the Fens was the last area in England conquered. When the Danes conquered two centuries prior the Fens were not as waterlogged as they were to become, but by the times the Normans came, the Fens were flooded with only a few Islands above the water. William the Conqueror built a castle at Wisbech during his campaign against Hereward the Wake and his followers, but after inducements from the conqueror, Hereward the Wake followers turn to the conqueror, though this did not necessary help them since they were deceived by the conqueror and had to pay a large fine. After this work was started on Ely Cathedral.

The first Civil War was fought from 1642 to 1646, the major event that took place in the Fens during this war was the breaking of the Dykes by order of Parliament. The second Civil War was fought from 1648 to 1649, with the Fens playing a larger part. In the Battle of Dunbar, Scotland in 1652 and naval battles against the Dutch fleet in 1653, England captured many Scottish Soldiers and Dutch sailors. Some of these prisoners were sent to work in reclaiming the Fens.

The Huguenots were French or Flemish Protestants who fled the religious persecution of Louis XIV. many seek asylum in England. Some of the Huguenots were given asylum by the Earl of Bedford and settled in the Fens around Whittlesey, Eye and Thorney from the 1650's. Some of the Huguenots who had settled first at Sandtoft in the Isle of Axeholme in northern Lincolnshire, also relocated to the Fens from the 1680's. In 1652 the Huguenots started holding a French congregation at Thorney. Large numbers of them rallied to the call of Cornelius Vermudian after the first Civil War in the drainage of the Fens.

662: Thorney Abbey is founded, later sacked by the Danes and refounded in 870.

1204: Lynn was granted a charter from King John (1167-1216) of England.

1216: According to legend, on the 13th of October in 1216, King John (1167-1216) lost his royal treasure in the sands close to the Well Stream. This treasure was in a caravan which was attempting to cross the sands between Cross Keys in Norfolk and Sutton Cross in Lincolnshire.

1537: Lynn was renamed King's Lynn (Lynn Regis) by a charter of Henry VIII.

1584: John Freckenham died in Wisbech Castle where he was imprisoned. Born in Worcestershire, he became the last Abbot of Westmister, was friends with Elizabeth I, and served time in the Tower of London for "railing agaist changes."

1630: It was from this time that Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1683) was contracted by the Earl of Bedford to drain the Great Fen or Bedford Level in Cambridgeshire creating the Old Bedford river and Forty Foot drain.

1642: The dykes build by Cornelius Vermuyden were broken by order of Parliament during the civil war.

1649: Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1683) was commisioned to recalim the Bedford Level Cambridgeshire, he created the New Bedford river.

c. 1652: French Huguenot ministry begin at Thorney Abbey.

c. 1722: Peckover House was built on the North Brink. It was and still is the finest house in Wisbech.

1760: Thomas Clarkson was born on this day at Wisbech, and educated at Cambridge, he would go on to be a leading abolitionist in the fight to end slavery.

1832: The present Denver sluice was laid to drain 800,000 acres of flooded farmland. The first sluice was built at Denver in 1652.

1816: Littleport experience an agrarian outbreak, known as the Littleport riots. This was due the Enclosure Acts which had a great effect on the pesantry..

1838: Octavia Hill Hill, Octavia (1838-1912)

1850: Robert Stephenson built the first bridge over the River Nene at Sutton Bridge. This bridge was replaced several decades later by a swing bridge, which is still standing.

1862: Large tides cause a sluice at Wiggenhall St. Germans to fail causing flooding in the Middle Level.

1873: North Cambridgeshire Hospital at Wisbech opens.

  • Highways and Byways in Cambridge and Ely - By the Rev. Edward Conybeare, Illustrated by Frederick L. Griggs, Published by Macmillan and Co. Ltd., London, 1923. (originally published 1910)
  • The Encyclopeadia Britannica - Published by Adam and Charles Black, Edinburgh, 1875. (Ninth Edition) and 1887 (Tenth Edition)
  • The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain - Edited by Kenneth O. Morgan, Published by Oxford University Press, 1984.
  • Illustrated History of England - By G. M. Trevelyan, Published by Longmanns, Green and Co., 1956. (originally published 1926)


This page was last updated - Sunday, 24 September 2006

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