Life In Old Cambridge – Mediaeval Cambridge

IN the fight for Ely, Cambridge was the King’s headquarters, and Castle Hill must have swarmed with the barons and their vassals, called in from ” all the townships and towns,” with all the supplies too and the serfs who had to bring them ; the busscarls or boatmen forced to do service by water when the king summoned them ; the machines of siege and heavy wagons to draw them. The Cam would be crowded with boats, rafts of timber and faggots for the causeway, and barges heavy laden with goods for the camp. No doubt all this brought some wealth to the burghers, and about this time some of the oldest buildings began to rise. William’s first Castle was most likely a timber one, of two or three stories, no wider than a church tower. It was probably set up on the green mound that is still there, made by William’s men to bear it. The bottom story would be built of solid logs with no door or windows.

The entrance would be in the second storey, to which men would climb up by a ladder or sloping plank that could be drawn up after them in case of attack. The ground floor was used only as a cellar or “Donjon ” to store food or prisoners in, and gave that name to the whole tower. By the end of his reign William had begun to build stronger towers of stone, called keeps, but these were often too heavy for the earthen mounds, which gave way under them. Perhaps that was why the Keep of Cambridge Castle was built afterwards below and a little to the north of the motte or mound. A great Gatehouse was also built on the Huntingdon Road, and four smaller towers between them. These were all joined to one another by stone wallsknown as ” curtains.” The Borough covered the whole hilltop from Mt. Pleasant to Chesterton Lane. In the outer Bailey, or close about the Castle walls would cluster the huts of the villeins and serfs who gave their crops or their labour for the right to their land and to shelter in case of need. Their houses would be of wattle and daub, probably one room only with holes for window or chimney, thatched and surrounded with tiny gardens of herbs. The boundary of the Castle area where Histon Road begins was marked in later days by a stone Cross known as ” the High Stone Cross at Castle End.” All this part of Cambridge was sometimes called ” the Borough,” and the oldest houses in the place are still to be found there, such as ” The Old White Horse ” and ” The Three Tuns Inn.”

From this high point Cambridgeshire was ruled by the King’s Sheriff, called Picot. He had been made lord of Bourn, and other manors. He or his successor is thought to have built the old Manor Hall, now called Merton Hall. It was the sort of house used by the Norman gentry everywhere, one long room with stone pillars, 15 1/2ft. apart, four on each side, dividing it into nave and aisles ; one end was marked off by screens for the kitchen, and at the other end an alcove built out at right angles was the private parlour, or ” Soler ” of the Lord and Lady. The hall was raised on vaulted cellars where stores and cattle could be kept, and so the entrance was by some stone steps forming a short outside stair. In the one great room the whole life went on ; men worked, played, fed, and slept there, and the women too. Like the smaller houses it would have no chimney, but a hole in the centre of the roof over the great hearth, though this was covered later by a little turret or ” louver ” with open sides, such as you may see in the Hall of Queens’ or Peterhouse. Old pictures shew the Hall with a thatched and gabled roof, and in old days it was common for churches to be roofed with thatch ; instances are still to be seen at Long Stanton and at Ickenharm, in Suffolk.

Before the Conqueror’s reign ended, the great reckoning was made of all the land and property in the country which could pay anything into the King’s treasury we knowit as Domesday Book. The monk who wrote the story of Hereward gives this account of it : ” He (William) laid an unbearable tribute on the English and ordered an account of the whole of England in that year, how much land each of his barons was holding, what knights holding in fee, what hides, what villeins, what beasts, yea, what live cattle each man possessed in his whole kingdom from the greatest to the least, how much each taxable holding paid ; and the land was vexed with many mischiefs by reason of these doings. And terror and distress such as were not from the beginning arose in all men’s minds. And in that day all nature was grieved, strife waxed among men, pestilence among beasts, ruin and famine in the land.” The century after the Conquest must have changed the look of Cambridge more than any later one. Besides the Castle and stone Manor house the Normans reared several other beautiful buildings. The most famous for many years was Barnwell Priory, and in the history of its life we can see a picture of what monks were doing all over England at this time.

In 1092, Hugolina, the wife of Picot the Sheriff, lay grievously ill. Her husband prayed with her for her recovery, and together they vowed if she were given health to found a house for six Augustine Canons and dedicate it to Saint Giles. In a few days the Lady was well, and the vow was soon redeemed, St. Giles’ being built just below the Castle mound between Chesterton and Huntingdon Way.

But Robert, their son, when his father died, was accused of joining in a plot to murder King Henry I. ; so he fled from the land, and his place and the office of sheriff were given to Pain Peverel, who had carried the standard of Duke Robert of Normandy on his crusade.

Peverel wished to add to the number of the Canons, and ” perceiving that the site on which their house stood was not large enough for all the buildings needful to his Canons, and was devoid of any spring of fresh water, Pain Peverel besought King Henry to give him a certain site beyond the Borough of Cambridge, extending from the highway to the river, and sufficiently agreeable from the pleasantness of its position.

Besides, from the midst of that site there bubbled forth springs of clear, fresh water, called at that time, in English, Barnewelle, the Children’s Springs—because once a year, on St. John Baptist’s Eve, boys and youths met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games, and applauded each other in singing songs and playing on musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd of boys and girls who met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet to do business.

There too a man of great sanctity called Godesone used to lead a solitary life, having a small wooden oratory that he had built in honour of Saint Andrew. He had died a short time before, leaving the place without any habitation on it, and his oratory without a keeper.”

King Henry granted Peverel 13 acres of land round about the springs, and in 1112 the Canons were removed from St. Giles and a new church begun with ” ponderous workmanship ” in the Norman style. In 1122 Pain died, and his son ” William was not so eager for the building of the church as his father had been, but went to the Holy Land and presently died there.”

The ponderous Norman church was never continued, but the Priors had built a lighter one, which was finished by the 5th Prior and Everard de Beche in 1190 and consecrated to St. Giles and St. Andrew, and in the next half century the 9th Prior ” built the frater and the farmery, the great guest hall, the granary, the bakehouse and brewhouse, the stable for horses (oxen were still used for ploughing, but men travelled on horseback), the inner and outer Gatehouse and the walls of the new work . . . almost to the top. He finished the chapel of St. Edmund and covered it with lead.” Barnwell became one of those great church houses that were centres of life for farmers and lay folk, merchants as well as priests. But in the Middle Ages men might not carry on trade unless they had received leave by charter from their lords, or could shew that to do so was an old custom.

The buying and selling which had grown up at the Barnewelle on Midsummer Eve became a great fair, but it does not seem to have been formally licensed by the King till John reigned, though the canons had increased it year by year.

Another noble building of Norman Cambridge was the Round Church of which we still have the nave, with its beautiful doorway covered with (restored) Norman mouldings, and its short columns of workmanship as ponderous as Peverel’s. It was probably built between 1120 and 1140 by Ralph the Bearded and the Brothers of the Holy Sepulchre, an order of fighting monks like the Templars, whose church in London it resembles in plan. They are both plainly the work of men who had been to the East and seen there the church of the Holy Sepulchre after which they are named.

Cambridge was still a tiny place when Domesday Book was written. It contained 10 wards but only 373 dwellings. On the northern side 27 houses had been pulled down to clear a site for ‘William’s castle.

Picot too, the Sheriff, had made himself hated by pulling down houses and seizing common land to build himself three mills, by Silver Street. He added heavily to the dues, the three days’ ploughing became nine, and the ” heriot “- ” eight pounds, a palfrey, and a Heriot.—A forced gift made by the heir on taking up his father’s lands, probably a survival of the old practice of giving stock with land.

Besides having to take their corn to his mills to be ground the people felt the Conquest in other ways. The native English Thanes are not spoken of in Domesday ; they seem to have died or been made villeins. Norman knights are in their places. William of Malmesbury, the chronicler of the Conquest, laments : ” Now is England become the home of foreigners, the hold of strangers ; not one Englishman is there now left who is either Earl, Bishop or Abbot ; strangers be they all ” ; and this seems truer of Cambridgeshire than of other parts, for the struggle of Hereward’s men met punishment by outlawry and dispossession.

Many of the foreign lords had greater lands elsewhere ; and it is said that Cambridgeshire ” from that day to this has been singularly lacking in ‘ county ‘ families.”

The growth of the town may have owed much at this time to the ” King’s Jews.” The Jewry was opposite the Round Church in the angle of the High Ward formed by Trinity Street and Sidney Street. Jews, accursed by crusaders and scattered throughout the world, held together then as now like the members of one clan, and were always ready to stand byone another or combine forces and funds in pursuit of their trade. This unity and their cleverness with money made them the bankers of the Middle Ages ; kings and other rulers found them the best agents for raising large sums in sudden cases of need, and took them under their special protection. Jews were the only men who had capital, and when Henry I.’s writ made Cambridge the one port of the county they no doubt lent large sums to the traders and merchants, and their chambers would be filled with their bonds.

Englishmen are never ready to welcome foreigners and the Church then taught them to abhor Jews ; as money-lenders and sharp creditors these had a third claim to envy and malice, and the king’s protection must have been often needed when the servility of the poor Jew or the arrogance of the rich one angered their burly English debtors and neighbours. Jews were the King’s servants, and it was from the King, Henry III., that the burghers acquired the house of a rich Jew, called Benjamin, for a town gaol. Jews were among the first to build stone houses in England.

The life of Cambridge was further enriched in Henry the First’s reign by the founding of the Nunnery of St. Mary and St. Rhadegund.

This was at first a little cell by the riverside where a handful of devout women took refuge from the world about 1133, just before the troublous times of Stephen. Almost at the same date the Hospital of St. John was built by Henry Frost, a burgess, for a Master and Brethren of the Augustine Order to care for the sick and poor townsmen. The old hospital has given place to St. John’s College, where its foundations are still to be seen, and in Jesus College part of St. Rhadegund’s Church and Nunnery remain to form what some think the most interesting of all college chapels.

King Stephen granted to the nuns the right to hold a fair in the town, and it soon got the name of Garlic Fair.

In the Jewry and opposite Jesus Lane stood the church of All Saints, while a second, “All Saints by the Castle,” stood across the river till at the time of the Black Death it was deserted, became ruinous, and the haunt of wild beasts. On the north of the bridge, too, were the Norman churches of St. Giles and St. Peter. Two ancient arches have been kept in St. Giles, one of them the Norman chancel arch blessed by the great and meek St. Anselm, and a Norman font is in St. Peter’s.

These would be the churches that suffered at the hands of a brigand baron in Stephen’s reign, who posed as a friend of Matilda, and against whom Stephen built a stronghold at Burwell, of which only the foundations can now be seen. This Galfrid de Mandeville raided the countryside, sacking Cam bridge, and ” not sparing even the churches.” He was shot through the head when attacking the fort of Burwell, and died ” excommunicate and unabsolved, nor was the earth suffered to give a grave to the sacrilegious offender.”