Life In Old Cambridge – Saxon Times: Pagan And Christian The Desolation

FOR a hundred years Cambridge and the rest of Britain suffered grievous things. As the shining legions of Rome marched away south the prosperous Britons and Roman settlers were left to themselves. British chiefs took up the title of King and issued coins stamped with their heads as the Caesars had done ; they are found now sometimes, little hoards of them hidden away in the ground in an earthenware jar or single coins dropped perhaps in hasty flight from a lonely villa beset and burned by the barbarians. In the cities Decurions and Bishops still held rule, and tried their best to keep up the walls and to rally the frightened townsmen in their own defence. For the peaceable farmers and traders found it hard to train themselves in the strict, military discipline which had rendered the legions such a power. The Roman habits and customs, their ways of building and farming gradually decayed, and the Christians slipped back into the old heathen practices, sacrificing furtively to the Sun or to some local forest god in the wild hill country. The great Wall in the north was broken down and overrun ; barbarous Picts and their Irish allies swarmed southwards and reached the midlands, plundering and burning the cities and slaughtering the feeble households of the farms and villas. Bravely the bishops tried to rally their poor terrified flocks, going out before them with the Cross to do battle and themselves fighting manfully to beat back the raiders as they did at the ” Hallelujah ” victory. They appealed in vain for help to the Roman Governor in Gaul, in a letter called ” The Groans of the Britons,” saying, ” The barbarians drive us into the sea ; the sea drives us back to the barbarians ; between them we are exposed to two sorts of death ; we are either slain or drowned.” Still the pagans came on. The story of St. Patrick tells how they ravaged a place in North Wales, killed the Decurion and carried off his son, little Patrick, to be a slave and herd cattle in Ireland. Such things were happening every day all over the north and the midlands. Men shut themselves up within the four walls of a city and built up the wide gateways till there was only room for one man at a time to pass in or out. Lonely villas were abandoned, their treasures buried, and soon the vineyards and cornfields that had made Roman Britain one of the great granaries of the world were over-run with weeds and brambles, and grass began to grow between the stones of the straight Roman roads which had knit all quarters of the province up with Rome.

At last, the south Britons in despair, watching the barbarians draw steadily nearer to their last refuge, sent to the Angles and Saxons of the Continent for help, and in 449 A.D. the first Englishmen landed in Kent.

It was at Stamford on the Welland that these new allies first did battle against the Picts and Scots, and no doubt the men of Cambridge sent a body of swordsmen to join them as they passed along the Ermine Street to the field of battle.

The English strangers wore sharp, narrow blades, which they called ” seaxas.” One was found at Barrington in 1890, and is now in the Archaeological Museum. It is an iron dagger-blade, 12 inches long and two in breadth, almost straight, but pointed and grooved. There, too, are bronze and gilded brooches shaped like horses’ faces, with which Arak -Aiwa Dears , aad M11,, Found at ‘fluting guy, Cambridgeshire, 1683 and 1557. they fastened their plaids at the shoulder or neck, and the round bucklers they carried on the left ann. Those were made of wood or leather crossed with strips of iron or strengthened by great iron studs and bosses. As they marched along the paved street and looked out on the green pastures and shining waterways of Cambridge and Suffolk the English thought how easily they could sail their light ships up into the heart of such a land, and how poor a fight the Britons were likely to put up. So when they had beaten the Picts they sent home for their kin, who came swarming in by the rivers hOuse and Yare and Thames.

Where the Britons resisted their towns were burnt, and they themselves enslaved or driven back into those marsh refuges which had sheltered their early ancestors. The Englishwould not live cooped up in towns, but set up their villages in the open country.

Beside the fords of the streams by which they had entered, in an open forest glade on the hillside, or on the sunny uplands from which they could overlook all the valleys, they reared their wooden huts and barns. Cutting down beeches or oaks to form upright ” trucks or crutches,” they set them 15 feet apart like the pillars of a church. A long straight trunk with the bark on, placed from one pair of crutches to another, formed the roof-tree, stout timber beams the rafters, and between the uprights hurdle-work of wattle daubed with straw-bound clay filled in the gaps and soon dried hard. Then thatch was laid on the rafters from the well-cut gable of the roof-tree to the overhanging eaves, often no more than five or six feet from the ground, as you may see them still in parts of Germany. The daub was washed with blue or pink or yellow, and the pathway paved with rounded flints. While each` man had his own cottage nestling in its toft or garden-patch apart from its neighbours, big barns and stables held the corn and cattle of the whole kin or patriarchal family group’.

Such English villages would spring up in Norfolk and Suffolk as the Angles worked their way inland and southward to our own district ; also in the midlands where Mercians turned east till they reached the Cam. Each village had its cluster of huts, its warm meadow for the lambs and kine, its bit of plough-land and its rough pasture on the edge of moor or woodland. Beyond all the land of the tribe was the protecting ” mark ” or boundary, an earthen mound with quickset hedge or timber fence and a cleared belt beyond it. In outlying parts the villages still stand much as they did then, a cluster of human nests, thatched and coloured, gathered round an open green, but dominated now by church and manor, where then only the village moot, the mound or tree of public assembly, marked the centre of the village life.’

For these English were pagans, worshipping Thor and Woden, singing the old sagas and keeping the fierce old customs of ” an eye for an eye,” as their notion of justice. Horrid, ruthless and accursed in the eyes of the Christian Britons, so that none would even try to convert them, superstitious as they were ignorant, they looked with awe and dislike on the walled, four-square Roman cities, and left them to moulder away. If a stone bridge had been built across the Cam it would be let fall to ruin by men to whom ferries and fords were more natural. The villas and streets of the camps collapsed and only the names, Chesterford, Chesterton, etc., showed they had once existed to guard the crossings.

For, meeting on the Cam from opposite sides, the Mercians and Angles became bitter enemies. While Mercians held the hill, with a strip known as Aermeswerk, south of the Roman camp, where Magdalene now stands, the Angles held the gravel ridge on the east of the river with a crossing higher up at Elde Newenham. So Cambridge began as two towns, the northern or Mercian, and the southern or Anglian, and each seems to have had its own market and its own three fields.

The southeastern fields were known as Barnwell Field, and reached out to Ditton, Cherry Hinton and Trumpington, while those on the north-west were called Cambridge Field, and reached from Grantchester round to Coton, Madingley, Girton and Chesterton. ” Each had its pieces of common pasture. Each was apparently cultivated on the usual three-field system. The three divisions of Barnwell Field were known as Bradmore Field, Middle Field and Ford Field. . . . Those of the western or Cambridge Field were Grithow Field, Middle Field and Carme Field, with the last of which was reckoned Little Field.”

Between the two peoples, Mercian and Anglian lay the Fens and in them a remnant of the first men led a hunted life. Their hand was against every man, and the fair-haired Saxons, whom they ambushed at times and robbed, hated their dark, southern features, and called them ” Black Devils ” and ” British Thieves.” To the eastward of their haunts the North and South Folk formed the notable kingdom of East Anglia, under the Uffing, Redwald. At the court of his neighbour, Ethelbert of Kent, Redwald had met the monk from Rome, Augustine, and learned to worship Christ, and when Ethelbert died it was Redwald who took up his title of Bretwalda. But Redwald was only half a convert, for Bede tells us ” in the same temple he bad an altar for the sacrifice of Christ, and another small one to offer victims to devils.” His son, too, was first heathen, then Christian, and for some years the kingdom was torn by the conflict between the old savagery and the creed of Peace. Redwald’s second son, Sigebert, was driven to France, and there learned from the Frankish churchmen to love the new order.

Coming back to reign, he was followed by St. Felix of Burgundy, who was made the first bishop of East Anglia. With his help Sigebert, ” being desirous to imitate the good institutions which he had seen in France, set up a school for boys to be taught in Letters.” Felix, no doubt, tried to convert British as well as Anglians, for he died at Soham, then a seaport, looking over the watery haunts of the Girvii, and there a monastery was built in his honour. Sigebert was an ardent servant of Christ, and when he had brought order and the new light of education into his kingdom he retired into a monastery hoping to end his days in peace. But he could not be spared. The Mercians had remained pagans, they made a raid across the Cam, and Sigebert came out from the peaceful cloister to stand by his people. Carrying no weapon but a stick, he helped his successor to rally them, and a stand was made, but in the fight both leaders were slain, and yet another of Redwald’s descendants, Anna, became king. To confront the Mercian danger he chose as his homestead, Exning, a village lying on the western slopes of the downs, backed by the heath now called Newmarket, and overlooking the lines of the great Dykes that still formed the best barrier of defence to all East Anglia and were the scenes of many more great battles.

From Exning Anna ruled with sword and cross, ” a good man and the father of an excellent family,” but he too fell at last before the ceaseless onslaughts of the Mercians.

They were the only pagans left in England, and the more furious on behalf of Woden and Thor. Their king Penda attacked one Christian king after another till he was supreme in the land. In 654 came the turn of East Anglia, and. Anna, calling to his aid his son-in-law, Tonbert, lord of the South Girvii, maybe manned the Dykes with mixed troops of “British thieves” and Saxon Christians. No valour availed against the practised war-lord, Penda. He hurled his hordes over the defences ” like a wolf, so that Anna and his folk were devoured in a moment.” But this was the night ” darkest before the dawn,” and next year Penda was killed at Winwaed by an allied force of the Christian kings, and Mercia itself was soon forced to lay down the old heathen faith and join the rest of England in the church.

Nowhere did Christian light shine out more brilliantly than in our Eastern land. Anna’s ” excellent family ” were like stately columns upholding the holy church. One son, Erkenwald, was bishop in the old Roman city of London, guarding the Thames and the churchmen’s route to Canterbury and Rome. His sisters ruled as abbesses of Barking and of Dereham, while two more, Sexburga and Ermenilda queened it in Kent and Mercia, the one carrying on the work of St. Augustine, the other strengthening the hands of St. Chad in his stern schooling of the Mercians. In France another sister, Sedrida, Abbess of Brie, set up schools to which many English girls went.

Best known to us is the last of them all, St. Etheldreda. Married first to Tonbert, she received as dowry the fen-land of Ely, and on his death she became Queen of Northumbria. There at Whitby her aunt, St. Hilda, had founded a famous abbey, and was diligent in reviving Christianity, ravaged by Penda.

Fired by her teaching, St. Etheldreda returned to build at Ely a house’, which became the beacon-light of the fen-lands, a sanctuary and refuge for the oppressed through many cen- turies, and remains today one of the most lovely works of man.

At this time began to rise in Cambridgeshire and the surrounding country a ring of abbeys, centres both of religious scholarship and of wise farming lore, which gave this country-side a foremost place in English history. Ely, Peterborough, Thorney, Ramsey, and Crowland were the most famous. The intercourse which would grow between Ely and Brie is typical of the close contact of East Anglia with the most flourishing ports of France and Flanders for the next thousand years. The great waterway of the Fens and Wash was one with that of the North Sea, the Scheldt and Rhine. From 650 A.D. onwards the growing trade of the Frank and Flemish cities would supply the great, monastic houses of East Anglia. Costly embroideries, rich jewelled relics, gorgeously bound books, spices and incense for the abbey churches came over the Alps and down the Rhine stream from the Levant merchants, and so across the ” Wide Sea,” to be landed at Ely or Soham or Bottisham, or further up the inland water to Landbeach or the wharves of Cambridge itself. There the Irish boats too came in, their dark, Celtic boatmen wrapped in heavy frieze cloaks and their monks bearing exquisitely decorated missals, richly enamelled ornaments and weapons and wonderful carved work to sell to their brethren of the South.

For Ireland was the land of gold, of fine art and most zealous devotion, the centre of learning and of the Faith. For four centuries it was from the green island of the western seas that the greatest missionaries and scholars went out to teach Christ to the barbarous Teuton, not in Britain only, but in Saxony, Flanders and Germany, till the days of Charlemagne. In Scotland and Wales their abbeys stood at Iona, at Bardsey, and at Lindisfarne, and all round the northern coasts their little ships plied fearlessly. Ely and her sister abbeys of Peterborough and Crowland were well-placed to receive and rest these ardent venturers for Christ and forward them on their dangerous missions over the North Sea. For their delicate and lovely goods the Anglians would give quantities of their rough pottery and strong basket-ware of the Fens, A fragment of St. Luke’s Gospel in Corpus Christi Library is of Seventh Century Irish workmanship. The initial letters are most beautifully coloured and decorated with figures of birds intertwined into a plaited pattern and store their ships afresh with fish and meat and corn from the abbey lands. So they would pass on to be the founders of the first bishoprics in Germany.

From A.D. 673 to 679 St. Etheldreda ruled in Ely and over the 300 square miles of half-submerged lands known as the Isle. Men of many races came to kneel at the shrine and to traffic, and so at a later time a fair sprang up.

This went on year after year until in Norman days King Henry I. ordered all boats to go to Cambridge to unload, and then no doubt only the lighter trifles were carried to Ely, to St. Audrey’s fair, and her name became the word for worthless, ” tawdry ” baubles.

But one solid relic of St. Audrey’s reign remains, the stone base of a cross kept in Ely Cathedral. These words are cut upon it :—

” Lord, give Thy light and peace to Owen. Amen.”

Till recently it stood in Haddenham.

This Owen was St. Audrey’s prime minister or Over-Alderman. His name is a British one and no doubt he ruled her Girvian people in the Fens. He lived, perhaps, at Winford, and died in a monastery at Lichfield. Bede says ” He fully forsook the things of this world, quitting all that he had, clad in a plain garment and carrying an axe and hatchet in his hand, . . . signifying that he did not enter the monastery to live idle, as some do, but to labour.” Such men in every abbey taught the Anglians to forsake war and roystering and to use the axe against their natural enemies of forest and fen, to labour and learn to turn the wild country into fertile farms.

No part of England was more productive and well to do than Cambridgeshire. The lands which the Romans had farmed were easy to clear and cultivate ; the great abbeys followed the rules of the Benedictine houses abroad and their stewards organised great troops of peasants working on the level lands, growing corn and wine and herding sheep and pigs. Children were gathered to the monastery schools and taught useful crafts and trained in obedient diligence and reverence for holy men and things. Pilgrims and travellers passed along the ancient Way and the Roman streets, slept at the abbey guesthouse, marvelled at the rare glass windows of the churches, and told thrilling tales of adventure and miracle in return for the plentiful fare and home-made wine or ale of the religious hospices. The old Pilgrims’ Way that winds over the hills from Walsingham to Bury and on through Ickenham still shows where the troops of travellers, pilgrims, merchants and soldiers passed. Southwest beyond Cambridge St. Mary’s chapel crowned and gave its name to the first line of hills as a landmark to guide the wayfarers towards the Ermine Street.

Now after Anna’s day there was one ruler for all the kin of the English, Egbert of Wessex, and the men of Cambridge and East Anglia came in to him and had help of him against the men of Mercia in 825 A.D. Freed from that danger Cambridge began to grow.

Each people had their own town and marketplace, the Mercians on the fortified hillside, the Anglians on the patches of dry ground known as ” hills ” amid the marsh of the Eastern side. The gravel ridge, a mile or so wide, that runs from the Cogs to Magdalene Bridge, was their main roadway, with houses on either side, then on Market Hill, Peas Hill and St. Andrew’s Hill, three more clusters of huts soon ran into one town, while all around open marshy fields gave pasture and ploughland as far as Trumpington, Hinton and Ditton villages. The many ancient roads meeting at the ford brought traffic from the abbeys to meet the merchants riding up from London and the ships that unloaded at Magdalene Wharf, so Egbert gave the town the right to have a mint and make coins stamped with his device.

No doubt Cambridge like other villages had its Reeve and four good men to represent it, chosen by the Folkmoot ; it is certain that the Hundred Moot was held here, which met at first by the Bridge.

Try to picture the Saxon place with its groups of tiny cottages, built of timber and hurdle-work daubed with mud, and thatched with straw or reeds. Here or there larger buildings, made of the same simple local means, are the common barns or may be known by the wooden cross or bell-turret for churches, and round them every day you may see monks dressed like the Italian peasants in rough woollen cloaks and hoods going in and out, building a new house for themselves or a hospice for travellers, showing some peasant from the hills how to fashion a plough or yoke, teaching the children to repeat their prayers, or two townsfolk how to calculate the value of the goods they would barter. On Sundays and feast-days the people flock to common worship. Many come long distances out of the fens, bringing with them the pots or baskets they have made since the last feast, others come down from the hills with skins of wolves or wildcats. After church they stand about offering these things in exchange for the salt some seaman has brought in or the flax the monks have been growing. So the churchyards become the market places, and men who live in the outlying hamlets look to Sunday as the one day of the week in which they can leave their labour of dyking or clearing the forest and meet their fellows, see the alderman presiding in the Moot to settle the last quarrel with the Mercians or bring their share of wheat or swine to pay tithe and house-penny as a freeman should.

All round the town the land lies open, without hedges or trees or houses. Some of it is being ploughed; by the many winding branches of the river are meadows of lush grass ; further off in the plough-land ponies and small cattle are being kept together by a herd while they graze the rough grass and weedy stubble of the last year’s harvest field. Away on the slopes of the hills herds of half wild pigs are rooting and munching under the trees and filling themselves with acorns and beechnuts.

Here and there a rough sledge or cart with solid wooden wheels bumps and rumbles along the old Roman street or makes its heavy way along some field track or ” headland ” to where the ” hayward ” guides a line of mowers. A few old thorn bushes give patches of shade where children roll and play in the short, trodden grass of the ” balk ” while their parents work at the crops, each on his own strips. In the clear water of the mores boys are bathing and swimming, disturbing the fishermen in their light skiffs of wicker and skin, or sending the waterfowl whirling up in a cloud only to circle and settle a little further off.