Life In Old Cambridge – The Norman Years

ALREADY we have traced a number of changes in the life of Cambridge. We come now to the greatest, the Norman conquest ; each left some mark in the customs and character of the people here as in the rest of England, and this the most. The wide, well-managed villa-farms of the Romano-British had been covered up by the free villages of the Saxon kin with their lands owned and tilled in ” common ” fields. These again were mastered in part by the Vikings, and the Dane law governed all the towns north of Watling Street, making them more eager for trade and shipping than other parts. The English ” earls ” yielded to Danish ” jarls ” of higher standing, and when Edward the Confessor died, Jarl Gyrth, Godwin’s son was ruler of all East Anglia, and led his housecarls to his brother Harold’s aid at Hastings, only to fall beside him. We know little in detail of the doings of Cambridge folk in the first years of the Conquest except that the reason William built one of his new castles, probably of earth and timber, on the hilltop was, as Fuller says, ” that it might be a checkbit to curb this country which otherwise was so hard-mouthed to be ruled.” This was done as he marched homewards in 1068 from his stern handling of rebellious Yorkshire. Now as of old to hold the Cam bridge-way was to grip the key of this countryside, and William was too good a king to miss it. Two years later, however, Ely became the City of Refuge for all who withstood him. In 1070 A.D. ” came King Sweyne from Denmark’ into the Humber. . . . Then came into Ely Christien, the Danish bishop, and Earl Osbern, and the Danish domestics with them ; and the English people from all the fenlands came to them, supposing that they should win all that land. Then the monks of Peterborough heard say, that their own men would plunder the minster ; namely Hereward and his gang ; because they understood that the king had given the abbacy to a French abbot, whose name was Thorold. . . . Then came they in through fire at the Bullhithe Gate ; where the monks met them and besought peace of them. But they regarded nothing.

They went into the minster, climbed up into the holy rood, took away the diadem from our Lord’s head, all of pure gold, and seized the bracket that was under His feet, which was all of red gold. They climbed up into the steeple, brought down the table that was hid there, which was all of gold and silver, seized two golden shrines, and nine of silver, and took away fifteen large crucifixes, of gold and of silver ; in short, they seized there so much gold and silver, and so many treasures, in money, in raiment, and in books, as no man could tell another ; and said, that they did it from attachment to the minster.” The next year ” went Earl Morkar to Ely by ship ; but Earl Edwin was treacherously slain by his own men. Then came Bishop Aylwine, and Siward Barn, and many hundred men with him, into Ely.” They crowded in across the marshes to the little island, ten miles long by five wide, and found there abundance of food in the corn and cattle of the Abbey, the stags, goats, hares, fish and fowl of all kinds that the island produced. A Norman knight whom they captured told afterwards how they fared.

” In the eddies at the sluices of these meres are netted innumerable eels, large water wolves, with pickerels, perches, roaches, burhots, and lampreys, which we call water-snakes. There you find geese, teal, coot herons and ducks, more than men can number.

I have seen a hundred—nay, even three hundred—taken at once, sometimes by bird-lime, sometimes in nets or snares.”

Thus stored with food of all sorts and surrounded by the great, natural moat of the Fens, Ely made a first-rate stronghold. The monk Thomas of Ely, who tells the story, says, ” King William, when he knew that most strong fighter, Hereward to be there, gathered exceeding much valour to fight against them, and devised evil against the holy place and how to ruin it.” With his boats-earls he came up the Ouse to Brandon and Reach on the east to beset the Isle, ” with a host which no man could number,” while on the south he had others to try to make a causeway over the marsh with faggots and sandbags from Willingham to Aldreth. But Hereward led sallies out against them, drove them off and bore back much spoil into the Isle. ” When the king heard that he was wroth and commanded to summon the strong and brave from all the townships and towns to hunt them out.” These Hereward again beat off, and then the king’s great men came to him and said, ” Let us make peace with yonder men ; for the place which we beset is fortified and we do not prevail against them : according to the traditions of their fathers have they borne themselves against us. And the word was pleasing in the eyes of the King and of his princes : he sent to them to make peace.’ . . . But the English outlaws hardly trusted him, and soon claimed that he had broken faith with some of their friends and the struggle began again. Once more William tried his plan of a causeway, ‘ he ordered all kinds of things to be thrown in, many trees and faggots not a few, with sheepskins scraped and filled with sand,’ but this time when his soldiers rushed on to it, eager to get at the rich plunder of the abbey, it gave way under Tthem and many were drowned or choked in the mud. Then the story tells that a sorceress was brought and set in a tower to hearten the troops by her incantations. Now Hereward did a brave thing. Ile wanted to find out their plans, so taking his pet mare, Swallow, who always looked awkward and flagging, but was of fine breed, extraordinary speed and active to endure long lasting work, he dressed up as a potter. He cropped his long, thick hair and beard, put on the pale clay-smeared smock and took the earthenware pots. That evening he got to the witch’s house and she took him in, thinking him a poor man. He spent the night there and could have killed her but wanted to hear the plans she was making. In the morning he slung the pots on his shoulders again and went along, shouting out ” Pots, pots, good pots and bowls : earthenware of all sorts and the best make,” and so made his way to the quarters of the king. Then he was taken by the king’s servants into the kitchen, where they bought pots. Where amongst others present was a reeve from the neighbourhood, who swore that he had never seen anyone looking more like Hereward. And when he said so busybodies and hangers-on ran up from all directions to spy and make up their minds whether it really was Hereward or a man like him, and this story became known in the Hall among the pages and nobles. And looking hard at him they would not believe that clumsy countryman to be Hereward and denied it. He stood like a stupid and made no reply to those who questioned him in French, although he understood it very well.

For they asked if he had sometimes seen or known that rascal. To whom at last he gave this answer in English : Would that that man of Belial were here now, hateful to me in everything ; I might be well avenged of him.

For he himself stole my one cow and four sheep so that I am forced miserably to beg and thrown into such great misery that I can scarcely carry on a wretched life by means of this mare and the pots, with great shame and toil.

” And while this bickering was going on, one came from the king’s presence and ordered them to hasten the king’s meal ; on which account the wrangling died down meanwhile.

But before long the cooks and riffraff eating and drinking got thoroughly drunk, and noticing Hereward, thought him a dolt ; so they seized him with his pots all round him, blindfolded him and drove him on to them to smash them. Then thumping him with their fists they tried cruelly to pull out the hair on his chin and by way of a game to shave his head. But it hardly happened as they expected, they soon paid the forfeit. At this point, when try as he might he could no longer keep his temper, one of them hit him on the head, whom in return he gave back a blow under his ear so that he fell as if dead.

When his comrades saw that, all fell upon him with prongs and forks, and he, seizing a stake from the hearth, defended himself against them all, one being killed and many wounded. He was seized, dragged out and made over to the guard. And whilst he was kept under guard, there came a man carrying fetters in one hand to bind him and a drawn sword in the other : which Hereward striking from his hand seized and quickly slew him with his own weapon and wounded the others.

And so escaping by the fence lie found his mare and mounted her, and as she galloped off the crowd of lads tried to pursue her ; but her great speed plunged him with her into the wood of Sumersham and by the light of the moon he came by night into the Isle and set his armed men where ever there were convenient points, lest by chance any trouble from the enemy should come upon them unawares.

Now when the king, returning home knew of this, he applauded Hereward’s unconquerable courage, giving orders positively that if he were at any time seized he should be kept unharmed.”

Another story is told of him by Gaimar, in quaint old Norman-French verses, like this:—

Then the king bade

Build a bridge over marsh ;

Said he would slay all

None should escape him.

When these knew it in Ely

They put them at his mercy ;

All went crying for mercy

Save Hereward, right bold.

He fled with few folk Geri with him, his kinsman,

With them were five comrades.

A man who brought fish

To the guards along the marsh

Played the true man and courteous

In his boat took them,

With reeds and flags hid them

Towards the guards began rowing

As evening grew dusk,

Nigh their camp in his boat.

The French were in a tent

Guy the Sheriff, their captain,

He knew well the fisher,

Knew well ’twas he coming,

Of him none took notice.

They saw the fisher rowing,

‘Twas night, they sat eating.

From the boat came forth Hereward,

Bold as a leopard ;

His comrades came after

Made for the tent through a covert,

With them followed the fisher.

Hereward was erst his Lord.

How shall I tell it ? the knights Were surprised at their meal. Grasping axes entered those, They were no fools at striking Slew twenty-six Normans, Twelve English were slain there.

Great the fear through the dwellings, All shared in the flight.

The Outlaws sprang on them, Each chose a rare, good horse.

The wood was near, they entered it, They went not at random, Knew well all that country, Had many their friends there. At a town that they came to Found ten of their party.

These joined them to Hereward.

Erst were they eight, now were ten more. Eighteen were the comrades. Before they passed Huntingdon Had a hundred well-armed men Of Hereward’s liege vassals, They were his men and faithful. Ere the morn’s sun was risen Seven hundred had joined him They followed to Bruneswald.

By such deeds of rare daring and craft Hereward kept up the courage of the English and beat off and disheartened William’s Norman vassals. But the monks of Ely grew weary of the rough life. They knew too that the Holy Father at Rome had blessed the king’s banner when he set out, and being loyal churchmen and learned clerks they held it wrong to resist the Lord’s Anointed.

So they sent word to William that they would submit to him and do his will, and they showed him a way across the marshes. His men followed it, and entered Ely, and Hereward was forced to flee. For some years he wandered as an outlaw, but William had always praised his gallant spirit, and at last it is said that he made friends with him and promised that he should hold his lands in peace.