The Isle of Ely and Civil War

This extract is taken from "HEREWARD of the FENS",
revised and rewritten by TREVOR BEVIS, ISBN 0 901680 43 5
,
recommended reading for those researching the Isle of Ely.

The Isle of Ely was a place of conflict for a period of five centuries. A natural bastion it enjoyed a secure geographical position and any army holding It was practicaIly unassailable The culmination of the struggle between William the Conqueror and the Saxons did not bring an end to the Isle's role militarywise. Feudal anarchy reached its peak in the reign of Stephen (1135-1154). In 1137 the situation became so desperate scribes wrote "Christ and His saints slept" (Anglo-Saxon Chronicles). This state of affairs was readily observed in and around the Cambridgeshire Fens than anywhere else in the country The Isle of Ely afforded an ideal base for rebellious barons on at least two occasions: to Niel of Ely, Bishop in 1139, and in 1142, Geoffrey de MandeviIIe.

The former was obliged to surrender at Devizes castle and he came to Ely to raise the standard of revolution. Bishop Niel re-fortified Alrehede Castle (Cotton MS.). As with Hereward, the bishop was joined and provisioned by certain eminent dignitaries (Ibid). The King had no choice but to march against the troublesome prelate and set about besieging the Isle, viewing the matter as had the Conqueror, as being so serious that be himself personally supervised military operations (Ibid. Gesta Stephani).

According to Anglia Sacra the hub of the military focus was at Alrehede. A great many boats were made ready and a bridge built to convey the King's soldiers across the marsh to the IsIe The king encountered ponderous difficulties but eventually he set foot on the Isle, it is said through the treachery of an Ely monk who received as his reward the abbey it Ramsey (Ibid). So fierce was the royal assault the Isle defenders threw away their weapons and hid themselves in the area's remote places. The Bishop and a few followers escaped and were given safe custody by the Empress of Gloucester (Ibid 63; Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum). The King exercised control over the Isle of Ely and took measures to fortify the entrance at Alrehede. The Church at Ely suffered considerably and was subjected to reconfiscation, Niel was restored to the Bishopric of Ely after the Angevin victory at Lincoln in 1141 but be was exiled when the King's fortunes revived.

In 1142 Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, with the Earl of Pembroke were ordered to the Isle of Ely to restrain a group of mischievous knights that had assembled there. According to Anglia Sacra he was met by tearful monks from Ely and he threatened them with plunder and death. The monastery's treasures were handed to the King for "sate keeping", but the King, impressed by the monks' pleas and the Pope's request to him to assist them, restored Niel to the Isle and the renegade Earls were forced to hand back the Isle to the bishop.

From 1142-43 peace reigned within the Isle but Bishop Niel experienced a series of verbal attacks at the Council of Northampton. He went to Rome and appealed directly to the Pope (Ibid. 622). This proved to be a mistake on his part as in his absence the Isle of Ely was seized by Geoffrey de Mandeville and he promptly transformed it into a seat of resistance against the monarch. De Mandeville was unpredictable, alternately supporting the King and resisting the throne when it suited him. He was arrested at St. Albans at the end of 1143 (De Anliqois Legibus Liber). Bishop Niel, too, fell from the Kings favour, his visit to Rome being interpreted as an act of treason.

Geoffrey de Mandeville had paid particular attention to the strategic entrance to the Isle near Alrehede and also at Fordham in the east, a place which enabled him to communicate easily with his allies in East Anglia (Gesia Stephani). He also strengthened his position in the Fens and established fortifications at Ramsey and at Benwick (Chron. Abb. Rimes/Anglia Sacra), These strongholds - a promomtory and a gravel ridge gave him suitable bases to launch attacks upon the upland and during this period he laid the whole countryside to deplorable waste. His extortionism grew worse and villages were brutally attacked. He built another fortress at Wood Walton (Chron. Abb Rames). Even Cambridge and St. Ives were plundered and the surrounding countryside devastated. The abbot of Ramsey who bad been exiled worked strenuously to resist the violation of his and the people's rights but all to no avail. Geoffrey de Mandeville's insatiable greed was inspired from the secure position be enjoyed. Eventually the King arrived with a large army to press the rebels who were forced to take refuge in the Fen wastes. While the King attended to one particular problem, de Mandeville caused another elsewhere. Finally the King established garrisons on the fen fringes. His castle at Burwell directly opposed de Mandeville's fortress at Fordham. Burwell castle was never completed and in its incomplete state was besieged by de Mandeville. It was there that he was mortally wounded by a keen-eyed archer and be died a few days later at Mildenhall (Chron. Abb. Rames).

Successive monarchs were acutely aware of the Isle of Ely's strategic importance. Henry III in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1256 aired his feelings on the matter of security in the Fen region. This was justified as Ely's monks had elected a sub-prior to the bishopric before the arrival of the King's proctors. "Such an action," the King wrote, "is not only an infringement of the royal rights, it also imperils the whole realm, for as history has proved, when the Dacians and Saxons used to make war upon England, they found entry to the interior in the area around Ely." (CIose Rolls, 1256-9).

Another event which inspired the King to broach the matter of loyalty was the brief spell of civil unrest following the signing of Magna Carta. Once again the Isle of Ely was occupied by insurgents When King John's Army marched against Bury St Edmunds in about 1216, the barons fled to the Isle and fortified the entrances. On that occasion the Isle's natural defences turned against the rebels. The marsh freezing over, allowing two columns of royal soldiers to cross at Earith. They overcame resistance and plundered the cathedral and outlying area.

In 1256 Henry Ill had these things in his mind and his fears were justified. Long before conflict in May 1260 the King ordered the Church at Ely to secure the entrances to the Isle and guard them from sunset to sunrise so that no unlawful person could enter. Even so, in 1266, after resisting at Kenilworth a force of rebels took charge of the Isle of Ely and from there began to pillage the upland. These rebels were particularly notorious and had no regard of persons or place, seizing the wealthy and holding them to ransom. They carried off to their base at Ely whatever they could find including corn and malt, oxen and sheep (Liber de BerneweIIe). They entered Cambridge and compelled the burgesses to pay fines of 300 marks or see the town burn to ashes. The rebels even reached Norwich and plundered it for a whole night and morning. (Historia Anglicana).

Thus is recorded a brief passage in the chequered and sanguinary history from the years of Danish incursion against monasteries, towns and villages of the Fens, the epic siege and the valiant resistance of Hereward "the last Englishman". Even the wars of Stephen did not terminate military intrigue in the English lowland. That famous son of the Fens, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, Milton's Chief of Men, gathered around him a host of' "God-fearing, honest Fenmen" and drilled them into his new and Invincible model army, known the world over for strategical skill and tenacity, marching to great victories in the name of true democracy and founding the great Commonwealth of nations. Oliver Cromwell might have been the reincarnation of the mighty Hereward who found a niche of fame for the embattled, historic Isle of Ely some six centuries previously.

At the onset of the Second World War, young men from the Cambridgeshire Fens, untrained for jungle warfare were taken to Singapore to fight a foe well familiar with jungle conditions. Let down by incompetent generals and with no choice but surrender, they, with other nationalities, were forced to build the infamous "Railway of Death" in a green hell with little food and having to cope with monsoon, typhoid fever, cholera and other diseases. More than nine-hundred men of the Cambridgeshire Regiment are buried in war cemeteries thousands of miles away from the fertile plains and ancient battlegrounds of the historically unique English Fens.

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Last Updated on: 31 December 1999
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