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Cambridgeshire Fortification and Historic Buildings

A Brief History

Cambridgeshire first belonged to Iberians, and afterwards to a British tribe called the Iceni, and being overrun by the Romans was by them included in the province of Flavia Cęsariensis. The Romans had a town or settlement at Cambridge. On the retreat of the Romans it was held by the Welsh, but when they were driven out it was settled by the same English Waring and Frisian clans as Norfolk and Suffolk, being most probably known as Westfolk. When the present kingdom of England was formed the land took the name Grantbridgeshire; in 870 it was wasted by the Danes, who destroyed Cambridge and the minsters of Ely, Soham and Thorney. In 875 the invaders again occupied the country, and obtained afterwards a permanent settlement amongst the East English; but in 921 an army of these settlers surrendered at Cambridge to King Edward I, surnamed the Elder. In 1010 a fresh swarm of Danes, under King Swain, again burned Cambridge. On the accession of William the Norman to the English kingdom, almost the only part of the land which resisted him was the Isle of Ely, where gallant Hereward held out for nearly seven years, until 1074, when he was overpowered.


Wandlebury Camp is an Iron Age fort on the Gog Magog Hills, five miles south-east of Cambridge. The fort was rebuilt by the Iceni tribe of ancient Britons. In 1956 an archaeological dig discovered the huge figure of an ancient goddess astride a strange beast; it was cut into the chalk.

In Anglo-Saxon times frontier defenses were built across Cambridgeshire, the Cambridge dykes, between Essex and East Anglia. These dykes were fragmented, the longest continuous stretch being the eight-mile Devil's Dyke. These barriers consisted of ramparts and ditches.

Under William the Conqueror the Normans built a castle at Cambridge in 1068, at Ely in 1069 and at Wisbech in 1072.

From the 13th Century many royal craftsmen began to figure by name in various accounts due to their specilisations. Master Nicholas de Andeli, working for King John, was in charge of the siege-engines at Cambridge Castle. Most siege engineers were carpenters by training, and it is carpenters who figure most prominently in the records. Accompanying the carpenters were the petrarius, mason or stonecutter; the quareator or quarryman; the mier or cementarius, who were stone masons; fossatores who worked on the moats and dry ditches, and the miners responsible for the vaults and rockwork of castles. The hurdatores made the 'hoardings' or projecting wooden archer-galleries. Piccartores were employed in demolishing hostile fortifications. The engineers were the highest paid, receiving daily wages, annual 'gifts' and sometimes lands; some had their own seals. This group of highly skilled specialists, directly attached to the king, sometimes moving about with him, sometimes detached for supervisory duties at a group of castles, were precursors of the royal engineers.

Shortly after 1569, the rebellion having been put down the great strongholds on the fringes of the English heartlands, which were still kept up under Elizabeth, served chiefly as prisons, for prisoners of state and recusants. This was the fate of Framlingham, of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, an early Norman motte-and-bailey converted to Regency villa.

About 1643 the parliamentarians built forts or castles at isolated strategic points, to guard road junctions, river crossings and the like. At Earith, in Huntingdonshire, they built The Bulwark to guard the approaches to Ely.

Wimpole Hall

The counties greatest mansion is Wimpole Hall is situated 8 miles south-west of Cambridge. It was built by Sir Thomas Chichele around 1640 but was considerably altered in the 18th century.

Buildings in Cambridge

The town was an important centre long before the university. Its site marked the upper limit of navigability of the river Cam or Granta (the Roman name for the town). It was also a fording point for the Romans on their travels north.

The University

Peterhouse, founded in 1284, by Hugh de Balsam. Bishop of Ely, is the oldest-established college. Its inure recent features include windows and decoration in the hall by the William Morris workshop.

Christ's was founded by Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII (as was St John's). The mulberry tree under which Milton reputedly sat to write 'Lycidas' is here.

Corpus Christi has a distinguished 14th-century collegiate building in Old Court. The library boasts a fine collection of Anglo Saxon manuscripts left to it by Matthew Parker. Christopher Wren designed the chapel of Emmanuel, where John Harvard was a pupil, before sailing to America in 1636. Jesus College was once a eonvent. The chapel windows are from the William Morris workshop.

The chapel at King's is a masterpiece of craftsmanship in stone, glass and wood. The Adoration ofthe Magi, by Rubens was presented to the college in 1962 and now forms the chapel altar-piece.

Magdelene houses Pepys's library in his original bookcases. Each book is propped to an equal height on a block of wood.

The chapel at Pembroke was Wren's first building. The fantastic silhouette of the 19th century St John's building is known as the wedding cake. The chapel is the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott.

The Great Court at Trinity is the largest of its kind, and the library was designed by Wren. Visitors can go into the college courtyards, chapels, dining halls and sonic gardens at most times.

Other historic buildings

Great St Mary's Church is 15th century, with a 17th-century tower. It was originally called St Mary's-by-the-Market. Large congregations brought about the installation of galleries in the 18th century.

The Senate House is an 18th century creation of the architect James Gibbs. The university 'parliament' sits here every fortnight during term-time.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the few circular churches in the country. A chancel and north aisle were added to the circular Norman nave in the 14th century. The whole building was restored in the 19th century.

Stourbridge Chapel, a mile east of the city centre, is a Norman building which was once a leper hospital. Among the chapel's neighbours is the 13th-century Abbey Church.


The Fitzwilliam Museum, in Trumpington Street, houses extensive Greek, Egyptian and Roman collections, in addition to illuminated manuscripts and a comprehensive display of English pottery and porcelain. Paintings include those by Titian, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Turner and Gainshorough. Its interior contains a wealth of marblework. Closed Mondays.

Folk Museum, 2-3 Castle Street, has a rich display of Cambridge's bygones. Closed Mondays.

Scott Polar Research Institute, Lensfield Road, is named after the great explorer. It is concerned with current polar discoveries and relics of past expeditions. Open weekdays. Closed Batik Holidays.


The university Botanic Gardens at Trumpington Street cover more than 40 acres and are considered second only to those at Kew.

Swaffham Prior's Churches

This typical fenland village has two churches in one churchyard, the curious result of parish amalgamation in the 17th century. One church is derelict, the other beautifully kept.

Anglesey Abbey

Situated three miles beyond Swaffham Prior Anglesey Abbey is a 13th century Augustinian foundation which was incorporated into a country house in the 17th century.

Peckover House

Wisbech is a market town which has existed since Roman times. The centre was rebuilt in Georgian times on a medieval plan. Peckover House was built in 1723 on the North Brink.

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Last Updated on: 23 January 2000
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