Category Archives: History

Bats … and the Monster of the Fens

“No better reasons for monarchy could have been found than were forced upon all minds by the events of Stephen’s reign”, Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol. I.

About a hundred and fifty yards from the end of our driveway in Hollow Lane, Ramsey, Cambridgeshire, is an unprepossessing piece of rough land of maybe a few acres, including a central mound, a flat area to the front and a surrounding water-filled depression. Booths Hill, previously the site of a castle, is now a miniature wildlife sanctuary, home to a protected colony of bats and, according to those who have seen them, various other small animals. It seems a fairly unremarkable, peaceful place, especially on a still, cool summer’s evening, as the bats take wing, rising and swooping in their hunt for insects; unremarkable, except that a tourist information board draws attention to the historical significance of the site …

King Henry I
died on December 1st, 1135. (His doctor had given him strict instructions not to eat lampreys; but he ate them nonetheless, and proved the wisdom of his physician’s advice in the worst possible way). His death set in motion a sometimes complex and ultimately very bloody and brutal era in English history. Whilst in his final days, Henry had done everything possible to try to persuade the most powerful barons that his daughter Matilda (also known as Maud) should succeed him as sovereign; but her brother Stephen (right) and his supporters were able to find what appeared to be equally valid reasons why he should become king. The king’s demise unleashed a civil war between the supporters of Maud, who “… had the nature of man in the frame of a woman”* and Stephen, “… a mild man and soft and good”**, in a period of conflict and extreme violence which was so lawless, disastrous and chaotic that it came to be known as The Anarchy.

Neither of the two siblings was an attractive choice as potential monarch, and their power bases waxed and waned. There was a constant flux of loyalties between the two, amongst barons who in reality were only concerned with what they could get for themselves. In a number of ways East Anglia at this time was the most important region in England. The Catholic religion, with its cathedrals, abbeys and parish churches, was growing in strength financially, and in terms of worshippers and international reputation, faster than anywhere else; towns were increasing in size; local trade was flourishing; many travellers passed through the area on their way to the north; but most notably it was home to some particularly powerful and oft-times ruthless barons. A number of these earls were quite happy to see the breakdown of law and order across this attractive part of the country, and took full advantage. Simon Sharma uses a quote from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to vividly describe this tempus werre, or “time of war”:

“Every great man built himself castles and held them against the king … they sorely burdened the unhappy people of the country with forced labour and when the castles were built, they filled them with devils and wicked men. … By night and by day they seized those whom they believed had any wealth to get their gold and silver, they put them in prison and tortured them … they hung them up by their feet and smoked them with foul smoke … when the wretched people had no more to give, they plundered and burned all the villages … the wretched people perished with hunger … never did a country endure greater misery” ***

One of the most notorious of the barons was Geoffrey de Mandeville. Earl Geoffrey began by supporting Stephen, but when Stephen was sent to the Tower after the Battle of Lincoln he switched allegiances to Matilda, only to switch back again when Stephen was released in December 1141 and soon became king. Nonetheless the Earl was arrested by the king’s men and threatened with execution in 1143, so gave up to Stephen his custody of the Tower of London and various castles – but on release determined to rebel. He hot-footed it to Fenland, establishing his main base on the firm terrain of the Isle of Ely but also taking control of a little town called Ramsey.

de Mandeville now began to use his financial power and fearsome reputation to rain terror on the people of Ramsey and surrounding Fenland districts right across Cambridgeshire, whose population of poor peasants and serfs, no longer protected by a strong king, were overawed by this “Monster of the Fens” and lived in fear of a visit from his vicious, pillaging troops. He threw out all the monks from the nearby abbey and confiscated much of its wealth. Roads across the marshy fens were very poor, so the outlaw de Mandeville had the area at his mercy. Although details are subject to some debate, it’s believed that he built a small motte-and-bailey castle to the south of Ramsey Abbey, namely Booths Hill, where his troops were billeted between 1141 and 1144.

In the motte-and-bailey system, which was used right across Europe (see illustration left, from the Bayeux Tapestry****), excavations from a surrounding ditch are piled up to produce a hill (or motte), at the top of which a castle made of timber (as in the case of earlier structures) or stone (as was the case with later buildings) is constructed. A flatter area below the motte was created, and this was the bailey, where a number of buildings serving the castle might be found. Often there was a bridge-type structure rising either from the bailey or from the other side of the ditch. At Booths Hill, the water-filled ditch can still be seen.

Geoffrey de Mandeville met his end in 1144. The king had built, or was building, a number of small castles in Cambridgeshire, aimed at preventing the rebellious de Mandeville from cutting links between London and the north. One such fortress, under construction at the time, was Burwell Castle, to which de Mandeville lay seige. The king’s men refused to give in and in the ensuing battle de Mandeville received a mortal wound from a crossbow.

The complex, bloody and brutal civil war now known as The Anarchy lasted from 1135 to 1153.

Much of the remaining history of Booths Hill is shrouded in mystery, but it is known that the hill was adapted to serve as an ice house for the family who owned the nearby Abbey House. Ice houses were a popular means of storing ice during the summer, providing the equivalent of a giant refrigerator and a source of cold water. The Benedictine monastery, Ramsey Abbey, which so dominated the early part of Ramsey’s growth, was one of the five hundred or so religious buildings right across the country which were destroyed, their assets sold off, at the hands of Henry VIII, being dismantled during the Dissolution in 1539. Some of the masonry from the abbey was used by the Cromwells to construct Abbey House in around 1558. It became the permanent home of Sir Oliver Cromwell in 1627. The building survives today as Ramsey Abbey Sixth Form College – see photograph below – where I was pleased to work as a part-time teacher of English Literature for a time.

Booths Hill is now a wildlife sanctuary, the ice house having undergone some restoration work. As I stroll past it, I appreciate it as a natural haven of peace and tranquillity – so very different from the terrifying time when it was first built.



* q.v. Churchill, p. 150
** q.v. Churchill, p. 151, quoting the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
*** Simon Sharma, A History of Britain 3000BC – AD1603, p. 120
**** source: Wikipedia, public domain
Other photos: own work


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Lofty definitions from 1606

Much of my spare time currently, along with that of my wife, Lynn, is taken up with sorting through the possessions left behind by my late and beloved father-in-law, who passed away recently at the ripe old age of 94. Climbing into his loft for the first time wasn’t exactly a Tutankhamen‘s tomb moment – but it did make me realise that what I was about to explore was a mass of items handed down over a number of generations.

Quite a few things, hidden amongst the outdated household appliances, boxed games, bits of old carpet and suitcases galore, have stopped us in our tracks as we struggle to make progress in deciding what to sell, what to keep and what to throw out. Inside its stained and damaged case, for example, we found a brand new, never used Olympus typewriter; in a sturdy cardboard box and protected by polystyrene was another ‘as new’ item – a home movie film projector (we need to take a good look at this, in the fullness of time); and then in their own quite battered but original pack, sealed in an airtight polythene cover, a pair of hi-fi Sony stereo headphones.

There were quite a lot of old books – some very old. These are likely to be mostly family heirlooms, though my father-in-law bought a lot of books and he may well have picked up some of the more antique publications in his peregrinations around local charity shops.

One book in particular has caught my attention …

I’d never heard of Thomas Thomas, but now that we have a copy of his Latin-English dictionary I’ve found out quite a bit about him. He was a printer and lexicographer and went to Cambridge University. The first edition of his work appeared in the year before his death (1587). What we have here is (or appears to be) a copy of the seventh edition. I’ve spent some time studying bibliography academically, by the way, so I know that there are almost infinitely complex rules for describing books of this vintage; but suffice it to say that this book appears to have been published in 1606. (Bibliographers would attach all kinds of caveats to that assertion). Although the main A-Z section is complete, regrettably there is a small section missing at the end of the book, though the colophon is on the title page.

The timing of the book’s publication is of particular interest. In the world of publishing, Latin had been giving way during this time to publications written in ordinary, vernacular English, as Jeremy Norman points out on the website:

Throughout the XVIth century the percentage of books in the vernacular increased, caused in part by the mounting concern of authors, printers and publishers with the ‘rude’ (men, women and children who were able or willing to read books in their own tongue, but not in Latin). It is also true that the importance of Latin as the language of communication among the learned declined, in spite of the revival of learning and increased concern with the classics and their style.

Nonetheless, there was clearly demand for such a publication – this is a seventh edition, after all – and indeed there were many rivals in the sector, one of whom, John Rider, was sued by Thomas Thomas’s executors for plagiarism and forced to make a number of amendments to the dictionary which he published in 1589.

Here’s a small sample from a randomly-selected page in Thomas’s dictionary, in this case including the Latin term “cantatrix”, meaning “woman singer”.

I wondered how early this book was in the timeline of the publishing of dictionaries. Perhaps like many people, I’ve assumed that dictionaries only really got started in 1755 with Johnson. In fact Johnson’s dictionary launched into a market which was serving a much bigger reading public than that aimed at by Thomas Thomas. By 1755, most people wanted books – and more and more were prepared to pay money to expand their vocabularies. Although dictionaries in the broadest sense were first published in Sumerian times, around 2000 BC, dictionaries as we know them seem to have begun as glossaries, the most famous early example being Johannes Balbus‘s Catholicon, one of the first books to be published by Gutenburg. According to Wikipedia, “The first purely English alphabetical dictionary was A Table Alphabeticall, written by English schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey in 1604″.

But there are even more interesting things associated with the date this book was published, as 1606 was a remarkable year in British history.

Plague, ever-present as a potential epidemic during the time leading up to the Great Plague some sixty years later, flared up again in 1606, having been in retreat for a few years. Although history tends to focus on the London epidemic that occurred in the middle of the century, plague was by no means confined to London, with historians (example: A History of Bubonic Plague in the British Isles, J.F.D. Shrewsbury, CUP, 2005) recording that in 1606 the disease was affecting places as far apart as Ayr in Scotland, Dublin in Ireland, Carmarthen in Wales, Cambridge, Manchester and Peterborough. Central London was not as badly hit as its outskirts, although the centre of the capital saw fifty deaths in the last week of July and seventy in the first week of August.

By the way, I’m pleased to say that I’ve felt no ill effects from handling the book (not yet, anyway …).

The contagion impacted many aspects of everyday life, not least theatre-going. William Shakespeare‘s players, The King’s Men, left London and went on tour to get away from the plague. In any case, theatres in London had been closed again, following the passing of a law by the Privy Council forcing theatres to close where more than thirty cases of plague had been reported in a week.

1606 was a time of great creativity for Shakespeare. He wrote three of his greatest plays in that year, including two of the ‘big four’ tragedies, Macbeth and King Lear. He also wrote Anthony and Cleopatra in that year; many critics have agonised over whether it, too, should be categorised as a tragedy, but it is generally agreed nowadays to be best referred to as one of the Roman plays. When thinking about the themes of Macbeth and King Lear in particular, we should bear in mind that in November of the previous year there had been an attempt to blow up the King and the entire parliament.

The Gunpowder Plot was undertaken in protest at the failure of the new King James VI (James I of Scotland) to support Catholics, who had been persecuted by the preceding monarch, Elizabeth I. Until the accession of James, they had been hounded and forced to say Mass in hiding. Catholics had hoped that James I, whose wife was Catholic and who gave early signs of supporting the Catholic cause, would look on them more favourably. But after it became clear that this wasn’t to be, a number of plots were hatched to bring down the monarchy. The most well-known of these, the so-called Gunpowder Plot, was halted with the last-minute arrest of the plotters, notably Guy (Guido) Fawkes, who, along with seven other plotters (might we call them “terrorists” nowadays?) was executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered on this day, January 31st, in 1606.

The text of this contemporary engraving depicting the plotters, is written in Latin. Who knows – maybe some readers used Thomas Thomas’s dictionary to translate it into English?

With the plague ravaging the land, religious persecution provoking treasonous acts and even strange astronomical events (there had been a partial lunar and a total solar eclipse late the previous year), it’s hardly surprising that many people felt insecure. Shakespeare reflected this unease in both Lear and Macbeth. In Act I, Scene 2 of King Lear, first performed at Whitehall on 26th December, 1606, Gloucester says:

“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend
no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can
reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself
scourged by the sequent effects: love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son
and father. This villain of mine comes under the
prediction; there’s son against father: the king
falls from bias of nature; there’s father against
child. We have seen the best of our time:
machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our
graves. Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall
lose thee nothing; do it carefully. And the
noble and true-hearted Kent banished! his
offence, honesty! ‘Tis strange.”

I want to take good care of this book. Having spent many hours in the reading rooms of the British Library, sometimes, for instance, in a darkened room and wearing white gloves whilst carefully untying the ribbons holding together a treasured copy of a Daniel Defoe original, I know how delicate the pages and bindings are.

And therefore I also know that one should never judge a book by its cover; or, as Thomas Thomas himself might have written in a Latin translation of that old saying, “Fronti Nulla Fides”.




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