“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