3.2 The Fens: Home of Monsters and Hermits

Marie Hilder talks about the ‘English Holy Land’ during the time of the Anglo Saxons – the landscape, monasteries and hermits -and the tale of Hereward the Wake.


Marie curates a wonderful Facebook page. Have a look at Anglo Saxon History and Language -there are loads of great posts

The Fens before they were drained



This is the second episode from Marie Hilder, so once again although it will sound awfully like me, it is in fact a devilish trick, because the words are in fact written by Marie – I am only speaking them. Or well, actually about half of them; in the end I found I had rather a lot wanted to talk about with the Fenland – but it’s mainly Marie in spirit. I’ll let you know when I step back in to add my two penn’orth.


Just to remind you that Marie has curated a fantastic Facebook group I’ve absolutely loved, called ‘Anglo-Saxon History and Language’. The group has loads of really excellent and interesting posts, many of them from Marie, and the people of the group also have interesting contributions to make. So, if you like what follows, or even if you don’t, may I urge you all to join the Anglo-Saxon History and Language group if you are on FB; I’ll remind you at the end, and put a link into the episode post.

OK, so over then to Marie first of all, talking about the Fenland of Anglo Saxon England, apparently known in some circles as the ‘Holy Land of the English’  – home to monsters and monasteries, including the Monasteries described as the Fen Five. Of which more from Marie.


Drive through the Fens of Cambridgeshire and the neighbouring counties, and the flat featureless landscape seems to stretch for miles under open skies. The region is below sea level in some places, and depends on a network of ditches and artificial canals to drain excess water into rivers which have been engineered to take the shortest route to the North Sea … it’s a scene that’s reminiscent of the Netherlands and it comes as no surprise to learn that Dutch engineers played a major role in the drainage of the Fens in the 17th Century.

The Fens take their name from the Old English word fenn which described wetlands in general. Before drainage, this area was a mix of coastal salt marshes, peat bogs, shallow inland lakes, and low hills standing above the flood level. Yet the Fens have never been an untamed wilderness.  They might be a strange, unsettling place to outsiders, but they have always teemed with riches in the eyes of the people who live here. A 12th-Century chronicler of Peterborough abbey was thinking like a local when he described the area as “very valuable to men because there are obtained in abundance all things needful for them that dwell nearby”

whether it was fish and waterfowl, rushes for thatching or rich water meadows for cattle pasture. The Liber Elienis, a 12th-century English chronicle described:

“fish innumerable, eels, large water wolves, pickerel, perch, roach, burbots and lampreys”

Eels were so common, they were often used to pay remittances in kind; the name of Ely is supposed by some to derive from Island of Eels. It would have been a region extraordinarily rich in wildlife.

The Romans dug canals to manage the water level in the Fens, and the Anglo-Saxons were next with a wave of engineering projects in the 10th Century. These projects were financed by a handful of Benedictine abbeys on the edge of the wetlands or on islands in the marshes. Thanks to generous endowments from royalty and local aristocrats, these monasteries became some of the richest landowners in the kingdom, with huge workforces to do the heavy labour of digging ditches and short canals  – known locally as lodes.

Excess water was diverted into nearby rivers, the exposed peat dried into a rich black soil and the monks started to bring this virgin land under the plough.  Scraps of parchment survive from the period and they show in extraordinary detail how monastic estate managers exploited the natural riches of the Fens by moving slaves and herds, fishing nets and bean seed to new farms under development.

Two of these abbeys (Thorney and Ramsey) were still relatively new foundations by the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066. Peterborough, Ely and Crowland, which is also known as Croyland, were much older establishments with foundation stories about saintly royals whose parents or grandparents had worshipped the heathen gods Woden and Thunor.

The Conversion period  of the 7th century, when the pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms slowly adopted Christianity from Rome, was a transformative period and described by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History.

The first Fenland monastery was founded in 656. The place was called Medeshamstede and was dedicated to St Peter- which explains how Medeshamstede managed to become the name of the modern city, Peterborough.

The monastery was endowed by Penda of Mercia’s son as an outpost of Mercian interests in a region far removed from his ancestral heartland in the upper Trent valley around Tamworth; a supportive monastery on the edge of the Fens was seen as the ideal way to plant the dynasty in the far reaches of the kingdom where the king was rarely seen.

What was good for Mercian power worked equally well for East Anglian interests. The eastern kingdom was represented in the Fens by a woman, Etheldreda, or Æthelthyth if you prefer her Old English name.  This lady was the great-niece of King Rædwald of the East Angles, who is the most likely candidate for the man buried at Sutton Hoo. Great-uncle Rædwald was baptised a Christian but continued to worship his ancestral gods. Etheldreda redeemed the family in Bede’s eyes and she did this by founding the second great Fenland abbey at Ely. The Venerable One never met Etheldreda who died when he was a small child, but he spoke to people who knew her and what particularly impressed him was her determination to preserve her virginity through two royal marriages.

Bede described the queen’s retreat to the largest island in the Fens, surrounded by marshes and named for the large number of eels caught in its waters. Here she founded a double monastery – for men and women – and was consecrated as its abbess. Admittedly, Etheldreda wasn’t the first Anglo-Saxon woman to found a monastery, but she was the first queen to do so.  If her church was built of lightweight timber in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, it could be thrown up anywhere on the Isle of Ely and didn’t need a hard platform of stone to stand on; unlike the medieval Ely cathedral, which stands where it does because of the geology of the isle. According to tradition, the queen settled a mile from the present cathedral at a place called Cratendune. This first monastery eludes detection but, thanks to Bede, Etheldreda would become the most celebrated Englishwoman of the pre-Norman Conquest era with a cult that lasted from her death through to the Dissolution of the Monasteries almost nine centuries later.


Twenty years after Etheldreda’s death in 679, another royal came to the Fens on a spiritual journey. This was Guthlac, a warrior prince who could trace his descent back to Eomer of Angeln. Eomer was a famous and legendary figure  who appears in the poem Beowulf as ‘Helper of heroes”; he also inspired JRR Tolkien’s character of the same name, in the Riders of Rohan of course.

Guthlac was a contemporary of Bede, and spent nine years fighting the Welsh. But you can only fight the Welsh for so long, so, burnt out by Welsh fighting at the tender age of 24, he decided to become a monk. Only to find his peers didn’t like him because he refused to touch alcohol – and it’s difficult to disagree with the monks on that one.  In the year 699, he embarked on the solitary life of a hermit and had himself ferried to Crowland, another island in the Fens.

To outsiders, the Fens were edgy places where monsters, cold and deadly, lurked beneath the treacherous surface.  One piece of Old English wisdom states:

“the monster must dwell in the fens, alone in the land”

they were the natural habitat of Grendel and the other ‘boundary-walkers’ of the night in the Old English poem Beowulf. Guthlac’s biographer, writing only a few years later, described his retreat in the spookiest of terms: it was

“a most dismal fen of immense size … now consisting of marshes, now of bogs, sometimes of black waters overhung by fog, sometimes studded with wooded islands, and traversed by the windings of tortuous streams”.

The newly minted Christians of seventh-century England were not deterred by the threat of monsters. By settling in these liminal places, they felt they were making the same spiritual journey as the early monks who left the city for the Egyptian desert. The fens were a world removed from Egypt, and the Roman cities of Britain shadows of their former selves, but the wetlands shared with the desert that all-important sense of being on the edge of civilisation in early medieval England. It made them perfect for monks and hermits seeking isolation to devote themselves to prayer, as a chroinicler wrote

“these marshes afforded to not a few congregations of monks desirable havens of lonely life in which the solitude could not fail the hermits.”

Guthlac made his home in the side of a prehistoric barrow and remarkably, new archaeology confirms the existence at Crowland of several prehistoric barrows surrounded by an earthwork and standing on a spit of dry land which projected into the marsh.  In daylight, Guthlac’s barrow attracted a steady stream of visitors who came by boat to consult the resident holy man, but at night he was haunted by the voices of demons who spoke in the British tongue. We might tentatively suggest that the local wildlife might offer a more plausible explanation.

Soon after his death in 714, Guthlac’s remains were moved into a splendid new church within a stone’s throw of his hermitage. Here was a saint who could appeal to the Anglo-Saxon nobility: a warrior who gave up the world to become a soldier of Christ and battle (Beowulf-style) against monsters and demons in the marshes.

Monastic life in the Fens stalled in the ninth century when the viking Great Heathen Army sacked the three Fenland monasteries in 870.  It took another century before they were re-founded as all-male Benedictine abbeys. There was yet more upheaval with the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century. The Fens were one of the last parts of England to submit to the Conqueror, and the local abbeys played their part in the resistance. What unites them is the figure of Hereward the Wake, a tenant of Peterborough and Crowland abbeys who made his rebel base on the Isle of Ely and, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,

“defended it with its inhabitants against King William, who then had subjected almost all the land”.

Ely proved a tough nut for the Normans to crack. First they tried to reach St Etheldreda’s Isle by throwing causeways across the marshy ground, only for these to collapse under the weight of men and horses; they even supposedly called on the services of a witch to intimidate the rebels into submission. The final outcome was never in doubt and in October 1071, with the Isle under siege and food stocks running low, the monks of Ely decided to submit to the Conqueror.  Hereward did not join them. He broke out of Ely with as many men as could – or would – follow him “and he led them out valiantly” adds the contemporary Chronicle, before he vanishes into the undergrowth of history.

Meanwhile, the monks of Ely placated the notoriously avaricious Conqueror with their treasures.  They would remember their submission as a disaster for their abbey which was “weighed down under the Norman yoke” and shorn of its ancient glory.  And yet, thanks to Bede who was still widely read, St Etheldreda was held in great respect and work started on a new Romanesque church in 1080 and her relics moved into a new shrine in 1106. The building was extended over the medieval centuries so that Ely is now the fourth longest among English cathedrals.  Crowland and Peterborough were also rebuilt in the new style, but only after devastating fires in 1091 and 1116 respectively.

The 16th and 17th Centuries were times of even greater upheaval for the Fens. First to be affected were the abbeys who had mixed fortunes following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.  Ely had been home to a bishop since 1109 and so the great abbey church continued in use, but as a cathedral and without the pilgrims to St Etheldreda’s shrine which was dismantled.  It was a similar story in Peterborough, where the last abbot was consecrated as the first bishop of Peterborough. The third abbey, Crowland fared less well and was reduced to the status of parish church.

Next, progress came for the ancient wetlands.  Roman, Anglo-Saxon and medieval planners were content to manage the water level in the Fens but the 17th Century saw the start of systematic efforts to completely drain this ancient landscape, when a group of investors calling themselves ‘The Adventurers’ paid Dutch engineers to do the job. To the Adventurers (one of whom was Oliver Cromwell) this was the Biblical-style creation of new land, and they justified their intervention in the natural order as doing God’s work on earth. The Fens are home to some of the most productive farmland in modern Britain, but at the time drainage was a disaster for local people and prompted a series of local rebellions.


Happily, there are still pockets of natural wetland where visitors can still see this ancient landscape before drainage, and sense the isolation that drew Etheldreda, Guthlac and others to do God’s lonely work in the Fens, a millennium before Cromwell and the Adventurers changed them forever.

Thank you very much Marie. I thought I’d  add a little  bit, on the principle that no one becomes a podcaster unless they like the sound of their own voice.

So for year and years as a nipper I was a keen birdwatcher, though not terribly professional I’m afraid, and I signed up to the RSPB is some way -not sure how, but I seemed to have lots of pamphlets about them, my memory fails me. I did look them up to remind myself; and on Wikpiedia it warned me not to mistake the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for the similarly acronymed Railways Sports Promotion Board. The mind boggles.

Anyway, the rspb had places like Welney Marsh in Norfolk and Minsmere in Suffolk. So one day in my prime with a bit of spare time I set off towards them driving in my car along memory lane but came instead across  a place in fenland called Wicken Fen. And I remembered my friend Tim had spoken of Wicken Fen so I turned in.

Wicken Fen is the kind of place Merie refers to, a place to sense how the fens once were; a shard of the way fenlands used to be – 600 acres owned by the National Trust, who try to maintain it in the way that most of Fenland would have been like. There are vast reed beds, pools appearing unexpectedly wherever you go. It is managed still – there are sluice gates everywhere and windmills to pump water, and it puts you in mind of a sort of 17th century iteration of the Fen, rightly or wrongly.


It’s lovely, there’s masses of wildlife, but if I can be emotional, it is also a tiny bit tragic. Because it is but a memory of a landscape that used to stretch for mile after mile after endless mile, which could be managed and adapted to, but not controlled. I don’t know if there are any Isaac Asimov fans out there, but I was reminded of his book Caves of Steel, where everyone lives inside, but they all have a local Green Square Mile where you could go and see the sky above you, and feel like an explorer of the old books.

Wicken Fen felt a bit like that. The Fenlands were once among the most wild and uncontrollable of English landscapes, constantly flooding. They are now an almost industrial landscape; everywhere there are straight lines, roads, rivers, drains, rectangular fields. I am not saying the Fens don’t still have a kind of distinctive beauty, as Marie said with the feeling of big sky, but it is an unusually man made rural landscape now. It’s very hard to imagine the wilderness that once shielded Hereward the Wake from his enemies, and allowed him to live the guerilla life.

A few history notes. Hereward would have lived among people whose entire social structure and way of life was adapted to the Fenlands. Fenlands had remarkably small amounts of land suitable for arable farming, and so as we have heard the people made their living from cattle grazing, wild fowling, catching of eels. And often using stilts to help negotiate the shallows. Peat is critical to the ecology and economy of the whole area, underpinning its enormous fertility, with its famous black earth.

In Anglo Saxon times they would as Marie said have been a liminal society, unusually individualistic; one writer described them as a

thriftless race whose only strong passion was a love of freedom

The settlement names often reflect the topography, of course. There are broadly two types  of Fen; in the north, there are the salt marshes, often forming ‘washes’ – the word was Old English, for a sandbank washed by the sea; and of course the great shallow sea that cuts into the heart of the fens is called The Wash. The salt marshes are covered with the shrub-like Seablite which is one of the only things to cope with constant inundation of saltwater at high tide, although there’s also the much more lovely sheets of pink flowered Thrift, too, and often the reasonably vile tasting samphire which over enthusiastic mothers with an eye for a freebie used to gather and cook for their protesting young ‘uns. Very good for you apparently, in that no pain no gain kind of way.

There is then an area called the Siltlands, a band of slightly raised land caused by deposition of silt over centuries – don’t get excited, you won’t need oxygen to get up there – they are raised by something like 3 metres.  South wards of the siltlands, then, Fens are fresh water, caused by regular flooding of the great rivers that flow from the Midlands into its lowlands towards the sea – the Great Ouse, the Welland and the Nene. So islands in the Fens, like the Isle of Ely were terribly important to survival and island words figure highly. The Isle of Axholme  in Lincolnshire is one of those doubling up names; East Anglia was heavily settled by the Danes, and so Axholme borrows from the Old Norse ‘holmr’, island; Axholme was Haxey’s Island. Meanwhile the ea- suffix, ey, to a word means an island, where the oldest settlements were clustered; villages such as Whittlesey, and Manea, and Thorney. Thorney was Haga’s Island, particularly well known to me because the associated village of Thorney Toll was a hideous pinch point of traffic as Leicestershire travelled east to the sea during the August factory fortnight. We were often in those traffic jams, on our way to our stationary caravan by the coast.

We’d also hit trouble at the slightly exotically named Guyhirn, from the French word La Guerne, or a guide, referring to the nearby straight drain, Morton’s Leam. This was the same 15th century John Morton, by the way, beloved of Henry VII, and the inspiration of Morton’s fork.

These islands, then, and patches of upland were super important; for both settlements and for access to rare arable land. If you listened by my blatherings about the development of parishes in Anglo Saxon Chilterns, you might remember that they were often strip parishes – carefully incorporating the resources of two types of landscape – the pastures and woods of the hills, and the flat fertile arable of the plains. The same happens in places on the fens. The siltlands are often called the Townlands, for that was where the earliest settlement took place, often dating from the Romano British period, a strip of highly nucleated villages. Places like Fosdyke, a placename which again incorporates local Fenlands words – it means Forta’s Ditch, from the Old Norse ‘dic’. The Dyke is a constant feature in the Fenlands, a word which means both a ditch, and a bank, about which I have whined before.

Anway, the point is that  these villages were set at the head of long strip parishes heading towards the sea, once again combing resource of arable land, pasture, reed beds. And an important early industry – creating salt from salt water, at places such as Fishtoft; a village with an early statue of St Guthlac as it happens, evidence it is thought of the saint’s cult. Salt was often manufactured using large, square beds called Salterns.


The presence of Romano British settlements in the inaccessible Fenlands has led to the idea that it was an area of late survival for the Britons. But in fact that seems unlikely; the idea is also based on a series of placenames with the element ‘wal’ in them, like Walpole, the wall being supposedly from Wealh, foreigner or Welsh. But it seems more likely they are in fact related to Roman Walls of the saxon shore, and there are very few remaining Celtic placenames in east Anglia generally – mainly rivers like the Ouse, and river names are always at the fore front of Celtic survivals. None the less the inaccessibility of the Fenlands did lead to a variety of Anglo Saxon tribes that make it to the Tribal Hideage; the northern Gwyre based on Peterborough, the southern Gwyre based on Ely; supposedly the name Gwyre was derived from the Old English word for a deep bog, so that would figure. Then in Lincolnshire there were the Spalda. From whom the town of Spalding takes its name, and the Bilmingas.

Common Land played a crucial part in the local economy. Now the Adventurers of the 17th century partly paid for their investment by enclosing land, which was granted to them, notably by Charles I. This utterly changed the local way of life, removing that common land. So there was massive resistance a marie mentions; actually Oliver Cromwell was initially part of that resistence, giving support to a group of protesters around Ely helping them dispute the land grants by Charles I in law. I wonder if it is fanciful of me to see Cromwell’s transformation from initial support for his locals against state Improvement, to his later advocacy, as symbolic of his personal transformation from local dignitary, to national statesman.

Major developments during Charles’ reign were led by the 4th Earl of Bedford, who led a group of Adventurers during the personal rule. So enormous and influential was this project, that the Great Fen, between Cambridge and the Wash, is also called the Bedford Levels.

Other Resistance to change from the 16th century included the semi legendary Fenland Tigers, who smashed windmills and sluices to try to hold back change and preserve their way of life. In the long run, they failed of course, but they are remembered in the Red Lion of the Fenland flag.

The structured work of Cornelius Vermuyden and the Adventurers introduced a new type of settlement into the Fenlands – the isolated Georgian Farmstead, associated with long strips of reclaimed farmland. I seem to remember at school learning about Dutch Polders, where four areas of reclaimed land were allocated in a big square separated into four sub squares, each a farmstead. Where the squares all met in the middle, there were built 4 farmsteads, so that they had neighbours. Don’t know if that’s true but we are nowhere near as friendly in England, and so those Georgian farms are mainly on their own. But Georgian England was a fine time for Fenland agriculture – as you’ll see if you go to towns like Swaffham.

OK, that is all Marie and I have for you this week – I am sorry, I warbled on a bit with personal reminiscing and such, rather spoiling Marie’s much tighter article. Thanks very much to Marie, I do hope you’ll do this again, and do check out her fantastic Facebook group ‘Anglo-Saxon History and Language’.

I do have at least one more episode in mind; on Anglo Saxon seasons, inspired by a book by Eleanor Parker, Winter’s in the World. So I’ll pop that up in a few week’s time, and we’ll see where we go from there. Until then, thank you all so much for listening, good luck, and have a great week.

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