The Wistow Experience 410 – 1066 AD
Very little is known specifically about Wistow during the early Anglo-Saxon years. The period of time ushered in by the fall of the Western Roman Empire has been called the Dark Ages, not because of murky sinister deeds, but because there is little documentation to shed light on the era. Most of what we know is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written by a variety of monks in their cloistered monasteries. It gives a year-by-year account of all the major events of the time. The Anglo-Saxon period stretched over 600 years, from 410 to 1066, and the first time Wistow appears in a written document is in 974, which is late on in the period. We have to resort to educated guesswork and conjecture from what we know generally about the Anglo-Saxons and what we can glean from archaeology, place-names and known local events to piece together Wistow’s history.
Bearing in mind this paucity of information it would be useful to set the scene and context of the period by asking who the Anglo-Saxons were and what their purpose in coming to England was? The very first ‘visitors’ to these isles were from Friesland in northern Holland and they arrived on the East coast in the early 5th Century, probably about 420. Once word got round that there were easy pickings to be had, the floodgates opened and they poured over from the lands east and north of Friesland, including Saxony, in what is now western Germany, and Jutland. They were a motley collection of peoples made up of Frisians, Jutes, Angles and Saxons, but history has grouped them together under the label of Anglo-Saxons.
Invaders or Traders?
There are two schools of thought about how and why they came at all. Were they invaders or traders? Did they arrive as waves of warriors overwhelming the Romano British left behind when the Romans disappeared? Or were there just a few warrior bands gaining control from British regional kingdoms from whom they encouraged exchanges of goods and ideas? Some of these warriors would have been Germanic mercenaries who had lingered after the Roman army’s departure and took advantage of being in the right place at the right time.
The invasion scenario sees hordes of Anglo-Saxons, with their circular embossed shields, storming across from the North Sea in their boats, taking over the East and South of the country and thus filling the void left by the departing Romans. They pushed out from these bases, forcing the Britons west into Wales and Cornwall, the last outposts of ancient British culture. The rest of Britain became Anglo-Saxon and everything changed: Towns were abandoned in favour of small rural farming villages; the houses they lived in were different, as were the tools they used, the jewellery they wore, their beliefs and the way they buried their dead; and Old English was spoken, a new language which penetrated and persisted in every aspect of British life.
Recently some scholars have questioned this theory. They say there was no significant change in population, which would have had to happen if swarms of invaders had arrived on our shores. Also, no large-scale war graves have been found to support the notion of mass slaughter of the locals. The opponents of the invasion theory do not believe that the British were crushed and their culture collapsed, instead they think that small troops of warriors came and influenced the natives, who simply adopted the customs of this powerful military elite. However the Anglo-Saxons arrived, whether as invaders or traders, there is no doubt they remained in England and became settlers, hunkering down for the duration.
The Formation of Kingdoms
Where does Wistow fit into this jumble of invaders? Well, there was a period of jostling for position when the Britons of the southeastern Midlands were being assailed and driven out by the West Saxons from the southwest, by the East Angles from the east and by the Middle Angles from the northeast. What is now Huntingdonshire was incorporated into the territory of the Middle Angles, which in turn became absorbed by the Mercians before the middle of the 7th century. A document called the Tribal Hidage was compiled circa 675 showing the hidage for each of the eighteen or more tribal areas, or districts of independent communities, of which Mercia was composed. The hide was a unit used in assessing land for liability to geld, or land tax. The names of several Anglo-Saxon fenland peoples are preserved in this document, showing clearly that the land of the Middle Angles was part of the kingdom of Mercia by this time. One of the peoples mentioned in the Tribal Hidage is the Hyrstingas (or Hurstingas) tribe who held 600 hides. Hyrstingas means forest dwellers and many of the local place names still refer to woodland e.g. Upwood, Woodwalton, Woodhurst and Oldhurst. The tribal name has been preserved in the hundred name of Hurstingstone, of which Wistow is a part.
The fact that the centre and east of England was settled by Angles as opposed to Saxons can be confirmed by mapping the distribution of different shaped brooches found in early Anglo-Saxon graves both here and in Europe. The Angles and Jutes wore cruciform brooches , whereas the Saxons preferred round, saucer-shaped brooches. The cruciform pattern favoured by the Angles is found along the whole of England’s east coast, including Kent, where the Jutes landed. The saucer pattern is found in the South and West where the Saxons made their bases.
The early Anglo-Saxon settlers kept to small tribal groups and in the countryside the vast majority of the people lived by farming. At first most of the farms were owned outright. The ceorls worked co-operatively, sharing the expense of a team of oxen to plough the large common fields in narrow strips that were shared out alternately so that each farmer had an equal share of good and bad land. Later much of this land was consolidated into the larger estates of wealthy nobles. Ceorls might work the land in return for service or produce, or they might work their lord’s land a specified number of days per year. As time went on more and more of these large estates were established as integrated commercial enterprises, complete with a mill to grind the grain.
The Charter of 974
Wistow was one of these larger estates with a mill and was also known as Kingstune before it was granted to Ramsey Abbey in a charter dated 974. Oswald, Archbishop of York and friend of Aylwin, founder of Ramsey Abbey, purchased Kingstune id est Wicstoue (id est means ‘that is’ in Latin) from King Edgar and then presented it to the abbey. This is the first recorded appearance of the village name Wistow. The charter also noted that Wistow had two berewicks (daughter settlements that still retain some link with their parent) at Little Ravely and Bury. This former royal estate was most likely granted to the abbey as a fully developed agricultural unit, not as a piece of forested land to be cleared by the monks. There will be more of Ramsey Abbey later but first we have to deal with the Vikings.
Vikings and the Danelaw
The Vikings were land-hungry adventurers with a point to prove back home. Their intention was to grab what they could by any means available to them. They sullied forth from their Danish homelands in swift shallow hulled longboats, which allowed them to cross seas to the British Isles and navigate rivers into mainland Europe. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, East Anglia was settled by a Danish army under King Guthrum in 881 and became known as the Eastern Danelaw. At the same time the region to the west, Mercia, was under pressure. Huntingdonshire remained part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia until the Danish invasion of the 9th Century. It suffered with the rest of Mercia during the early Viking raids, but to a lesser degree than its northern and eastern neighbours. By 874 the Danes seem to have overrun all of Mercia and driven King Burhred overseas. Mercia then came under the rule of Ceolwulf, but he was no match for the brutal Danes and in 877 a treaty was made whereby Ceowulf took the western, smaller part of Mercia and the Danes held the eastern part. This land was incorporated into the Danelaw and was occupied by four satellite armies, each commanded by an earl. The Danish warriors of these outer territories mustered at fortified centres which developed in due course into the towns of Cambridge, Huntingdon, Bedford and Northampton. Wistow was in the area controlled by the Danish Army of Huntingdon 880-917. Alfred the Great was the King of Wessex at this time.
These areas settled by their respective armies became known in later years as shires. Richard of Ely, writing in his ‘Historia Eliensis’ in the 12th Century, noted that Huntingdon was organised as a shire comprising six hundreds before the third quarter of the 10th Century and had an earl in the first quarter of that century. Early references to Huntingdonshire appear in the narrative of the dedication of Ramsey church in 991 and in the list of counties overrun by the Danes in 1011.
Guthrum’s kingdom was completely independent and developed its own legal, administrative and economic structure and paid no tribute to the West Saxon Crown. Although Guthrum nominally accepted the Christian faith, most of the new army settlers were illiterate adventurers who retained their pagan beliefs and culture. Monasteries were plundered and abandoned and the diocesan structure swept away. The earls, although accepting Guthrum’s overall lordship, were autonomous in their internal administration. Throughout the earldoms, as in the rest of the Danelaw, there was a revolution in land tenure in which the former Anglian landowners forfeited their estates, becoming subservient to the Danish conquerors. The Wistow villagers would have had to succumb to this wholesale takeover of their land.
The Danes probably instituted their own system of strip cultivation of open fields, which entailed a considerable degree of cooperation between the owners of individual strips. This would be best achieved by concentrating the bulk of the population, both Anglian and Danish, in newly established centralised communities which replaced the earlier settlement pattern of scattered hamlets and farmsteads. This may well have been the principal motivation for the creation of villages, each farming an area with its own boundary and developing a network of lanes and footpaths for communication with neighbours. By the time of the Norman Conquest there were a little over 80 villages in Huntingdonshire and 160 in Cambridgeshire. It is probable that many of these were created during the period of the Danish autonomy.
The Danish settlement of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire was one of upheaval in exploitation of land and the way of life of the former Anglo-Saxon inhabitants. The Danish Earls established fortified enclosures known as holds for the minting of their coinage and as residences for themselves and leaders of lesser status. Wistow was one of these smaller defended enclosures for the Danish Huntungdonshire Army. Strategically it was a good spot for a fortified farm and minor stronghold for the Vikings as it was by a stream and protected by woods. The surrounding higher ground made it easy to set up lookouts to see anyone approaching the area. Also Wistow was not far from headquarters in Huntingdon and conveniently positioned for keeping the locals under control.
The Battle in 917
As well as defensive towns, Huntingdon and Cambridge developed as commercial centres. There appears to have been little contact with those parts of England still under West Saxon and Mercian rule and a new pattern of trading with the rest of the Danelaw was established. The Fenland economy was based on turbaries, fishing, fowling, pasturing of livestock and harvesting of reeds for thatching. It was a time of innovation and bustling activity and because of the successful agrarian system, the Danelaw shires were more prosperous than their English counterparts in Wessex and Mercia. This difference in prosperity may be one of the motivating factors for a series of campaigns mounted in 917 by King Edward the Elder and his sister Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians (children of Alfred the Great), for recovery of parts of the Danelaw. After defeating the Danish Army under Earl Toglos decisively at Huntingdon, Wistow and finally Tempsford, Edward accepted the surrender of the Danes of Cambridgeshire and the thirty seven year autonomy of the two shires came to an abrupt end. Huntingdon and Wistow were firmly back under Anglo-Saxon rule.
Edward the Elder
Foundation of Ramsey Abbey
A period of comparative peace followed in the middle of the 10th Century when the monasteries were founded, one of them being Ramsey Abbey in 969. The Benedictine abbey at Ramsey was almost the first monastic institution to be founded within the borders of Huntingdonshire and was granted considerable estates within the county, including Wistow in 974, making it the fourth wealthiest monastery in England and the greatest landowner in the county by the time of the Domesday survey. The monastery was also granted a banlieu, or liberty, covering Ramsey itself, Bury, Upwood and part of Wistow and Great Ravely. This gave the abbot almost monarchical powers over the inhabitants of the liberty. The church was a very important force in society as it was the only truly national entity tying together the different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans when they came to Britain but were soon converted to Christianity by St Augustine. Stow in Old English is an indication of a special place, usually an assembly place or a holy place. The place where the Anglo-Saxons gathered to worship their pagan gods evolved into the place where they built their churches when they became Christians. In all likelihood, as its name suggests, Wistow was that special holy place for the surrounding area.
Turmoil ensued again in the days of Ethelred the Unready, 978-1016. In the 980’s a fresh wave of Danish raids began, and in the next decade armies under Norwegian and Swedish kings joined in the mayhem. London was attacked and survived, but the surrounding countryside was hit hard and in 991 the fateful decision was made to buy off the raiders with a large payment. This payment, or Danegeld as it came to be known, set a dangerous precedent. The Danes now knew that there was good money to be had just for showing up and each time the payment got bigger, from 10,000 pounds in 991 to a high of 82,500 pounds in 1018.
Ethelred the Unready
The Danes were a constant threat and by 1011 they had again overrun East Anglia and the shires of Middle England including half of Huntingdon. They defeated Ethelred and his son, Edmund Ironside, who were both dead by the time Cnut ascended the throne in 1016. The new Danish ruler of all England was also king of Denmark and Norway. He did his best to keep the peace in his new kingdom by using English councillors and upholding the traditional laws and customs. He married Edmund’s widow, and allied himself closely with the Christian church. Cnut attempted to settle the fen country by making a road from Peterborough to Ramsey and endowing the fenland monasteries with property in Huntingdonshire. When Cnut died in 1035, however, the same old dynastic squabbles broke out, with the eventual result that Edward The Confessor, the surviving son of Ethelred, was called back from exile in Normandy to rule. Edward remained King of this united England until he died in 1066 – and we all know what happened then!
The Wistow Experience
What was the Wistow experience during these centuries after the Romans had left and before the Normans arrived? The people of Wistow would be trying to get on with their business of farming to provide for their families and keeping the landlord sweet, all the time constantly having to look over their shoulders, never knowing where the next danger was coming from or when it would occur. The Romano British were driven out by the Angles from the east and north. In turn the rolling program of terror from the Danes and Norwegians harassed the new settlers. The Saxons from the south eventually overwhelmed the Viking soldiers in a decisive battle, which brought about the end of an era. Wistow villagers were expected to cope with this upheaval to their normal day-to-day farming life and take up arms for their overlords to protect the land, themselves, their family and their livelihood. It was a time of constant struggle and strife with periods of relative peace interspersed with periods of violence. Through it all somehow Wistow managed to survive.
To summarise this lengthy period of history, when the Romans came, they saw, they conquered, hung around for a bit then went back to Italy. When the Anglo-Saxons came, they saw, they liked it and made it home. Not only that, they were prepared to fight for it. They pushed the Britons further and further west. They saw off the Vikings who came, ran around making a lot of noise and demanding money, then eventually were beaten back. Along came the Normans and, like the Romans before them, they remained as an elite conquering force. They tried to crush and intimidate the natives with their castles and impose their French language on the masses, but it was Old English that won through and in the end the Normans were forced to integrate if they wanted to stay long term. The persistence of the English language says it all. Those tenacious Anglo-Saxons loved their new homeland and were not prepared to give it up for anyone.
- A History of Huntingdonshire by Michael Wickes (Published by Phillimore1985 revised 1995).
- The Victoria History of the County of Huntingdonshire Volume II (Edited by William Page, Granville Proby & S. Inskip Ladds 1932 reprinted 1974).
- An Atlas of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire History edited by Tony Kirby and Susan Oosthuizen (Published by Anglia Polytechnic University 2000).
- Face of Britain by Robert McKie (Published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd 2006).
- The English Settlements by J.N.L. Myers (Clarendon Press Oxford 1986).
- Anglo-Saxon England by Sir Frank Stenton (Oxford University Press 1971).
- An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England by Peter Hunter Blair (Cambridge University Press 1960).
- Historical Atlas of Britain edited by Malcolm Falkus and John Gillingham (Book Club Associates 1981).
- Britain Express Website (www.britainexpress.com/History).
Illustrations from Google Images labelled for re-use