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The come-back of the Fenland monasteries (a longer post than usual!)

Dorothy Halfhide

Towards the end of the ninth century, the existing monasteries in the Fens were harassed and then eventually looted and destroyed by raiders from over the North Sea. As Symon Gunton records centuries later of Abbot Hedda: “In his time, the glory of the monastery of Medeshamsted suffered a great Eclipse, through the invasion of the Danes, destroying all before them with fire, and sword.” The abbot and his monks were killed, the library and charters torn up and the riches of the monastic community taken away. The monasteries of Thorney and Crowland were also destroyed.

The area of the Cambridgeshire and south Lincolnshire Fens was the setting for a revival of monastic sites in the 970s under the guidance and organisation of Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester (c.909-984). He had been a part of the royal court of King Athelstan, then retired from court to become a monk at Glastonbury. Aethelwold refounded the monastery at Abingdon and educated Prince Edgar there. In 963 he was appointed by his ex-pupil as Bishop of Winchester.

He seems to have had a plan to both rejuvenate the Christian church in this area through refoundation and support of monasteries, and his motivations were certainly strongly religious, perhaps with political and pragmatic reasons as well. He travelled to Oundle, a previous Mercian religious centre, but was guided by God in a dream to travel on to desolate and forsaken Medeshamsted, which became the site of a rebuilt monastery.

Source - Orderic Vitalis Historia Ecclesiastica vol. 2

Much of the evidence for the refoundations or endowments of land and relics to monasteries is much later in date, and may be open to biased interpretation by later monks. It is generally thought that Crowland may have been refounded around 950, but then Ramsey in 969, Medehamstede (later Peterborough) around 970, Ely in 970 and Thorney in 972/3. This is an almost unique concentration of monasteries, though there may be parallels in other parts of England such as the Somerset Levels – where there is also a Thorney! They are very close together – approximately 4.6 miles from Thorney to Crowland, 8 miles Crowland to Peterborough and 6.6 miles from Peterborough to Thorney. This may be because control of this area as the Danelaw was absorbed into England offered particular opportunities to bring the rich resources of Fenland into the service of both the Church and (indirectly) the monarchy.

[Source : Google Earth, February 2020]

Over the course of the next five centuries, the success and conflicts of the Fenland monasteries are recorded in histories of the Church and also in legal controversies as they vied for position each waxing and waning in importance. Crowland, Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey and Thorney all survived as influential monastic communities until Henry VIII set in train the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

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