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Preface to Huntingdonshire


Huntingdonshire is an inland county of eastern England, bordered by Cambridgeshire to the E, Northamptonshire to the NW and Bedfordshire to the SW. It is diamond-shaped, and measures 48 km (30 miles) from N to S, and 37 km (23 miles) from E to W, covering 230,865 acres. Of all the English counties, only Middlesex and Rutland are smaller. The main towns (based on 2004 figures) are Huntingdon (19,830), St Ives (15,780) and St Neots (14,020), but Huntingdon was the only Domesday borough.

Administrative history

References to Huntingdonshire in the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture are to the traditional or ancient county as described in Domesday, but Huntingdonshire and its neighbours, especially Cambridgeshire, have undergone administrative changes over the last two hundred years, which can confuse the uninitiated and require some explanation. For the most part the county, as recorded in the Domesday survey, is identical to that of 1965, but in that year Huntingdonshire was amalgamated with the Soke of Peterborough (the small autonomous area of Northamptonshire to the north) to form the county of Huntingdon and Peterborough, and at the same time the rural district of Thorney, in the north west of Cambridgeshire, was designated part of the county of Huntingdon and Peterborough. That administrative county survived for nine years until 1974 when it was united with Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely to the east, to form the present administrative county of Cambridgeshire. The Huntingdon district of Cambridgeshire had approximately the same boundaries as the old county of Huntingdonshire, and in 1984 this district council renamed itself Huntingdonshire district. In 1998 the City of Peterborough was removed from Cambridgeshire for administrative purposes, becoming a unitary authority - in effect a separate county - into which some of the northern parishes of Huntingdonshire have since been incorporated.

Landscape, geology and building stones

The landscape is attractive but by no means spectacular. Apart from the flat fenland in the NE it is a county of low and rolling arable land with few areas of woodland, following the typical ‘champion ground’ landscape of nucleated villages surrounded by open farmland that originally made up the village fields. The highest land is in the S and W of the county, but there are no hills of any size. The highest point is near Covington at Boring Field, close to the Three Shire Stone, where the counties of Huntingdon, Bedford and Northampton meet, and is the lowest high point of any English county at only 80 m (263 ft) above sea level. Indeed the peak of the hill, such as it is, is outside the county in Northamptonshire, and Huntingdonshire thus suffers the indignity of having its high point halfway up a slope.

Boring Field near Covington contains Huntingdonshire's highest point

The Great Ouse runs N into the county at St Neots, near the southern tip, turning to flow E through Huntingdon and St Ives on its way to Ely and the Wash, and its broad, alluvial floodplain, cutting through the clay beds, has been extensively quarried for gravel.

The Great Ouse at Hartford

This is the only major river, although the Nene forms part of the Northamptonshire border in the N and NW (21476). Much of the fenland was under water before it was drained, and is now barely above sea level except around Ramsey, a low fen island. Holme Fen has the distinction of containing the lowest point of dry land in England, slightly below sea level.

The entire county lies on the Jurassic clay beds, except for the fen area in the NE around Whittlesea Mere and Ramsey, the oolitic limestone of the NW tip, around Wansford in the Nene valley, and the lower greensand of the southern tip, S of St Neots (link to http://www.soton.ac.uk/~imw/jpg/cambrid.jpg). This last region provides carstone, a brown ironstone quarried in irregular lumps as an inferior building material and sometimes used in mixed rubble walling (20809). The limestones of Wansford and Barnack, just outside the county, over the Nene in the Soke of Peterborough, were used for high-grade buildings especially in the N, as at Alwalton (21472), but also further S; the 15thc bridge at St Ives is of Barnack stone. Collyweston slate, actually a Jurassic limestone that splits easily along its bedding planes, is commonly used for roofing around Stibbington in the N of the county, and Wansford, just over the border in Northamptonshire. Further S, cobbles, carstone and irregular rubble are increasingly found. Brick made from the Oxford and Gault clays that underlie most of the county has been the chief building material since the later Middle Ages, and this was extensively used in church-building, as at Southoe where a brick tower and clerestory were added in the 15thc to a church built of cobbles.

St Leonard's, Southoe; built of cobbles with a brick tower and clerestorey added in the 15thc.

Settlement and main towns

As in neighbouring Cambridgeshire, the fenland part is an area of dispersed settlement except for the islands in the fens, notably Ramsey which, like Thorney and Ely in Cambridgeshire, housed an early Benedictine monastery. Elsewhere in the county, settlement is nucleated with substantial villages, usually centred on church and manor house, surrounded by open fields.

Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age finds indicate early settlement in the Nene and Ouse valleys and the fens. The Romans also occupied the fens, building a sea wall around the Wash to keep out the highest tides, digging various canals and building the Fen Causeway from Downham Market to Water Newton (Durobrivae), and using these routes to take out salt and beef. Water Newton was a major Roman settlement, and a large and irregular enclosure surrounded by a defensive rampart has been excavated there. Remains of a Roman town have also been found at Godmanchester (Durovigutum) S of Huntingdon. Both of these sites controlled river crossings on Ermine Street, the major Roman road from London to Lincoln that runs through the centre of the county. By the 7thc Huntingdon, on the N bank of the Great Ouse, was beginning to eclipse Godmanchester, on the S bank, as the main town in the county. It was mentioned in a charter of 650 and in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle for 656. By the 9thc the Danes had built a castle at Huntingdon, and this was restored by Edward the Elder when he drove them out and entered the burgh in 921. In 1086 Huntingdon had 256 burgesses in all, and the Domesday entry also refers to the castle, two churches and a mint. St Ives is 5 miles E of Huntingdon, also on the Great Ouse (38694). Its Anglo-Saxon name was Slepe, and it belonged to Ramsey abbey from the 10thc. The old centre was on the N bank of the river, around the church, but the building of the bridge some 500 yards further E by 1107 effectively shifted the centre and the market place to the bridgehead. The present bridge dates from the early 15thc and is one of only three in England with a bridge chapel. In 1001 a ploughman unearthed a stone coffin containing bones, which discovery was reported to the Abbot of Ramsey. From the evidence of the ploughman's dream about the bones, the abbot determined that they belonged to St Ivo, a 6th-century Persian archbishop. The relic became a focus of pilgrimage at St Ive's Priory (now destroyed), and was ultimately the cause of the change of name. In Domesday, however, the manor is still Slepe. St Neots stands at the point where the Great Ouse flows into the county, at the SW. The Benedictine priory of St Neot was traditionally founded between 972 and 975 by a certain Earl Alric or Leofric, with the assistance of Oswald of Worcester, within the parish of Eynesbury. Gifts to the monks in 1111 and 1113 resulted in the priory’s ownership of the entire manor in which it stood by the latter year, and thereafter the name was changed; the first use of St Neots to describe the town being in 1156/57. The town grew around the priory and the river crossing, and was situated on the E bank of the river. Eaton Socon and Eaton Ford, on the W bank were attached to the town in 1965, moving from Bedfordshire into Huntingdonshire for administrative purposes.

Domesday parishes and hundreds

Huntingdon was an Anglo-Saxon shire, divided into the four hundreds of Norman Cross, Leightonstone, Hurstingstone, and Toseland. Darby identified approximately 83 separate places in the Domesday record, and as ever some of these have ceased to exist as separate villages, and new villages have appeared since the survey was carried out. One notable feature is the entire absence of places in the fenland of the NE. There is strong evidence that the Domesday assessment was artificially evened out into units of 5 hides: Darby notes that nearly one half of the villages in the county were assessed at some multiple of 5 hides. This suggests a crude attempt to even out the assessments, but it means that the figures of hidage and plough-teams cannot be usefully compared.

The rural population recorded in Domesday was 2,536 according to Darby’s estimate, and of these the vast majority were villeins (1,938). As ever it must be stated that the record was of heads of household, and it is usual to multiply the figure by five for an estimate of the total population. The population was evenly spread across the county (except for the fenland area) at a rate of 8 to 10 per square mile, and the spread of settlements followed much the same pattern. The upland part of the county was well wooded in the 11thc, with especially high concentrations of woodland in the central eastern part, corresponding to Hurstingstone hundred, and in the south of the county. In contrast the far west of the county had relatively little wood. As might be expected, large areas of meadow were found in the valley of the Great Ouse and its tributaries, and little pasture was recorded. Similarly mills were recorded at sites on the Great Ouse; Godmanchester, Hemingford, Eynesbury and Paxton standing out as having three each. 52 villages are recorded as having churches, and Huntingdon had two. Altogether, 48 priests were mentioned; not always in the same places as the churches. As ever the Domesday Survey is not a reliable guide in this area.

Huntingdonshire after the Conquest

The key figure of the immediate post-Conquest period was Waltheof, the last of the Saxon earls. He became earl of Northumbria in 1065, submitted to William after the defeat at Hastings and was allowed to keep his title and possessions. In 1069 he supported Sweyn II’s unsuccessful invasion, but again submitted to William and married William’s niece, Judith of Lens. Again William forgave him, and in 1072 he was appointed earl of Northumbria and Northampton, with which the earldom of Huntingdon was probably included. In 1075 he joined Ralph de Wader or Guader, Earl of East Anglia and Roger de Breteuil, Earl of Hereford in the so-called Revolt of the Earls, but this failed and this time William was not inclined to be merciful. Walthoef was arrested and beheaded in 1076, and the earldoms of Northampton and Huntingdon remained vacant for a time. By 1086 Waltheof’s widow Judith had a house in Huntingdon and held nine other estates within the county (she was, after all, William’s niece). Apart from the king and his thegns, the only other major individual landowner was the sheriff Eustace, a man with a reputation for rapacity who took away houses in Huntingdon belonging to Ramsey Abbey. Much of the county was in the hands of the church, and the major landowners were the Bishop of Lincoln and the Benedictine abbeys of Ramsey, Thorney and Peterborough.

Religious history

The county of Huntingdon formed practically the entire archdeaconry of Huntingdon within the diocese of Lincoln until 1837, when it was transferred to the Ely diocese. The main Benedictine house in the county was Ramsey abbey, founded in 969.

Ramsey Abbey church

Other Benedictine foundations were the cell of Ramsey at St Ives, the priory at St Neots and the nunnery at Hinchinbrook. There was a Cistercian house at Sawtry and priories of Austin canons at Huntingdon and Stonely. The Austin friars had a house in Huntingdon, and three hospitals have also been traced in the borough, including St John’s, which survives in part.

The W facade of the Cromwell Museum, Huntigdon, formerly the Hospital of St John

Romanesque architecture and sculpture

The CRSBI has identified 37 sites with Romanesque sculpture, and a further ten were examined and found to have Norman fabric but no sculpture. There is nothing approaching a complete Romanesque church surviving in Huntingdonshire, but in spite of the shortage of high-quality freestone within the county boundaries there is a good deal of interesting sculpture, usually in Barnack stone and sometimes linked to sites across the border in the Soke of Peterborough. One interesting case, before our period, is Fletton, a Huntingdonshire village now subsumed by the growth of Peterborough. The church contains two reliefs including one of St Michael (21715), clearly related to the fragments of the shrine of St Kyneburgha at Castor in the Soke and probably dateable to the early 9thc.

Anglo-Saxon relief of St Michael at Fletton

The bell-openings in Barnack stone in the tower at Water Newton are said to come from Castor.

Stow Longa and Little Paxton, both to the SW of Huntingdon, have doorways with enigmatic figural tympana carved in the crude low relief of c.1100; the former with a siren and the latter a Good Shepherd and possibly a centaur.

Stow Longa

Little Paxton

To this group should be added the relief of a man with a beast at Tilbrook, 2 miles from Stow Longa. Tilbrook also has the remains of a carved 12thc cross shaft (21552).

Detail of the cross-shaft fragment at Tilbrook

Also nearby is the tympanum at Covington; a slightly later and more sophisticated piece of carving showing a confronted lion and griffin.

The tympanum of the N doorway of All Saints' Covington

There are 12thc chancel arches worth seeing at Bury, Fletton, Folksworth, Haddon, Morborne and Warboys, and the font at King’s Ripton is carved with bold foliage forms.

Chancel arch capitals at Haddon

The font at Kings Ripton

The Romanesque work at Ramsey is late 12thc, and includes the chancel arch and vault, the S chapel, tower arch, nave arcade (20687) and W doorway. The hall of the former Hospital of St John in Huntingdon, later incorporated into the Grammar School and now housing the Cromwell museum, retains much of its Romanesque sculpture including an elaborate west doorway dating from the 1160s or ‘70s.

The N nave arcade at Ramsey

A deatil of the W doorway of the Comwell Museum, Huntingdon


Ron Baxter carried out all the fieldwork and photography, largely between November 2003 and March 2004, and he also wrote the site reports. Photography was done using a Nikon Coolpix 5700 camera. The images were edited and prepared for web delivery by Anna Bentkowska-Kafel and the web pages were produced by Sophie Church and Anna Bentkowska-Kafel . The author would like to thank the clergy and churchwardens of Huntingdonshire for their generous help in arranging access to the churches in their care, and the curator of the Cromwell Museum, Mr John Goldsmith, for his invaluable assistance.

Short bibliography

The Cambridge Antiquarian Society incorporates the former Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society whose Transactions contain articles relevant to the county. Huntingdon library houses the Huntingdonshire Collection, containing historical material related to the county, and the County Record Office in Huntingdon keeps the archive material. Useful general works are:

  1. H. C. Darby, The Domesday Geography of Eastern England. Cambridge, 1952 (3rd ed. 1971), 315-49.
  2. T. Kirby & S. Oosthuizen (eds), An Atlas of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire History . Cambridge 2000.
  3. C. O’Brien and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough, New Haven and London 2014.
  4. N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Bedfordshire and the County of Huntingdon and Peterborough, Harmondsworth 1968.
  5. RCHM(E), An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Huntingdonshire. London 1926.
  6. Victoria County History: Huntingdonshire. 3 vols, 1926 – 36.
  1. J. Wise, Ramsey Abbey: its Rise and Fall. Huntingdon 1882 (facsimile reprint, Huntingdon 1981).

Web resources

The Huntingdonshire Local History Society aims to increase awareness of the county’s history and individuality, and also provides useful information and links. http://www.huntslhs.org.uk/