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Cambridgeshire


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Was a quiet, thinly populated, agricultural county, pleasantly hilly in the chalk south, flat in the north where it joins the Fens. The river Cam bisects the southern part of the county, flowing north to join the Ouse near Ely. It was a county of small landowners, puritan and nonconformist in sympathy, and politically independent. By the Local Government Act of 1972, Cambridgeshire took over Huntingdonshire and the soke of Peterborough, adding more than 50 per cent to its area. Modern Cambridgeshire has seen the development of science and technological parks and the A14 from Huntingdon has become one of the busiest and most congested roads.

Cambridge was a Roman settlement, the centre of a network of roads, joining to cross the Cam. Its importance was enhanced by the fact that it became the southern point of a complex pattern of inland navigation, centred on the Ouse. It was early colonized by the Angles and in the 7th cent. was much disputed between the East Angles and the Mercians. A development in 673 was the foundation of a monastery at Ely. It rapidly prospered and survived sacking by the Danes in 870. Work on the Norman cathedral began in 1083 and it was given cathedral status in 1109. Ely's unique position was responsible for the bishop being granted quasi‐*palatine status. The Isle of Ely was given its own county council in 1888, March becoming the county town, but was once more merged with Cambridgeshire in 1958.

Cambridge town went down before the first Danish onslaught in 870, was liberated by Edward the Elder in the early 10th cent., but fell to the Danes once more in 1011. After the Norman Conquest, William I built the castle in 1068 and the town received a charter in 1201. Stourbridge fair on Midsummer common was one of the largest in Europe. The growth of the university in the 13th cent. produced prolonged antagonism between town and gown, and is responsible for that mixture of seat of learning and East Anglian market town which characterizes Cambridge today.

The northern parts of the county remained for centuries almost completely cut off by fen and water. Their inaccessibility made them a natural shelter for refugees, of whom Hereward, leader of resistance to the Normans, was the most famous. Proposals for draining the fens were put forward repeatedly. In the 17th cent. a start was made, and the earl of Bedford, through the work of Vermuyden, the Dutch engineer, succeeded in reclaiming vast areas.

The fen part of the county has always been an acquired taste. Camden wrote of the ‘Fen‐men, a sort of people (much like the place) of brutish, uncivilized tempers, envious of all others…and usually walking aloft on a sort of stilts’. Admiration for Ely cathedral was usually tempered by disgust at the town itself. Celia Fiennes in 1698 found Ely ‘the dirtiest place I ever saw…a perfect quagmire, the whole city…I had frogs and slow‐worms and snails in my room.’ Wisbech was a flourishing port and displayed some elegant buildings, but Pevsner wrote laconically in 1954 that the Fens ‘grow much potato, sugar‐beet and other root crops, and wheat, but they have never grown much architecture’.

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Subjects: British History.


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