St. Ives Market: Abbey Fair to Monday Market

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

– Traditional English Nursery Rhyme/Riddle, Anonymous

We all know this famous rhyme, but why was this unknown man, his wives and a whole menagerie of cats going to St Ives? And which one?

The most likely St. Ives to be journeying to was of course St. Ives in Huntingdonshire, which was one of the most important markets in England for much of its history. It had a royal charter given as early as 1110 and in its heyday was selling 12,000 cattle a day from what is now the location of the bus station! So here is a whistle-stop history of this “most ancient market on the shores of the Ouse”.

In the Beginning…
St. Ives at the beginning of our history is known as Slepe, which can be translated as “slippery place” which for a small fenland village on the banks of the great Ouse is really no surprise. The small settlement was almost entirely unremarkable except for a local tradition that stated that the Persian Archbishop (later Saint) Ivo had made his home in the village. By the 10th century the village was owned and dominated by the Benedictine community at Ramsey Abbey, and it is through their actions that the village developed its famous market at all.

Ramsey Abbey was a fairly thankless when it was first built, cut off from the rest of the country for months at a time through winter floods, and in need of some way to develop itself. The best way for abbeys to do this was to attract pilgrims, however with so many saints body parts and holy relics around a ecclesiastic site needed something big. Fortunately, that would be forthcoming…

St. Ivo from a wall painting

St. Ivo
An unknown Saxon farmer ploughing one morning around the year 1000 would change everything. His plough caught against a coffin (probably Roman) and human remains were found. These were interred in the parish church, until the village smith had ghostly visitations from St. Ivo claiming that the bones were his. Despite some disbelief from the village bailiff (he is said to have remarked, “Should we translate and glorify the worthless remains of some old cobbler as those of a saint?”), the bones and dream were seized upon by Abbot Eadnoth of Ramsey Abbey. He swiftly built two shrines, one at Ramsey and one at Slepe, which was completed by 1017.

The shrine of St. Ivo became irrevocably linked to the settlement and soon enough the name Slepe was all but forgotten. As more and more pilgrims visited the shrine to be cured of such diverse ailments as leprosy, gout, blindness, deafness and toothache, so there would have been more and more individuals selling them what they needed, be it food, clothes, drink or souvenirs. To aid pilgrims and traders, by the 12th century the monks had a bridge built across the river by the early years of the 12th century and in 1110 St. Ives was officially granted a charter to hold an 8 day market over Easter.

The Early Market
The first markets at St. Ives would have been very small affairs. Most provincial towns and many large settlements had the rights to hold a market; as well as local farmers selling off what they could spare, there would have been traders who dealt in cloth, wool, hide and maybe a few dealing in expensive foods like spices and wines. In 1200, when renewing the royal charter for the market Ramsey Abbey also purchased the rights to hold a weekly Monday market, a tradition which is still practised to this day!

By the 13th century, there are records of merchants coming from as far afield as Lincoln, York, Beverely, Leicester and Coventry to trade at the market. The market must have attracted good quality traders, as there are records of Henry III sending his royal tailor and other staff to purchase cloth for making clothes for the royal household. In 1237 he purchased over 7000 foot of fabric as well as hoods, furs and “finer stuffs”.

Artists impression of a thronging medieval marketplace, not so different from how St. Ives would have been.

By 1250 the St. Ives market was increasingly large and of such importance that in a list drawn up in Douai, France, at around the time it is listed as a principal market of England alongside metropolises like Winchester and Northampton. With burgeoning importance and huge sums of money involved, one of the Church vs State tussles was inevitable and in 1250 it came with the king’s appointment of two market wardens.

“Will nobody rid me of this turbulent market?”
These wardens were appointed as royal officers to see that the market ran smoothly, legally and that nobody got away without paying the king market dues. Within two years the officials had overstepped the mark, extending the market by three weeks at cost to the abbey. The waters were muddied still further when Huntingdon tried to levy tolls on travellers passing over bridges to the market. Despite a commission being appointed, no clear judgement could be made on the legality of the wardens’ decision and in 1258, for a fee of around £300 and an additional £50 a year the king abandoned “all profits from the fair” and henceforth the fair was the sole interest of Ramsey Abbey.

The Benedictine Monks (like these) of Ramsey Abbey were the driving force behind the continuation of the fair.

Rules and Regulations.
The fairs of medieval England were strictly regulated affairs and the fair at St. Ives would have been no different. As well as standard units of measure being enforced and quality control checks being conducted, bailifs would place a seal on goods approved for trade, there were laws against trading outside the town (thus avoiding paying market fees), restrictions around cooking and selling food to limit the risk of fire, laws against cheating people out of their money with fake medicines or cures and even an elaborate system of debt recollection based on market circuits.

To ensure that laws and rules were followed, temporary courts were formed, known as Piepowder courts. The name came from the French “piers powders”, or “dusty feet”, referring to dust of the road that would cling to professional merchants who may be in town for one or two days only. These courts could administer instant justice and prevent the local authorities being completely overwhelmed. The remit of these courts can be seen in the court rolls which dealt with everything from selling short measure, illegal trading and not paying debts to theft, drunkenness and sheltering lepers (who were banned from the fair) “to the great danger of the neighbours”.

A combination of more efficient Flemish weaving techniques and the affect of the Black Death saw the importance of the market start to decline. By 1474, the official opening by monks from Ramsey Abbey, which had long been a mere formality, was abandoned. In 1511 the fair opened for the last time.

A Final Hurrah
Despite the death of the annual fair, weekly markets continued in St. Ives throughout the centuries, with the trade in cloth and clothes continuing on a much smaller scale. The market was also known for its eels and fresh fish, however it was the livestock market that would go on to become the most successful, indeed by the mid 1800s the market in this sleepy fenland town was second only to the “Great Market” at Smithfield, with over 12,000 cattle being sold daily during the St. Ives cattle fairs!

St. Ives Market during the mid-late 19th Century (Picture courtesy of St. Ives Town Info)

This market became preeminent as St. Ives is located at the end of the Scottish drovers road, not far from the Great North Road and on the lush meadows of Cambridgeshire, and it became a natural place for cattle and sheep to be brought “on the hoof” down from the verdant highlands of Scotland, fattened up once more and then sold. On average, a drove was anything from 100-400 animal attended by four to eight drovers and their dogs, and as late as 1861 St. Ives had a bullock shoer to reshoe cattle before they were driven on by their new owners.

The advances in railway and steamships saw an end to the Scottish trade, with the realisation that the cattle could be slaughtered in Scotland and shipped to London to arrive fresh, however these same advances opened up the Irish livestock market, which saw St. Ives inundated with cattle to the point where the market spilled out to cover the entire town centre, which must have been an unpleasant and unsanitary experience!

St. Ives Market c. 1900 (Picture courtesy of St. Ives Corn Exchange)

The Final Decline
The unsanitary conditions were not only in St. Ives town centre; the cramped conditions in which animals were shipped led to breakouts of disease, made worse by the transitory nature of so many animals passing through the town. Between summer 1865 and spring 1866, over 1800 cattle died of diseases, with another 467 put down, more would have been infected but slaughtered before the disease could kill them. Likewise, in the 1870s a nationwide outbreak of Sheep-Pox reduced national sheep levels by 10%.

Empty Cattle Pens in the 1880’s down St. Ives High Street (Picture Courtesy of St. Ives Corn Exchange)

Critical as this would have been for St. Ives, a refusal to update the market facilities caused more damage. By the late 19th century, it was described as “ an eyesore … and a stain on the civic reputation of the town”, and even the opening of a cutting edge market could not draw back traders who had moved to Cambridge (just a few stops on by train). Despite sporadic growth the market was in terminal decline and by WW1 the number of animals sold in the course of a year was less than in a single Monday when the market was at its height. In 1976 the cattle market closed for the last time.

St. Ives still has a weekly market on a Monday, as agreed between Ramsey Abbey and Henry III in 1258, and the market traders selling clothes and food continue a tradition that stretches back over 900 years. Little did that unknown Saxon farmer know what he was going to start or the consequences of his days work when he went out that morning with his plough.

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.


Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdonshire Through Time”, Amberely Publishing, Stroud, 2010, 1st Edition

Anon, “Huntingdonshire District, Official Guide” Home Publishing Company, Wallington, c. 1985, 1st Edition

Burn-Murdoch, B “What’s so Special About Huntingdonshire?”, The Friends of the Norris Museum, Hunstanton, 1996, 1st Edition

Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. “Parishes: St. Ives“, in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 2, Victoria County History, London, 1932

Wickes, M “A History of Huntingdonshire”, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, Chichester, 1985, 1st Edition

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