I invite you to imagine that on the same day in 641AD that St. Kyneburgha was born in Tamworth in her father’s palace, here in Huntingdonshire in the village of Water Newton was born another woman, Godgifu, into very different circumstances. She was the daughter of a miller. There is no definitive list of Anglo Saxon watermills, but we do know that the Romans, who occupied the area, built them. By the time of the 1086 Domesday inventory, there were 5,624 of them; just about one for every village and hamlet in England, many of which would have been around for multiple generations.
Godgifu had eight siblings, one sister did not make it beyond their first year due to a mysterious illness and another, an older brother, died in a milling accident. As the second eldest sibling, even at the age of 9 or 10 she would be expected to assist with all younger siblings. Milling grain would have been a respected trade, and — provided that the crops did not fail — ensured that young Godgifu and her six surviving siblings had something to eat. In return for milling grain, rather than a monetary payment, the miller would receive a percentage of the milled flour.
Unlike St Kyneburgha (in part two of this blog series), Godgifu’s diet would have been predominantly vegetable-based but the family may have kept a pig which would have been slaughtered in winter to provide cured meat for the lean winter months. In the seventh century, Enga-lond did not yet have spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, runner beans, Brussel sprouts, potatoes or tomatoes (let alone tea, coffee, chocolate or sugar), so these would have been completely alien to Godgifu!
Families were dependent upon their own agriculture, unable to pop to the supermarket for out of season foods shipped from hotter climates or grown in greenhouses, what they ate depended on the time of year. July was the toughest month of the whole year, as any reserves had run out and spring crops had not yet matured. This was known as ‘the hungry gap’ – a time when the divide between Kyneburga and Godgifu would have been most apparent: whilst Kyneburgha’s family would have had large stores of food, Godgifu and her family would have been forced to survive on smaller and smaller portions of food until the new crops became edible.
Godgifu’s preparation for adult life would have begun early, helping her parents with household tasks from as soon as she was able. We know from the graves of female Saxons that hand spindles and looms were common and suggest that wool-making would have been a household process; as a young woman, she would have learnt these skills from her mother. In Old English, male persons were described as ‘waepenedmenn’, or ‘weaponed-persons’, whereas the words for women (‘wifmenn’) and ‘wife’ derived from the word for weaving, revealing gender perspectives at the time.
Aged 11, she would have watched her 12 year old brother pledging his oath of allegiance to a local lord and leave home to serve him. A year later, she too would be considered to reach maturity, when she would enter into the care of her future husband, a local ploughman many years her senior. Seventh century laws, which varied across Saxon kingdoms but often had similar values and moral codes, describe how a woman’s duty is ‘to obey her lord’ (from The Laws of King Ine of Wessex). Taken alone this female marital duty may seem to us to be rather sexist, however there is some similarity here in that both sexes would be answerable to their lord.
Marriage contracts concerned allocation of property and negotiation of the price of the ‘morgengifu’, or ‘morning gift’ (much as the name ‘Godgifu’ means ‘God’s gift’), payable by the groom upon the satisfactory completion of the wedding night. Interestingly, this payment was for the woman herself, an endowment to ensure her security in the event of her husband’s death and an incentive to keep her virginity until marriage.
If Athelbert’s laws — operating for around half a century in Kent by the time of Godgifu’s birth — are comparable to what was expected in East Anglia, we know that Godgifu and her husband would have had legally enshrined rights: Godgifu not to be sexually harassed by other men and her husband not to be duped into marrying her without knowing that she was already pregnant with another man’s child. There would have been clauses detailing Godgifu’s property claims if she ever wished to leave her husband.
As a wife, Godgifu would be responsible for household tasks but would be no mere housewife, as she would do her share of whatever work was required. The prevalence of keys in female burials show that being a key keeper and guardian of possessions in a house was a female responsibility, and Godgifu may have been given a key to symbolise her sexual maturity (with its phallic symbolism). She may also have been in charge of the fire steel, tools used to keep a household fire burning, and even today in some societies this is considered a women’s role.
Though Christian religion was becoming increasingly organised, some pagan rituals would still remain – if you weren’t one hundred percent certain which god to follow, you would want to hedge your bets, with some households worshiping both the old gods and the new one. One such ritual she might have observed to guarantee a plentiful harvest would be to bake a cake for her husband to put into the ground speaking the words;
“Earth, Earth, Earth! Oh Earth our Mother! / May the all-wielder, Ever-Lord grant thee / Acres a-waxing, upwards a-growing, Pregnant with corn and plenteous in strength”
Godgifu would have woven cloth for her family’s clothing and was also responsible for curing ailments. Weaving was considered a kind of magic and a potential source of remedy: female graves often have thread boxes with scraps of material and herbs — possibly a kind of miniature first aid kit. The ninth century text, ‘Bald’s Leechbook’ (i.e. medicine book), details common remedies which were likely already in use during Godgifu and Kyneburgha’s lifetimes, including; binding the herb crosswort to the head with a red bandana to cure headache; using eggs, wine and fennel root to treat chilblains; and smouldering goat’s hair to ease back pain.
Godgifu would have prepared these remedies for her husband, herself and their children. She had her first pregnancy at 15, with seven more pregnancies over the course of her life. No doubt she would have known various cures for ailments associated with pregnancy and childbirth, such as tying grains of coriander seed in a clean cloth to her left thigh to aid childbirth.
A document in the library at Canterbury records that by the late Anglo-Saxon times, three centuries after the lives of Godgifu and Kyneburgha, learned people already understood that:
“In the sixth week the brain is covered with a membrane on the outside; in the second month the veins are formed… and the blood then flows into the feet and into the hands, and he is then articulated in limbs and altogether developed; in the third he is man, except for the soul”
Despite this knowledge, even if you were born the privileged daughter of a King, little could be done to help you in childbirth if there were complications – the first successful caesarean in which the mother survived was not reported until the eighteenth century. Godgifu herself is unlikely to have known much about foetal development, except for if she was unfortunate enough to miscarry. The Canterbury text does, however, imply that up to the third month and perhaps beyond there would have been no ethical issues with aborting a child prior to the fourth month, which may be surprising today.
Whilst Kyneburgha lived to the upper end of Saxon life expectancy at around 40, many adults would not live beyond their mid 20s. Godgifu is no exception – she died in childbirth aged 27.
A difficult and dangerous time to be alive regardless of gender, our local Anglo Saxon women would have been required to show real strength and fortitude in the face of daily challenges. It is easy to see why comfort was found in faith and ritual and the promise of an easier life thereafter. Kyneburgha and Godgifu were more fortunate in some ways than those who came after, as one hundred years later the Danish came raiding from over the seas, signalling the start of the Danish wars.
Victoria Calleway is a very amateur historian indeed but learnt to be discerning about her sources through her English Literature and Theatre degree. Incidentally, these are a few of her favourite things, along with board games, cheese, and her cats, Asparagus and Macavity.
Kyneburgha, or Cyneburh in Old English, was born in Tamworth as the oldest daughter of Penda, a seventh-century king of Mercia, and his wife Kynewise. As the child of a king, she would have been called an ‘aetheling’, a term for any royal offspring of either gender. Anglo-Saxon succession was not on the basis of primogeniture – the royal family would select the aetheling who seemed most competent. Whilst this would be a male child, determined royal mothers could gain personal power and authority by operating through their husbands and sons (for those of you have seen or read the popular fantasy series, ‘Game of Thrones’, think Queen Cersei).
Early life would have been slightly more comfortable for our aetheling than for a commoner; the power afforded by such a status meant she was unlikely to starve, however much would have been similar; wooden accommodation, poor medical care and a reasonable chance of not living into adulthood.
Kyneburgha would have enjoyed lavish noble feasts in which meat would have been the principle ingredient. All Anglo Saxon animals were free range – plough land was for humans – so farm animals were leaner and less fatty than those which we consume today. She might have tasted luxury foods such as spit-roast joints of beef and poultry. She would have looked to her mother to learn much about how to compose herself as a woman. For example, it was the ceremonial duty of high-born women to serve drinks at feasts, as is described in Beowulf;
“Wealtheow came forward, Mindful of ceremonial – she was Hrothgar’s Queen. Adorned with gold, that proud woman Greeted the men in the hall, then offered the cup To the Danish king first of all”.
This was a time of increased formal conversion to Christianity through baptism. Mercia was not itself a Christian kingdom and whilst Kyneburgha’s father tolerated the preaching of the gospel, he himself did not become a Christian. Kyneburgha converted to Christianity and married Aldfrith, the son of Oswiu King of Northumberland in around 653. Her brother, Peada, also converted in order to marry Oswiu’s daughter, Ahlflaed. These royal unions were political marriages to promote peace between Northumbria and Mercia, and began the foundation of the Christian church across the centre of England.
Such an advantageous marriage enabled Kyneburgha, like many female aethelings, to maintain her high status. For the competent and devoutly religious, the other way to preserve their social standing (and with it gain a degree of autonomy) was to found a monastery; a ‘double house’, occupied by both monks and nuns. When her husband Aldfrith died in c.660, this is exactly what Kyneburgha did – in Castor, near Peterborough here stands the only church in the UK dedicated to her.
We know that there were around fifty such religious communities founded in the seventh century across England, and the records indicate that all of these double houses were under the direction of a female aetheling, with everyone answering to the Abbess, not the Abbot. Adhelm of Malmesbury (in Wessex) wrote of a double house in Barking, explaining how many of the nuns there were not virgins but widows, choosing to uphold the state of chastity. He compares them to the “highly ingenious bee… roaming widely through the flowering fields of scripture.”
Though key Saxon texts such as Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ published in the eighth century are structured around men, it is clear that women played a key role in accelerating the rate of conversion to Christianity throughout England. The Anglo Saxon chronicle records Queen Saexburh of Wessex and her daughter becoming Abbesses in around the same period, indicating an already established tradition of female command and recognised spiritual expertise.
As Abbess, Kyneburgha’s duties would not only have been prayer and worship but also managing an administrative centre for the surrounding countryside, her duties would have been familiar to many noblewomen:
“presiding over the women’s quarters of a secular hall, receiving guests, accepting the responsibility of foster children…[in addition] the abbess of a double monastery was entrusted with the care of a vast number of dependants, with the welfare of her servants and with the education… of postulants and children, as well as with the duties of hospitality and the administration of estates”
In 664, Kyneburgha’s father-in-law and brother, Oswiu and Peada, founded a monastery at Medehamstead, and Kyneburgha was one of the signatories to it’s founding charter – this monastery later became Peterborough Cathedral. Like the famous Abbess Hilda of Whitby in 657, Kyneburgha would have worked with learned religious men from Peterborough who would have instructed her spiritually and practically, whilst respecting her as an authority in her own right.
Unfortunately for Kyneburgha, times were changing. In 669, the newly arrived Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury made public his disapproval of double monasteries and their functions began to be gradually usurped. The alteration in perceptions of women can be seen over a century. When, at the turn of the seventh century, Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, had written to the Pope to ask whether a menstruating woman could take communion, the Pope had replied that it was a matter of choice. However, one hundred years later, the Penitential of Theodore was advising that “Women shall not in the time of impurity enter a church or communicate”. Following these decrees from church authorities, religious houses became increasingly segregated, and by the tenth century there were no remaining double houses and five times as many monasteries as nunneries.
Abbess Kyneburgha died on 15th September 680 at around 40 years of age (a reasonable age for a Saxon), and was buried in Castor. She had become one of the leading lights of seventh century ecclesiastic life in East Anglia. Following her death, she became revered as a saint – her feast day is the 6th March.
Archaeological digs conducted by Cambridge University at Castor have found an abundance of female Saxon objects from the middle Saxon period (700-849), suggesting a strong female presence in the area for some years after Kyneburgha’s death. The double house was dissolved by the end of the ninth century and the monastery became a minster (a locally important church). In the tenth century, her relics were transferred to the Cathedral in Peterborough and later to Thorney Abbey.
Today, one of the side chapels in the south transept of Peterborough Cathedral is dedicated to St. Kyneburgha. The parish church in Castor is named after her (the only one in the UK). Whilst most of her monastery is now lost, the church retains a small Saxon sculpture in the chancel and the base of a Saxon cross, salvaged from the later Anglo Saxon minster.
— You can find “Women in Anglo-Saxon Huntingdonshire Part Three: Godgifu: Miller’s daughter, Ploughman’s wife, Mother” on our blog next Wednesday —
“The Evidence which has survived from Anglo-Saxon England indicates that women were then more nearly the equal companions of their husbands and brothers than at any time before the modern age” from Doris Stenton’s “The English Woman in History”
An introduction I will be honest about two things. Firstly, I was invited to write a blog – or series of blogs – to coincide with International Women’s day (8th March), but did not manage to complete it in time. Thankfully, women’s history should be celebrated every month, so consider sharing this two months later than intended to be an affirmation of that! Secondly, I am no expert and am therefore indebted to two books which gave me insight into Anglo Saxon life in England, which, along with other local sources, have helped shape my idea of how local women would have lived through this period; ‘The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium’ by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, and ‘Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450 – 1500’ by Henrietta Leyser.
So, what do we know about life in Anglo Saxon Huntingdonshire? Evidence has shown that Anglo Saxons had already arrived in the Nene and Ouse valleys before the withdrawal of the Roman forces in around 410AD. These settlers came from the harsher climes of northern Europe, to “A green and pleasant England with ample space to breathe, the sound of birdsong… the sharp smell of drifting woodsmoke on an autumn evening”
Over the following five centuries, the population of ‘Enga-lond’ grew to around a million people. They did not have surnames – there was not yet any need for them. All lived in a green and unpolluted countryside on a simple, wholesome diet and wore coarse hand-woven woollen clothing, even down to their underwear. Clothing would have been coloured with natural vegetable dyes and fastened with ties, as buttons had not been invented. Houses were made of sturdy wooden beams held together with wooden pegs. Though this life sounds idyllic, it was far from easy;
“The simplest things were so difficult to accomplish… every basic artefact represented hours of skill and effort and ingenuity, in return for a very meagre material reward”.
Daily life would have been exhausting, with long hours labouring in all weathers. Medical care would have been very basic and people would have relied upon home rituals and remedies in the hope of curing ailments. Based on burials we know that the average life expectancy was no greater than around forty years of age.
External factors controlled much of Anglo Saxons’ lives, and the concern of famine and disease was constant. It is no surprise then, that this was an age of fervent faith, and time was punctuated by high days and holy days. There is no doubt that religion was all encompassing, but whilst organised Christianity continued to grow in strength, it was possible for families to hold onto some pagan beliefs about good and evil alongside their strong Christian convictions.
The official way of subdividing up the population was into ‘hundreds’, each the size of several modern parishes. According to different sources, this term referred either to one hundred houses, hides of land, or men of the militia. Saxon Huntingdonshire had four ‘hundreds’; Hurstingstone, Leightonstone, Norman Cross, and Toseland. These hundreds would have would have made it easier for local lords to administrate, including gathering tax, organising militia service, and maintaining the laws of their kingdom.
Law codes varied from kingdom to kingdom across Enga-lond but were similar in that they all operated using a tariff of compensations for committing certain crimes. Well known examples include Aethelbert of Kent’s at the beginning of the seventh century (one of the very first known documents to be written in the Anglo Saxon language) and King Alfred of Wessex’s laws at the end of the ninth century (known to us as ‘Alfred the Great’).
In Anglo Saxon life, every man and woman had their price, which was known as ‘wergeld’. There were specific fines for everything including violent crime, theft and even sexual harassment. The amount payable depended upon the social class of the victim – the murder of a noble would cost you more than the murder of a slave. The money was payable directly to the victim – for example, if a man attempted to ‘fondle the breasts of a free woman’ uninvited, he would be expected to pay her a fine directly!
Documents indicate that Huntingdonshire was inhabited by two or more small Anglo-Saxon tribes by the eighth century – and named tribes include ‘Gwyras’, ‘Hyrstingas’, ‘Sweordora’ and ‘Spalda’ (the latter being suggested at by the village name of Spaldwick). Evidence of Anglo Saxon occupation has been found across the county – there were substantial Anglo Saxon settlements at Huntingdon, St Neots, St Ives, Ramsey, Woodston, Castor, Orton Longueville and Maxey and other smaller farmsteads.
And what of the Women of Anglo Saxon Huntingdonshire? Little is definite about the lives or status of women in early Anglo Saxon England. Women were, by necessity, a major part of the workforce and it is clear from the legal documents that remain, that they had rights of their own regarding marriage, sexual harassment and property ownership. Of the thirty surviving wills from the late Anglo-Saxon period, ten of these were the wills of women who owned significant property.
One late Saxon charter describes land near Worcester which was being inherited, stating “Elfweard was the first man… Now it is in the hands of his daughter, and she is the second man”. Taking a look at Old English (the language of the period), the word for a human being of either sex was ‘mann’, which may strike us to lack gendered nuance but could be considered to reveal a certain level of male-female equality.
Into this society in the year 641AD two women are born into very different circumstances. The first definitely existed and her story can be drawn from the historic evidence and surviving records – she is known to us St. Kyneburgha. We will meet her in Part 2 of this blog series. The second woman, who we will meet in Part 3, is fictional, based on what is known about the life of a poorer woman at the time from archaeology and documents – we will call her Godgifu.
— You can find “Women in Anglo-Saxon Huntingdonshire Part Two: Kyneburgha: King’s daughter, abbess, saint” on our blog next Wednesday —
“Regular officers and soldiers in a uniform were an everyday sight, prominent even during peacetime, and during the the Napoleonic wars, their ranks swelled by embodied militia, Yeomanry and volunteers, they gave the land a bright frosting of scarlet, blue and gold.”
During the great uncertainty of the Napoleonic Wars the government was obsessed with the fear of a French invasion of England. All along the Kentish and Sussex coastlines fortified Martello towers were built, ditches were dug and flooded and the “wooden wall” of the Royal Navy patrolled. All across England militas drilled and local men formed companies of volunteers under local gentry or nobility. Read on to discover the original Huntingdonshire “Home Guard” of the Napoleonic wars.
Fyrd, Trained Band, Militia The concept of a militia was practically unchanged from the Saxon and early Norman statutes. In 1285, Edward I provided a national force of amateurs for home defence, who would be required to train annually and defend their locality. These groups would be known as trained bands, fencibles, militias and volunteers over their history and would continue unbroken from 1285 up to the 18th century.
The quality of these men was variable —they were provided with little budget, however some counties and cities with richer commanding officers were able to become serious semi-professional units, such as the London trained bands of the English Civil War. Colonel Ward’s observations on a trained band drilling in 1639 could be repeated almost any year thereafter:
“after a little careless hurrying … [they] charge their muskets, and so prepare to give their captain a brave volley of shot at his entrance to the inn; whereafter having solaced themselves for a while after this brave service every man repairs home, and that which is not so-well taught then is easily forgotten”.
Following the upheaval of the Civil Wars and Glorious Revolution, the now United Kingdom moved to keeping a permanent army and the militia became increasingly neglected.
The 1757 Militia Act By the mid eighteenth century, the decline of the militia had led to it becoming utterly untenable as a military force even for basic defence. Training was non-existent, as was rank structure, and there was no equipment beyond mouldering antiques from the last century. The informal arrangements that were in place were swept away and instead formalised militia service was drawn up, whereupon each parish would provide a quota of men paid for by local tax. The legislation was not popular (it was seen to be step towards conscription) and anti-militia riots broke out across England over summer 1757.
This new system was considerably fairer than the old, as the men were drawn by lot from a pool that excluded: those under eighteen or over forty five, clergy, peers, constables, apprentices and men with more than three dependents. They would serve for three years, be equipped with uniform and weapons, and the parish would support their families in their absence. Militia service was not popular with professional men, who would often pay a substitute to serve in their stead. Failure to fill quotas by parishes incurred hefty fines and so generous stipends were offered for volunteers in some areas.
Each county was expected to raise a quota of men based on their relative size or perceived vulnerability – 1,640 men for Devonshire, whilst little Rutland supplied just 120 men. The exact size of the Huntingdonshire militia regiment is unknown, but they fall second only to the West Yorkshire regiment in the militia list, suggesting that they were at least half a battalion which is to say around 250 – 300 men or five to six companies.
These men would be expected to train for 28 days a year, during which time they were billeted in public houses and subject to full military discipline. During times of disquiet or concern, militia regiments could be embodied for full time service and would often be used to garrison key towns and cities, freeing up regular troops. Whilst the men of the militia they could be promoted to non-commissioned ranks, the core of the militia regiment was a small staff of veteran sergeants from the regular army. Their officers were retired officers, landowners, gentry or nobility, often the close friends and family of the local Lord-Lieutenant (who acted as commanding officer). To be allowed to serve at all, officers had to own land or be in line to inherit land in the county.
The 1793 Militia Act In all, some 19,000 men were on active militia service in 1793. These men were a burden on the public finances and whilst they could be said to be a second rate defence force, they were expressly forbidden from joining the regulars or serving overseas. The new 1793 militia act sought to change that.
The new act actively encouraged militia men to join the regular army by offering very generous bounties for those who did – 18 guineas for militiamen upon transfer in 1804 (almost £2,000 by today’s reckoning)! To encourage for officers to transfer, they would be commissioned into their new regular regiment if they took sufficient volunteers with them. This was known as “raising the rank”.
From this point onwards, the militia effectively becomes a recruitment pool for the regular army. Militia regiments would be addressed by different army officers and recruiting parties – all competing to offer the most appealing prospect. Doubtless this is how in 1814, fourteen men of the Huntingdonshire militia (at this point apparently garrisoned in Reading) ended up joining the 14th (Bedfordshire Regiment), later fighting at Waterloo.
For those who could not be convinced by words and generous bounties, there were other inducements. One tactic was to introduce onerous drills and training exercises for the militia, which had the dual purpose of increasing the general preparedness and ability of the recruits and inducing them to sign up with the regulars to escape the harsh regime!
The Volunteers and Army of Reserve In 1798, Britain was facing the full ire of Revolutionary France. With the genuine risk of invasion looming, the “Defence of the Realm Act” (1798) was passed. This was, in effect, a kind of census as it drew up county-by-county the number of men able and willing to fight in case of invasion.
An unexpected side effect of the act was that many of these men took up arms immediately, beginning to form volunteer groups which drilled in towns, villages and hamlets across England. Within a few months there were 116,000 new volunteers under-arms, causing some consternation within Parliament that an armed and organised force on this scale posed dangers in itself!
By 1803, the number of volunteers reached its peak of 176,000 active volunteers with a further 480,000 inactive volunteers, willing only in the event of an invasion. In this year, Parliament also introduced an Army of Reserve. This were distinct from the militia and was effectively reserve battalions for regular army regiments. The idea was that these men would ‘choose’ to join the regular army, however in reality they were forcibly balloted to join what was in effect a regular regiment. This was so close to conscription that it went down very badly and was shelved within a few years.
A huge number of men who were not already serving in a military capacity were enlisted into this confusing and contradictory “defence force” across the United Kingdom. Huntingdonshire was no exception. As well as the existing militia regiment, Huntingdonshire had its own reserve regiment, a volunteer cavalry regiment. There were also innumerable volunteer forces (possibly as many as a company for each town/large village in the county). In the 1801 census, the total male population of Huntingdonshire was approximately 18,000. A conservative estimate would put over 3,000 of these men under arms, serving as volunteers or reserve soldiers in the following units…
The Huntingdonshire Volunteer Cavalry (1794-1815) In 1794, John Richards of Brampton, the High Sheriff of Huntingdonshire, convened a meeting at The Crown Inn where it was agreed to form a volunteer cavalry for the county. This force of horsemen would;
“chearfully obey His Majestys Commands, and subject to military law in all respects, within this Kingdom only, during the continuance of such Invasion, provided that one fourth of the corps shall remain within the County”
To qualify for entry into this prestigious force of volunteers you had to be a Yeoman, which is to say a person with an annual income or assets worth £100 (about £13,000 by our standards), and you had to own or have access to a horse. As with the militia, those eligible to serve could instead pay a substitute to do so for them. Although it may seem obvious, in April 1797 Charles Norman found out the hard way that his paid substitute, George Hitman, also had to have a horse! When this was found to be lacking, his last minute replacement’s replacement cost him a hefty £27 and 6 shillings.
The volunteer cavalry force was drawn up slowly, doubtless impeded by the actual duties of the senior officers and figures in the force, and the difficulties in producing uniforms and weapons during wartime. Finding sufficient horses must also have been troublesome at times, especially for cavalrymen whose horse died, leaving them without. Many local troops began training on their own initiative; the 28 men of Toseland and 35 of Huntingdon were drilling a year before the general muster in Huntingdon in June 1798.
At this event the whole volunteer cavalry corp appeared. Considering that a regular regiment had a theoretical strength of 1,000 men (of whom 600-800 would be on any given campaign), the returns filed by Owsley Rowley, chief tax collector for Huntingdonshire, showed an impressive turnout.
The numbers by hundred were: Huntingdon (Borough of) – 61 Hurstingstone – 329 Toseland – 264 Norman Cross – 228 Leightonstone – 259
Totalling a staggering 1,141 men. This is all the more awe-inspiring when it is remembered that Huntingdonshire is one of the smallest counties in England.
The cost of this cavalry was significant. Huge sums of money were expended on both the volunteer cavalry and the volunteer infantry, and Rowley was responsible for gathering the unpopular land tax that covered those costs. The risk of highway robbery or assault made the job so dangerous that the government issued cutlasses to tax collectors. It is likely that Rowley was escorted by some of these weekend cavalrymen as he went about his duties, which he did in full cavalry uniform with a brace of pistols!
Aside from these duties, the Yeomanry Cavalry seemingly never saw action in either a policing or military capacity. They were kept on the books until 1828, but they seem to have been effectively disbanded by the peace of 1814.
The Huntingdonshire “Army of Reserve” (1803 – 1806) The introduction in 1803 of the “Army of Reserve” was (as already mentioned) rather unpopular. Effectively another chance to be balloted into service if you had been lucky enough to dodge the militia ballot, it caused a good deal of grumbling across the country. Nonetheless, Huntingdonshire raised by public subscription a sufficient sum to raise (another!) regiment of 800 men.
Like the militia, these men were liable to serve only in the United Kingdom, received uniform, weapons, training and only had to serve for a finite period. Similarly, these men could transfer to a regular unit and it would seem plausible that the conditions were such to encourage just this. Certainly by December 1803, sixty men had transferred to regular army units, for which they would have been paid a bounty. With soldiers transferring out, substitutes being found (some from as far afield as Yorkshire!) and soldiers dying or deserting, the administration must have been a nightmare. The more-so as the bounties were paid by our old friend Owsley Rowley who had to reclaim the money from the government.
Despite the relative recruitment success of Huntingdonshire, nationwide, the scheme was deemed a failure. The target of 50,000 reserve men was missed with just 45,000 being signed up of whom over 90% were paid substitutes! By the end of the year, the total numbers were down to 35,000 due to transfer out, death and desertion (although deserters risked being forcibly enlisted if caught). The reserve regiments were reconstituted into militia garrisons and scattered across the country to see out the remainder of their service.
The Huntingdonshire Local Militia (1803-1816) Not content with a senior command role in the Volunteer Cavalry, Lord Sandwich also set about forming a volunteer infantry force. In the summer of 1803, notices appeared in towns and villages across Huntingdonshire calling for volunteers.
One such notice was seen by Litchfield Moseley, a 41 year old farmer. Moseley, “greatly encouraged by his lordship”, set about forming a company of volunteers based in Somersham. An evening meeting at The Rose and Crown (with a free drink to all attendees!) seems to have got the ball rolling and within a few months Captain Moseley had 61 volunteer soldiers, each with his own haversack and canteen – weapons and uniforms would follow later.
Companies like these had sprung up in every town and large village across the county and the administration must have been herculean. This perhaps explains why the Somersham company still did not have sufficient muskets even two years later. No detail is known about their uniforms except the cost (66 suits of clothes had cost £23 2s 0d) which the men would have paid for themselves. Other volunteer companies went in for cutting edge fashion, often not in the traditional red cloth, such as light infantry style cut jackets, frogging, braid and even – in one Sussex volunteer company – green velvet!
The Somersham company were inspected in October 1804 by Brigadier General Stewart, when any able-bodied men were “encouraged” to take the King’s Shilling and enlist into the regulars. Those left tended to be older or infirm, and the steady attrition of dead and discharged members shows their general unsuitability for active service. When they were next inspected in 1805, those men with muskets were issued cartridges for a firing drill. The expected ability of the volunteers is reflected in the fact that they were only given blank cartridges!
The volunteers would drill as often as they could, march for inspections by local dignitaries and take part in wider exercises with other companies. When the unit left Somersham for exercises they would have made a brave sight, uniformed and armed with their wagons declaring “Somersham Volunteer Company”. Doubtless this pomp and the pay offered (the same as regular soldiers during exercises) allowed the company to maintain its numbers over the course of the war – always around sixty men.
Like the Yeomanry Cavalry, the Somersham Volunteer Company were never called upon in a military or policing capacity and in 1816 were officially disbanded.
Unlike the regular soldiers who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, the experience of these volunteers is neglected and practically unknown today. Much like the Home Guard, over a century later, they were often the subject of mockery for their part time amateur service — but these brave men, often at great expense and effort, were willing to do their bit in the event of an invasion and no more could be asked of them.
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.
Biography: Baldry, W. Y. “Order of Precedence of Militia Regiments”, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol. 15, No. 57 (Spring 1936), Pages 5-16
Bell, J. “The Somersham Volunteers”, Popular Productions, St. Ives, 1997, First Edition
“The only great man the shire has produced, and what he did for England and the world is rightly deemed the grandest of all their local associations, but they have not yet dared to raise a statue in his honour on the soil from which he sprang.” – Lord John Russell speaking of Cromwell.
Whilst we may think that it is only today that the subject of statues has become politically and socially contentious, this has been the case for centuries; especially for that most marmitical of historic figures – Oliver Cromwell. The eventual unveiling of the well loved statue of Cromwell in St. Ives marked the end of a convoluted and seemingly impossible process that begun on the 250th anniversary of Cromwell’s birth in 1849.
The First Attempt In the middle years of the nineteenth century, there was a growing drive to commemorate Cromwell in one of the Huntingdonshire towns which could lay claim to him. On 4th August 1849, the People and Howitts Journal (a liberal weekly periodical) told how “active measures are in preparation for the collection of a sufficient sum … for the proposed monument to Oliver Cromwell in St. Ives”.
The drive to erect a statue was driven by two main factors. The first was the sestercentennial of Cromwell’s birth. The second was that in 1848, Old Slepe Manor, reputedly the residence of Cromwell in St. Ives, was pulled down and rebuilt further away from the railway, leaving the site vacant and no other surviving Cromwell monument in the town. Despite various fundraising attempts, such as selling copies of Rev. Paxton Hood’s poem “The Farmer of St. Ives”, this Victorian ‘GoFundMe’ was not successful, and the idea was shelved for half a century.
The Second Attempt In 1895, as the tricentennial of Cromwell’s birth loomed, the idea of a statue of the Lord Protector was raised again, this time far from the markets and taverns of St. Ives. The Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, proposed that a statue be erected outside the houses of Parliament. The idea was debated heatedly and when the government was badly defeated (220-83) it proved the end of Lord Rosebery who resigned a few days later.*
The idea was taken up by the Daily Chronicle, who began to publicly canvass and raise funds to raise a statue elsewhere in London. The Hunts County Post seized the idea and argued that the statue should be in Cromwell’s home county, in his birth-town of Huntingdon or else in St. Ives where he “matured his plans”. The day after The Hunts County Post begun their public campaign, the ailing liberal government lost a vote of no-confidence, and the paper announced a suspension of the campaign until after the election. Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten all about it, and the campaign never resumed.
The Third Attempt The eventual erection of a Huntingdonshire statue had an unlikely beginning. In February 1899, whilst debating how to celebrate three hundred years since Cromwell’s birth, Huntingdon town council received an unusual offer from the Coalbrookdale Company of Shropshire, who happened to have a spare statue of Cromwell available for purchase**.
The town council called a public meeting in early March to discuss the idea, but realised too late that they could not afford to buy the statue outright. The meeting unanimously decided to pay for a new statue by public subscription instead. Incidentally, the original statue that started the process off seems to have been purchased by Warrington Council and erected in Warrington in Cheshire on the Cromwell tricentennial instead.
Despite unanimously deciding to install a statue, Huntingdon town council seems to have been rather lukewarm on actually raising any money. Delays to the start of fundraising (due to wanting to simultaneously launch the campaign in America) meant that by Cromwell’s actual 300th Birthday on 25th April 1899, not a penny had been raised. The day was celebrated with a crowd of thousands, historic pageant, speeches and toasts, with train companies running special excursion trains to Huntingdon for the occasion – an occasion the town council declined to attend!
Two Towns Alike in Dignity In the Huntingdon town council meeting of May 1899, a fierce argument broke out about why so little had been raised. At this point, nobody in Huntingdon had donated to the fund, and not unreasonably, recriminations flew as to whether the fund raising committee was even trying. The following week the St. Ives town council met, and the mayor (Councillor Hankin) suggested they might erect their own statue of Cromwell. A committee was formed to fundraise for the St. Ives statue, and they speculated that the cost would be £4000-£5000 (approximately £550,000 – £650,000 by modern reckoning!).
It seems inconceivable that the St. Ives council did not know about the plan to erect a Cromwell statue in Huntingdon – and they must have known how badly it was going. The St. Ives statue was announced in June and donations began to pour in. By the end of September they had raised £600.
The August town council meeting for Huntingdon was the end of the road for the Huntingdon statue. They had received just thirty donations, only one from America (of $5) and none from a resident of Huntingdon. These donations were returned and the path was clear for St. Ives to proceed.
A Fortuitous Fire By the turn of the century, St. Ives council had not only reduced their statue target to £2000 and fundraised over £900, they had also found a sculptor. Frederick Pomeroy had recently completed a statue of General-at-Sea Robert Blake***, one of the leading naval officers of the Republic for Blake’s hometown of Bridgwater. Pomeroy was one of the most renowned sculptors of his generation. He would later create the statue of Lady Justice which still stands atop the Old Bailey in London. The only question now was where would the new Cromwell statue stand?
Skip forward five months and 7,300 miles south to Mafeking in South Africa, where British forces had entered the town besieged for over half a year, reportedly being greeted by the sentry with “oh yes, I heard you were knocking about”. The Boer War had begun with several disasters, and Britain needed a victory to celebrate – the relief of Mafeking gave them one. Massed riotous crowds gathered in British towns and cities to celebrate; singing, shouting, flag waving and of course drinking. The celebration in St. Ives must have been an especially lively one, as the crowd managed to completely destroy the derelict town pump in the centre by setting it on fire!
This central location, now empty, proved to be perfect for the Cromwell statue, and later that month Pomeroy and the mayor agreed the final design and height of the plinth. The two ideas put forward were Cromwell the military chief and Cromwell “the farmer of St. Ives”; the compromise was a melding of the two ideas, a Cromwell in civilian garb with sword buckled on and bible under his arm.
All that was left was to ensure sufficient donations were taken to cover the cost of the statue, and fundraising continued apace. Donations varied from £200 (made by the Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire and Thomas Coote a prominent non-conformist and corn merchant), down to 6d with every sum in between – in total, £1234 9s 0d was raised.
The total costs were: £850 – Statue £260 – Pedestal and lamps £31 – Lamp posts £60 – Fundraising costs and unveiling ceremony £20 12s – Ongoing maintenance
With the funds raised and the details sorted, a date was set to unveil the new statue. The date chosen was Wednesday 23rd October, 1901 the 259th anniversary of the Battle of Edgehill. There would be speeches, a public lunch, a public tea and disgruntled royalists with a mind to sabotage the event…
The Jacobites of Holywell Following the unsuccessful invasion of England in 1745 by Charles Stuart (the young pretender, or Charles III, depending on whom you ask), Jacobitism in England had been illegal and perhaps inevitably driven underground. Societies and clubs who supported the restoration of the House of Stuart existed across the country, and by the 1880’s had been amalgamated into the White Cockade Club.
One branch of the White Cockade Club was based in Holywell, just up the road from the Puritan heartland of Huntingdonshire. The branch was founded by Anderson Fraser, a well known landscape artist typical of the liberal romantic members that constituted the majority of closet Jacobites in the club. Angered by the statue being erected to this arch-enemy of the Jacobite cause, they decided to take steps to ruin the ceremony.
The national president of the White Cockade Club offered assistance by sending six nooses to an unspecified pub in St. Ives. The plan was that at the statue’s unveiling, the local members would add the nooses to the wreaths at the statue base, with notes attacking Cromwell and the local dignitaries.
Rumours swirled through the town that the Jacobites had dynamite intending to blow up the statue, causing some consternation. The local constabulary investigated, found no explosives, and foiled the actual Jacobite plot by seizing the nooses from the pub before the Jacobites arrived.
The Unveiling The statue was unveiled by Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice, a liberal MP of the day, with a multitude of speeches to a market square packed with thousands of spectators, and not a Jacobite in sight.
Finally, after over fifty years, there was a statue of Cromwell in Huntingdonshire. It seems appropriate to end with the closing stanza of “The Farmer of St. Ives” written by Rev. Hood in 1848;
“Raise up, raise up the pillar! Some grand old granite stone. To the prince without a sceptre, to the king without a throne. To the brave old English hero who broke our feudal gyves To the leader of “the good old cause”; the farmer of St. Ives”
*Of course Lord Rosebery did not give up on his statue and campaigned as a private individual, donating £3000 to the fundraising campaign. Even then the famous Westminster statue was unveiled at 7.30am on Tuesday 14th November 1899 to prevent any hostile demonstrations.
** The Coalbrookdale statue of Cromwell had been cast some thirty years earlier for the International Exhibition of 1862, they evidently decided that the tricentennial of his birth was the ideal time to find a buyer!
*** Col. Robert Blake was made General-at-Sea in 1649 and took to the navy like a duck to water, by the time he died aboard his flagship in 1657 he had built a reputation as an exemplary nail commander. He was one of Lord Nelson’s heroes and Nelson “reckoned himself inferior to Blake”.
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.
Bibliography: Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdon: Eight Centuries of History”, Breedon Books Publishing, 2004, 1st Edition
Burn-Murdoch, B “Some Fit Memorial: The Cromwell Statue at St. Ives”, Records of Huntngdonshire, Vol 3. No. 7, 1999, Pages 43-51