Ramsey, the largest parish in Huntingdonshire, lies on the Cambridgeshire border. It consists almost wholly of fen-land which falls in many places to only 3 ft. above the ordnance datum. To the south, however, at the Bury boundary, the land rises to 44 ft. The parish measures some seven miles across from east to west and about five miles from north to south and comprises 16,969 acres, nearly the whole of which, being rich fen-land soil, is under cultivation; there is comparatively little pasture and no woodland. It forms a part of the Middle Level of the Fen-land area, the story of whose drainage will be told elsewhere. The principal crops are market garden produce, particularly potatoes and celery, and recently sugar beet.
A Drain on Ramsey Mere (circa 1911)
The parish boundaries formerly ran through the marshes and meres of the fen-land and were not clearly defined, but since the reclamation of the fens they have become limited by streams and drains. On the north and east they follow the county boundary, which having been also the division between the lands of the abbey of Ramsey and those of the abbey of Thorney and the Bishop of Ely, were in the 14th century for a long time questions of dispute. Probably the cross called St. Bennett's Cross, the site of which is still marked at the point where the Ramsey and Warboys parish boundary leaves the county boundary, was erected when these disputes were settled by judgment of the court. There is a detached portion of the parish at Higney in Woodwalton parish, and Hepmangrove, formerly a part of Ramsey parish, was attached to Bury (q.v.) about the time of the Dissolution.
The early privileged area of the abbey was the BANLIEU (banleuca, leucata, leugata or lowy), nominally the distance of a league around the abbey. It is uncertain how the rights over this district were acquired. The abbey had the usual extensive liberties of a pre-Conquest monastery including soc and sac, but the first mention of the leugata or banlieu is in an undated charter of Henry I of 1100–2 which was confirmed by his grandson Henry II by another undated charter probably of 1155. As at Ripon, where there was a similar leugata, the origin probably goes back to a date before the Conquest. In the case of Ramsey Abbey it no doubt began with the grant of Edgar confirmed by Edward the Confessor conferring rights of sanctuary and exemption from episcopal and secular power, but the definition of area and rights probably belongs to the Norman period. By the charter of Henry I, the church of Ramsey was granted, within the leugata or banlieu, soc and sac, thol and team, infangentheof, forstal, blodwit, murder, treasure trove and all liberties pertaining to the crown and also quittance of views of foresters, assarts and all other pleas. Again by another charter of Henry I (1130), it was provided that the leugata around the abbey might be quit of all episcopal and secular power, and it is stated that the leugata extended to the little hill (monticulum) at Wistow and went through the middle of the vill of Wistow touching Raveley, and so into the marsh. Pope Innocent in his bull of 1139 confirmed the leugata, 'as King Henry of good memory for his devotion to you granted and in writing confirmed.' This seems to suggest that the liberties granted by Edward the Confessor were defined and the banlieu probably formed by Henry I under his charter of 1100–2. These liberties were confirmed by subsequent sovereigns and by various popes. The abbots claimed, and were from time to time allowed, jura regalia by these charters. They had the return of writs and the right to receive original writs and to plead them before their own justices, to have their own coroners, two in number, and to plead pleas of the crown within the banlieu. They also had treasure trove, the amercements of their tenants, chattels of felons and fugitives, and their own prison in Ramsey which was delivered by their own justices. The court of the banlieu was held at first before the king's justices especially engaged by the abbot and later before the abbot's steward. The form of the writs and procedure were similar to those of the king's court. The court sat to the end of the reign of Edward II at 'Smithscroft' and later in Ramsey at first three times a year but later once a year or less often. The bailiff was the officer of the court and the suitors were summoned by the rideman as at the Broughton Court. In 1332–3 a court of 'the Liberty of Ramsey' was held usually at 'Baldewynesgate' but sometimes at 'Pracysgate' and 'le Garite.' It was always held after dinner (post prandium) and took cognizance mostly of pleas of debt. It is uncertain, however, whether this court was that of the banlieu. The exemption from episcopal power was perhaps represented by the abbot's right to the spiritual jurisdiction of an archdeacon in the vills of Ramsey, and Bury. The lands of the banlieu also formed a peculiar.
In 1279 and 1286 it was complained that although by charter the banlieu extended only to one league around Ramsey or from the high altar of the abbey church, the abbot had withdrawn places from the county and hundred courts which were from two to seven leagues distant. A league is an uncertain measurement sometimes denoting one and at others two and three miles, but none of the leugatae of which there were several in this country, was restricted to a uniform measurement nor a regular boundary. The charter of Henry I, already referred to, only defines the southern boundary running through the vill of Wistow and touching Great Raveley, the boundaries on all other sides are merely indicated as in the marsh. There are two perambulations of the banlieu, one in 1286 and the other probably of a later date. So far as the place names in them can be identified, the boundary of the banlieu follows very closely, if not precisely, that of Ramsey parish on all sides but the south. On this side it follows approximately the boundary between Ramsey and Warboys, then the boundary between Wistow and Warboys, passing through the village of Wistow to the boundary between Great Raveley and Upwood and following the northern boundary of Raveley to the point where it changes its direction to the north, then crossing the parish to the eastern boundary of Woodwalton and following that boundary where it joins the western boundary of Ramsey. Thus the banlieu seems to have included the parishes of Ramsey, Bury, Upwood, three-quarters of Wistow parish and the small northern part of Great Raveley.
The town of Ramsey is situated on what was originally an island surrounded by Bury Fen on the south and Stocking Fen on the north and was approached, as the chroniclers tell us, by a causeway on one side only. The abbey stood on the highest part of the island some 23 ft. above the ordnance datum. Unlike the majority of pre-Conquest monasteries, it is not on a Roman road but lies on the verge of the fens some seven miles east of the Roman road called Ermine Street. The abbot's park stretched away to the east and on the west a town grew up to meet the requirements of the monastery and of the traffic which the abbey brought. Until the end of the 12th century the town was quite unimportant, it is not mentioned in the Domesday Survey (1086) when, and for some time later, it formed possibly a part of the parish of Bury or Wistow. In 1130 Pope Innocent II confirmed to Walter Abbot of Ramsey the chapel of Bury 'where your servants hear divine service,' which is suggestive that there was then no parish church at Ramsey.
By 1200 the town had grown sufficiently to make it worth while for the abbot to obtain a grant of market on Wednesdays. Henry III confirmed this right in 1267 and at the same time granted a fair on the vigil and feast of the Translation of St. Benedict and for two days following. The fair merely served the needs of the immediate neighbourhood, for the position of Ramsey in medieval times on the outskirts of the fen and on no main line of traffic, precluded any competition with the neighbouring fair at St. Ives. For this reason Ramsey never rose above the position of a small market town; it never became a borough, nor did it ever return a member to parliament. Justice was administered at the court of the banlieu, and at the abbot's courts leet and view of frankpledge. The reeve and later the bailiff of the town were the abbot's officers who carried out the orders of his courts. Under them the constable arranged for the policing of the town.
Like the townsmen of St. Albans, Bury St. Edmunds, Wells and other towns which had grown up under the shadow of monasteries, the men of Ramsey rose during the disturbed condition of the country at the end of the reign of Edward II, in order to gain the independence and freedom which were so necessary to a trading community. When Edward III in April 1327, the first year of his reign, visited Ramsey with his mother and Roger Mortimer, the townspeople, both men and women, acclaimed the abbot before the king as a traitor and accused him of taking a great part of the treasure of Hugh le Despenser, then lately hanged. They challenged the abbot's right to the market of Ramsey and asserted that he unjustly withheld from them common rights and other liberties. The abbot was put to great expense in rebutting these claims and appealed to the Bishop of Ely to represent to the king and the council 'the insolences of the townsmen,' who, he said, persisted in their rebellion notwithstanding the offer of a compromise regarding a disputed right of way. The controversy, though cloaked under the guise of claims to various rights, as we know from similar risings elsewhere, had at its base the desire of the townsmen to raise their status from villeins to burgesses. The government became alarmed at these widespread confederacies which led to riot and bloodshed, and no doubt the dispute ended at Ramsey as it did elsewhere, by the subjection of the men of the town to the abbey.
We know little of the trade at Ramsey in medieval times. It was mainly agricultural but there were weavers and fullers and others connected with the cloth trade who were presented from time to time at the abbot's court for charging their customers too highly; and fishermen who had special rights for drying their nets. Tanner, too, was a common surname in the town. Apparently a most prosperous trade was that of ale-house keeping, for we find as many as fifty-four women at a time presented for selling ale contrary to the assize, which suggests a concourse of travellers requiring refreshment.
The lines of the streets have changed little since the town was originally laid out. No doubt the approach to the abbey and town has always been by the present road from St. Ives and so along the High Street to the market place, past the church to the open space which always lay outside the great gate of the larger monasteries. Here the retinues of the more important visitors to the abbey assembled and here apparently the fair was held. Near by probably were the inns of the barons or knights of the honour of Ramsey, who in turn were in residence for the protection of the abbey, as at the monasteries of Durham, St. Albans and elsewhere. Westward of the church was the market place, which occupied the whole space between the High Street and Little Whyte, including the island site. Here, as at other market towns, the market place became built over at an early date, certainly as early as the 15th century when Little Whyte, which occupies a part of it, appears. A fire occurred in Little Whyte on 29 August 1636 when 'fifteen commoning tenements' were burnt down and others damaged. No houses built before the fire have survived. The present houses are mostly of brick with tiled or slated roofs.
Great Whyte looking south (circa 1911)
The Great Whyte, formerly known as the Whyte (Wythte, le Withe, le Wygthte) turns northwards from Little Whyte; its name goes back to the 13th-century. This and the High Street suffered a like fate to Little Whyte. A great part of the High Street was burnt on 21 May 1731, when all the houses from the School House to the High Bridge on the north side and many of those on the west side of Great Whyte were burnt. A group of interesting 17th century houses at the bottom of Great Whyte, however, survived the fire. This group includes the George Hotel which has a staircase and parts of the back premises of the early part of the 17th century, but its front has apparently been rebuilt. Eastward of the George Hotel are two 17th-century houses and also the Rose and Crown Inn which bears the initials and date E.H. 1661. The timber framing and plaster of these houses have been largely renewed with brick.
Great Whyte looking north (circa 1911)
Great Whyte is a peculiarly wide street and formerly included in its width a stream which ran from Wistow and Bury and became the High Lode north of the Great Whyte. The High Street passed over this stream by the Great Bridge or the Old High Bridge said to have been of one pointed arch. The stream down Great Whyte was covered in by a tunnel of three spans, begun in 1852 and finished two years later. Very few houses here were built before the fire of 1731; the Seven Stars Inn on the east side has remains of 17th-century work and a cottage with overhanging upper story farther north on the opposite side of the road probably belongs to a century earlier.
A view westwards along the High Street from the junction of Great Whyte (circa 1911)
The western part of the High Street was known as Bridge Street (Brigstrate) which led to the Great Bridge. This part of the town seems to have been developed at the end of the 13th century when plots of land were being set out for building. Other 14th-century names of streets are 'le Kolane,' 'Le Nunnestrate' and 'Turverslane.' Turning off to the west on the St. Ives Road, a little south of the railway station, is Biggin Lane which appears in the early part of the 14th century as 'le Byggyngwey.' This lane led to the moated grange of the monastery called the Biggin. We have reference to 'Leperes Lane' in Ramsey and land in Hepmangrove next 'Leperislane, which would permit of the identification of Lepers Lane with Biggin Lane. In a court roll of the time of Edward II it is recorded that John de Pappeworth fell into the infirmity of leprosy whereby he could not mix with his neighbours at Ramsey, therefore it was ordered that no one henceforth should receive him.
The Biggin may originally have been one of the small leper houses which, when that disease became almost stamped out in the 14th century, were turned to other uses. Before 1352 Biggin had become a grange supplying the household of the abbey with dairy produce such as milk, butter and great quantities of cheese and bacon, while its garden produce went to the guest-house of the abbey. It was a manor which had a mill but had no customary tenants owing work services. Biggin remained parcel of the possessions of the monastery until the Dissolution, when it passed with other Ramsey property to Richard Cromwell. Sir Philip Cromwell, brother of Sir Oliver Cromwell, was living here in 1606. The house was pulled down about 1757 and a door bearing the initials H.C. (for Henry Cromwell) was taken to Ramsey House. A toft in Biggin was conveyed in 1316 by William the Smith of Upwood and Beatrice his wife to Robert le Ferour and Joan his wife; and in 1333 Joan, as a widow, granted it to John the Cook of the infirmary for eight years and twelve weeks after her death. Adjoining Biggin Lane was Beterestrate or le Beteris-strate the position of which has not been identified.
A view eastwards along the High Street in Ramsey (circa 1911)
About a mile to the north-east of the town is Bodsey House, originally a hermitage on one of the fen islands only approached by water. There is a tradition that King Cnut had a 'hunting box' here, but the story is improbable as Bodsey seems to have been part of the original endowment by Earl Ailwin to Ramsey before Cnut came to the throne. The hermitage, to which belonged a fishery and ten acres of meadow, came into the possession of the family of Lek or Leyk of Yelling. Early in the 13th century it was conveyed by Henry de Lek to the abbot of Ramsey, the conveyance being confirmed by Theobald de Lek and Katherine, Henry's wife. Later a dispute as to common rights here was settled in 1220 by Theobald de Lek relinquishing all his rights in Bodsey to the abbot. Shortly afterwards Abbot Hugh Foliot assigned the hermitage to the office of pittancer of the abbey for an anniversary for his father, his mother and himself. Bodsey continued as a grange of the abbey until the Dissolution when it was assigned to John Lawrence the last abbot as a dwelling place together with 100 loads of wood, a swan mark with the profit thereof, and £266 13s. 4d. pension. It was granted to Richard Williams alias Cromwell in 1539, probably subject to the life interest of Lawrence, and descended with Ramsey (q.v.).
In the outlying part of the parish called Higney there dwelt another hermit, named Edwin, who in the early part of the 12th century gave succour to Christine, an anchoress, for whom the priory of Markyate (co. Beds) was founded.
Sadly as time progressed other towns in the region began to overshadow Ramsey town. St Ives for example also owned by the Abbey, not only had the navigable Great Ouse with access to the sea, but an extensive road network within reach. Other market towns that could get these forms of transport grow mush quicker than Ramsey’s. This is because Ramsey did not have the forms of transport in their reach. The monks of Ramsey Abbey with rapidly increased income from their interests in these other sites made the town suffer. Eventually the market place was built over in the 15th Century to help the income of the town. unfortunately the cloth weaves of this small fenland town were unable to compete.
The Mere was very useful for the early town of Ramsey for many years. This is because it supplied the town with food and it also gave the people of Ramsey a job. Ramsey Mere remained un-drained well into the 19th Century, the Ramsey Chronicler writing in monastic times speaks of Ramsey Mere as being ‘ a delightful object to beholders, in the deep and great gulfs of which mere there are frequently taken, by several sorts of nets, as also with baited hooks and other fishing instruments, pikes of extraordinary bigness called hakedes by the country people; and though both fishers and fowlers cease neither day nor night to haunt it, yet there is always of fish and fowl no little store.