Fenland riots as country slides into civil war

PUBLISHED: 12:58 07 December 2006 | UPDATED: 13:39 04 May 2010

AS with the other cathedrals across the kingdom, from the beginning of the Long Parliament in November 1640, Ely Cathedral fell into decline. It is commonly claimed that Oliver Cromwell stabled his horses in Ely Cathedral. While the Parliamentarians did h

AS with the other cathedrals across the kingdom, from the beginning of the Long Parliament in November 1640, Ely Cathedral fell into decline.

It is commonly claimed that Oliver Cromwell stabled his horses in Ely Cathedral. While the Parliamentarians did have plans to sell off the building stone of the cathedral and Prior Crauden's Chapel was converted into a house, to save it from being dismantled, there is no evidence that Colonel Cromwell desecrated the buildings at Ely. In fact, Cromwell and his men were also accused of similar profanations in Lincoln Cathedral and we might surmise that these historical myths come from Royalist propaganda distributed in publications at the time.

After the arrest and imprisonment of Bishop Wren, Bishop of Ely, in the Tower of London in 1641 there was some limited local criticism of the cathedral services being too Laudian. During this time, Dean Fuller was arrested twice; in the autumn of 1641 for alleged popery and the second time, in July 1642, for reading a royal declaration from his London pulpit.

Until 1643, services in Ely Cathedral remained largely unchanged. The only apparent gesture to puritan teaching was that the dean and chapter spent 18d on March 25, 1643, 'taking downe the orgaines and quier cloathes'.

In his book A History of Ely Cathedral Ian Atherton states that "monthly communions certainly continued until at least October 1643 and boys continued to be made choristers until Christmas 1643".

As the rest of the country began to slide into civil war, commoners whose land rights were being eroded in the Isle of Axholme, north Lincolnshire, took advantage of the situation and engaged in large-scale destruction of drainage works and enclosures. In the Isle of Ely, rioting was confined to Whittlesey, where enclosures of the Earls of Bedford and Portland were destroyed.

On May 15, 1643, approximately 100 inhabitants of Whittlesey and nearby settlements gathered in the nearby fens and began to break down the enclosures. The following day, their numbers had risen to 150 men who, using agricultural implements, destroyed the rape and cole-crop.

Cattle were turned onto the crops and the rioters threatened to break down the drainage ditches and tear up the sluice. They intimidated the tenants of the newly-drained land and one was warned that if he ever ploughed in the fens again they would "cut the legs of both himself and his horse".

The following day, May 17, 4-500 rioters took to the fens and a contingent of 200 soldiers was sent from Wisbech to persuade the crowd to disperse. Eventually they drifted away, suggesting that when the soldiers left they would return. It was obvious that the soldiers could not return to Wisbech and so they were billeted in Whittlesey at a great cost to the townspeople.

As a result of this rioting, 13 of the ringleaders were arrested and taken to the bar of the Upper House where they were all committed to the prison at Fleet. As a direct result of this incident Cromwell was made governor of the Isle by the House of Lords in July. He arrived back in Ely with his troops and established a permanent garrison in the city. Churches across the Isle would now come under the scrutiny of Cromwell - and Ely Cathedral would not escape his rigours.

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