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Bloody British History Peterborough
By Jean Hooper
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Jean Hooper
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THE ORIGINS OF PETERBOROUGH
Home to Britain's First Murder Victim?
RICH DEPOSITS OF fossils have come to light in the brick quarries around the town: remains of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pliosaurs and other marine creatures, some of which can be seen in Peterborough Museum. Belemnites were rather like modern-day squid and formed part of the diet of ichthyosaurs. The hard shells of belemnites could not be digested, so were regurgitated from the stomachs of their predators. A few years ago, a large amount of fossilized belemnites found in a Peterborough clay pit allowed scientists to prove that they had once formed the meal of a 'fish lizard' over 150-160 million years ago. The indigestible parts of the meal were ejected from the ichthyosaur's stomach, leaving behind a pile of prehistoric vomit.
Gravel pits have revealed the bones of other giant creatures that lived in the area after the Age of Dinosaurs such as woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceros and bears, which would have been hunted by the first humans who lived in this area.
Britain's Earliest Known Murder. Victim?
As the Ice Age ended, early man would have hunted animals, caught fish and gathered plants for food, moving around as the seasons changed. Gradually, instead of following their food source, people began to settle here, breeding livestock and planting crops. The pasture land of the Fens, fresh water and slightly higher country to the west provided a perfect place to live and take advantage of the rich resources of the area. As people began to work a piece of land and keep their animals in one place, they perhaps came into conflict with others who were also establishing their claim to use a particular pasture or trackway.
It is impossible to know the reason why, but it is certain that nearly 6,000 years ago a young man living in this area was hit by the arrow that ended his life. Excavations carried out in 1975 at Fengate on the east of the city revealed the skeleton of a man with the flint arrowhead still embedded in his ribs. Did he attempt to protect himself, or did death come too quickly? Nearby were three more groups of bones, belonging to two children and a woman. Did they die violently at the same time, or were they united after death?
Over the years, Fengate and other sites in and around the city have revealed evidence of the earliest inhabitants of this landscape. Bronze-Age field systems, trackways and ditches, and later Iron-Age round houses, clustered together in small groups, show the growth of settlement that eventually developed into our present-day community. Perhaps the most remarkable site to have been discovered can be seen at Flag Fen. A huge wooden platform dating back 3,000 years was probably a ritual site that continued to be used over a long period. A wooden causeway nearly half a mile long led across the marshy land to the artificial island. Bronze- and Iron-Age weapons and jewellery, pottery and even human bones had been carefully placed along one side of the wooden posts.CHAPTER 2
Massacre and Reprisal
THE FIRST EVIDENCE of a Roman presence in the area comes from Longthorpe in Peterborough. A Roman fort big enough to hold half a legion was occupied principally during two periods in the first century AD by soldiers of the famous Legio IX Hispana: the Ninth Legion. The first fortress was built around AD 43 as the Romans moved north and east through Britain, subduing local tribes and protecting their borders. In around AD 61 the area of the fortress was reduced in size following the massacre of most of its soldiers by Boudicca.
Within a few years the IX Legion was moving steadily north, reinforced by soldiers from Germany.
Half a legion could consist of between 2,000 and 3,000 soldiers, so their base would be built somewhere that could support such large numbers. The local countryside was rich in resources with good soil for agriculture, woodland, stone and iron. The fort could easily bring in supplies by land but its proximity to the River Nene and the Fens made transportation by boat an excellent option. Romans later made the first attempts to drain the Fens and the Carr Dyke ran straight to the River Ouse. Developing the Fen Causeway, which linked the 'islands' of drier land in the Fens, also gave them easier access to eastern areas. Ermine Street passed by the legion's base; strategically placed on the edge of what is now East Anglia, this was an ideal location for controlling the frontiers of Roman occupation.
Local people were happy to take advantage of trade with the garrison and settlements soon developed around the outside of a fort. Trades-people and craftsmen built shops and workshops as well as their homes and before long a sizeable community would be working alongside the Romans. The town of Durobrivae grew up close to the River Nene and spread along Ermine Street. The name Durobrivae means 'fort by the bridge' and a smaller fort would have protected the river crossing there.
Even when the fortress at Longthorpe had been abandoned Durobrivae continued to thrive, its excellent position on lines of communication and plentiful supplies of raw materials meaning that its craftsmen and goods were always in demand. Most of the workshops fronted onto Ermine Street, the great Roman Road which ran from the south to the north of the country. It was one of the biggest industrial sites in Roman Britain producing pottery and metalwork. Locally sourced iron ore was the main metal used but it appears that more valuable metals were also worked here. Although most pottery was made for local use, examples of better quality 'Castor ware' have been found in other parts of Britain and even abroad.
The wealth and importance of Durobrivae in Roman times are shown by the finds that have been made in the area in modern times. The Water Newton Treasure was found in 1975 and is the earliest Christian silverware found anywhere in the Roman Empire. There were twenty- seven silver items including a jug, cup and bowl engraved with early Christian symbols. There was also a small gold disc. It seems that the treasure had been placed inside a pottery jar and buried in the field outside the town in the fourth century. It is not known why they were hidden. The beautifully engraved objects are now in the British Museum.
The Iceni occupied lands to the east of this region in an area now covered by Norfolk and part of Suffolk. The Romans sometimes allowed 'client kings' to rule their own people, and this was the case with the Iceni. After their king Prasutagus died he had hoped that the Roman Emperor, Nero, would allow his daughters to rule after him. However, the Romans took complete control of their kingdom and confiscated property belonging to important tribespeople. The furious Iceni were to suffer even greater punishment and humiliation: Prasutagus' widow, Queen Boudicca, was stripped and publically flogged and her daughters raped by the soldiers.
Revenge followed swiftly as Boudicca and her followers inflicted crushing defeats on the mighty Roman army. Gathering together other tribes, Boudicca took advantage of the absence of the governor of Britain and led her warriors to the centres of Roman power in England. First to be attacked was Colchester, where those who had survived the initial onslaught sought refuge in the Temple of Claudius, only to be burned alive as Boudicca destroyed the whole town. The Britons moved on to London and then St Albans, killing the inhabitants and burning the towns. Roman historian Tacitus writes that the IX Legion under the command of Petilius Cerialis went to relieve the siege of Camolodunum (Colchester) but were savagely attacked by Boudicca's army, leaving only the cavalry to escape and flee north again. The sight of Boudicca's army would strike fear into even the most hardened Roman soldier. Before fighting, trumpets would sound and Druids would call upon their gods to bring victory. The heads of captured enemies were displayed on pikes and the screaming warriors, their bodies painted and tattooed, would rush to battle. They were merciless in victory, torturing and mutilating their captives, even women. It is possible that up to 2,000 men of the IX Legion were slaughtered by the Britons before they even reached Camolodunum. This may explain why a smaller fortress was built inside the original defences at Longthorpe, enabling it to be held by fewer soldiers for a short time before the stronghold was abandoned.
One of the largest Roman buildings in Britain stood in present-day Castor, overlooking the town of Durobrivae. The massive scale of the building and the quality of the finds associated with it suggest that it was the headquarters and palace of someone of great status in the Roman Empire. Possibly the person who lived here in the mid-third century was a military governor or the governor of an Imperial Estate stretching out from Durobrivae across the Fens. There were certainly high-status villas around the town but they would have been dwarfed by the building on the hill. Extending over 274 metres by 122 metres, the praetorium, or palace, would have dominated the landscape for miles around.
The Fate of the IX Legion
The fate of the IX Legion has given rise to several theories as to why records ceased to mention their existence. Were soldiers of one of the oldest and most experienced Roman legions wiped out by northern British tribes? Writers and film makers have long been inspired by the enduring mystery of their supposed disappearance from history.
Before being sent to Britain, the IX Legion had fought successfully in Europe and Africa, earning the nickname 'Hispana' after their successes in Spain. As the Roman army moved northwards through Britain, the IX was divided into two forces, one based at Longthorpe, Peterborough, and the other at Newark. Soldiers from Peterborough would have been close enough to march to the rescue of towns targeted by Boudicca. They were unable to withstand the attack by the 'Warrior Queen' and her fearsome British tribesmen and had to retreat to their base after suffering huge losses. Up to 2,000 men may have died and reinforcements were sent from Germany to take their place. The IX Legion moved north again, basing themselves at Lincoln, and then York, where the last evidence of them comes from AD 117. Were they sent to fight against the Caledonians, who slaughtered the whole legion? Or were they simply sent overseas, before or after fighting along the border country? Some members of the 'Hispana' at least seem to have been in Europe and Africa again after AD 120 – were they just the survivors of an earlier massacre? Certainly the IX Legion is no longer in existence in a later list of all Roman legions and no mention of its fate is recorded ...
The Death of Boudicca
Boudicca must have been a strong and ruthless leader. After her routing of the IX Legion, Roman historians were at pains to emphasize her wild, barbaric appearance and describe her as a terrifying woman, tall, with long red hair and clothed in the bright colours and jewellery of a Celtic chieftain. The Druids that accompanied her army called down curses on her enemies, who faced torture and certain death at her hands. Following the carnage at Colchester, London and St Albans, the Romans gathered their forces against the British warriors. Boudicca's army was beaten and legend says that she took poison to avoid capture. It is not known where the final battle took place but a legend places Boudicca's burial in a site now underneath King's Cross Station in London.CHAPTER 3
Founder of Monastery Dies in Mysterious Circumstances!
THE SAXONS WERE a Germanic tribe who possibly first arrived in this country as raiders or mercenaries in the fifth century. By the time the story of Medeshampstede begins they were living throughout England, with farms and small settlements in this area. Two of the major Saxon kingdoms were Mercia and Northumbria, and both were connected to the monastery by the side of the River Nene.
In the seventh century the Saxon kingdom of Mercia roughly covered the area of the Midlands today. It was ruled by Penda, a pagan king, and the area around Medeshamstede was ruled by his son Peada, king of the Middle Angles. Probably as part of an attempt to broker some sort of peace between Mercia and the Christian kingdom of Northumbria, marriages were arranged between children of their respective kings.
Peada was married to Alflaed, King Oswiu of Northumbria's daughter, with the condition that he become a Christian. He and his wife returned to Medeshamstede with four monks and set about establishing a monastery. Whether peace between the kingdoms had ever really been intended, Peada's father was killed in battle by his wife's father soon after the return to Medeshamstede. Although Peada was allowed to continue as king of the Middle Angles, Bede says that he was betrayed and murdered by his own wife, poisoned at the time of the Easter feasts – presumably being celebrated at the new monastery.
Peada's brother Wulfhere became king and fought successfully against the Northumbrians. He ensured the growth of the new monastery with the help of the first abbot, Saxulf. Although praised as a good king who gave lands and wealth to spread Christianity in the area, another legend paints him as the ruthless murderer of his own sons, Wulfade and Rufine. Whilst out hunting, it says, both brothers met the holy St Chad, who baptised them as Christians. Wulfhere was a Pagan and was so angry that his sons had become Christians that he cut off their heads with his sword. He later regretted what he had done and became a Christian himself.
Kyneburgha, like her brother Peada, became a Christian when she married into the royal family of Northumbria. After her husband's death, she returned to Mercia, where it is said that she and her sister Kyneswitha helped found the monastery at Medeshamstede. Her name is preserved in the name of the parish church at Castor which stands above the present- day village on the site of the Roman praetorium. She is said to have founded a religious establishment for men and women and although no trace of it remains, there is certainly evidence that wealthy Anglo-Saxons occupied the site.
The legend of Saint Kyneburgha tells how she fled from three men who were intent on harming her. She prayed for deliverance and her prayers were answered when the men were swallowed up in a pit which opened behind her as she ran. Her own path was covered with flowers as she made her escape and she lived on to become known as a saintly woman, devoted to God. In the eleventh century the bones of Saints Kyneburgha, Kyneswitha and their relative Tibba were moved from Castor to the abbey in Burgh for safe keeping, in order to prevent the monks of Ramsey from taking them. It is possible that the religious house at Castor had been attacked by raiders as well, or at least fallen into disuse, as it is mentioned as being in ruins at that time.
Oswald, King and Martyr
Oswald was the Christian king of Northumbria in the seventh century and gave land to Bishop Aidan to found Lindisfarne. His holiness and generosity were already well known in his lifetime and several stories were written about him during the eighth century by Bede in his (Ecclesiastical) History of the English People. He became king after setting up a wooden cross before leading his troops to victory at the Battle of Heaven's Field. Bede tells how Oswald and Aidan were eating an Easter meal when a message came to the king about a group of poor people asking for alms. Oswald gave them not only his food but also the silver dishes they were using. Aidan blessed the king, saying, 'May this arm never perish.'
When Oswald was killed in battle against Penda, king of Mercia, his dismembered body was taken by monks. It was said that the arm that had been blessed remained as it had been in life, and that miracles were performed in its presence. The arm was apparently stolen from Bamburgh by monks from Medeshamstede, where it became the most important relic in the monastery at the time, drawing many pilgrims to the shrine. St Oswald's Chapel can be seen in the cathedral today, built on the site of the high altar of the Saxon church.
Excerpted from Bloody British History Peterborough by Jean Hooper. Copyright © 2012 Jean Hooper. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
PREHISTORY The Origins of Peterborough Home to Britain's First Murder Victim?,
AD 60 Romans Massacre and Reprisal,
AD 500 The Saxons Founder of the Monastery Dies in Mysterious Circumstances!,
AD 1000 The Danes and the Normans Battle for Control Death at the Gates of the Abbey,
AD 1100 The Abbey Rises Again 'Built on the Blood of Becket',
AD 1300 The Peasants' Revolt The Fighting Bishop Rides to the Rescue!,
AD 1400 Life in the Abbey Saints or Sinners?,
AD 1500 The Reformation The Sad End of a Loyal Queen,
AD 1587 Royal Rivals The Awful Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots,
AD 1600 The Civil War Years Destruction and a Horrific Death,
AD 1665 The Plague Strikes Again! Pestilence Devastates the Local Population,
AD 1560–1800 The Feoffees Workhouses and the Wretched Poor,
AD 1500-1800 Crime and Punishment The Human and Financial Cost of Breaking the Law,
AD 1700–1800 Diseases, Remedies and 'Resurrections' Eccentric Residents and Wicked Bodysnatchers,
AD 1790 Norman Cross The World's First Purpose-Built Prisoner-of-War Camp,
AD 1750–1850 Smelly Streets and Horned Animals Terrible True Stories of Transport,
AD 1800 The Peasant Poet John Clare, a Troubled Genius,
AD 1834 The Poor Law Union Destitution, Deprivation and Despair,
AD 1821–1904 Raw Meat and Knuckle Bones Old Wives' Tales and a Real 'Florence Nightingale',
AD 1895 Strange Sights in the Air A Balloon Flight Tragedy and an 'Out of this World' Visitation,
AD 1890–1910 Election Fever 'Wild Escapades of the Young Bloods',
AD 1860–1912 Horror, Heartbreak and Humour The Gruesome Death of 'Clay Pipe Alice',
AD 1914–1918 The First World War The Firing Squad, Strange Happenings and an Unlikely Hero,
AD 1939–1945 War Again Airfields and Special Forces,
UP TO DATE Fire! Nearly the End for Peterborough's Magnificent Cathedral,
And including Legends of the Fens,