Histon and St Etheldreda

Recent discussion has centred on whether the care home in Histon should be Etheldred House – its actual name – or perhaps it should be Etheldreda House. Eleanor Whitehead has carefully examined the claims of the three King Etheldreds of the Anglo-Saxon period, but they don’t appear to have come near the place.

We did, however, have in the village the site of the ancient church of Histon St Etheldreda which was demolished by Sir Francis Hynde in 1599. He used the materials mainly to extend Madingley Hall, whilst some more have gradually re-appeared built into cottages scattered around Histon.

It is a fascinating question to examine why Histon was involved with St Etheldreda in the first place and to find that there is indeed a very real connection.

Etheldreda, a Saxon Queen and Princess, founded an abbey at Ely in about 672 AD. She was venerated as a particularly important Saint following miracles such as the flowering of her pastoral staff when placed in the ground and for miraculous cures of many illnesses including deafness and paralysis which were attributed to her intervention.

In both the pre-conquest and medieval periods pilgrims made long journeys to Ely to worship at the shrine of St Etheldreda and to give generous gifts.

Our interest centres on how the pilgrims got to Ely.

Queen Emma, the wife of the Saxon King Ethelred the Unready and then of his Norse successor King Cnut, was among many particularly generous royal patrons. It is recorded that in about 1030 she and King Cnut were rowed to Ely by boat. Generous gifts of gold, silver, precious stones and richly embroidered vestments were typical of those of the nobility of the period. A succession of grateful Abbots erected ever-more elaborate shrines to hold the sarcophagus of the Saint and covered them with silver and jewels.

In this pre-conquest period, some Abbots seem to have encouraged visits of the nobility rather than those of lesser people, although visits were probably limited in any case because Ely really was an island and you had to be able to afford a boat.

The Norman Conquest of 1066 changed all that. King William needed to capture the Isle of Ely, notably defended by Hereward the Wake. In 1071 he ordered boats to be taken to Cotinglade – Cottenham Lode – to go up river to Aldreth, the narrowest crossing point, and to be formed into a bridge. This attempt failed, but a deal was done whereby the King would spare the Abbey in return for a lot of the silver.

To consolidate his hold, the King then had the Aldreth Causeway constructed, giving an approach to the Isle by road, with just a short river crossing involved. So now there was a road – the King’s Highway – from Cambridge to Ely and it passed through Histon, including part of the present Gun’s Lane. In 1251 one field boundary in Histon was stated to be “the King’s pathway.”

The Roman road to Ely through Landbeach had become impassable after the Romans left , so the route through Histon was the main road from Cambridge to Ely until the seventeenth century Fenland drainage. William’s forces probably used Gun’s Lane to get to Cotinglade. Direct access to Cottenham was not possible until the construction of the Beach Ditch drain in 1235.

Map of likely early medieval route to Ely, following a prehistoric ridgewayfrom the SW and prior to the draining of the low-lying green area to the SE.

As described in Chaucer’s fourteenth century Canterbury Tales, pilgrimages became increasingly popular in the medieval period and those to Ely were no exception. The reaction in Ely was to build a new cathedral starting in 1090 and to emphasize its importance and that of its Saint by changing the dedication from St Peter and St Mary to being to St Etheldreda, which happened in 1252.

At its peak in 1408-9 the cathedral’s annual income from pilgrims was £94 9s 10d, amounting to £104,000 in today’s terms, and much of this money went through Histon. On average 4% of the cathedral income came from the offerings of pilgrims, the rest being from extensive land holdings second only to those of Glastonbury Abbey.

Medieval Bishops and Abbots were as much entrepreneurs and politicians as spiritual leaders. In the eleventh century Histon was naturally divided into two estates by a sunken roadway running from north to south. Both parts belonged to the Bishop of Lincoln. Bishop Robert Bloet (1093-1123), a colourful character, had the immediate political need to re-establish the Abbey at Eynsham, near Oxford. This would give him a foothold close to the King’s hunting lodge at Woodstock, and consequently the ear of the King, Henry I. To do this, in 1109 he moved the monks back from Stow in Lincolnshire to Eynsham and to help maintain them he reinstated their ‘traditional’ ownership of the manor containing the western half of Histon.

Now how calculating was that? With the burgeoning pilgrimage trade, what better place could you give the monks than one which was a handy stopping point on the way to Ely? One where you could provide them with a convenient chapel dedicated to the main object of the pilgrimages – St Etheldreda – and where the priest could willingly accept payment for masses to bless the pilgrims’ journeys. Indeed, the part of the sunken lane nearest to St Etheldreda’s church was still known within living memory as Penny Lane. Does this commemorate the pilgrims pennies?

The interesting point here is whether there was already a church in place in 1109 or whether this could have been the occasion on which it was built or rebuilt. Good dating evidence could come from the re-used material in the basement of the north wing of Madingley Hall.

The idea of recognising St Etheldreda’s as a church deliberately sited on a pilgrimage route to Ely is reinforced by the similar location of the chapel of St Etheldreda at Reach, the only other ancient local church dedicated to the Saint. The village of Reach is located at the landward end of Reach Lode, an artificial waterway which leads to the river Cam and thence to Ely. Reach was a flourishing port and interchange point from the 12th to the 19th century, providing another pilgrimage route to Ely. A chapel of St Etheldreda is mentioned there in 1450 and the present nineteenth century church retains that dedication.

The ruins of St Etheldreda’s Chapel, Reach, in 1768.

Returning to the question of whether to name the care home after Etheldred or Etheldreda, we see from Eleanor’s rather tongue-in-cheek article that she admits the possibility of a spelling mistake, which she probably knew it was all along. In fact, I was privy to the discussions which took place at the time of the naming and can confirm that the parish council, following my father’s historical suggestion, had passed the name of Etheldreda House to the local authority. Somewhere in Shire Hall this got amended to Etheldred House. When news of this reached the village, representations were made for it to be corrected but to no avail, despite the residence in the village of the then director of social services.

But all is not lost. It turns out that the name Etheldred is none-the-less a respectable one for the home, having been well-used in Histon for at least 400 years. The manors of the two halves of the village were originally known as Histon Denny and Histon Eynsham after the abbeys that they belonged to. After the dissolution these gradually changed to Histon Andrew and Histon Etheldred, taking on versions of the names of the respective churches.

These names were in very regular use at the Manor Courts held in the village by the stewards of the manors, dealing principally with inheritance and land transfers. In a sixteenth century manorial document there are references to ‘the vicar of St Etheldred of Histon’ and as recently as the 1920s transfers of copyhold land had to be registered and paid for in the ‘Court of the Manors of Histon St Andrew and Histon St Etheldred.’

“One selion containing half acre, the vicar of St Etheldred of Histon. H. E.” Impington Terrier, 1568.

There is always a haunting romanticism attached to remnants of an almost forgotten past. At Histon we can stand among the lumps and bumps where St Etheldreda’s Church was and imagine what life there was in the bones in the surrounding churchyard and what passing people. Recent archaeological discoveries are beginning to show that Penny Lane was a main street for a community which lasted from the Roman period through to the Anglo-Saxon and Medieval periods. Our forbears are worthy of our remembrance, whether in the name of Etheldred or Etheldreda.

David Oates