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The Case for Little Thetford

WakeHereward Project – ‘On the Conqueror’s Trail’

The Case for Little Thetford


The argument has long existed as to the route taken by William the Conqueror when he launched his assault upon the Isle of Ely and the rebels led by Hereward ‘the Wake’ in late October of 1071. Did William enter through the small inland hythe at Aldreth situated on the south-west peninsula of the Isle of Ely by building a causeway, or did he withdraw from Aldreth after repeated defeat at the hands of the rebels and undertake a journey along a ‘secret pathway’ at the behest of the abbot, that led him directly on to the isle and on to victory over the rebels?

This study on Little Thetford forms part of the academic text  ‘On the Conqueror’s Trail’ a project so named within the Hereward Country cultural and natural heritage research programme by the WakeHereward Project, a community organisation underpinned by a limited company, Hereward the Wake Ltd. In liaison with relevant partner organisations, institutions and individuals the objective is to investigate, research and elucidate through three specific outcomes, the route taken by William the Conqueror and his access point onto the Isle of Ely through a methodology that includes researching primary and secondary source medieval manuscripts, assessing archaeological finds, undertaking geological and topographical studies and taking into account customs, traditions and the lore of the local folk. The intended outcomes are threefold: 1) The publication of an academic text ‘On the Conqueror’s Trail’ – (an investigation into the route taken by William the Conqueror to gain access onto the Isle of Ely and the rebel stronghold led by Hereward the Wake) for education purposes. 2) The production, viewing in local venues and Tv broadcasting of a documentary film ‘On the Conqueror’s Trail’ for education and entertainment purposes and 3) The establishment and sustainable development of a hiking trail from Cambridge to Ely, ‘The Conqueror’s Trail’, for Cultural Heritage Tourism, Education and Health & Wellbeing purposes.

Little Thetford in Domesday

Little Thetford is listed in the Domesday Survey in the hundred of Ely and the county of Cambridgeshire. The tenant in chief in 1066 and 1086 was Ely Abbey, of which it was a Berewick. It is among the smallest 20% of settlements listed in the survey. In 1086 there was one Hide of land belonging to the abbey, a measurement of land suitable for sustaining one family. One Villan lived there who held six acres and four Cottars, all five were unfree peasants with the abbot as their lord for whom they provided labour and services for about half the days of the week and farmed on the land for themselves on the other days. Villans were of a higher status than Cottars, the latter so-called because they lived in cottages. It was also a fishery rendering 500 eels for the abbot per annum.


Hereward and Rebellion in the Fens

The legend of Hereward has lived among the folk of the Fens for almost a thousand years. After returning from exile in early September of 1067 and now a famous knight, Hereward ‘the Outlaw’ witnessed the horrors of his own folk struggling under the oppressive grip of William the Conqueror and his barbaric Norman knights. The monk  Orderic Vitalis wrote of that year following the Battle of Hastings and the crowning of King William at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day of 1066;

"and so the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed."

A nobleman of unclear identity, Hereward’s family had been dispossessed of their estate and land and his brother had been murdered. Incensed enough to singlehandedly slaughter a group of Normans who had taken over his family home, he gathered together a band of men and began his rebellion, assassinating a leading member of the de Warrenne family and sacking Peterborough Monastery among his many exploits. After being asked by Abbot Thurstan to protect the monastery at Ely from the Norman advances he made a spirited stand. He was joined by several noblemen, one source estimates a following of 3,000 occupied the Isle of Ely. He raided local settlements for supplies and attacked Norman encampments while foiling the enemy attempts to gain access onto the isle.


King William ‘the Conqueror’ at Ely

With the Isle of Ely seemingly being an impenetrable fortress due to its natural defences of impassable fen land, by the Autumn of 1071 King William himself turned his attention to Hereward and Ely and the last remaining pocket of English resistance to his rule, bringing forth his whole army and ship-force upon the Fens and its inhabitants. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ‘E’ version for 1071 informs us succinctly that;

‘he called out the land-force and the ship-force, surrounded the area, built a causeway and went in, with the ship force on the sea-side.’

William had a castle built at Cambridge in 1068 and it became his base for the final assault on Ely, though plotting a firm path for a horse-drawn army to traverse the Fens was fraught with difficulties and hazards. The hamlet of Aldreth, then a small inland port situated on the south-western tip of the Isle of Ely, became William’s objective. He built a causeway from wood brought in by boat to Cottenham and using Belsars Hill as a base for his army his forces attempted to cross the causeway. Tales abound in the sources of Hereward and his men setting light to the causeway and the surrounding peat-fen and William’s forward army perishing in the swamp in a humiliating manner. Hereward’s tactics of sabotage, espionage and ambush stopped the Conqueror’s army dead in its tracks

Withdrawing and considering coming to terms with Hereward, King William sought council with his leading knights, Hereward’s adversaries William de Warrenne who held Castle Acre, Ivo Taillebois the Lord of Spalding and others who urged the king to continue with his assault, then fate turned its hand against Hereward.

While Aldreth was undoubtedly the prime target of King William's assault upon the Isle of Ely, as it had been with his knights long before the king himself arrived at the scene with the whole of his land-force and his ship-force; there is the matter of the tale of the 'secret pathway' and the betrayal of the monks.

The Medieval Sources

The events leading up to William's successful capture of the Isle are covered in some detail in the late 12th Century Liber Eliensis (the Book of Ely) and in the early 12th century Gesta Herwardi (the Story of Hereward's Exploits). Each record that Abbot Thurstan sought peace with King William and William was given directions of a 'secret pathway' that would lead his army onto the Isle of Ely. Abbot Thurstan’s act of betrayal on Hereward, after all it was he who requested Hereward’s help in defending his monastery, was compounded by two events taking place.  By 1071 the conditions at Ely were desperate, famine swept across the country, the monks themselves were forbidden to eat any food supplies stolen by Hereward on his raiding expeditions into the Fen edge and morale was low among the multitudes Furthermore, William had been giving away the monastery’s lands to his knights and after losing the monastery at Eynesbury Thurstan moved quickly to seek clemency from the king.

The Liber states that the abbot secretly travelled to Warwick to meet with the king, a distance of over one hundred miles via today's road network. For an abbot to travel that distance with his entourage would most surely be a journey lasting the best part of two weeks there and back in post-Conquest England. We know from the Gesta that Hereward dined with the abbot  at mealtimes, so the likelihood of him not being missed while Ely was at the height of the rebellion is exceedingly small indeed. However, the Gesta informs that he had travelled elsewhere to meet with William and had 'gone in disguise to Angerhale'. While the abbot may well have made the arduous journey to Warwick and it may have been the catalyst for William's arrival on the scene, it seems more likely, for practical reasons, that he made the short journey to the now lost medieval settlement of Angerhale.


The lost village of Angerhale


As with the lost medieval settlement of Cratendune, cited as the place where Hereward had his camp and known to have been close to Ely, Angerhale has also thrown up theories as to its specific location over the years. The foremost of these has been the remains of a settlement about eight miles north east of Cambridge next to the present-day village of Bottisham and if it is correct it substantiates the case for Little Thetford as the access point onto the Isle for William the Conqueror on 27th October 1071, the day recorded in the Liber that Hereward’s forces were finally overcome and defeated.

The Earthworks in the North-West half of Bottisham Park on either side of a North-East flowing stream are a series of earthworks which together indicate an area of former settlement between the present village of Bottisham and the village of Swaffham Bulbeck. Its name is unknown, but P.H. Reaney, in his ‘Place Names of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely’ (1943) suggests it might be the lost settlement of Angerhale. The remains consist of four moated sites with associated features, a garden moat and enclosure and a group of earthworks of unknown purpose all dated as having an origin of 1066. In the centre of the garden moat is believed to be the site of Old Bottisham Hall and a Chapel that was standing ‘within living memory’ when being written about in 1873. Angerhale is not listed in the Domesday survey but Bottisham and Swaffham Bulbeck were held by Walter Giffard in 1086 and in 1066 eight hides (a hide is roughly equivalent to 120 acres) were held by Earl Harold who can probably, though not certainly, be identified as King Harold and if so it indicates the importance of the location. That possible importance, situated on the Fen edge, is compounded by its accessibility to the River Cam via the Bottisham Lode. With Hereward’s incursions at nearby Burwell and Reach suggesting a lot of activity took place in the area, it would appear that the Fen edge settlements in the district and Angerhale in particular, may have been the places from where William could launch another assault on the Isle and take the ‘secret pathway’.

William changing his approach


William changing tact and now making his approach from the South-East of the Fen edge rather than the South-West is indicated in the Liber when the scribe tells us after the Conqueror’s failed attempts at Aldreth that, ‘finally, he led the army unharmed right the way across, to a position nearer than anyone’s expectation anticipated to the waters of Ely.’ ‘Right the way across’, describes the movement he had to take to move from the South-West of the Isle of Ely to the South-East and the gateway onto the Isle of Ely itself in the South-East was Little Thetford.  Situated on the River Ouse, Little Thetford was a berewick of Ely Monastery, an outlying estate on the edge of the Isle of Ely two miles due south.



With the settlement’s close proximity to Ely, the weapons and associated archaeological finds close-by at Braham Farm dock and at Bedworth Hay Farm, the mystery of Chapel Hill, (was it a shrine to Etheldreda that William prayed at?), the legend of the windmill tower dated to those times and once situated to the west side of the village, being a lookout tower, and the legend of the lost village of Cratendune being close-by, the case for Little Thetford being William’s entry point onto the Isle of Ely is compelling, if only in as much that it was the ‘front door’ entrance as opposed to the ‘back door’ entrance at Aldreth which is situated seven miles from Ely itself.  But how did William get there?

If Angerhale was a base for William and located at Bottisham the evidence strongly points to William withdrawing from Aldreth back along the Aldreth Causeway to Cambridge and re-aligning his army for an assault from the eastern side of the River Cam and leading his army  through the fen down to Barway and crossing the Ouse at some point near Little Thetford. The rivers Cam and then the Ouse were possibly impassable for ships with armour-clad warriors and horses and vulnerable to ambush, though small boats were brought forward and trebuchets built in situ for the attack. Moving his army through the fen during daylight hours, perhaps through Bottisham Fen, Swaffham Prior Fen towards Upware, it may be that the swamp of enormous size they encountered was in the area between Padney and Barway fed by the river and Streatham Mere to the west and Soham Mere to the east. It is possible that Chapel Hill on the Ouse at Little Thetford was where they met resistance from the defenders based in a fortress built from peat blocks and supported by reinforcements from Hereward’s camp at Cratendune laying north west less than a mile away. Taking into account the archaeological finds at Braham Farm and Bedworth Hey Farm (to the west of the Ouse) and with William basing himself and retiring back to Witchford during the course of the assault it suggests the possibility that William moved his army north west towards Witchford after crossing the Ouse on purpose built pontoons at or near Little Thetford, taking out the rebels based at Cratendune in the process. The clockwise movement circling Ely before entry being the same tactic when he approached London after the Battle of Hastings. With a significant degree of speculation but enough circumstantial evidence to warrant further enquiry, it is this theory that the WakeHereward Project seeks to elucidate further as the study continues.

Map 2 L Thet.jpg

Map depicting Little Thetford's proximity to Ely and showing the locations of Chapel Hill, Braham Farm, Bedwell Hey Farm and the village of Witchford due north-west of Little Thetford. The lost village of Cratendune is said to have been one mile south of Ely, likely situating it somewhere between Little Thetford and Witchford. The Conqueror made his base at Witchford while the rebels were brought under control.

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