Wisbech: Relations between the bishops of Ely and the town of Wisbech

Page 246

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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There is but little upon which to base an estimate of the relations between the bishops and the men of Wisbech during the Middle Ages. By the early 16th century, however, it became the custom for the townsmen to present the bishop with a substantial sum as 'recognition money' on his first coming to the town. In 1534 Bishop Goodrich received £7 6s. 8d., (fn. 1) increased for Bishop Cox in 1560 to £7 16s., (fn. 2) and £9 9s. 4d., with 20 stone of best beef, for Bishop Felton in 1619. (fn. 3) In 1676, when Bishop Gunning visited the town, the sum was increased to 20 guineas, 'not doubting but his Lordshipp will have and continue his favour and kindness to this Townshipp and his Tenants'. (fn. 4) The payment was waived by Bishop Keene in 1775 and received for the last time by Bishop Sparke in 1813. (fn. 5) The recognition money did not preclude occasional presents in kind; for example, £3 6s. worth of fowl in 1617, a buck from Extoh Park (Rutland), worth 20s., in 1669, (fn. 6) and a £23 piece of plate the previous year. (fn. 7)

In actual fact the bishops, who had three other palaces in the Isle and one just outside at Somersham (Hunts.), do not seem to have visited Wisbech at all frequently, judging by the fewness of ordinations held in the church or the castle chapel. Of those who recorded the places of ordinations in their registers, Bishop Lisle (1345-61) held 4 in Wisbech of a total of 31, Bishop Arundel (1347-88) 2 out of 72, Bishop Fordham (1388-1426) 3 out of 142, Bishop Alcock (1486-1500) 5 out of 24, and Bishops Gray and West none out of 19 and 14 respectively. (fn. 8)

It was, however, at the instance of Bishop Goodrich that the town obtained its first charter in 1549, (fn. 9) and it was probably with a view to improving the silted river that Bishop Morton (1479-86) caused his Learn to be cut to Guyhirn and so through the town rather than by a more direct route to the sea. (fn. 10)


  • 1. Corp. Rec. i, 93.
  • 2. Ibid. i, 111-14, with a schedule of the amounts levied on individual tenants.
  • 3. Ibid. iv, 17b, 20a.
  • 4. Corp. Rec. iv. (The later folios of this and subsequent volumes are unnumbered.)
  • 5. N. Walker and T. Craddock, Hist. Wisb. (1849), p. 326.
  • 6. Corp. Rec. v, 8b.
  • 7. Ibid. iv, 161b.
  • 8. Ely Dioc. Remembrancer, passim (Calendars of Bp.'s Reg. by Canon J. H. Crosby).
  • 9. Cal. Pat. 1548-9, 339.
  • 10. This suggestion was made by the late E. J. Rudsdale.