The Liberty of Ely: Introduction

Pages 1-3

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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In the Assembly Book of King's Lynn, for the year 1610, there is a note that 'Sir Robert Hitcham knight, the Queenes Majesties Attorney-generall is proposed to come to this towne from the Assizes at Norwich to take his jorny to Elie where he is judge of that County Palatyne'. (fn. 1) It seems to have been current usage at the time to describe in these terms the Bishop of Ely's liberty in the Isle; for, as Sir Edward Coke tells us, 'the royal franchise of Ely ... in divers statutes ... is named the county palatine of Ely'. (fn. 2) The description may not have been strictly correct; nevertheless, the liberty enjoyed by the bishops in the Isle of Ely was extensive enough in medieval and most of modern times to leave a decisive mark upon the administrative geography of Cambridgeshire. Even in the middle of the 19th century it could be said that 'Cambridgeshire virtually includes two shires or separate jurisdictions, the shire proper and the Isle of Ely'. (fn. 3) This peculiarity of modern Cambridgeshire is not a little due to the fact that the liberty acquired by the church of Ely in the Middle Ages was one of the very few franchises which resisted Edmund Dudley's rediscovery of Quo Warranto during Henry VII's reign and Thomas Cromwell's determination 'for the dissolution of all franchises and liberties throughout the realm'. (fn. 4) In fact the liberty of Ely lasted until the reign of William IV.

Equally important is the fact that the liberty of Ely is 'thought to have been very ancient'. (fn. 5) Coke traced back the bishop's peculiar powers in the Isle only to the time of Henry I; (fn. 6) but at the end of the 18th century the Rev. Mr. Warren could state with some certainty that the original of these powers lay in St. Etheldreda's concession in 673 to the monastery she founded at Ely of 'her temporal jurisdiction throughout the Isle'. (fn. 7) This privilege, lost for a time after the abbey was destroyed by the Danes in 870, was restored to the church by King Edgar a century later. Colour is given to this account by the 12thcentury chronicle written in the cathedral priory at Ely, (fn. 8) and it has found support in a number of modern writings. (fn. 9) If it is correct, then the administrative geography of modern Cambridgeshire is grounded in arrangements made during the early days of Saxon England. This matter is of sufficient interest to constitute a first subject of inquiry. (fn. 10)


on the opposite page shows:

(a) The boundaries of hundreds as existing c. 1841.

(b) The boundaries of parishes as existing in 1932.

(c) The territorial disposition of the Isle after the foundation of the Bishopric of Ely in 1109.

(d) The extent of the 16th century alienations by both bishop, and dean and chapter.


Benwick, March, Parson Drove, Thetford, Wimblington. These parishes, which were not manors in the 12th century, are not separately distinguished.

Redmere. This parish has been excluded from the map since it was not added to the Isle until 1895.

Chatteris, Leverington. The boundaries between the Ramsey and Chatteris, and episcopal and conventual manors in these respective parishes have been drawn conjecturally, on the basis of the documentary evidence.

Whittlesey. The boundary between the Ely and Thorney manors in this parish has been drawn arbitrarily, no documentary evidence surviving.

Ely. The extent of the episcopal and conventual interests here has been based on the parish boundaries as existing in 1932, which are probably manorial in origin. The common interests of bishop and convent in the cathedral precincts (the present parish of 'Ely College') have been omitted, the area (35 acres) being too small to be shown.

Outwell, Upwell. These parishes have been shown as belonging to the bishopric of Ely and abbey of Ramsey respectively, on the basis of documentary evidence, but it is possible that the Ely interests here were rather greater than shown.

Coveney, Manea. These are treated as a 16th-century alienation on the ground that, although the accustomed rent of 5s. was awarded in 1541 to the dean and chapter, the grant states that this manor 'belonged' to the Lords Scrope.

Mepal. This manor, which was held as a fee of the bishop in the 13th century and amortised to the prior and convent in the 14th, is shown cross hatched.



  • 1. Hist. MS. Com., 11th Rep., App. iii, 151, 177.
  • 2. The Fourth Part of the Institutes of the Laws of Engl., cap. 39 (ed. 1797, 219). The Isle is in fact described as, or implied to be, a county palatine in 33 Hen. VIII c. 10 and 5 Eliz. c. 23.
  • 3. R. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 28.
  • 4. Helen M. Cam, Liberties and Communities of Medieval Engl. 216-19.
  • 5. Naomi D. Hurnard, 'The Anglo-Norman Franchises', E.H.R. lxiv (1949), 317.
  • 6. 4th Part of Insts. of Laws of Engl. 219.
  • 7. In J. Bentham, Ely, App., 21-22 (refs. are to the 2nd ed. of 1812).
  • 8. See, for example, Hist. Elien. i, cap. 15, ed. D. J. Stewart (1848), 48.
  • 9. e.g. my own remarks, V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 378.
  • 10. In the earlier part of this chapter I have drawn upon material discussed in greater detail in my Abbey and Bishopric of Ely.