City of Ely: Sixteenth century

Pages 40-42

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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The main developments of the 16th century were ecclesiastical and economic. Religious change at Ely (fn. 1) meant change in the flywheel around which city life revolved; yet there was less disturbance here than in many monastic centres. While two heretics were burnt, they were not townsmen. (fn. 2) There were considerable sales of monastic property (fn. 3) by the Crown, and within the actual college precincts change was, of course, pronounced. The demolition of much of the ancient monastery, the embodiment of parts of its remains in the new prebendal dwellings, and the extension of Bishop Alcock's palace by Bishop Goodrich (fn. 4) belong to this century.

In the economic sphere Ely's main concern was with the agrarian problems of the day. Inclosures here took on a local colouring. They did not provoke open riot, but danger was real. In 1548-9 William Saunders, the bishop's bailiff, accounted for expenditure on 'persons who diligently watched at the time of the commotion in Norfolk, lest there should be any rebellion or insurrection', and on 'arms bought by him for the Bishop'. (fn. 5)

In reply to the Commission on Inclosures, appointed in 1548, (fn. 6) over 70 complaints were lodged respecting Ely: they involved most of the demesne farms. (fn. 7) In all, in the period 1486-1548, about 329 acres were inclosed in Ely and Chettisham and 112 acres in Stuntney. In Bedwell Hay, Chettisham, Emery Barns, New Barns, Barton, and Stuntney, there were individual inclosures which embraced areas of as much as 40 to 180 acres, but most of the complaints related to small or very small inclosures. One of the commonest grounds of protest concerned lost rights of shack over inclosed lands. Many of the inclosures were for the purpose of converting arable land to pasture, but more commonly for dairy-farming than for sheep. There is no suggestion that the food supply was endangered. Moreover, dairy-pastures did not curtail employment so seriously as did sheep-runs. Nevertheless, both housing and employment problems did arise: there were farmers like the tenant of Northney, who, in Henry VII's time, had 'kept an honest house', but who had given place to one who 'used no tillage nor kept no house, but turned a dayry', and thus threw labourers out of work, it was said. In not a few cases two or more holdings were combined, former dwellings being thereby left empty, destroyed, or let without land. At least two of Ely's ancient 'mansion houses', as well as many cottages, suffered in this way: Ketons (fn. 8) manor house became a barn; the old Almonry grange was pulled down and a smaller tenement on the estate burnt. Some of the property mentioned in the complaints was copyhold; still more was held on lease; but nothing is said here about 'arrearing of rents or fines'. There is one glaring attempt to force copyholders to part with property. (fn. 9) Bishop, prior, and almoner emerge none too well from the inquisition; (fn. 10) the equity of the manorial courts is not above suspicion. (fn. 11) It is not without significance that Wolsey's Commission of 1517 awakened no sympathetic echo from the cloisters! There are many complaints of small intakes from the waste-sometimes merely a few square yards behind a town dwelling. For such there was the excuse of long tradition, and there was still much open fen available. It was urged, however, with abnormal sanitary susceptibility, that three small urban' intakes were used as dunghills for the adjoining gardens, whereas, had they remained uninclosed, they would have been liable to prosecution. The most serious example of conversion of arable land to sheep-runs was at Stuntney; a number of landholders, however, were accused of surcharging the commons, with cattle if not with sheep-e.g. at Thorney, Northney, New Barns, and Stuntney. There are several instances of parts of common streams being inclosed, and 'hurdels' con structed for private fishing-e.g. at Turbutsey. Perhaps the commonest complaint is of the loss of public droveways, consequent upon inclosures. Some 20 rights of way had thus been obliterated or had led to illegal demands for payment. (fn. 12) The whole body of evidence conveys the impression of much petty irritation, occasioned as often by go-ahead small men as by large landholders; (fn. 13) of serious oppression in a few cases; and of dangerous loss of public trust in the paternal integrity of local rule.

The evidence throws light on the structure of the Ely demesne manors or granges, and also illustrates the transitional stages through which inclosure was passing in this region. By the end of the 15th century on most estates a good deal of the property was in more or less consolidated blocks, though there were often also scattered portions. Some of the 16th-century activity was directed towards assembling these isolated parcels. A certain amount of actual hedging or ditching is suggested, but holdings, for the most part, still lay physically open to the waste. Hence arose certain of the disputes. There was considerable confusion as to the rights of the general inhabitants over these semiinclosed lands, and the continued rights of the inclosers over the commons. (fn. 14) The compromise agreement ultimately reached in the case of the New Barns estate, some decades later, admirably illustrates the transitional conceptions of severalty still obtaining.

As explained to the Commissioners, the New Barns farm was already in consolidated blocks in the late 15th century, let to Richard Baker, who maintained 5 ploughteams. He also held Chettisham Bushes. Pasture inclosures began under his successor, who converted about 110 acres in the western part of the farm. In 1537 Thomas Goderyk (fn. 15) held the lease and inclosed 70 more acres for pasture. Further closes-'Safron ground and Sprynge close' (fn. 16) -were presently included in the pasture. Part of the farm was sublet. Only two ploughteams were now employed. Trouble had also begun concerning the closing of five public droveways passing through Thomas Goderyk's lands, and a further droveway in the hands of John Goderyk, leading from Newnham through 'the pytts' to 'litell Tyrbesy and thence to Waterden'. For the use of this latter drift, in 1539, John demanded 14s. a year under threat of legal action. A certain Mr. Rudston-possibly the bishop's bailiff- posed as an intermediary and, by a piece of gross chicanery, persuaded the inhabitants to pay the rent once, (fn. 17) only to find the sum 'ever sythens required' of them! In the course of the next generation difficulties repeatedly occurred. (fn. 18) The estate was not physically inclosed, nor was it held in complete severally. The sheep should, apparently, have been hurdled within the estate, but frequently strayed on to the surrounding fens, infringing the rights of the general citizens. Cattle legitimately grazing on the wastes wandered over the growing crops of the estate. The question of droveways was also still at issue. In 1566 (fn. 19) it was agreed between the disputants to submit all matters to the arbitration of Bishop Cox. Under his decree the tenant was to inclose the manor by hedge and ditch, leaving specified free droveways. (fn. 20) Private breeding stock and swine of the estate were to be kept within the inclosure; other of the tenant's cattle, using the waste, were to be reasonably stinted, the tenant behaving 'as a neighbour among neighbours'. The citizens were to relinquish their former right of shack over the holding, in consideration of a thirty-year lease of 200 acres of its pasture land to representative citizens, at a fixed rent, this land to be separately inclosed at the cost of the users. (fn. 21)

Two other cases brought before the Commissioners merit notice: they relate to the Steward family. (fn. 22) The bishop's bailiff had evidently inclosed parts of the Barton manor (q.v.) in the late 15th century, using them for pasture. These included the 'Tylekyln close' and the 'Gravell Pytte close'. Nicholas Steward took over the lease in the 16th century, having 206 acres of arable, about 155 acres of pasture and an inclosure of 32 acres. He was interested in sheep, and added to his farm by attaching a part of the adjoining common of Cawdle Fen and by encroaching on the highway. For this last offence he had been 'divers times amercyed in the lord's courte, but it is thought his fine has been pardoned and soo no redress is had'. Symon Steward was a still more sinister figure. When he bought Stuntney manor (q.v.), part of its 130 acres had already been inclosed for pasture by his predecessor. (fn. 23) He himself closed one highway, and his son Edward another one, which the tenants had used to gather their crops from Bury Fen. Moreover, the Commissioners found that whereas formerly 500 sheep, belonging to inhabitants and tenant, had found pasture, now 600 were fed, but that the tenants owned few or none of them. Steward permitted his sheep to trespass on the neighbouring common, but allowed no other sheep to use it-'to worry the tenants so that they shall be constrained to sell their copyholds that he may have the whole township in his own occupying'.

Bishop Cox's survey of Ely, in 1563, gives the total number of householders as 400: in Holy Trinity parish with Stuntney there were 246; in St. Mary's parish with Chettisham 154. (fn. 24)


  • 1. See V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 164-79.
  • 2. William Wolsey, constable, and Robert Pygot, painter, both of Wisbech, were burnt at Ely as heretics. A detailed report of proceedings is given in Reg. Goodrich, 16 Oct. 1555. See also, Foxe, Acts & Mons. vii, 404.
  • 3. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiv (2), 542, and xvi, 1226 (11). See also Report of Commissioners of 1541, cited by Atkinson, Archit. Hist. Ely, App.
  • 4. Ely Ep. Regs., Alcock and Goodrich.
  • 5. B.M. Add Chart., 34274, m. 1. (bailiff's acct., 2 Ed. VI-3 Ed. VI).
  • 6. Strype's record of the Inquiry is reprinted in Tawney and Power, Tudor Econ. Doc. (1924), i, 39. The Ely, Downham, and Littleport replies are apparently the only ones known save those of Warwickshire and Cambridge (W. M. Palmer, 'Enclosures at Ely, Downham and Littleport 1548', Cambs. and Hunts. Arch. Soc. Trans. v, 369-84). The original document is in Clare Coll. Treasury, Camb. Dr. Palmer's transcript has been fully utilized; also information drawn from documents in the care of Col. Archer, Solicitor, Ely. See also Maj. G. Fowler, 'Fenland Waterways Past and Present, Pt. II' (Cambs. Antiq. Soc. Proc. xxxiv, 25).
  • 7. Bedwelhaye, West Fenne Farme, Ketons, Almory Barnes, Newbarnes, Beald Farm, Barton, Turbutsey, Brame, Thorney, Northney; the hamlets of Chettisham and Stuntney, and various small plots in the town itself or in the open fields. Stuntney and Thorney had been sold after the Dissolution.
  • 8. Cf. below-Manors.
  • 9. Symon Steward, purchaser of Stuntney manor, was guilty of this and of most other types of oppression exemplified in the Ely area.
  • 10. Bishop West made a park of 180 acres at Chettisham Bushes, shortly before his appointment as an anti-inclosure commissioner! The ordnance map (1835) still shows this as woodland, despite ordinances against inclosure (Cambs. & Hunts. Arch. Soc. Trans. v, 372). Some of the lords' offences were not confined to demesne land.
  • 11. Cf. below, p. 41.
  • 12. This offence was hot an official article of inquiry, but it was a common grievance in Cambs. (Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, ii, 38-39). Among the more important public ways affected at Ely were: a road off Chettisham highway, running through the western part of New Barns on to Waterden common; a road from Newnham to New Barnes and on to Redmore; a droveway from Newnham to the 'pytts' and thence to Little Turbutsey and Waterden Fen; a droveway, 'Brodebank by Turbesy hedge', to Roswell; a droveway leading from Potter's Lane to Cawdle Fen; a road between Stuntney and Bury Fen.
  • 13. Robt. Marche exemplifies the prosperous copyholder, as bent on taking advantage of the times as were his superiors. He began by inclosing an acre, with episcopal permission, in the late 15th century. He later secured 3 arable holdings, of 24 acres each, in Chettisham, turned out all the tenants and allowed one of the dwellings to decay. He also obtained three other previously inclosed plots in the hamlet, amounting to a further 8½ acres. Thos. Rydley and his heirs were even more successful, two of their numerous closes being the result of Prior Walpole's earlier inclosing activities. Thos. Chypley and Thos. Hadman hunted together, bringing '11 litell pyngells' (pightles) of half an acre each into the bag by 1519. The new 'Dean and Prebendaries' inclosed Beald Farm, containing 60 acres (Cambs. & Hunts. Arch. Soc. Trans. v, 369-84).
  • 14. e.g. Northney manor farm was turned into a dairy in 1511. It fell to the dean and chapter at the Dissolution and was presently leased to John Croplaye. He adopted the practice of taking in cattle to graze, at a price, and turning his own cattle out on the common! (Cambs. and Hunts. Arch. Soc. Trans. v, 379.)
  • 15. Probably a son of Bishop Goodrich (1534-54).
  • 16. Giving the name to the modern Spring Head (or 'Love') Lane. The saffron crops, hemp-yards and brick-and-tile making are points of 16th century economic interest mentioned incidentally in this inclosure inquiry.
  • 17. 'Mr. Rudston came to us wyllyng and movyng us to accomplish the said Mr Goodryk request in paying the said rent ones, and yf we so did he said he wolde paye yt of his own purse' (Cambs. and Hunts. Arch. Soc. Trans. v, 376.)
  • 18. The account prefixes the agreement drawn up by Bishop Cox in 1566. (Harold Archer, 'Ancient Ely Byeways', in Cambs. Times, 17 Mar. 1922).
  • 19. Ibid.
  • 20. One being that known as Spring Head Lane leading to Little Turbutsey (now Broad Pieces); the other leading from 'Ely Towns-end, by the Inclosures of New Barnes to Chittisham'. Under Ely Fields Inclosure Acts, the latter right of way was confirmed. It fell out of use after the construction of the modern highway from Ely to Chettisham.
  • 21. Presumably the 200 acres reverted to the bishop at the end of thirty years. They are still known as Little New Barnes (Archer, Cambs. Times, 17 Mar. 1922).
  • 22. Robert Steward was the last prior and first dean of Ely. Symon or Simeon Steward was one brother and Nicholas Steward another. Symon married the daughter and heiress of Edward Bestney of Soham. Nicholas Steward farmed Barton manor and was great-grandfather of Oliver Cromwell, whose mother was a Steward. (Cambs. and Hunts. Arch. Soc. Trans. v, 372.)
  • 23. Edward Bestney, of Soham, in 1530. Thus were 'plows laid down and the ferme fell in decay with great ruin of homes'. (ibid. 377-9.)
  • 24. B.M. Harl. MS. 594, ff. 198-200.