The Island called Ramsey

The Chronicler tells us, that in the eastern corner of Huntingdonshire, between the boundary made by the river Ouse and the extensive marshes that existed, a notable island was situated, the most beautiful of the fen islands in proportion to it’s size. (Ref 7)
Ramsey had been an Island cut off from the surrounding solid ground by lakes and marshy places. On the Western side it was cut off from solid ground by deep boggy quagmires, about 2 bow shots in breadth, all other sides were reachable only by boat. But now it had been made accessible by foot, for the people and pilgrims, by the building of a causeway with wood, stones, and gravel, at great labour and cost .

The island stretched for about some two miles in length , but was not very broad. Before it became inhabited it had been covered by many trees and had abundant thickets and reed beds. It was especially abundant with the trees, called the flowering ash. The size of these trees must have been impressive, because they were used for the beams and rafters in the roof of the Church.(Abbey)

Through the passing of time, the woods had for the most part gone, and because the land was fertile it had been used for other things, like growing corn. It was also used for gardens, pastures, shady groves, and rich meadows. Which he tells us in the spring made a beautiful show.

On the borders of the island there were several meres full of eels, also fen pools full of fish of all kinds and water-fowl. The biggest of the meres was called Ramsey-Mere named after the island. ?? According to the Chronicler it was a beautiful place which had a sandy shore called Mersham. ?? The mere was deep, and used for fishing and water-fowling by the local people. It contained big pike, called by the country people Hakedes, which they caught in several sorts of nets, and they also used baited hooks. Even though fishermen and fowlers used the mere continuously there always seemed to be an abundance of fish and fowl.



Ramsey’s Name

According to the chronicle there are three possible ways that Ramsey came to be called by its present name.

The first is through the joining of two english words ram which is aries and eie which indicates insula in Latin . The two being joined make “ram,s island”
The story told by the old people of the place, that before the island had become inhabited by man or any domestic animals, a ram was found grazing on the island alone. The ram they assumed had found its way to the island when the marshy ground had hardened by either the frosts of winter or dried up in the heat of the summer, and had become stranded there when the ground had returned to its marshy state. It is an interesting point that the Ramsey Abbey Crest consists of a shield with three Ram’s heads emblazoned on it.

The second interpretation is from the word ramis which means the “isle of branches” because of the abundance of trees that belonged to the island at that time. This second interpretation may have some evidence in it’s favour. To this day we still have the names of ‘Wood Lane’ and ‘Muchwood’ still being used.

The third has a more mystical meaning and is very difficult to accept.

The Chronicler now goes on to tell us about the main people who founded and assisted in the founding of the Abbey. Duke Ailwyn and Archbishop Oswald were it’s founders, and King Edgar was a great benefactor to it.




Genealogy of Aethelwine (Ailwyn) The Ealdorman

In the days of Athelstan, formerly King of all England (Mercia then Wessex), a certain leader of the East Anglians, whose name was also Athelstan was judged to be a remarkable man.
Because of his nobility, his wealth, and his abundant wisdom he became very useful to the King in running the business of the kingdom. For this reason he was called by everyone “Athelstan Half – King” which is “semi-king”.

Athelstan “Half –King” married Aelfwynn (whose lands later formed the nucleus of the endowment of Ramsey Abbey), who afterwards nursed and brought up with maternal devotion the glorious King Edgar (King of the English, 957 – 75 son of Edmund King of Wessex and Aelfgifu (died 944) ).

When Edgar became King of England, he was grateful for the benefits he had received from his nurse, he bestowed on her the manor of Weston (now old Weston), which her son the Ealdorman (we know him as Ailwyn ) granted to the Ramsey Abbey in perpetual alms for his mothers soul when she died.

Aelfwynn bore four sons to Athelstan .
The first was called Aethelwold , the second Aelfwold , the third Aelthelsine , and the fourth Aethelwine ( Ailwyn ), who was to become founder of the Abbey. (Ref 7)

Ailwyn’s family held vast properties throughout East Anglia, Essex, and the Shires of Bedford, Cambridge, Northampton, and Huntingdonshire. These estates, Ailwyn, when he became Earldorman administered from his residence in Upwood Huntingdonshire, where he kept his court. (Ref 6)

Athelston the father of the above sons after he had spent most of his life doing good works, became a monk at Glastonbury. There he managed to survive King Athelstan even up to the distinguished King Edgar, which spanned the reign of four Kings.

King Athelstan was succeeded by Edmund, his half brother.



King Edgar

King Edgar is mentioned again and again in the Ramsey Chronicles, not only because he greatly favoured the Monastic system – he is said to have built and restored 42 such institutions – but because he had been brought up and educated by Aelfwynn, the mother of Ailwyn, the founder of Ramsey Abbey. He made Ailwyn her son Alderman of all England, and probably Duke of East Anglia.

Edgar was also a special benefactor to the Abbey of Ramsey bestowing on it gifts of lands and Churches. He confirmed these by Charter, and numerous estates granted to it by others, in such a way as to make the Abbots of Ramsey almost absolute rulers in their own domain. The liberties which Edgar granted to the Abbey were confirmed by subsequent Royal Charters. (Ref 7)





Oswald, Bishop, Archbishop and Saint, the Ramsey Chronicles tells us was the joint-founder of the Abbey with Duke Ailwyn. He was of Danish origin and was first educated under Frithegod (Fridegod monk of St Saviour, at Canterbury?) (Stevens), who was considered one of the most learned men in England, and was afterwards placed under the care of his Uncle Odo – 24th Archbishop of Canterbury – who looked upon him as a youth of great promise. He was so impressed by Oswald’s piety that he sent him to Winchester to bring the dissolute Cannons into line, where although still young, he was made Dean. Wanting to be a monk, his Uncle Odo sent Oswald to be trained, in the strictest rule of religious life then known, that of the Benedictines, in Fleury-sur-Loire France.

When his Uncle Odo was old and very ill, he asked for Oswald to return, unfortunately dying before Oswald could do so. Returning in 959, Oswald stayed with his relative, Oskytel Archbishop of York, where he took an active part in ecclesiastical affairs. King Edgar, hearing of his saintly reputation, had him made Bishop of Worcester, where he became known as ‘Blessed Bishop Oswald. He was a staunch Benedictine, advocating celibacy and the removal of married clergy, gradually replacing the married secular clergy with monks. This became known as ‘Oswald’s law’ and continued until the time of Henry VIII.

In 992, thirty two years after becoming a monk, Oswald died whilst washing the feet of the poor, as was his custom during Lent. His feast day is celebrated on 28th February.




The Friendship between Oswald And Ailwyn

The Ramsey Chronicler tells us that, King Edgar, at a solemn Easter Festival, invited to his court a great company of Nobles, Clerics and lay people. The Divine mysteries were celebrated, after which refreshments were provided for them at the Palace. The festivities carried on for several days, but were abruptly ended by the sudden death of a Nobleman, whom many of the guests, Bishops, Counts and Barons followed to his burial at Glastonbury.

This is where Ailwyn and Oswald became acquainted, and continued their friendship for the remainder of their lives. After the funeral rites so the story goes, Duke Ailwyn struck up a conversation with Bishop Oswald telling him of the short-comings of his life. To which Oswald urged him to make some compensation for his sins by giving lands on which to build a Monastery and for the sustenance of Monks.

Oswald then gave Ailwyn some spiritual help and advice, and once again urged him to set aside some land to build a Monastery to the honour of God. He also told Ailwyn that he would give personal and monetary assistance. Duke Ailwyn then told Oswald that he had an hereditary estate, called Ramsey, surrounded by marshes, which would be well suited to become the abode of Holy men and the building of a Monastery.




Ramsey (the Island)

Ailwyn then went on to give Oswald a description of the Island saying that it was very remote from men, and crowded with many types of tree, but where it had been cleared the land was fruitful and well adapted for the pasture of flocks. There was formerly no house there, only sheds for his cattle.

Ailwyn told Oswald that a few years previously he had been ill with a fever, from which he expected to die, but a promise of restored health was given to him through a vision. In this vision a person sent by the blessed Benedict, the father of Monks, ordered him, when his strength had returned, to build a Monastery there to the glory of God, and the blessed father.

As soon has his health had returned and confirmed the truth of the vision, Ailwyn had a temporary cell built there of wood, until an opportunity would enable him to build a larger Monastery. But even now he said, there were three men living there by themselves, who had renounced all the sinful lusts of the flesh, desiring to learn Monastic discipline, if they had anyone to teach them. Oswald in answer to this, proposed to bring twelve men from another Monastery (Westbury), which he had founded, and offered to superintend them. Duke Ailwyn accepted the offer, and they went together to Ramsey.

On seeing the locality of the Island of Ramsey, surrounded by marshes, and cut off from the approach of men Oswald agreed it was ideal for the building of a Monastery. Ailwyn then said that he would send a skilled man to the Island to start building a small refectory and a dormitory for the coming brethren. The dimensions of the new church were discussed at a later meeting.




The Church

Oswald returned to Worcester and sent the venerable monk Ednoth to Ramsey, who enlarged the Chapel which he found there, in the manner and form shown to him by the Bishop. When this had been completed he sent a message to Oswald telling him, but because it was autumn Oswald decided to delay his visit until after the harvest had been gathered in. Finally Oswald with twelve brethren from Westbury and the venerable monk Germanus (a monk from Fleury) made the journey to Ramsey. They were met by Duke Ailwyn, and the monks with due ceremony were introduced to their new buildings. Germanus was given the duty of looking after all things within the Church, and Ednoth without. The maintenance of the monks was to come out of a ‘common purse’ of both Duke Ailwyn and Bishop Oswald until such time as they could be more conveniently provided for by ‘ the rents of their estates and possessions’. After this beginning it was arranged that, during the following winter all their skills should be put into the finding of whatever available masons there were, also iron as well as wooden tools, and all other necessary things for the building of the future Church.

In the spring of 969 AD, skilled craftsmen were sought out and brought together.  The plan of the Church was staked out, and the foundations were driven deeply on account of the marshiness all around by the use of repeated blows with rams.  The work rose higher day by day, stone being lifted up by a wheeled device.  Two towers stood up at the topmost points of the roofs, the smaller one, at the front of the Church towards the west, offered a beautiful sight from afar to people coming to the island.  The larger one, in the middle of a four armed structure, rested on four columns , connected by arches stretching from one to another in turn, so that they would not loosen and fall down.  Compared to the designs of buildings of that time, it was looked upon as a remarkable enough edifice.

Whilst the Church of Ramsey was still being built the number of monks increased and Ednoth Senior was made Prior of Ramsey.  At this time Oswald also sent to the Abbey of Fleury, where he had been educated, for the “most noted” man Abbo, who had great knowledge of the liberal arts, so that he might preside over the Schools at Ramsey.  The Monastery Schools at that time were the centres of education in all parts of the country, and the teachers of religion were also the teachers of all other learning.

Also at this time Oswald was enthroned as Archbishop of York, Archbishop Dunstan favourably recommended him to King Edgar, the Clergy and people being unanimous in this election.




Consecration and First Dedication of the Church

Finally the Church at Ramsey was finished and ready for consecration by Alfnoth, Bishop of the Diocese. The people were assembled, the floors were cleansed, the walls swept, all the furniture was carried out, all the things were removed from the altar, and the whole Church was stripped of every ornament, like a young child about to be baptized.

In 974 AD 6th of November it was solemnly dedicated by the blessed Oswald to the guardianship of the Virgin of Virgins-to the name of Holy Benedict-and to the memory of all Virgins. Nor can it be doubted that the Divine favour was granted to those faithful ones, for most pleasant breezes accompanied their devotions, and the sun blessed their deeds by his bright shining.

During the building of the Church, the other works of the Abbey were still going on. The brethren were increased in number , and pupils were taken into the schools. There were many Benefactors and valuable Benefactions. The material progress of the Religious Society of the Ramsey Abbey was great. Yet there was a want. Relics

The Cracked Tower

After a few years the success which had marked the founding and progress of Ramsey Abbey came to a halt with the problem of the tower. Every precaution seemed to been taken in the building of the Church, but the soil was oozy and treacherous. From this the casualty came. In the reign of Ethelred the second (979-1016) a crack opened up in the central tower of the Church from the top to the bottom, so large as to threaten its destruction!

The monks being frightened, sent the Prior Germanus and brother Ednoth to tell the tale to Duke Ailwyn who was then probably living at his Manor at Upwood. After some deliberation, the Duke hastened to the Island to see for himself what needed to be done. When he saw the extent of the damage to the tower which was leaning dangerously, he asked the opinion of the workman who were there. They all agreed that an insufficient foundation was the cause, and that the building must be taken down.

With the consent of all, the Duke sent to the holy father Oswald, who was at that time resting in his old age at York, to tell him what had happened and ask his advice. On hearing about this disaster he was filled with compassion, and sent this answer.

” As the fire proves the fuller’s vessel, so tribulation tries good men ; as the strength of the human mind is sometimes weakened by continued prosperity, so its endurance is confirmed by occasional adversity ; that all feint-heartedness must be set aside, strength vigorously used, the shaken building must be taken down and in confidence of the merit which will follow, that a deeper foundation must be dug and the work solidified by frequent strokes of the battering ram, and in short the whole building restored on a better foundation to the glory of God”

On hearing this message the Duke assembled the brethren and told them that because he was weakened by old age, and his strength was failing him he would not be able to undertake the heavy labours needed to fulfil the task at hand. He then told them that from money that he had saved he would be able to pay for all the charges incurred by the rebuilding, if they would undertake the task of assembling the workmen needed.

The necessary workmen were assembled, and the Tower was taken down from the roof; and such was their perseverance that soon not one stone was left upon another. They found that the disaster was caused by “the ooziness of the soil” They then filled the foundation with closely packed stones rammed together, and over them poured cement. On this they erected their new building.

This work was done under the superintendence of a novice, called Ednoth junior by all to distinguish him from Ednoth senior, under whom the former Church was built, and who was growing old. When the Church was completed Duke Ailwyn ordered a wooden tablet to be set up in front of the high altar, which he signally adorned to the glory of God , and St Benedict, and to beautifying of the Church, with large and solid plates of silver, together with precious stones of various sorts and colours. He also gave thirty pounds for fabricating the copper pipes of an organ, which was played on festival days with the strong breath of bellows.




Re-consecration Second Building

On the approaching consecration of the re-built Church, 8th Nov 991 (ref 6), Oswald advised that all the Benefactors and the principle notables, ecclesiastics and laics of the neighbourhood should be invited. They included, Nobles of East Anglia and chiefs of Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire, also Elfwi Bishop of Dorchester, Abbot Brithnoth of Ely, Alfircus of St Albans, Aldulph of Peterborough and Godeman of Thorney.

With everybody assembled Duke Ailwyn, stood and addressed them all. He thanked the most noble holy Fathers and Soldiers who were gathered there for attending the re-dedication of the Abbey Church. He pointed out that at the first foundation many things were given to it by the most illustrious King Edgar, as by himself and many other faithful ones including Archbishop Oswald. These many gifts which included land, villages, mills, fisheries and Churches to name but a few, were almost all confirmed in King Edgars’s Charter. Also a list of gifts made by the King after his death would be read out to.

Ailwyn then went on to say that because of this reason, the reading of the original Charter would be a good way to confirm all of the Abbey’s property and that if anybody present thought they had a claim to anything mentioned, it would be sorted out peacefully and impartially.

The Charter of Edgar was then read out to those present, and public notice was made that if anyone had claims against the Church of Ramsey he should there state it. Everybody was silent and Ailwyn called for all present to witness that because no claimants had come forward the matter had been resolved. A similar notice was given by Abbots Brithnoth of Ely, Aldulf of Peterborough, and Godeman of Thorney in reference to the property of their Monasteries, also in reference to the Abbey of Croyland (Crowland) and the Monastery of Eynesbury, which was now called St Neots. At that time Count Ailwyn was also the Patron and Guardian of St Neots. Then a solemn oath was taken on the Bible, that they would all keep their word in protecting not only the Church of Ramsey, but all the other Monasteries named and their appurtenances.

When all these things had been settled, Oswald who was now getting old was assisted by Eswi the Bishop of the Diocese to solemnly consecrate the Church. The divine office being celebrated according to custom. After the service had finished, very late in the day, they were all assembled and given refreshments supplied by Duke Ailwyn.

The following morning after the benediction by the holy Father Oswald the guests returned to their homes.

Oswalds Parting Address

Oswald on that same morning addressed all the brethren of the Church, with Duke Ailwyn sitting by. He spoke of the rise and prosperity of the Church and of their conduct in temporal and spiritual matters. He also broached the subject of his successor. He told them all, that after his death, they were to choose one of their own to become the new Abbot. This was a privilege granted to the Abbey by Pope John at Oswalds request, although it is argued that the privilege had already been granted in Edgars Charter where it was said that the Monks were permitted to choose their own Abbot, and to be responsible to none but the King.

After the address the Chronicler tells us, Oswald after blessing everyone, took his leave of the brethren amidst great sadness and weeping.




Oswald’s Death

The Ramsey Chronicler then tells us that there were dreams and portents that proceeded the deaths of Oswald and Ailwyn. For instance a brother in his sleep saw both towers of the Abbey Church fall, with a great crash! Next, two Monks sleeping at a distance from the Church, heard a great sound as if the Church had been hit by lighting. On returning in haste, they found all was safe. Also when brethren were walking in the garden, they thought they heard a great crash which sounded like the strokes of a battering-ram, and a crashing of stones within the church itself. But when they entered they found everything untouched.

These portents made the brethren anxious, and they looked for the coming of a great event. Within a few days a messenger came from Worcester, with the news of the Holy Archbishop Oswald’s death, on the Lord’s day of Lent, which in that year was on the 2nd of March. Although a later writer (Richard Broughton) places Oswald’s death on 27th February,992.




Ailwyn’s Death

As he had promised, when he left the 2nd Consecration of the Church, Duke Ailwyn returned in Lent, to the Abbey (this was about the time of Oswald’s death) with his two sons, Edwyn and Ethelward, and addressed the monks assembled before him. He spoke to them of all their loss in the death of Oswald, and told them that he himself was the second tower about to fall, according to the forementioned dream.

Continuing he told them that old age and diminishing strength was now becoming a problem for him and that he was looking forward to when he could rest his weary body forever. Then he confessed his sins in their presence, asked for their prayers and pardon, and asked them to bury him at the Abbey. Whilst confessing his sins and wrongs of his life the Duke prostrated himself on the floor of the Church, the brethren sang over him the seven penitential psalms. After which Prior Germanus said over him the accustomed prayer of absolution.

Ailwyn was then lifted up by his sons, he addressed the monks and then told his two sons that because they were his flesh and blood he expected them to love the Abbey and it’s brethren as much as he did. Also he asked them to protect the brethren with their utmost strength at all times and he forbid his sons to take any of the Benefactions which had been given to them. The sons, in the presence of their father gave their word on this matter. Ailwyn then took his leave from the sad brethren, and was carried in a boat to his home, which was situated on the margin of the lake, not far from the island.

There the Duke spent his few remaining days in watchings, prayers, and alms giving. Alphege, Bishop of Winchester, being near at hand, was sent for. Before him and the Elders from Ramsey the Duke made a public confession of his Christian faith, received extreme Unction and died happily on the 24th April 993 ? (Ref 9)

The Duke was buried at Ramsey, as he had desired to be and a great multitude gathered at his funeral. The rich mourned, that they had lost their advisor in difficulties, and the poor their friend in the time of need. The service was taken by Bishop Alphege, and the Duke was placed reverently in his last resting place. (Ref 7)

To the Brethren at the Abbey Church, it must have seemed like the end of their world, losing not only Archbishop Oswald, but also their beloved Duke Ailwyn who had been their main Protector and Guardian for nearly 25 years.