History of Ramsey Abbey

Ramsey Town

Ramsey as a market town grew up around the Abbey, which had been founded on an island in the marshes  in 969 A D coinciding roughly with the date of the second foundation of Ely.  The Abbey became known as ‘ Ramsey the Rich’ or ‘Ramsey the Golden’ on account of its vast wealth and power.

By the time of the DomesdayBook it ranked as one of the top monastic houses in the country.  The Abbot was mitred and sat in the House of Lords as Baron Broughton.  Ramsey Abbey had, at its height, some 80 monks and even at its dissolution in 1539 there were 34 monks in residence.

By 1200 Ramsey, as a town, had grown sufficiently to make it worth while for the abbot to obtain a grant of a weekly market held on Wednesdays.  Henry III confirmed this right in 1267, together with an annual three-day fair on the feast of St Benedict, (the founding order of the Abbey). The fair only served the needs of the immediate neighbourhood, for the position of Ramsey in medieval times on the outskirts of the fen and on no main line of traffic, precluded any competition with the neighbouring fair at St Ives.

Little is known of the trade at Ramsey in medieval times.  It was mainly agricultural but there were weavers and fullers and others connected with the cloth trade who were presented from time to time at the abbot’s court for charging their customers too highly; and fishermen who had special rights for drying their nets.  Tanner, too, was a common surname in the town.  Apparently a most prosperous trade was that of ale-house keeping, for we find as many as fifty-four women at a time presented for selling ale contrary to the assize, which suggests many travellers requiring refreshment.

The lines of the streets have changed little since the town was originally laid out.  The approach to the abbey and town would have been from the West along the High Street to the market place, past the church to the open space which always lay outside the great gate of the larger monasteries.  Westward of the church was the market place, which occupied the whole space between the High Street and Little Whyte.

Great whyte

The Great Whyte, formerly known as the Whyte (Wythte, le Withe, le Whygthe) turns northwards from the High Street and Little Whyte; its name goes back to the13th-century.  Great Whyte is a peculiarly wide street and formerly in its width a stream which ran from Wistow and Bury (and still does) became the High Lode and Bill Lode north of the Great Whyte.  The High Street passed over this stream by the Great Bridge or the old High Bridge which is said to have had one pointed arch.  The stream down the Great Whyte was covered in by a tunnel of three spans in 1852.

The western part of the High Street was known as Bridge Street (Brigstrate) and led from the  Great Bridge towards Hepmangrove and Bury.  This part of the town seems to have been developed at the end of the 13th century when plots (placeae) of land were being set out for building.  Other 14th century names of streets are ‘le Kolane’, ‘le Nunestrate’ and ‘Turverslane’

Turning off to the west on the Hepmangrove Bury road is Biggin Lane which appears in the early part of the 14th century as ‘le Byggyngwey’.  This lane led to a moated grange of the monastery called the Biggin.  There is a reference to ‘Leperes Lane’ in Ramsey and land in Hepmangrove next ‘Leperislane’ which would permit the idendification of Lepers Lane with Biggin Lane.  In a court roll of the time of Edward II it is recorded that John de Pappeworth fell into the infirmity of  leprosy whereby he could not mix with his neighbours at Ramsey, therefore it was ordered that no one henceforth should receive him.

The Biggin may originally have been one of the small leper houses which, when that disease became almost stamped out in the 14th century, were turned to other uses.  Before 1352 Biggin had become a grange supplying the household of the abbey with dairy produce such as milk, butter and great quantities of cheese and bacon, while its garden produce went to the guest-house of the abbey.  It was a manor which had a mill but had no customary tenants owing work services.  Biggin remained a parcel of the possessions of the monastery until the Dissolution, when it passed with other Ramsey property to Richard Cromwell.

Sir Phillip Cromwell, brother of Sir Oliver Cromwell ( not the Protector) was living here in 1606.  The house was pulled down in 1757 and a door bearing the initials H.C. (for Henry Cromwell) was taken to Ramsey House.

toft Explanatory Notes  in Biggin was conveyed in 1316 by William the Smith of Upwood and Beatrice his wife to Robert le Ferour and Joan his wife; and in 1333 Joan, as a widow , granted it to John the Cook of the infirmary for eight years and twelve weeks after her death.  Adjoining Biggin Lane was Beterestrate or Beteris-strate the position of which has not been identified. (Ref 28)

The Dissolution of the Monasteries was an event of enormous importance and destruction!  The great houses, Ely, Ramsey, Thorney, Peterborough, Barnwell and lesser sites such as Chatteris, Denny, Swaffham and Bulbeck had greatly influenced the religious and economic life of the region.

Monasteries were the lords of many manors especially in Fenland.  They also exercised patronage over dozens of church benefices.  All these passed into other ownership, the Bishops, Colleges and richer laity being the main beneficiaries.  The Dissolution itself was eagerly pursued by Bishop Goodrich and carried out smoothly, with monks and nuns being compensated with annual pensions. But lay brothers who had done so much of the work maintaining the monasteries were not so lucky. (Ref 11)

The Abbey’s Foundation

The History of the founding of Ramsey Abbey comes to us through the words of the Ramsey Chronicler, an unknown Monk, in the form of the ‘Liber Benafactorum’ book of Benefactors.  Written and compiled according to the Chronicler in the reign of King Stephen?, when the Abbey was under control of Abbot Walter. He tells us that after the struggles the Abbey had had at that time, it was decided to collect all the scraps of the charters of privilege and documents that had been rescued from the ‘ruin of antiquity’ and put them all into one volume ( after changing what had been written in Old English into the Latin language).

To hear what Old English sounded like click this link to hear an extract from the tale of Beowulf, a tale told around winter fires on long evenings in Britain in the Dark Ages.

There is also mention of a third rebuilding of the Church (Abbey)?

These had been turbulent times for the Abbey, this is around the time of the expulsion of the Monks of Ramsey Abbey by Geoffrey de Mandeville.

The Liber Benefactorum of Ramsey Abbey is one of the oldest and finest of our national monastic chronicles.  Up to now this chronicle has been available to readers only in a scarce and expensive Latin text, but now thanks to the hard work of Dr Susan Edgington and colleagues there is a inexpensive translation of Ramsey Abbey book of Benefactors ‘The Abbey’s Foundation’ part one for people to read.  (Ref 8)
Also ‘The Early Years’ part two is now available.  (Ref 9)

The following descriptions of the founding of the Abbey are given by the Chronicler, taken from ‘The Book of Benefactors’ part one ‘The Foundation’ (Ref 8) and ‘Ramsey Abbey’ its rise and fall by Noble and Wise. (Ref 7)