St Ives Fair

One of Ramsey Abbey’s biggest local sources of income was the fair at St Ives (Slepe). Royal charter for the fair was first granted in 1110 by Henry 1 and in the 12th and 13th centuries St Ives was one of the most important fairs in the whole country. It was an important market for cloth and it is no coincidence that St Ives fair declined at the same time as a sudden collapse in the English weaving industry in the years around 1300. The late Andrew Woodger linked this collapse to the kind of looms being used. The cloth on sale at St Ives was mostly a kind called burel , made on a primitive loom in which the warp threads (those running along the length of the cloth) were kept tight by being tied to clay or stone weights.

In about 1250 weavers in Flanders invented the double horizontal loom, capable of making cloth ten times faster than the old burel looms. English weavers could not compete with this new technology – hence the collapse of the industry and of St Ives fair as well.

There are two lasting reminders of the heyday of St Ives fair. All over Huntingdonshire are to be seen parish churches of the 13th century, many of them with magnificent spires. These lovely buildings are the result of the money flowing into the county in those days. (Later, Flemish weavers came to East Anglia and built the great churches like Long Melford and Lavenham from the proceeds of their more advanced weaving techniques).

And in St Ives itself there is still a street called Tenterleas. A lea was a meadow and a tenter was a wooden frame on which woven cloth was stretched and dried – using tenterhooks!

The Abbey further increased the commercial prosperity of St Ives through rents and tolls, and by blocking navigation further up the river. About 1270 the Abbot built a weir across the river on his land at Hemingford Abbots, upstream from St Ives and persuaded Reginald De Grey, lord of the neighbouring Hemingford Grey, to do the same. Ostensibly these were to harness water for driving mills, but their real purpose was to prevent vessels getting up to Huntingdon, hitherto a river port, so making St Ives the effective head of navigation on the Ouse, this river link with Kings Lynn remained important for many centuries.

The original Bridge was built of oak in the 13th century and seems to have been in a state of poor repair by the end of the 14th. In 1418 the Pope, Martin V, issued a letter offering a relaxation of penance to anyone who contributed to its repair. It was at this time that Ramsey Abbey decided to replace the old wooden bridge with the present Barnack stone one, it was probably finished in 1426, as that was the year that the altar in the chapel was consecrated.

The chapel of St Leger or St Lawrence was built over the central pier, probably to help hold up the bridge, it helped to have this large block of masonry on the downstream side and it was also used as the tollhouse. If you look carefully at the stonework on either side of the door you can still see the outlines of the two hatchways through which money was passed, they can be seen more clearly from inside the chapel.

After the Dissolution in 1539, the chapel passed to the crown, the last prior Robert Huchyn was granted a pension of £12 and allowed to live in the chapel for the rest of his life.

The chapel was converted to a dwelling in 1570, it was badly damaged in the great St Ives fire of 1680 and was restored in 1736 when two additional storeys of brick were put on. The bridge remained as shown in the etching by Charles Whymper (about 1890) until 1930, when the two storeys of the chapel were removed, the stonework repaired and the present parapets erected.

At one time when the ouse was a great commercial highway, this chapel was used as a lighthouse to guide watermen by night. It has been used as a tavern and as a non-conformist chapel. In Whymper’s etching can be seen the remains of a building on the southernmost pier. This is said to have been originally another chapel, subsequently used as a toll house and as part of a drawbridge erected by the Parliamentary forces in 1645.

The Earl of Manchester was granted the manor of St Ives in 1628, together with the tolls of bridge and market, and these together with market rights were purchased from him by the Corporation of St Ives in 1886. (Ref 25Text Hear