1070. The Fenland was the last area of England captured by William the Conqueror and it was at the Isle of Ely that Hereward the Wake made his last stand against the forces of the Conqueror.
1083-1130. Ely Cathedral was built with stone from Barnack just north of Peterborough. The stone was transported on sleds to the river Welland and loaded onto barges in which it travelled down the Nene and the fenland waterways.
1086. In the Domesday book, William of Malmesbury wrote: “here is such quantities of fish as to cause astonishment in strangers.” The Domesday Book also recorded that the fishing and mere of the Abbot of Ramsey in Holme parish (part of Whittlesea Mere) was valued at £10, a very large sum in those days. Woodwalton church was mentioned too, but not Ramsey's church and parish as it was entirely owned by the Abbey and so exempt from taxes.The Liber Elienis, a 12th-century English chronicle described: “fish innumerable, eels, large water wolves, pickerel, perch, roach, burbots and lampreys”. The wildlife of the fens in those days must have been amazing.
1100-1135 During the reign of Henry I, Ramsey Abbey acquired the manor of Walton (Woodwalton) with its common rights from Walter de Bolebec. The Abbey was also granted Higney in 1134, a grange with earthworks and a surrounding ditch. Both these places are within the Great Fen area.
Decorated tiles from Ramsey Abbey. Norris Museum
1135-1150 Eels were so common they were used as currency and for payment of rent. The very name Ely is said to mean “island of eels”. In 1150 the monks of Ramsey paid a rent of 3,000 eels to the monks of Peterborough, for leave to quarry stone which would have been transported by water from the quarries at Barnack, through the river systems, across Whittlesea Mere and on to Ramsey for building work at the Abbey. Sawtry Abbey, founded in 1147 was also very wealthy and often housed parties of nobles travelling on the Great North Road.
1143-44 Geoffrey de Mandeville was a rebel baron who maintained himself and his followers in the fen-country using Ely and Ramsey Abbeys as his headquarters. He expelled the monks, laid waste the surrounding areas, pillaged and burnt the settlements and caused a famine. He and his son illegally built small motte and bailey castles at Woodwalton and Ramsey, where the castle mounds can still be seen.
A sketch of Woodwalton Castle as it may have looked, by John Northall and a picture of the Motte today
1150-1300 The first dykes in the Great Fen area appear to have been dug in the 12th century. Monks Lode was dug by the monks of Sawtry Abbey to get stone from the quarries at Barnack for building. To do this they had to cross the lands of Ramsey Abbey, there were disputes about access between the two abbeys. In 1192 the monks of Sawtry undertook not to ''plant trees or fish in Ramsey Marsh'.
The Great Raveley drain is thought to have existed in the 13th century and was probably dug by order of Ramsey and Sawtry abbeys.
The Great Raveley drain today with Woodwalton Fen on the left
Wheatley’s drain was dug at about the same time or soon after. The area of fen now within the Woodwalton Fen National Nature Reserve was owned by Ramsey Abbey in the 13th century and had been drained sufficiently to allow the land to be used for sheep grazing and mowing marsh, but probably only in the summer months. There were two moated manor houses, one in Woodwalton, the moat of the other manor at Great Raveley can still be seen at Raveley Wood Nature Reserve.
1487 Bishop Morton of Ely caused ‘Morton’s Leam’ to be cut in 1487 to aid water flow and water traffic between Peterborough and Wisbech. This was the first straight drain in the Fenland. Although this must have had some effect on the lands south of the Leam (Whittlesea Mere probably decreased in size) drainage of the area in general deteriorated.
Those few people who lived on the fens at this time had a livelihood based on fish, fowl and building materials. People used stilts, punts and bone ice skates to make their way across the fens. Rights to cut reed were carefully controlled and managed by manorial courts. Willow and reeds were used for building houses and thatching houses.
Nearly 500 years later, Mr Mason of Lotting Fen (adjacent to Woodwalton Fen) was stacking cut reeds in a similar way.
However, floods were unpredictable and caused many deaths by drowning. Many landowners wished to make the area more productive through conventional agricultural practices, which could only be achieved through large-scale drainage schemes.
The history of the Great Fen area continues here: the Drained Fens.
A more detailed history of the fens can be found on the British History Online website: The Middle Level of the Fens and its reclamation