Through Great Britain and Ireland With Cromwell - H. E. Marshall

The Lord of the Fens

A year or two more passed quietly. Six children had now come to Oliver and Elizabeth. Their names were Robert, Oliver, Bridget, Richard, Henry, and Elizabeth.

Then, in 1631, Oliver made up his mind to sell his land in Huntingdon, and to go to St. Ives, a little town about five miles farther down the Great Ouse.

Except St. Neots, St. Ives is the only other town of any size in Huntingdonshire. In Saxon days, it was called Slepe, and under that name it is to be found in Doomsday Book. It is said to have received its new name from a Persian saint called Ivo, who came to England, died, and was buried at an old priory at Slepe about 600 A.D.

Oliver took a grazing farm on the lands of Slepe Hall, and began sheep-farming. Whether he ever lived in the house called Slepe Hall is not quite certain, but it used to be pointed out as his house. Many years ago it was pulled down, and now all that reminds us of him are the names Cromwell Place and Cromwell Terrace, which have been given to the houses built where Slepe Hall stood. But in many ways the town is still unchanged. Across the river there is a bridge over which Oliver must often have tramped in his heavy boots. It has a quaint, old-world air about it, reminding us of other times, and on the middle of it stands a house once used, it is thought, as a lighthouse.

When Oliver went to St. Ives he had grown into a sad, stern man. Perhaps the dreary country in which he lived had something to do with making him so. Certainly the time in which he lived had. Often he was seized with fits of gloom. He felt that, in the eyes of God, he was a great sinner. Then he would pray in deep trouble of soul. And so, as with fire and with hammer, religion was wrought into his life, and at last he found comfort and calm of spirit.

Oliver looked darkly on the ceremony and service of the Church of England. Yet still he went to church like other people, often, we are told, wearing a piece of red flannel round his neck, as his throat was weak. All his children were baptized too in the church, as other children were.

Oliver would have none but godly men to work for him. Before they went to work he gathered them for prayers; indeed one old writer says that he kept them so long at prayer that they had no time to do their proper work, and that therefore the farm did not prosper.

However that may be, Oliver soon left St. Ives, and went to the cathedral town of Ely. Ely, like St. Ives, is upon the Great Ouse, but it is in Cambridgeshire, not in Huntingdonshire.

Oliver moved to Ely because his uncle, Sir Thomas Stewart, his mother's brother, died and left him money and lands there. The house in which he lived in Ely was then called the Glebe House, and may still be seen.

Ely is a city, yet, save for its cathedral, it looks more like a village, and, unlike any other English city, it sends no member to Parliament. Great numbers of eels used to be found in the waters round, and from that the city takes its name. It is built upon the Isle of Ely, which, before the fens were drained, was really an island rising above the surrounding marsh-land. In summer the city could only be reached by certain roads through the fens. In winter it was quite surrounded by water so deep that boats could sail upon it. Even yet the country looks dreary and deserted in winter, but in summer it is a waving plain of golden corn-fields, and out of it, seen from far, a landmark to all the fen country, rise the towers of the great cathedral.

From very early times there has been a monastery at Ely, but the oldest part of the present cathedral was built after William the Conqueror came. It was a spot loved by Canute the Dane. Here one winter's day, when the fens were frozen, Budde the Stout, a bondman, crossed the ice before Canute, to try with his great weight if it were strong enough to bear the King. And as a reward for this brave service Budde received his freedom.

When William of Normandy came it was in the Isle of Ely that Englishmen made their last stand against the Conqueror. For the marsh-lands around made it a natural fortress, and it needed both the great William's "land force and ship force" to dislodge them. And so on through all our history Ely plays a part—in the civil war between Matilda and Stephen, in the Barons' War, in the time of Henry III.—and now it gave to Cromwell the title of "Lord of the Fens."

The King, needing money, was hard put to it, and invented many ways to get it. He ordered, for one thing, that London should grow no larger. He fined those who built new houses, and he pulled down some, fining the owners for not having done so sooner. It seemed to him now that some money might be made by draining the fens, and a clever Flemish engineer, called Vermuyden, had already begun the work. But the fen-slodgers cried out against it. If the fens were drained the scanty living which they earned by fishing and fowling would be gone. Others, too, joined the cry. It was but a new trick of the King, they said, to get money without the people's aid, and so to continue to rule without Parliament.

Oliver Cromwell, too, had a word to say. And he said and did with so much force that the drainage works were given up. Then the people whose part he had taken against the King gave him a new name. They called him "Lord of the Fens." Yet later, when it was no longer a question of the King, but only of the good of the people, Oliver helped on the drainage with all his might. It was not, however, until the nineteenth century that the great work was finished by the engineers Rennie and Telford. It had taken three hundred years to turn a dreary waste of marsh into fertile, smiling plains.