Simon Heywood


In the Middle Ages, Market Deeping was almost a coastal town. It wasnowhere near the sea. But it was more or less on the fen-edge. Andthere were monks on the Fens.

In the Middle Ages, the fen margin ran along a rough north-south line, just east of Frognall. West of this line, the land was relatively dry, and supported a string of settled villages, many of which were already old when the Domesday Book was written in 1086: Langtoft, Baston, and the Deepings. So, west of the fen margin it might not take a modern time-traveller too long to find their bearings. Heading eastwards, it would have been very different. There is nothing in modern England quite like the medieval Fens. Some wetland has been preserved, but not enough to suggest the sheer size of the area.

Old maps show Deeping Fen running open eastwards between the Welland and the Glen as far as Spalding, and beyond; and Deeping Fen was only the south-western corner of a fenland which is probably best imagined as a shifting, maze-like labyrinth of meandering rivers and streams and shallow lakes, divided by reed-beds, banks of peat, silt, and gravel, and stands of willow and alder, all generally waterlogged or prone to winter flooding. The easiest way to get around was by boat.

Fish, wildfowl, reeds and rushes were plentiful. Much of it was too wet to plough, and malaria was common, and it would be easy to think of the Fens as a desolate wilderness, but, thanks mainly to their fabulous natural wealth, they were anything but. People still lived by hunting and gathering more or less as they had always done along the fen-edge.

And right in the middle of the fens, on the larger islands, were the abbeys. Founded (supposedly) as remote places where holy men could shield themselves from worldly affairs in a protecting wilderness, the medieval abbeys quickly accrued gifts of land and surrounded by such natural wealth they quickly became some of the biggest, richest organisations in the whole of medieval England. Today's impressive parish church at Crowland is only a fraction of the size of the original abbey buildings. The monks - about forty in number in Crowland's heyday - lived a fairly high life, with numerous servants.

Most people lived off the land, or close to it. The land was divided up into manors and parishes. If you wanted to know who in medieval England was legally entitled to live, work, farm, fish, gather or grow what, and where, and when and how, you had to know which parish and which manor you were talking about, and it mattered, because life was harsh and famine only ever a bad harvest away. And in the absence of a regular police force, law enforcement was largely a private initiative and generally liable to collapse into rough justice. At the same time, the medieval market which gave Market Deeping its name shows that there was money to be made on the fen-edge. The magnificent fifteenth century church of St Guthlac suggests that someone made it. Indeed, in the later Middle Ages, the lords and ladies of the manor of the Deepings were among the chief movers and shakers in the land: Margaret Beaufort, mother of king Henry VII, spent some early years in the well appointed manor house at Castle End in Maxey, and retired to end her days as a nun at Collyweston, near Stamford, and between times she was a leader of the Lancastrian faction in the Wars of the Roses.

So, naturally, as they jostled along between wealth and poverty under a fairly rough-and-ready justice system, the fen-dwelling monks of St Guthlac's Abbey at Crowland always seem to have had one bone or another to pick with the land-dwelling people of the Deepings. The basic primary text for the history of Crowland Abbey is Ingulf's History of the Abbey. Ingulf was an abbot at Crowland in the years following the Norman Conquest and the chronicle of the abbey's history was continued by others after his death, and first published in 1596.

It started in 1390 as a boundary dispute. Boundary markers were of huge importance in the Middle Ages. In a world where few people could write and accurate land measurements were difficult to make and record, they were essential in marking the limits of manorial and other rights - the phrase "beating the bounds" originally referred to the pain-staking process of teaching and learning the exact placement of parish boundaries. The boundary marker at the centre of the dispute was a cross called Kennulph's Stone, which now stands just south of Welland Bank halfway from Peakirk to Crowland, and marked the boundary between Crowland and Deeping, and also between the

districts of Kesteven (to the west) and Holland (to the east). Immediatelyto the east of Kennulph's Stone was a rich marsh called Goggisland, which seems to have been the source of the disagreement: the marsh seems to have been disputed territory between Deeping and Crowland.

The lord of the manor of West Deeping objected to the boundary, took the Abbot to court at Stamford over it. Meanwhile, the men of West Deeping enacted some rough justice along the boundary in Holland, stealing the abbot's cattle, fishing in his bit of the river, wrecking his nets, cutting peat, and so forth. The dispute spread to a quarrel over dyke maintenance - essential on the flood-prone fen-edge. The Deeping tenants hijacked two wagons of provisions heading for Crowland and the next time the monks came to the market at Market Deeping for their regular grocery shop, they were beaten (so says the chronicle) almost to death, and dumped from their own boat in the river. The Deepings became a no-go area for anyone linked to Crowland Abbey, and questions were (literally) asked in Parliament. King Richard intervened, and brokered a fragile peace. This lasted until a monk, out travelling alone on abbey business, was kidnapped and held hostage by manorial officials; other workers from Crowland and Spalding were also threatened and roughed up, and the Deeping gang began issuing threats to head out to the fen towns in force and start taking protection-money from the townsfolk. At this point another young nobleman stepped in on the Crowland/Spalding side. This was Henry of Bolingbroke, the future king Henry IV, who had Lincolnshire connections and happened to be staying at Peterborough. Henry's own gang immediately rounded up everyone in Crowland who had any connection to the Deepings, among them an outlawed fugitive murderer named Simon Geldard, who had been hiding out in the Deepings. The Spalding gang lynched Geldard, and rumours reached Deeping that Henry was about to sack Deeping wholesale, massacre its people and burn it to the ground. At that point the Deeping gang surrendered and sued Henry for mercy. The king backed the monks, and so the matter was settled in favour of Crowland.

There matters rested for some years. But in 1393 another dispute broke out over the same boundary, after "the commons of the county of Northampton," in partnership with the monks of Peterborough Abbey, extended the Welland dyke east of Kennulph's Stone, on the Crowland side, without the abbot's permission. The dyke broke and flooded, which to the monks naturally meant divine retribution. But that was not all: the Deeping gang became active again, and broke the stone cross, took it to Deeping, threw it in the town pond, and felled the trees which had stood around it. The abbot appealed to the king, and the Deeping men were carted off to Lincoln in fetters, pending release once the cross had been rebuilt. The Deeping gang took the hint and rebuilt the cross.

And there it stood - for a while. In 1465, the chronicle records in a crestfallen tone that the cross had been broken and the boundary forgotten. Exactly how this happened isn't made clear, but it has something to do with the fact that Margaret Beaufort had become lady of Deeping Manor - and she seems to have been happier without the boundary marker, although the chronicle is careful not to criticise her.

And in 1484 the Deeping gang were up to their old tricks on the Holland side of the boundary, cutting reeds and issuing threats and violence against anyone from Crowland who got in their way. The chronicle says nothing about any reprisals, so, in the end, Deeping seems to have won.

But the old base of the broken cross remained, and stands there today, surmounted by a modern block of stone dated 1817: quiet testimony to the strange landscape of the Fens, and the fury and rage which it inspired among those who depended on it for a living.

(C) Simon Heywood 2018