Cambridge was a Roman settlement, the centre of a network of roads, joining to cross the Cam. Its importance was enhanced by the fact that it became the southern point of a complex pattern of inland navigation, centred on the Ouse, and supported by Roman cuts, as at Reach Lode and Swaffham Lode. It was early colonized by the Angles and a second settlement grew up south of the bridge. In the 7th cent. it was much disputed between the East Angles and the Mercians, and seems to have been devastated, since Bede referred to it, late in the century, as ‘a small, deserted fortress’.
A development in 673 was the foundation by St Æthelthryth of a monastery at Ely, on a small hill rising from the fens. It rapidly prospered and survived sacking by the Danes in 870. Work on the Norman cathedral began in 1083 and it was given cathedral status in 1109. Ely's unique position was responsible for the bishop being granted quasi-palatine status. It retained separate judicial and administrative systems and, though the Isle of Ely was made a division of Cambridgeshire in 1836, it was given its own county council in 1888, March becoming the county town. It was once more merged with Cambridgeshire in 1958.
Cambridge town went down before the first Danish onslaught in 870, was liberated by Edward the Elder in the early 10th cent., but fell to the Danes once more in 1011. After the Norman Conquest, William I built the castle in 1068 and the town received a charter in 1201. Stourbridge fair on Midsummer common was one of the largest in Europe. The growth of the university in the 13th cent. produced prolonged antagonism between town and gown, and is responsible for that strange mixture of seat of learning and East Anglian market town which characterizes Cambridge today.
The northern parts of the county remained for centuries almost completely cut off by fen and water and developed their own unique way of life. Their inaccessibility made them a natural shelter for refugees, of whom Hereward, leader of resistance to the Normans, was the most famous. Proposals for draining the fens were put forward repeatedly. Camden wrote laconically in 1586 that the speeches in Parliament on the subject were ‘a specious pretence of doing good to the publick’. In the 17th cent. a start was made, and the earl of Bedford, through the work of Vermuyden, the Dutch engineer, succeeded in reclaiming vast areas. The results were not always successful, however, since the land dried out, shrank, and was often well below the level of the dikes. For decades to come, great stretches remained lake or quagmire in wet weather.
The fen part of the county, with its vast horizons and lonely windswept fields, has always been an acquired taste. Camden wrote of the ‘Fen-men, a sort of people (much like the place) of brutish, uncivilized tempers, envious of all others … and usually walking aloft on a sort of stilts’. Pepys paid a visit in 1663 to his poor relations living near Wisbech, was plagued by gnats, and did not much enjoy his journey ‘over most sad fens, all the way observing the sad life the people of this place do live … sometimes rowing from one spot to another, and then wading’. Admiration for Ely cathedral was usually tempered by disgust at the town itself. Celia Fiennes nearly fell off her horse in 1698 and found Ely ‘the dirtiest place I ever saw … a perfect quagmire, the whole city … I had frogs and slow-worms and snails in my room.’ More than a hundred years later, things were little better, Cobbett finding Ely in 1830 ‘a miserable little town’. Wisbech was a flourishing port and displayed some elegant buildings, but Pevsner wrote laconically in 1954 that the Fens ‘grow much potato, sugar-beet and other root crops, and wheat, but they have never grown much architecture’. In the last decade of the 20th. cent., Cambridge developed rapidly as a scientific and technological centre, the roads leading to it dominated by aggressive and frustrated motorists.
J. A. Cannon
Cambridgeshire, county (1991 pop. 640,700), 1,313 sq mi (3,402 sq km), E central England. The county seat is Cambridge. The county is divided into five administrative districts: Cambridge, South Cambridgeshire, East Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, and Fenland. Most of the area is alluvial fenland, rising to the low, chalky East Anglian Hills in the south, with the Gogmagog Hills near Cambridge the most conspicuous feature. The main rivers are the Ouse, with its tributaries, and the Nene. Efforts to reclaim the fens date back to the days of Roman occupation, but in the subsequent periods of invasion by Danes, Saxons, and Normans they were abandoned. The fens were drained after the Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden completed a vast drainage project in 1653. Agriculture and light industry are the dominant economic activities. Wheat, barley, potatoes, sugar beets, and fruits are raised. Food processing is an important industry as well as radio engineering and the manufacture of cement, bricks, and scientific instruments. The town of Ely has been an ecclesiastical center for centuries. The Univ. of Cambridge dates from the 12th cent.