Huntingdon and Peterborough

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Huntingdonshire was the third smallest of English counties in population until merged with Cambridgeshire by the Local Government Act of 1972: it is now a district council. In pre-Roman days it was on the borders between the Iceni of East Anglia and the Catuvellauni of Hertfordshire. The origins of the county almost certainly derive from the establishment of a Roman settlement at the point where two roads, from Cambridge and Sandy, joined Ermine Street, just before it crossed the river Ouse. Godmanchester, which arose on that site, was for centuries part mother, part rival to the town of Huntingdon, which developed just north of the bridge and no more than half a mile away. The area passed into the kingdom of the East Angles but was taken over by Mercia, forming part of the first Mercian diocese. In the later 9th cent. it was overrun by the Danes, who seem to have fortified Huntingdon as part of their defensive network of the five boroughs. Reconquered in 920 by Edward the Elder, king of Wessex, it was fortified by him and had both a mint and a market by the mid-10th cent. The earliest mention of the shire is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1011, when it was once more overrun by the Danes. By the time of the Domesday survey, Huntingdon was one of the largest towns in the kingdom. Many of the manors in the county belonged to the church, particularly to the great abbey of Ramsey, and to Thorney and Peterborough.

Huntingdon received a charter from John in 1206 and was granted parliamentary representation in the 13th cent., with two seats for the borough and two for the county. The main weight of property was in the estates at Hinchingbroke, just outside Huntingdon, and Kimbolton in the west. Since the two cousins, the earls of Manchester and of Sandwich, both supported Parliament, and Cromwell himself sat for the borough, the county was firmly in the Eastern Association during the Civil War. Charles I led a forlorn hope into Huntingdon after the battle of Naseby but was soon obliged to withdraw.

The county remained overwhelmingly rural. Drained by the Ouse, the western parts were good arable land, the eastern good grazing land. Cobbett in 1822 echoed Camden in the 1580s in admiring the meadows around Huntingdon—‘the most beautiful that I ever saw in my life—it would be very difficult to find a more delightful spot in the world’. The main line from King's Cross to Edinburgh passes through the middle of the shire without causing much disturbance. Godmanchester and Kimbolton slowly stagnated, but the existence of several other flourishing market towns seems to have inhibited the growth of Huntingdon—St Ives and St Neots remain comparable in size, and Ramsey, in the north-east, is considerably bigger. Just before the merger in the 1970s, the population of the county was a little over 80,000.

J. A. Cannon

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