The Isle Of Ely

Back in January of this year I wrote a blog post entitled Transport History in which I mentioned that one of the cars my Dad owned during his life was a Ford Anglia. That car had a on it a stick-on panel displaying the ‘Isle of Ely’ badge, of which we were proud. The Isle of Ely is a historic region which is around that cathedral city in Cambridgeshire and between 1889 and 1965 it formed an administrative county of England. It is so called because it was only accessible by boat until the waterlogged Fens were drained in the 17th century, something which I have detailed in my Whittlesey And The Fens blog. Still susceptible to flooding today, it was these watery surrounds that gave Ely its original name the ‘Isle of Eels’, a translation of the Anglo Saxon word ‘Eilig’ and this is a reference to the creatures that were often caught in the local rivers for food. This etymology was first recorded by the Venerable Bede.

The Isle of Ely 1648 by J Blaeu

Until the 17th century, the area was an island surrounded by a large area of fenland, a type of swamp. It was coveted as an area easy to defend, and was controlled in the very early medieval period by the Gyrwas, an Anglo-Saxon tribe. Upon their marriage in 652, Tondbert, a prince of the Gyrwas, presented Æthelthryth (who became St. Æthelthryth), the daughter of King Anna of the East Angles, with the Isle of Ely. She afterwards founded a monastery at Ely, which was destroyed by Viking raiders in 870, but which was rebuilt and became a famous abbey and shrine. Beginning in 1626 and using a network of canals designed by Dutch experts, the Fens were then drained but many Fenlanders were opposed to the draining as it deprived some of them of their traditional livelihood. Acts of vandalism on dykes, ditches, and sluices were common, but the draining was complete by the end of the century. The area’s natural defences led to it playing a role in the military history of England. Following the Norman Conquest, the Isle became a refuge for Anglo-Saxon forces under Earl Morcar, Bishop Aethelwine of Durham and Hereward the Wake in 1071. The area was taken by William the Conqueror, but only after a prolonged struggle. In 1139 civil war broke out between the forces of King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. Bishop Nigel of Ely, a supporter of Matilda, unsuccessfully tried to hold the Isle and then in 1143 Geoffrey de Mandeville rebelled against Stephen and made his base in the Isle. Geoffrey was mortally wounded at Burwell in 1144. Then in 1216, during the First Barons War, the Isle was unsuccessfully defended against the army of King John. Ely took part in the Peasants Revolt of 1381. During the English Civil War the Isle of Ely was held for the parliamentarians and troops from the garrison at Wisbech Castle were used in the siege of Crowland, also parts of the Fens were flooded to prevent Royalist forces entering Norfolk from Lincolnshire. The Horseshoe sluice on the river at Wisbech and the nearby castle and town defences were upgraded and cannon brought from Ely.

Chatteris Plaque on Leonard Childs Bridge

From 1109 until 1837, the Isle was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Ely, who appointed a Chief Justice of Ely and exercised temporal powers within the Liberty of Ely. This temporal jurisdiction originated in a charter granted by King Edgar in 970 and confirmed by Edward the Confessor and Henry I to the abbot of Ely. The latter monarch established Ely as the seat of a bishop in 1109, creating the Isle of Ely a county palatine. In England, Wales and Ireland a county palatine or palatinate was an area ruled by a hereditary nobleman enjoying special authority and autonomy from the rest of a kingdom. The name derives from the Latin adjective palātīnus, “relating to the palace”, from the noun palātium, “palace“. It thus implies the exercise of a quasi-royal prerogative within a county, that is to say a jurisdiction ruled by an earl, the English equivalent of a count. A duchy palatine is similar but is ruled over by a duke, a nobleman of higher precedence than an earl or count. The nobleman swore allegiance to the king yet had the power to rule the county largely independently of the king. It should therefore be distinguished from the feudal barony, held from the king, which possessed no such independent authority. Rulers of counties palatine created their own feudal baronies, to be held directly from them ‘in capite’, such as the Barony of Halton. This was in old English law where a capite (from Latin caput, or head) was a tenure, abolished by the Tenures Abolition Act 1660 by which either person or land was held immediately of the king, or of his crown by knight-service. So a holder of a capite is termed a tenant in chief. County palatine jurisdictions were created in England under the rule of the Norman dynasty but in continental Europe they have an earlier date. In general, when a palatine-type autonomy was granted to a lord by the sovereign, it was in a district on the periphery of the kingdom, at a time when the district was at risk from disloyal armed insurgents who could retreat beyond the borders and re-enter. For the English sovereign in Norman times this applied to northern England, Wales and Ireland. As the authority granted was hereditary, some counties palatine legally survived well past the end of the feudal period. It was an act of parliament in 1535/6 which ended the palatine status of the Isle, with all justices of the peace to be appointed by ‘letters patent’, issued under the great seal and warrants to be issued in the king’s name. However, the bishop retained exclusive jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters. A chief bailiff was appointed for life by the bishop and they performed the functions of high sheriff within the liberty, also heading the government of the city of Ely. Interestingly I learned about letters patent, a type of legal instrument in the form of a published written order issued by a monarch, president or other head of state, generally granting an office, right, monopoly, title, or status to a person or corporation. They can be used for the creation of government offices, or for granting city status or a coat of arms. They are also issued for the appointment of representatives of the Crown, such as governors and governors-general of Commonwealth realms, as well as appointing a Royal Commission. In the United Kingdom they are also issued for the creation of peers of the realm. In addition to all this, a particular form of letters patent has evolved into the modern intellectual property patent (referred to as a utility patent or design patent in United States patent law, granting exclusive rights in an invention (or a design in the case of a design patent). In this case it is essential that the written grant should be in the form of a public document so other inventors can consult it both to avoid infringement and understand how to put it into practical use. In the Holy Roman Empire, Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary, an imperial patent was also the highest form of generally binding legal regulations, for example a Patent of Toleration. I did a bit of research, finding that the more I learn, then the more there is to learn! For example, I read that the Patent of Toleration (in German ’Toleranzpatent’ was an edict of toleration issued on 13 October 1781 by the Habsburg emperor Joseph II. Part of the Josephinist reforms, the Patent extended religious freedoms to non-Catholic Christians living in the crown lands of the Habsburg monarchy, including Lutherans, Calvinists and the Eastern Orthodox. More specifically, these members of minority faiths were now legally permitted to hold “private religious exercises” in clandestine churches. The Patent guaranteed the practice of religion by the Evangelical Lutheran and the Reformed Church in Austria. Nevertheless, worship was heavily regulated, wedding ceremonies remained reserved for the Catholic Church, and the Unity of the Brethren was still suppressed. Similar to the articular churches admitted 100 years before, Protestants were only allowed to erect ‘houses of prayer’ which should not in any way resemble church buildings. In many Habsburg areas, especially in the hereditary lands of Upper Austria, Styria and Carinthia, Protestant parishes quickly developed, strongly relying on traditions. The Patent also regulated mixed faith marriages, foreshadowing the Marriage Patent that was to be released in 1783 seeking to bring marriages under civil rather than canon law. In allowing marriages between religions, if the father was Catholic all children were required to be raised as Catholics whilst if the mother was Catholic only the daughters had to be raised as such. The Patent was followed by the Edict of Tolerance for Jews in 1782. The edict extended to Jews the freedom to pursue all branches of commerce, but also imposed new requirements. Jews were required to create German-language primary schools or send their children to Christian schools (Jewish schools had previously taught children to read and write Hebrew in addition to mathematics.) The Patent also permitted Jews to attend state secondary schools. A series of laws issued soon after the Edict of Toleration abolished the autonomy of the Jewish communities, which had previously run their own court, charity, internal taxation and school systems. It required Jews to acquire family names, made Jews subject to military conscription and required candidates for the rabbinate to have secular education. The 1781 Patent was originally called the “Divine Send of Equal Liberties” but was further put down by the monarch’s advisor. Constraints on the construction of churches were abolished after the revolutions of 1848. The Protestant Church did not receive an equivalent legal status until Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria issued the Protestant patent in 1861.

But back to Ely. In July 1643, Oliver Cromwell was made governor of the Isle. The Liberty of Ely Act 1837 ended the bishop’s secular powers in the Isle and the area was declared a division of Cambridgeshire, with the right to appoint justices revested in the crown. Following the 1837 Act the Isle maintained separate Quarter Sessions and formed its own constabulary. Under the Local Government Bill of 1888, which proposed the introduction of elected county councils, the Isle was to form part of Cambridgeshire. Following the intervention of the local member of parliament, Charles Selwyn, the Isle of Ely was constituted a separate administrative county in 1889. In 1894 the county was divided into county districts, with the rural districts being Ely, North Witchford, Thorney, Whittlesey and Wisbech. The urban districts were Ely, March and Whittlesey, with Wisbech being the only municipal borough. Whittlesey Rural district consisted of only one parish and this was added to Whittlesey urban district in 1926. However, the county was small in terms of both area and population and its abolition was proposed by the Local Government Boundary Commission in 1947, but its report was not acted upon and the administrative county survived until 1965. Then, following the recommendations of the Local Government Commission for England, on 1 April 1965 the bulk of the area was merged to form Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely, with the Thorney Rural District going to Huntingdon and Peterborough. From a parliamentary standpoint the Isle of Ely parliamentary constituency was created as a two-member seat in the First and Second Protectorate Parliaments from 1654 to 1659. The constituency was then re-created with a single seat in 1918 but in the boundary changes of 1983 it was replaced by the new constituency of North East Cambridgeshire. Original historical documents relating to the Isle of Ely are held by Cambridgeshire Archives and Local Studies at the County Record Office in Ely. On 1 May 1931, the Isle of Ely County Council was granted a coat of arms. Previous to this, the council had been using the arms of the Diocese of Ely, this being ‘Gules, three ducal coronets, two and one or’. Then in the new grant, silver and blue waves were added to the episcopal arms to suggest that the county was an “isle”. The crest above the shield was a human hand grasping a trident around which an eel was entwined, referring to the popular derivation of “Ely”. On the wrist of the hand was a ‘Wake knot’, representing Hereward the Wake. This Wake knot or ‘Ormond knot’ is an English heraldic knot used historically as an heraldic badge by the Wake family, the lords of the manor of Bourne, Lincolnshire and also by the Butler family, Earls of Ormond of Irish heritage. There is one fascinating item relating to the Wake name that I have learned and which in fact relates to knots. When I was a lad, I was taught how to tie just a few different knots, one of which was the Reef Knot, which is used to join two lines of the same diameter together. Then there is the Sheet Bend, which is used to tie lines of unequal thickness together. But for a stronger join there is the Carrick Bend, also known as the Sailor’s Breastplate and is a knot for joining two lines of very heavy rope or cable that are too large and stiff to be easily formed into other common bends. It will not jam even after carrying a significant load or being soaked with water. As with many other members of the basket weave family, the aesthetically pleasing interwoven and symmetrical shape of the Carrick Bend has also made it popular for decorative purposes. The Wake knot however may be used to join a rope and a strap.

A Wake knot.

In addition to all this, I have learned the following relating to the Isle of Ely in that it became a marquessate, the territorial lordship or possessions of a marquess. The title Marquess of the Isle of Ely was created in the Peerage of Great Britain for Prince Frederick. The title of Duke of Edinburgh was first created on 26 July 1726 by King George I, who bestowed it on his grandson Prince Frederick, who became Prince of Wales the following year. The subsidiary titles of the dukedom were Baron of Snowdon, in the County of Caernarvon, Viscount of Launceston, in the County of Cornwall, Earl of Eltham, in the County of Kent and Marquess of the Isle of Ely. The marquessate was apparently erroneously gazetted as Marquess of the Isle of Wight, although Marquess of the Isle of Ely was the intended title. In later editions of the London Gazette the Duke is referred to as the Marquess of the Isle of Ely. Upon Frederick’s death, the titles were inherited by his son Prince George. When he became George III in 1760, the titles merged into the Crown and ceased to exist. To me, the Isle of Ely is a lovely part of East Anglia, with a fascinating history.

This week…
I am told that in Croatia there is a Museum Of Broken Relationships, at present located in Zagreb. But I think at least part of it should be in Split…

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