Ben Robinson reviews our Town's development over two millennia.
Places, like people, are shaped by their past and their future development takes place with reference to their history. The last two thousand years have seen the most drastic changes in human society ever seen; the Godmanchester we know today bears witness to these changes.
Throughout most of the last two thousand years, however, local people have been unable to document their history for us. Medieval clerks and chroniclers provide some illuminating glimpses of life in and around Godmanchester, but the evidence supplied by their works is highly selective. Useful documentary evidence remains very fragmentary up until modern times. Nevertheless, the very soil beneath our feet may yield a story and it is to this (and only this) that we must turn to answer questions about the first thousand years.
What was Godmanchester like two thousand years ago?
The people who lived in this area two thousand years ago would not have known of a place named 'Godmanchester. They might have heard of distant cities, where large numbers of people lived together in an enclosed place, one or two of them might have visited the first towns (or oppida) of pre-Roman Britain, but their homes were small farmsteads scattered along the Ouse valley. The remains of such a farmstead recently have been revealed at Godmanchester near the warehouses off the A14. Iron Age farmsteads typically comprised a cluster of buildings, sometimes enclosed by ditches and banks, within which a small community or extended family lived. The domestic buildings were invariably circular, built of wood, clad in mud, and thatched with turf, reed or straw. We know from analysis of their discarded rubbish that they practised mixed economy farming: cattle and sheep were important, pig and sometimes wildfowl were used also. Charred grain from an Iron Age storage pit at Park Lane tell us that ancient varieties of cereal (emmer, spelt, and six-row barley) were also locally grown. A replica of a settlement of the period may be seen at Hinchingbrooke Country Park. The replica occasionally hosts reconstruction events which bring us closer to the everyday lives of our ancestors.
Prehistoric farmers had tamed the local landscape. The location of their settlements along the Ouse was not accidental. The light free draining gravel soils of the old post-glacial river terraces were more easily cleared and cultivated than the surrounding clay lands. The river and its wet margins provided all sorts of useful resources for people and beasts.
What have the Romans ever done for us?
Roman interest in the neighbourhood of Godmanchester also stems from the presence of the River Ouse. The conquering Roman army needed a good communications network in order to swiftly march to pockets of rebellion, or to supply garrisons keeping watch over strategic areas. Roman solider-pioneers may have made use of existing, less formal, roads in driving Ermine Street between their important centres at London and York, alternatively it may have been an entirely new route. Whichever is the case a crossing of the Ouse at Godmanchester was selected. Such river crossings the length and breadth of the Empire were jealously guarded by the Roman army. Excavations at Godmanchester indicate that a fort was begun in the area between Cambridge Street, The Causeway and Granary Close, but that it was not fully completed. Post-conquest stability in the area probably made it redundant fairly quickly.
Nevertheless, Roman garrisons often attracted neighbouring civilian settlement, and this is what happened at Godmanchester. It is a persistent myth that large numbers of native Romans and others from the Empire came to settle in Britain. The first Romano-British villagers at Godmanchester were undoubtedly mostly the descendants of families that had lived in the Ouse valley for generations. They gradually adopted an increasingly Romanised lifestyle, however, benefiting from the expansion in continental trade made possible under the watchful eye of Roman administration. Their circular houses were replaced by rectangular ones, in imitation of Roman styles, and the wealthy enjoyed under-floor heating, bathhouses, and rooms decorated with mosaics and frescos. A small rectangular villa with its surrounding yards and paddocks has been investigated at Rectory Farm to the north-east of Godmanchester.
Just off Pinfold Lane, before the construction of Granary Close, archaeological excavation uncovered the remains of an official inn (mansio) and bath house and a temple. These buildings, along with a town hall (basilica) tell us that Godmanchester had arrived as an important place on Ermine Street, the A1 of Roman Britain. The line of the town defences, a deep ditch, earth embankment and walls with fortified gates and corner turrets also have been partially investigated. The Roman town centred on this enclosed irregular hexagonal area, which is now roughly framed by Cambridge Street, The Causeway/Old Court Hall, London Street, and Earning Street. Recent excavations in advance of the construction of the new school on London Road, however, have shown us that the settlement extended well beyond the southern gate of walled town along Ermine Street.
Further recent investigations adjacent to the cricket ground, beyond the northern end of the town, have revealed some of the population of the Roman town. A known cemetery site yielded around sixty burials, and pottery kilns dating to another phase of Romano-British activity, which were recorded prior to the construction of new homes on the site. This cemetery is one of a known dozen or so which lay beyond the enclosed town to the north and south.
We do not know for certain what Godmanchester was called in Roman times (although it has been tentatively associated with the name Durovigutum) but we can be certain that its citizens shared a place and lifestyle resembling those of towns much closer to the hub of the Roman empire.
Late Roman Britain was a troubled place. The town walls at Godmanchester reflect national instability and, later, the emergent threat of raiders from overseas. During the course of the fifth century AD the fabric of Romano -British society collapsed. A Romano-British native of Godmanchester walking along Ermine Street two centuries later would have been distressed at the ruinous and redundant state of their home town - they would hardly have recognised the old place. A few people did continue to live in Godmanchester during early Anglo-Saxon times, but their society had little in common with that of the Roman world. Theirs was a lifestyle which more closely resembled that of the pre-Roman Iron Age: small communities deriving a living from the land.
It is debatable whether these people were direct descendants of the Germanic migrants with whom they shared tastes in jewellery, weapons, art, and social organisation, or whether they were simply the remnants of Romano-British society who had adapted to a prevailing system. It was one of the few systems which could work in the absence of the Roman Empire's embrace. Whichever is the case, the enigmatic traces of some of these people have been teased from the soil within Godmanchester. They also left us the name 'Ermine Street' (named after the Anglo-Saxon people the Earningas who evidently lived near the old Roman road) and Godmanchester. The chester part of the name (as with places including the elements castor' or caistor) indicates that it was recognised as a former fortified Roman place. The first part of the name derives from the Old English personal name 'Godmund'. Godmanchester, therefore very roughly translates as former Roman station belonging to Godmund”.
Godmanchester in the Middle Ages
The growth of Godmanchester was somewhat eclipsed by neighbouring Huntingdon during later Anglo-Saxon and medieval times. The Domesday entry for Godmanchester (1086 AD) records a fair-sized rural community of eighty villagers, sixteen smallholders, with three mills, a priest and a church - perhaps some four hundred people in all. Huntingdon, by contrast, had over two hundred and fifty burgesses (or urban citizens), one hundred smallholders, a castle which had been plonked on top of the site of twenty dwellings, and three people licensed to mint coins. The entry indicates a pre-Conquest urban community of perhaps one and a half thousand people.
The reasons for the differing fortunes of the two places may be attributed to the Scandinavian establishment of a fortified settlement on the north bank of the Ouse, which complemented the Danelaw boroughs further to the north. When Edward the Elder finished the job begun by Alfred the Great and recaptured the Danelaw during the early tenth century, he repaired and re-fortified Huntingdon. Huntingdon, and not the formerly much more prominent Godmanchester, became the principal local town and dominant market centre. Thus our county became Huntingdonshire and not Godmancestershire' or “Gocestershire.
Godmanchester's present curious street plan and notable lack of a central marketplace results both from the layout of the Roman town, and from its medieval status as a self-governing manor held by the King. Places with a more local, hands-on landlord often went through radical town planning during the early Middle Ages, acquiring a regular (sometimes grid-like) street pattern and large open marketplaces (as at Bury St Edmunds, Ely, St Ives, Kimbolton, Swavesey, Peterborough). Godmanchester, locally administered by committee, underwent no such alteration but prospered nonetheless. Population reached perhaps some two thousand in the early years of the fourteenth century-levels not to be reached again until the 1920s.
Merton Priory was given the church and land to the north of Godmanchester during the twelfth century. The Parks is named from their deer park, within which the moated site of their main house was situated. The undulating corrugated pattern of medieval ridge and furrow cultivation may be seen on the cricket pitch in this area - it makes a convenient excuse for my inability to field like a professional.
Godmanchester has some grand eighteenth century buildings, reflecting the tastes of prominent local families. It also retains some excellent sixteenth and seventeenth century timber-frame buildings whose survival we may thankfully attribute to conservatism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more recently to the conscientious guardianship of their owners.
At the end of two millennia we have inherited a beautiful place, steeped in history, from which we have much more to learn. What sort of place will Godmanchester be in two thousand years time?
Much useful archaeological investigation at Godmanchester was thoughtfully undertaken by Michael Green prior to new development schemes during the 1960s, and 70s. Today excavations in advance of development are still shedding light on its interesting past. Information on on-going work may be obtained from Cambridgeshire County Council Archaeological Field Unit and the Sites and Monuments Record.
The following published works are well worth reading: 1) Fox, R. 1831. The History of Godmanchester. 2) Green, H.J.M. 1977. Godmanchester. 3) Victoria County History of England, 1926. Huntingdonshire, Vol II; Godmanchester 286-296.