A Brief History of the Community of Mirkmere-in-the-Fen
When the Venerable William of Mirkmere, founder of the Abbey Of Mirkmere, wrote in 1292 “Myrke Mere – Proudde home of fenny men since tyme beganne” he cannot have known how close to the truth he actually was in relation to this small community in an obscure corner of one of England’s drabbest counties.
Earliest inhabitants – Mirkmere B.C.
Recent archaeological investigations have revealed evidence of habitation at Mirkmere that goes back some 10,000 years to just after the last retreat of the great ice sheets. Mirkmere lies on a bed (some 1 mile by 2) of alluvial soil and gravel slightly raised above the peaty fen and must have been an ideal spot for early Mirkmen to pause. Other than that these first people were hunters and fishermen we know nothing about them, but the evidence of their disagreeable dinners is still there below us for the experts to read9.
These bands of semi-nomadic peoples probably came and went with the available food supply for millennia. Dating from around 5000 years ago remnants of Neolithic pottery, worked flints and a ring ditch site, probably a bronze age barrow, tell of the first intermittently settled agriculturists to inhabit the mereside. Gradually, hunting was dropped in favour of crop husbandry, until by about 500BC a settled field system had developed. Iron age farmsteads were situated here and a particularly fine example exists under the garden of the Bindweed public house where remnants of large wattled huts and grain storage pits were found during recent excavations for the installation of new drains10.
Significant dates of which we know are:
- 5-10,000 B.C. – A few old fish bones and fragments of wattle walls by the river have been uncovered by archaeologists – signs left by the earliest Mirkmen
- 500 B.C. – The first field system in the Mirkmere area was established
Surprisingly, with one solitary late-period exception, the Romans do not appear to have lived at Mirkmere despite their extensive presence in nearby Huntingdon and, particularly, at Godmanchester. Historians have speculated that Mirkmere was a centre of Iceni resistance to the Roman occupation and the discovery in 1884 of a group of skeletons under what is now the churchyard bears this out. The bones showed signs of violent death and insignia buried with them indicate that they were perhaps legionaries of the IXth legion which is known to have been destroyed by the Iceni. There was probably continuous skirmishing between the Mirkmen/Iceni, who could retreat into the safety of the fens, and the Romans.
During the Boudiccan uprising of 60AD the nearby Roman fort at Godmanchester was burned and it does not seem improbable that our ancestors were involved in this. Indeed, we strongly suspect that they were also involved in the burning and sacking of Godmanchester in 150AD and again, in conjunction with Saxon raiders with whom they allied themselves, in 297AD11
- 100 C.E. – The Iceni resistance to the Romans involved men from the Mirkmere area. Dead legionaries found buried in the fen indicate that at least one major battle was fought here.
- 220 C.E. – Or thereabouts. A little Roman villa was found in 1921 when the village hall was built. Renowned in archaeological circles for its rather rude mosaic floor, now decently buried under the concrete floor of the hall.
Saxons and Vikings
It appears that the Saxons were welcomed to the Mirk Mere and that they integrated well with the locals. It is even considered by some authorities that the Anglo Saxon epic known as “Beowulf” refers to events that took place in the vicinity of Mirkmere. The little known Ballad of Mirk Mere Fen (a copy of which is in the Muddlian Library in Cambridge12) firmly places Beowulf as being a Mirkman and makes the earliest reference to his arch foe, Grendell. In fact, it is almost certain that the monster Grendell was the prototypical “Great Rat” of the Mirk Mere that so dominated the lives of the villagers for centuries after13.
Mirkmere continued for many generations as a small, independent, Anglo Saxon agricultural community with recourse to the mere for fish, fowl and thatching reeds. little seems to have disturbed the peace and relative prosperity of the place until the arrival of the Danes (Vikings). Bands of these invaders troubled the regions between 865 and 879 when a section of the Viking Guthrum’s army was based at Huntingdon to administer the area. Mirkmere became a “lesser burh” under the Danelaw and once again the Mirkmen seem to have managed to take advantage of the opportunities of their new circumstances to profit by the changed political situation. Smoked Mirkmere eels were a delicacy and a regular trade was established between the village and the garrison to everyone’s advantage.
- 6-800 Various Anglo-Saxon settlements took advantage of the relative dryness of this small island in the fens. The romantic tendency have suggested that could make Mirkmere the home of Beowulf – or more probably of Grendell.
- 856-879 Mirkmere became a “lesser burgh” under the Danelaw. The area was controlled by the Viking army of Guthrum based at Godmanchester.
- 971 The Anglo-Saxons evicted the Vikings.
By 971, when Huntingdon was retaken by King Edward the Elder, the Danes who had settled in Mirkmere were well integrated. They kept their heads down, changed their names from Joggerbogger and such like to less obvious ones such as Aelfric the Halfwitted and Ethelbert Rattemann and were overlooked. The community continued to prosper as it always had done until, by the time that the Normans arrived in England and the Domesday survey was in hand they had got life pretty well sewn up to their advantage.
Domesday is sparse in its comments about the village. There is the usual count of cows and pigs and a note that Mirkmere was inhabited by “free sokemen with no bondsmen among them” but nothing (as the Mirkmen had intended when they bribed the assessors) to excite the authorities to thoughts of appropriation or plunder.
Most of England was parcelled out by the Normans to their Barons and others of the officer classes. Mirkmere was given to Baron Guilbert de Gand who arrived one night in February 1100 to view his new property. It must be said that he was not wildly impressed by what he saw but, being only a minor Baron he was not in a position to complain. Legend tells us that soon after taking possession he was carousing (or drowning his sorrows) one day when fearful noises were heard to emanate from the mist-laden depths of the Mirk Mere. Emboldened by alcoholic courage he buckled on his armour, told his retainers to put the kettle on as he wouldn’t be long, and set off to “slay the dragon”. His family and the minions heard him squelch away into the mists and then nothing for a while until a snarl, a cry, a chomp and a glopping marked his demise. Sir Guilbert was never seen or heard from again and the Mirkmen when asked by the fearful Norman rescue parties what fell thing lay out in the fen merely shuffled their feet, looked sly and spoke in hushed tones of “the Rat – the Great Rat”. There were those -amongst Sir Guilbert’s soldiery who thought that the Mirkmen might have had a hand in his fate, but with no proof and no-one willing to brave the Mere to get it, they eventually folded their tents and stole away into the night. Strangely, Mirkmere was never given its own Baron again but more or less became a peripheral part of the fiefdom of whoever was running things in Ramsey and Huntingdon. Trade continued.
- 1086 The year that Mirkmere was omitted from the Domesday Book
- 1100 Norman rule begins with the award of the manor of Mirkmere to the short-lasting Baron Guilbert de Gand
- 1115 The first (wooden) church of St.Fenella the Fastidious built in Mirkmere
In 1212 great celebrations were in hand in the fenland. King John had granted Godmanchester its charter of independence and in 1216 he visited the area on a royal peregrination. Leaving Godmanchester rather the worse for wear, he and his party set off north towards what is now Kings Lynn when night and fatigue overcame them. As luck would have it they took temporary lodging at the inn in Mirkmere. Never ones to miss a chance of a profit, the Mirkmen happily provided, at a price, accommodation for the royal party. to the extent that, when they left the next morning, a goodly portion of the royal jewels were left by the regal bedside in the care of a comely Mirkmaiden to whom the King had taken a shine. The loss was not discovered for some time and, even then, not traced to its source. The party had had considerable trouble in the boggy fenlands and it was presumed that the royal jewel boxes had become detached from a pack-horse and sunk in the mire. From this chance occurrence we have gained the story of the jewels “lost in the Wash” and Mirkmere entered a new period of discrete prosperity.
Sometime around the year 1284 wealthy Ramsey Abbey reviewed its extensive holdings and decided, for administrative reasons, to increase its revenues from certain areas – one of which was the Mirk Mere. A group of monks were accordingly sent forth and, after some labour, founded what was later to become the infamous Mirkmere Abbey just to the south of the village near to what is now the site of the old mill.
An understanding gradually developed between the monks and the people of Mirkmere. Tithes were duly paid to the Abbey and the appropriate portion passed on to the main establishment in Ramsey. The rest, after appropriate “deductions”, was sold on the black market by the monks who then passed a commission back to the villagers. The monk’s access to markets outside the reach of the people of Mirkmere, coupled with the villagers’ ability to come up with particularly choice items “liberated” from travellers in addition to fish, flesh and fowl led to the establishment of a mutually beneficial trade. The Mirkmen provided, the monks marketed, the Abbot of Ramsey was kept in the dark and very satisfactory profits were made for all concerned.
Early Middle Ages
We are fortunate to have, in the county Records Office, a copy of the |Mirkmere Hundred Roll for the year 1300. In this are recorded 56 villagers and 21 smallholders. If these were heads of families, and we presume an average of 4-5 persons pre family, then a population of somewhere between 300 and 400 people in Mirkmere is a safe estimate for this date.
Most houses in this period would have stood in a small yard (toft) behind which would have been a cultivated plot (crot). The majority of the inhabitants would be cottagers who held less than 5 acres of land but a small number held more than 10 acres of arable land and, by virtue of this, became leaders of the community – with due deference to the prior of Mirkmere. The largest landholders seem to have been William More D’Arty, Daniel Fudler and Robert Abelsunne – all progenitors of families that have remained in Mirkmere down the intervening centuries and today represented by the farming family of Moriarty, the brewing Fuddles and Shane Abel the accountant.
- 1349 The first Great Plague – many dead
- 1361-2 The second Plague – even more dead
- 1369 The third plague – up to a quarter of the Mirkmere population die
- 1381 John Ball led the “Agriculturists’ Revolt” supported by the Mirkmere people. This was the beginning of a long radical tradition in the village in support of lost causes. Somewhere about this period the first recorded use of the name “Mirkmere” occurred. The present (stone) church was also built around this time.
16th – 17th Centuries
- 1549 “Kettes’ rebellion” and the Commonwealth Men try to stop the enclosures. As usual, the Mirkmen were involved and, as usual, they lost.
- 1600 King James I grants the village a Charter establishing the right to hold a fair on April 1st each year for the sale of horses, cattle and sheep.
- 1642-6 The first civil war (Parliament v. King). The local gentry at the Hall tried to recruit for the King but saw reason and changed sides just before being lynched by the local republican tendency. In 1645 the New Model Army was formed and some of the village lads joined for the sport.
- 1648 The second civil war begins in which Parliament took on the army and Mirkmere kept its collective head well down until it was clear who was going to win at which point they came out as Parliamentarians to a man.
- 1649 King Charles I executed. The celebrations and pig-roasting lasted nearly a week.
- 1662 A passage in Pepys’ Diary refers to the comeliness of the Mirkmaidens
- 1693 Jeremiah Fuddle brewed his first pint of ale at the proto-Mirkmere Brewery.
- 1803 The Enclosures Act resulted in the loss of many smallholders livelihoods. Great resentment.
- 1838-9 The “Peoples’ Charter” was presented to Parliament by the Chartists. Intellectuals from Mirkmere were involved in its drafting but remained anonymous – just as well considering the less than ecstatic reception the charter received in high places.
- 1850 The weekly stage coach service from Mirkmere to the George Hotel in Huntingdon established, from whence travellers could continue to London or Cambridge.
- 1884 The third Reform Bill extended the franchise to the rural working classes (male!). Dancing in the street was followed by denunciation from the pulpit by the Squire.
- 1900 The Labour Party was founded and local activists were sacked by their employers for not knowing their proper station in life.
- 1914-19 The First World War, during which the post-Domesday gaps in the official records and maps kept the recruiting sergeants away from the fen.
- 1936 The last appearance of the “old” Mirkmere Morris on account of the terrible fate that befell them on Midsummer Day.
- 1939 Another war, in which Mirkmere once again kept quiet, the recruiters passed unheeded and several small fortunes were made on the black market. Most satisfactory for all concerned.
- 1948 onwards A quiet time post-war
- 1988 The “new” Mirkmere Morris are formed by Albert Fuddle
- 1990 Fred Fuddle and Charlie Nipperkin killed in a motoring accident.
- 1995 Despairing of politicians, bankers, modern ways and outsiders in general The Free Republic of Mirkmere Fen is declared. Nobody notices.