Halloween, a pagan holiday in Cambridgeshire

Halloween (or Hallowe’en, a shortening of Hallowed Evening, or the night before All Hallows’ Day) is now celebrated across Cambridgeshire to some extent – much depends on the village or the town’s desire to embrace a commercialized, but fun for the children, evening.  In my local village, a anecdotal guess would be one out of four homes are open for trick-or-treaters – the wonderfully dressed children heading around in the dark looking for candy.  In many ways Halloween is an English invention, born out of our pagan past in the Romanticism of the 19th Century, adopted and commercialized by the United States in the 20th Century, and now celebrated in England.  This is an echo of an echo, for what we now see across the shires reflects more of America’s influence than our own English past.  Where did Halloween come from?

Samhain was a Gaelic festival celebrating the end of the harvest and the beginning of the “darker” half of the year, traditionally celebrated across Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Brittany.  A Celtic day began at sundown and Samhain would begin at sunset on 31 October and continue into the first of November.  This date is midway between the winter solstice and the autumnal equinox, and the importance of it to the Celts can be seen in many Neolithic monuments oriented so that the rising sun on Samhain would shine on an opening or portal to a burial mound during the festival.

Many of our Halloween customs have come down from this event – it was a Celtic leminal time, where spirits and faeries from other worlds could cross over into our own, when bonfires were lit , and food and drink where left outside to satiate the spirits so that people and livestock would be left alone and survive the oncoming winter.  There are echoes of our own customs here, but the Samhain festival would be Christianized in the Middle Ages and developed across the British Isles.

Soulcakes, the traditional treat given to children in England on Halloween, these are a descendent of Samhain gifts left outdoors for spirits.  Notice the traditional Christian iconography of the cross. From Samantha, Haarlem, the Netherlands, in Wikimedia commons.

Soulcakes, the traditional treat given to children in England on Halloween, these are a descendent of Samhain gifts left outdoors for spirits. Notice the traditional Christian iconography of the cross. From Samantha, Haarlem, the Netherlands, in Wikimedia commons.

The Catholic Church celebrated All Saints Day on 1 November, followed by All Souls Day on 2 November.  These two festivals of the church were blended into All Hallows’ Tide, the three day feast celebrating the dead saints, martyrs, and faithful which began on 1 November.  It wasn’t a wild leap for the church to build on the Celtic customs observed across northern France and the British Isles, incorporating Samhain into a more Christianized feast.  Interestingly, it was the descendents of Celts, the Scottish and Irish immigrants to the United States in the 19th Century that brought the celebration of Halloween to the New World – with many of its more pagan aspects expanded and grew.  In England, “souling” or “guising”, dressing up and seeking out sweet cakes from the wealthy in exchange for praying for the dead, had existed from the Middle Ages.


A postcard from 1882 showing dressed up or “souling” children seeking sweetcakes from wealthy townsmen in an English village. Titled “Souling on Halloween” by Mary Mapes Dodge, originally published in: “St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks”, Scribner & Company, December 1882. In the public domain.

During the Romanticism of the 19th Century, Halloween was expanded and discussed across England, as fascination with Celtic mythology and druidism increased and a general rejection of Catholic feasts permeated British life.  It was in the 20th Century that jack-o’-lanterns appeared, an effort to scare off evil spirits roaming through the night, building on carved gourds and vegetables seen in Ireland and Scotland.

In recent decades, the commercialization of this ancient holiday has spread across Cambridgeshire, brought back to England from a more enveloping American culture.  The history of Halloween; however, reaches back into a pagan, pre-Christian Britain, when fear of spirits, faeries, and the dark, hungry times of winter were ubiquitous in our daily lives.


The Palace of Buckden, fortified manor house and jail of a queen

The gatehouse of Buckden Palace, © Brandon Wilgus, 2015

The gatehouse of Buckden Palace, © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015

Along the Great North Road, traveling from London through Cambridgeshire is the small, peaceful village of Buckden. Old coaching inns now have been turned into gastro-pubs, while the picturesque houses are smartly refurbished and often owned by those who make the long commute into London by train – the lost time more than worth living in the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside. In the center of Buckden, however, an ancient fortified manor house built in the 15th Century rises over the thatched and tiled roofs of the village, the bricks and stone having replaced the wooden 12th Century Bishop’s Palace which has long since disappeared. It was here that Katharine of Aragon was imprisioned and the Bishops of Lincoln lived, surrounded by crenulated walls, moat, and outer bailey. It speaks of an age when a bishop was a wealthy feudal lord, who led the diocese but also maintained an army.

The bricked towers of the fortified manor, added n 1475 by the Bishop of Lincoln, © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

The bricked towers of the fortified manor, added in 1475 by the Bishop of Lincoln, © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

The brick towers of the fortified manor house were added in 1475, during the War of the Roses by the Bishops of Lincoln. It is during that period of conflict that the Bishop’s Palace appeared to reach the height of its defensive works – fortified manor with towers, crenulated interior wall, moat, and outer bailey. Sadly much of the defensive works were demolished during the Commonwealth in the 17th Century and in the 19th Century, but that cleared the way for some impressive later Victorian era buildings. The Bishops of Lincoln left the property in 1837. The moat was filled in 1871 as the Victorian buildings were finished and the Palace serves as a religious retreat to this day. The Claretian Missionaries now reside here, but the grounds are open for one to wander around and appreciate this ancient fortified manor house.

Many monarchs were entertained in the Bishop of Lincoln’s Palace at Buckden: Henry III stayed here in 1248, Edward I called the Longshanks and Malleus Scotorum was here for a time in 1291. Richard III visited the Palace in 1483, the first year of his short reign that would end two years later at Bosworth Field.

The Palace of Buckden is probably best known for holding Henry VIII’s first Queen, Katherine of Aragon during the King’s Great Matter, from July 1533 until May 1534 until she was transferred a few miles away to Kimbolton Castle, where she died in 1536. She would eventually be buried just north of both Buckden and Kimbolton at Peterborough Cathedral.

Miniature of Catherine Howard as Queen of England by Hans Holbein the Younger.  This image is in the public domain.

Miniature of Catherine Howard as Queen of England by Hans Holbein the Younger. This image is in the public domain.

Ironically, a few years after her death, an aging Henry VIII would stay at Buckden Palace with his fifth wife, Catherine Howard (she was 17 at their marriage; Henry was a gouty and obese 50). They stayed at the Palace in 1541, during a summer tour that the King and Queen took of England before her coronation. It was during this tour that Catherine would be accused of committing adultery with Thomas Culpeper which led to her beheading for treason in 1542. It is unknown what occurred between Henry and his penultimate wife while at Buckden Palace, but the fortified manor certainly served as a major setting for the drama of Henry’s love affairs – which ended so tragically for the two women who stayed at Buckden.

The interior of the fortified gatehouse which was once the access point to the inner courtyard of Buckden Palace. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

The interior of the fortified gatehouse which was once the access point to the inner courtyard of Buckden Palace. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

Buckden has a helpful website with a well-written and informative section on the history of the village where the palace plays a central role: http://www.buckden-village.co.uk/history/

The Hedda Stone and Peterborough Abbey

Behind the main altar in Peterborough Cathedral, in an alcove of the Lady Chapel, lies an ancient stone carving: the Hedda Stone. This medieval carving of 12 monks, six on each side, commemorates the destruction of the Monastery and the death of the Abbot and Monks when the area was sacked by the Vikings in 864.

The Lady Chapel of Peterborough Cathedral, photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Lady Chapel of Peterborough Cathedral, photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

In the 7th Century, Cambridgeshire and its environs was dramatically different than we now know. The Shire was part of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia – one of the many fractured states of medieval England. Peterborough at the time was known as “Medeshamstede”, which translates loosely to “Homestead belonging to the Mede” and according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, had gained this name from the monastery which was founded there in the 7th Century. The Venerable Bede also mentioned “Medeshamstedi”, a latinized version of the area, in 670. Despite these references to the Monastery at the site, Peterborough’s history is even more ancient, with its Bronze Age Settlements and Roman history, but those are discussions for another day.

The Medeshamstede Monastery, often called Peterborough Abbey by modern historians, was an important ecclesiastical center in the Kingdom of Mercia, located along the River Nene, in a boggy area or fen. According to Bede and the Royal Charter of the Mercian King Wulfhere, the Monastery was founded by Sexwulf, who became its first Abbot, likely between 653-656. Hugh Candidus wrote many centuries later, in the 1100s, that Sexwulf built a great Monastery and “laid as its foundations some great stones, so mighty that eight yoke of oxen could scarcely draw any of them”. One can imagine the size and importance of the Monastery, which now forms much of the foundations of Peterborough Cathedral, for Candidus also wrote that Sexwulf strove “to build no commonplace structure, but a Second Rome, or a daughter of Rome in England”. The Monastery likely played a key role in the Christianization of Mercia through the establishment of daughter churches thoroughout the Kingdom. By all appearances, the Monastery thrived and was a center of christian scholarship until the Vikings came.

In 870, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Viking invasion of Mercia reached Medeshamstede and the Abbey was razed, the Monks slaughtered. The remarkable Hedda Stone, a two-sided carving that memorializes the massacre of the Abbot and Monks in 870, carved a few years after the event, is the most prominent surviving artifact from Medeshamstede. It is a haunting piece, for the eyes of the monks peer out from carved sockets, worn and weathered by time.

The Hedda Stone, Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, England. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Hedda Stone, Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, England. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

There are no contemporary recollections of the razing of the Abbey. However, the violence of Viking raids, the invasion and settlement of England which began in June 793, still shocks. The raid on the Abbey on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, in Northumbira, was called an atrocity at the time. One contemporary wrote: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a Pagan race… The heathens poured out the the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”

Domesday Book and Cambridgeshire

One shouldn’t be surprised to find that most of the towns and villages of Cambridgeshire were written about in Domesday Book (middle english for “doomsday book”, the original title was the Liber de Wintonia, latin for “Book from Winchester”), the great survey of England and Wales commissioned by William I in 1086.  An effort to record the wealth and value of the Kingdom, Domesday Book was a colloquial term used later since doomsday would come before one could escape the taxes of the King.  Amazingly, it was the most comprehensive and exhaustive survey of England until 1873.  Although the original manuscript amazingly still survives in the National Archives at Kew, London, one can access the entire work via the Open Domesday project.

Open Domesday, http://domesdaymap.co.uk, allows you to search for your local town or village and see how it was mentioned in Domesday Book.  We all owe a special thanks to Anna Powell-Smith who built the Open Domesday site using data created by J.J.N. Palmer and his team at the University of Hull.  It is wonderful to discover, as I did, that in 1086 my village had 31 households (26 villagers, 4 small holders and one priest) was worth £10 to the Abbey of St. Benedict in Ramsey, who was the feudal lord, and that it consisted of 60 acres of meadow, the lord’s lands and a church.

Domesday Book is a fascinating snapshot of England and Wales as it was shortly after the Norman Conquest.  Organized not geographically, as a modern survey would undoubtedly be, but by feudal fiefdoms, the book contains 13,418 entries and records a remarkable level of detail.

The entry from Domesday Book for the town of Cambridge is below:

Domesday Book Entry for Cambridge

Domesday Book Entry for Cambridge, from http://domesdaymap.co.uk

Oxburgh Hall: the Wars of Religion in the East of England

Ancient seat of the Bedingfeld family, whose history stretches to the War of the Roses, Oxburgh Hall rises from the fens of southwest Norfolk.  An ancient fortified manor, which has been reworked and crafted for centuries, it was first conceived of and built in 1482 at the height of the Wars of the Roses.  However, at least back to 1086 Domesday Book records a settlement here named Oxenburch and a description: “a fortified place where oxen are kept”. Through the Wars of Religion, the catholic Bedingfeld family threaded a dangerous line at the Tudor Court and found themselves increasingly persecuted for their faith.  Staunchly royalist, Charles II rewarded the Bedingfelds with a baronetcy in 1661 though failed to repay the sizable loans made to the crown by the family.  As the 17th Century flowed into the 18th, the Bedingfelds found more acceptance of their Catholicism on the continent, and spent much time away from England and persecution.  Amazingly, almost 600 years after construction began, Oxburgh Hall retains its ability to awe and overwhelm, just as Sir Edmund Bedingfeld intended in 1482, and the family still resides in the eastern front of this ancient manor.

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Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk, seat of the Bedingfeld Family, the West Front. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2014

The violence of the War of the Roses, which demanded a strong defense along with the need to build an impressive manor for a rising family of influence in turbulent times, led to the interesting layout of Oxburgh Hall.  A large gatehouse covers the entrance to the manor, which is surrounded by a moat, and outer walls.  Arrow slits, moderate fields of fire over the approaches, and fortified gates enhance the security of the manor; however, Oxburgh would not have been able to withstand an assault or a siege – it was not a fortress.  Later, during the repression of Catholics during the English Reformation, a Priest Hole was added off the grand bedrooms located high in the gatehouse, to secretly hide a priest from the King or Queen’s soldiers.

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The gatehouse and moat of Oxburgh Hall. The curious blend of late-medieval defensive works are blended with windows and decorative brickwork to add comfort to this fortified manor. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2014

Oxburgh Hall is maintained by the National Trust and you can tour the inside of the manor, the gardens and the 1836 Catholic Chapel of the Immaculate Conception and St. Margaret on the grounds.  Directions to Oxburgh Hall, just north of Cambridgeshire, signposted 3 miles from the A134, near the village of Swaffham, SATNAV  postcode: PE33 9PS. The National Trust has a website on Oxburgh Hall: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/oxburgh-hall

Pax Brittania: The Earl de Grey as First Lord of the Admiralty

Photo by Brandon Wilgus, August 2014

Wrest Park, designed by the Earl de Grey, viewed from the formal gardens, looking at the Boudoir of the Countess de Grey © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2014


Photo by Brandon Wilgus, August 2014

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, home of Thomas Philip de Grey, called The Lord Grantham from 1786-1833, 1st Lord of the Admiralty from 1834-1835, the Earl de Grey © cambridgemilitaryhistory, 2014

Traveling west across the shire’s border are the rolling hills and farmlands of Bedfordshire, where Thomas Philip de Grey (1781-1859) designed and built his beautiful french-inspired rococo country home at Wrest Park.  The interiors spill onto sunny terraces which open to the formal gardens and riding lanes that fan away from the stately home.  As a Tory politician and peer, Thomas de Grey was involved in the post-Napoleonic era of British naval mastery, and the ordering of Great Power politics in the wake of the Concert of Europe.  Called The Lord Grantham in his youth (one of his many courtesy titles), he studied at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and at the death of his father, became the Second Earl de Grey in 1833.  King William IV made him first Lord of the Admiralty in 1834 and a Privy Counsellor.  In an age dominated by the reformer Lord Melbourne, he served in the Tory Caretaker government of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and hero of Waterloo, and then in the Conservative government of Sir Robert Peel before the return of Lord Melbourne in 1835. He was made a Knight of the Garter a decade later, and would remain an influential Tory politician and country gentleman until his death well into Queen Victoria’s reign.  De Grey was man of numerous talents and accomplishments. While running the Admiralty, he remained busy as an amateur architect, drawing the plans for Wrest Park and directly supervising its construction.  He served as the first President of the institute of British Architects in London from 1834 until his death.

Royal Navy in the First Opium War

A Royal Navy paddle-wheel steamer in the First Opium War. Thanks to Alina Parazyan, who does not endorse my work, and http://commons.wikimedia.org for the use of the image.

During his time as First Lord of the Admiralty, de Grey presided over the most powerful navy in the world, at a time of uncontested British hegemony on the high seas.  Although there were no major naval engagements from the War of Greek Independence from the Ottomans in 1827 until the first engagements of the Great War in 1914, the Royal Navy formed a vital part of the British power structure in the 19th Century. The Royal Navy was actively engaged bolstering trade, defending the growing empire, clearing the seas of pirates, hunting down slave ships and slave forts, and serving as a vital part of Britain’s strength – the diplomatic power of a mighty Navy ready to respond across the globe.  It was a time of transition, as square-rigged sailing ships were being replaced by iron and steel, and steam propulsion was replacing the reliance on wind. The Opium Wars, demonstrating the global reach and determination of Britain to expand the Empire in the name of trade, however cynically, resulted in the securing of Hong Kong in 1839.  De Grey presided over a fascinating time in the history of the Royal Navy, and one can easily imagine him entertaining over a shooting weekend at Wrest Park, or at his townhouse in London (which is now the Naval and Military Club on St. James’s Square), discussing the move from sail to steam and hammering home the need to innovate and expand the Royal Navy during a time of peace.  His innovations and shepherding the Royal Navy through a time of dramatic change would ensure the Royal Navy’s uncontested supremacy for a Century, only threatened later by the naval race with the German Empire, leading to the Great War.

Wrest Park is managed for the Nation by English Heritage.  The website for Wrest Park is: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/wrest-park/ Directions to Wrest Park, which is in the village of Silsoe, Bedfordshire: take the A6 towards Luton, signposted from Silsoe, or SATNAV postcode: MK45 4HR.