A Short History of St Ives

A Short History of St Ives
For the shortest summary of St Ives' history, view the St Ives 1000+ years of history timeline. For a more detailed account, read on.

'A sleepy hamlet' could be an apt description of many early English settlements, though none more so than St Ives. Its original name was Slepe. With origins probably in Anglo Saxon times in about the 5th century, the earliest trace of a settlement is around the gravel mound on which the current All Saints Parish Church is now built.

Anglo-Saxon village

It is likely the current church, with parts dating as far back as the 12th century, was built on the site of an earlier Saxon church around which the settlement would have risen. The image above shows how the settlement may have appeared.

The name Slepe is most likely of Anglo Saxon origin indicating its location by the river was a muddy place. The crossing where the current St Ives bridge is located was the last natural crossing point over the Great Ouse before it reached the sea some fifty miles away. Additionally, it was the last point at which there was a tidal flow from the sea.

Miraculous St Ivo
Not called the Dark Ages for nothing, there's little information about Slepe until the miraculous discovery of a stone coffin by a ploughman working in fields just outside the settlement in about 1002. Miraculous because the remains were those of St Ivo, supposedly a Persian bishop who had come to Slepe as a missionary.

Or so the story goes. In fact the remains were Roman. Slepe had passed into the ownership of Ramsey Abbey, and an increase in pilgrim traffic would be no bad thing. Nor would the pilgrims' donations go amiss.

There followed the whole gamut of saintly goings-on. Visions, a healing spring supposedly rising from the saint's tomb, the building of a smaller monastery called St Ives Priory, a book 'The Life and Miracles of St Ivo', and of course the miraculous healing of the sick. The whereabouts of the priory are uncertain, although two walls of the priory barn are still standing in Priory Road.

St Ives' Domesday Book entry

Domesday entry
Slepe has an entry in the Domesday Book of 1086 as shown above, when a population of 51 men is mentioned. This means a true population of about 300. There were also two priests and two churches, probably the parish church and the priory.

It was about this time the first St Ives bridge was built to replace the ford. This version would have been built of wood.

International fair
In 1110 King Henry I issued the first royal charter granting the Bishop of Ramsey the right to hold a fair in Slepe. Further royal charters followed over the years amending the rights, for example changing from an annual to a weekly fair. A royal charter from the King of England to the tiny hamlet of Slepe? Seems improbably, but granting charters was a good money earner for the King. The Slepe charters were another indication of the ambitions of Ramsey Abbey.

Today's layout of St Ives town centre reflects how the fair was set up. As shown in the map below, a wide street was laid out between Slepe and the priory to accommodate market stalls. Over time more permanent structures were built along the street, with lanes running from the main street towards the river to the south and roads to the north, all to aid transport of goods.

Gradually the village came to be called St Ives instead of Slepe. The markets became the major influence on the fortunes of the settlement. The original Easter fair was one of the four biggest markets in England, attracting trade from Europe as well as custom from the King.

Although the fortunes of the annual and weekly markets waxed and waned, there were clearly enough ongoing profits to enable the Bishop of Ramsey to replace the wooden bridge in about 1420. To make the town more accessible for pilgrims and traders, the bridge you see today was built. Constructed of stone with a chapel in the middle, it is one of only four such bridges in the UK. There's more information at St Ives bridge and chapel.

Oliver Cromwell
The person who was to play an important role in the English Civil War, who was one of the signatories to King Charles I's death warrant, and who ruled the UK as Lord Protector for five years, lived in St Ives between 1631 and 1636. He farmed land to the east of the town.

Cromwell also left his mark on the town bridge. The war started in 1642 and Cromwell very quickly rose through the ranks of the Roundheads. By 1643 he was in charge of the East Anglian cavalry.

Oliver Cromwell statue, St IvesConcerned about attacks by the opposing Royalist forces, and mindful of the strategic importance of the bridge at St Ives, Cromwell ordered the southern part of the bridge to be blown up and a drawbridge to be erected. It was another seventy years before the bridge was restored almost to its original form. Since the restoration was done in the style of the time, the two replacement arches nearest the Dolphin Hotel still bear witness to Cromwell's act. They are more rounded than the original Gothic arches.

Cromwell's subsequent career continued to generate strong feelings long after his death in 1658. Huntingdon, the place of his birth in 1599, turned down the chance to erect a memorial in the late 19th century. Even in St Ives there were reservations over the bronze statue raised by public subscription and erected in Market Hill in 1901.

Great fire of St Ives
In 1689 St Ives suffered a devastating fire. It started where The Quadrant is located today and spread on the prevailing wind towards The Quay. About one third of the town's buildings were destroyed.

This kind of disaster was not uncommon in 17th century England. Close packed thatch and timber buildings were easy prey to open fires. It was also not uncommon for funds to be raised by the stricken authorities writing directly to local towns and villages, also for the King to authorise parish collections throughout England. In St Ives' case local help was sought within days of the fire, and nationally collections were being taken more than a year after the fire in such diverse areas as Kent and Northamptonshire.

Livestock markets
Since the very first charter in 1100, livestock sold at the St Ives markets was an important part of the town's economy. Each drover would herd as  many as 400 lean animals from all corners of the UK to be fattened up on the town's water meadows. They would then be sold to butchers and dealers for consumption in London.

St Ives livestock market

By the 19th century the town's cattle market was considered second only to those of Smithfield in London. The image above shows the sale of cattle in The Broadway in about 1880. Large numbers of sheep, pigs, horses and fowl were also sold elsewhere, with much of the town centre taken up by the livestock market on Mondays. Typically over 10,000 animals would be herded into town each Monday at a time when the towns population was just 3,000.

The drovers need somewhere to stay, hence the large number of pubs in St Ives. At one time there were as many as 70!

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