- 2016-02-28 09:20:00
As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the past. Perhaps, it is because I grew up in a seaside village that has retained its late Anglo-Saxon footprint of three streets arranged around a triangular green. At school, we were taught that, in times of invasion by ‘Vikings’ or cattle rustlers, livestock was driven onto the green and the roads were blocked. (The strategy cannot have worked because a charter of 935AD discloses that King Æthelstan had to liberate Reoffhopa from the Scots.)
As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the past. Perhaps, it is because I grew up in a seaside village that has retained its late Anglo-Saxon footprint of three streets arranged around a triangular green. At school, we were taught that, in times of invasion by ‘Vikings’ or cattle rustlers, livestock was driven onto the green and the roads were blocked. (The strategy cannot have worked because a charter of 935AD discloses that King Æthelstan had to liberate Reoffhopa from the Scots.) Three miles down the coast at Seaham is the seventh-century church of St Mary. Another three miles to the north at [Monk]wearmouth stood St Peter’s Monastery, where Bede (c.674-735) was taken as a seven-year-old oblate, thereby launching an illustrious career that culminated in his masterwork, The History of the English Church and People. As you may have realised, my interest in all things Anglo-Saxon is very deep-rooted.
In January 2013, Greg (my husband), Bob Randall, John Clynch and I formed P.A.S.T. [Peakirk Archaeological Survey Team] with the objective of researching, recording and promoting the settlement’s intriguing history both above and below ground. For whilst Bede was beavering away in the relative comfort of the prestigious Wearmouth-Jarrow Monastery, Pega, a Mercian noblewoman and sister to St Guthlac the hermit of Crowland, was leading a severely-abstemious life in the obscurity of the undrained Fens. In the early-eighth century she pitched her hermitage in the place which eventually became known as Peakirk [‘Pega’s church’]. Thus, P.A.S.T. has 1300 years of her legacy to uncover. Plenty to keep us out of mischief for the foreseeable future!!!
Undeniably, our last year has been exceptionally busy. We have recruited Gareth Williams, a hands-on Peakirk archaeologist with a good working-knowledge of ceramics. We also have two more potential members in David Hankins also of Peakirk and Gregg Duggan of Glinton, who have already proved their worth. Apart from the Car Dyke Visitors’ Interpretation Board, P.A.S.T. has been embroiled in two riveting archaeological projects. One is on the reputed site of a Romano-British villa in Bull Lane (which Greg is going to tell you about). The second is on the eastern edge of Chestnut Close, where a row of cottages once stood. There also have been several somewhat-serendipitous, ‘rainy-day’ revelations. After hours spent in libraries pouring over old manuscripts and maps, we have realised that what we were searching for was right under our very noses! In effect, we have accidently stumbled upon Peakirk’s ‘London Road’ and St Pega’s medieval church bells; and, over the course of our investigations, have begun to have serious doubts whether Pega was buried in Rome, where she purportedly died, in 719.
Hanging on my sitting-room wall is a delightful little road map, published in 1720 by John Owen and Emanuel Bowen in their atlas, Britannia Depicta [Britain Portrayed]. It shows the Stilton to Donnington section of the old post-road between London and Lincoln via Boston used by horsemen [post-riders] to carry mail between the two major cities, similar to the Pony Express in the Wild West. The route followed the Great North Road [the present A1] as far as Stilton, where it turned onto the old Lincoln Road and continued through Yaxley, Peterborough and Werrington to Glinton. Thence, it followed the course of the modern B1443 as far as Peakirk’s, Thorney Road, past the erstwhile Boat Inn and over the Folly River. From there, the post-road was carried along eastern embankment of the River Welland [Corporation Bank] as far as Spalding.
The Peakirk-Spalding section probably came into use in c.1650, when the river was straightened and embanked as a flood-defence during the massive seventeenth-century drainage of the Fens. The road certainly existed in 1670, when Deeping Fen was surveyed by Vincent Grant. In 1792, it was up-graded to turnpike status to provide a safer passage for mail coaches and private carriages by a consortium of wealthy entrepreneurs who levied tolls to pay for its upkeep. Although the Turnpike Trust was dissolved 30 years later, tolls were still being charged at Peakirk on cars and cycles until 1929 and on horses and cattle until 1947.
The Peakirk to Glinton element of the road is considerably older for here, Greg and I did a spot of field-work, applying Dr Max Hooper’s Hedge-dating Rule. This highly-respected tenet dictates that every native species of tree along a 100-metre stretch represents 100 years of hedge-row. On average, we found seven or eight species along each measured section, indicating that the hedge and, probably the road, are 700-800 years old (roughly 1200-1300AD).
Had it not been for the ‘Inclosure Map’ of 1819, we would never have known about the cottages on the Village Green, sandwiched between Chestnut Close and the Car Dyke. The Ordnance Survey Map informs us that they were gone by 1885 and no evidence survives above ground. P.A.S.T.’s quest was to determine the date of the earliest occupation of the site and when its last dwellings were destroyed. Our geophysical survey on the Green led by Bob Randall, in March 2016, showed an anomaly on the western bank of the Roman watercourse. However, when Greg single-handedly dug a test-pit there, he found only the spoils of a Victorian rubbish dump jumbled up with a few pieces of Romano-British and medieval pottery. The anomaly turned out to be a geological feature! Undeterred, and with the consent of the Parish Council (who own the Green), in April, Greg and I conducted another geophysical survey in the area that we perceived to have been occupied by the buildings. Then in early May, P.A.S.T. sank a second test pit closer to the road this time.
If we had expected to unearth any building-foundations we would have been sorely disappointed. Like many agricultural labourers’ homes, the cottages probably were timber-framed, wattle-and-daub structures set on a stone plinth and roofed with reeds, locally-sourced materials that would have either decayed or been recycled. Indeed, we exposed only minimal amounts of stone, brick and Collyweston tile but numerous pottery sherds from the thirteenth-century onwards, indicating the continuous use of the plots. Then, the eagle-eyed David’s spotted a jetton [trade token], which Gareth identified (on the Portable Antiquities’ website) as from Edward I’s reign (1272-1307). Together with the pottery finds, it gave us a rough date for the earliest habitation of the site. This matched a nationwide period of intensive farming needed to feed a rapidly-increasing population, when even the marginal lands of the parish were cultivated and peasants’ crofts and tofts were squeezed into vacant spaces within the ‘village envelope’. Therefore, we can deduce that by then the Car Dyke had silted up and the drier ground to the west levelled for this purpose.
Nevertheless, despite the excavation we were still none the wiser regarding the demolition date of the cottages. Then, as if by chance, whilst preparing P.A.S.T.’s PowerPoint presentation for the May Annual Parish Meeting, I downloaded Greg’s London Illustrated News picture of a ‘Street in Peakirk’, which shows Thorney Road during the floods of 1880. In the background, you can just make out a thatched roof that unambiguously belonged to one of the Chestnut Close dwellings. At last, we know that not only when they first were built in the late 1200s or early 1300s and but also that the last cottages were levelled between 1880 and 1885, possibly as result of flood damage. Our mission had been accomplished.
Among the test-pit finds, was a minute slice from the rim of a small, fifteenth-/sixteenth-century, bronze bell. By astonishing coincidence, whilst researching an earlier Trib. article (101), I discovered an inventory ordered by the teenage Edward VI (1547-53), stating that in 1552 Peykirke church possessed three bells, two in the belfry and one ‘handebell’. Presumably, the latter was rung during Mass as the sanctus to announce the consecration of the bread and wine, the moment when (it is believed) it is transformed into The Body and Blood of Christ. Interestingly, the Commissioners’ report adds that ‘The ‘Pancake-bell is rung on Shrove Tuesday. On Sunday, a bell is rung at 7am and again at the conclusion of Divine Service’.
Although Edward was intent on enforcing his own brand of fundamental Protestantism, he reluctantly allowed steeple bells to be tolled for purely functional reasons such as summoning parishioners to church and to state proclamations. In contrast, he denounced their ritual chiming during services as papist or Catholic customs. (I’m not so sure that he would have approved of pancake-racing either.) Consequently, Edward ordered hand-bells to be smashed in situ, lest they should be spirited away for use during clandestine Masses. Of course, it would take a tremendous leap of faith to purport that we had recovered a tiny fragment of Peakirk church’s lost hand-bell. Like St Pega’s final burial-place, it’s provenance must remain a mystery.
Perplexingly, the bulk of our knowledge of St Pega is gleaned from post-Conquest accounts written expressly to promote Guthlac’s shrine at Crowland as a centre of pilgrimage. The monk, Felix, writing at Repton c.735, gives Pega only an almost will-o’-the-wisp-like appearance his Life of St Guthlac. He simply divulges that she was summoned from her hermitage to officiate at her brother’s funeral, deposit his undecayed cadaver in a sarcophagus a year later and to perform a miracle on his behalf. Afterwards, the lady vanishes and we must wait until c.1125 for the Anglo-Norman historian, Orderic Vitalis, to provide us with the next instalment. Basing his version of events on information supplied by the monks of Crowland (who gave him hospitality and paid his fee), Orderic relates that immediately after Guthlac’s second funeral Pega went on a pilgrimage to Rome, where she died on 8 January 719. Her disciples buried her in a church consecrated in her memory, which rapidly became a hot-spot for more miracles. ‘Ingulph’ who concocted his forged Crowland Chronicle in c.1416, allows Pega a brief sojourn at her hermitage ‘four leagues to the west’ of Crowland (indubitably Peakirk) before dispatching her to Rome. He adds that upon her arrival all the bells in the city rang out in recognition of her piety. According to tradition, the church where she was entombed collapsed through neglect during the seventeenth century with the loss of all her relics.
Here, we hit an enormous snag. Nowhere in the meticulously-kept Vatican Archives is there a single reference to St Pega’s church in Rome. In fact, it is only Crowland sources that suggest that she ever went to the Eternal City in the first place. What then if Peakirk’s patron saint had ended her days in her cell ‘four leagues’ from Crowland, was buried in her own chapel (customary for hermits) and her shrine became a pilgrim attraction to rival St Guthlac’s? Were the brethren of Crowland deliberately attempting to suppress Pega’s Peakirk her cult by claiming that she was buried elsewhere?
Yet, if Pega were buried in Peakirk, what became of her relics? Again, we may have to lay the blame at Edward VI’s door. Contrary to his father, Henry VIII, who primarily Brexited from the Church of Rome to divorce Katharine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Edward was hell-bent on eradicating all vestiges of the ‘Old Religion’. He regarded the veneration of ‘holy bones’ as superstitious and akin to witchcraft and pagan practices and demanded that they must be rooted out and eradicated. It seems likely that should Pega have been laid to rest in the settlement that was later was to bear her name, her shrine would have been destroyed and her remains scattered.
When the church was founded in 1014/15, it originally was consecrated in the honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, The Holy Trinity and All Hallows [Saints]. By the thirteenth-century, its dedication had been whittled down to All Saints, which again would have been a tad too Catholic for Edward’s taste. Perhaps, as a concession he permitted the church to be rededicated in the honour of St Pega, an austere fenland anchoress who obviously had close connections with the village. And so, despite the loss of her earthly remains, nostalgia for her earlier church was perpetuated.
Of course, it is highly-improbable that P.A.S.T. ever will unlock the secret of St Pega’s final resting-place. Instead, we must concentrate on reporting and publishing our findings, hopefully reveal more about the crop-marks in Bull Lane paddock and explore any avenues where our adventures into Peakirk’s historic environment lead us. We already have permission to excavate a third test-pit on the Village Green and if you see us busily trowelling away there, please, come and chat to us. Visitors are always welcome when we are on site . . . and you never know what we might have dug up!