Heritage & Culture

A history of Peterborough in six chapters…

A history of Peterborough in six chapters… 1 2 3

Over the Heritage Festival Big Weekend (21-22 June) the city will be coming alive with sights and sounds from just about every period of Peterborough’s 3,500 year history – with music, food, dancing, battle displays, a replica WWI tank and more Living History re-enactors than you can shake a pike at. Toby Venables looks at key moments from the city’s past to discover the stories behind the costumes

Boudica’s rebellion and the lost Ninth Legion. From the very start, this was a place that meant something. As Flag Fen archaeologist Frances Pryor put it: ‘This was one of the most prosperous areas in prehistoric Britain. The population in the Peterborough area would have been thousands, not hundreds, with tens of thousands of sheep and cattle…’

In AD 43 a new group of people arrived to make their mark on the landscape. The Romans. By AD 48 – but perhaps earlier – they had established a large fortress at Longthorpe, on the south bank of the Nene, and it’s now believed the encampment housed five cohorts of the ill-fated Ninth Legion – Legio IX Hispana – with a force of auxiliary cavalry.

2,500 highly disciplined troops marched south, probably unaware that their enemy numbered well over 10,000…

But in AD 60, another power was rising in the region. The Iceni – the Celtic tribe which inhabited the northern half of East Anglia – were rising in revolt, led by their dead king’s widow, Boudica. Their first target was Camulodunum – now Colchester – the principal city of Roman Britain. It was poorly defended, and totally unprepared. With Camulodunum under siege, it fell to the garrison at Longthorpe to relieve the city. Its 2,500 highly disciplined troops marched south, probably unaware that their enemy numbered well over 10,000.

Precisely where the Ninth Legion met its destruction is not known. Only their commander and a detachment of cavalry escaped, and archaeology shows a layer of ash where Camulodunum was razed to the ground. Boudica’s army went on to destroy London and St Albans, killing 70,000 people before they were finally stopped. The rebellion was short-lived – but it had wrought such destruction that the Romans had considered abandoning Britain altogether.

Hereward and the Vikings Peterborough was home to one of the most important documents in English history. Most people have heard of the Domesday Book – one result of 1066 and all that – but long before the arrival of the Norman invaders who compiled it, monks in England were busy writing their own history in what’s now known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. If the name sounds like a daily newspaper, that’s not far off the mark. Initiated by Alfred the Great in 9th century Wessex, the Chronicle was a chronological record of events, written not in Latin, but the language of the people – Old English. Copies were sent out to monasteries across England, and then independently updated by them.

The Peterborough Chronicle and its continuations – one of only a handful of versions to have survived – kept going for a hundred years after the Norman Conquest, providing vivid, first-hand accounts from one of the most turbulent periods in our history. The entry for the year AD 870 tells how a ‘heathen army’ – Vikings, to you and me – ‘came to Medeshamstede, burning and breaking, and slaying abbot and monks, and all that they there found. They made such havoc there, that a monastery, which was before full rich, was now reduced to nothing.’ Medeshamstede was the Anglo- Saxon name for Peterborough. Exactly two centuries later, during the reign of the first Norman king of England, William I – by which time the town was known as ‘Burgh – the abbey church was to suffer again.

This time, it was down to Hereward ‘the Wake’, an English rebel who had been fighting a bold guerilla war. He had his base in the Fens and proved such a thorn in the side of the Normans that his legend achieved almost Robin Hood status. The reality wasn’t all robbing from… [cont]

A history of Peterborough in six chapters… 1 2 3

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