The lost Isle of Ely

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WHAT’S in a name?

Quite a lot really. It has been a bone of contention with me that in 1964 faceless man in local authority erased the historic county title of the Isle of Ely and at a single stroke of the pen the existence of this famously defined administrative area vanished into the mists for which it has been long been known.

Reason for the change argued against the validity of retaining old honoured county titles through weight of political whim in order to achieve, it was said, better results in the arena of party and political policies; to render administrative areas more efficiently managed when in reality the old form of administration worked admirably well.

The Isle of Ely dating to pre-Conquest times, arguably the oldest land title in England entirely independent, existed as a palatinate exclusively ruled by the Bishop of Ely.

A few decades ago it was shamefully divided and renamed Fenland and its eastern half East Cambridgeshire. How stereotyped can this be?

The only comparable palatinate, County Durham also ruled by bishops, held power forbidding kings from crossing its boundaries.

Under the bishop the Isle, also known as the Liberty of Ely, free of national Jurisdiction, can be traced to Queen Etheldreda founding her church at Ely in 673, about the same time the existence of March was recorded in association with its own Saint Wendreda.

The Isle of Ely, heavily influenced by the church until the dissolution in the 16th Century, offered sanctuary and spirited freedom to all entering its territory.

Rebels and usurpers took advantage of this, using the Isle as a base for incursions into England’s heartland.

So much of national historic interest happened in the Isle of Ely. Protected by marsh Hereward and his Saxon rebels kept William the Conqueror at bay for more than a year. The Isle was the last place to fall to Norman influence.

The drainage of the Fens was a remarkable achievement taking 200 years to complete, the marsh being transformed into an agricultural bonanza involving techniques unequalled in Europe.

Gradually the Isle lost its judicial powers but kept its famous title. It even had a magnificent state sword, emblematic of the Liberty of Ely.

This fine double-handed sword was in the writers opinion wrongly buried at Ely Cathedral with the last bishop representative of the liberty in the 19th century. It was a rare thing.

Sadly education nowadays is not as it used to be.

These things should be taught in local schools and a sense of pride encouraged.

TREVOR BEVIS

March