Parish of Exning with Landwade

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EXNING ..." a small village 2 miles north-east of New­market, 11 miles from Ely and 14 miles from Cambridge and Bury " — so you will find the Gazetteers state; but Exning has been, right from the early days, a place not only with a name but with a name which takes us back to the days of Iceni. The Iceni were a Celtic tribe who inhabited this part of eastern England and had its headquarters in Exning. They were noted, long before the Romans came here, for the export of horses, and maybe that is one of the reasons why this part of the country is so well fitted for the pursuit of the " Sport of Kings."


The Romans at first tried to live amicably with the Iceni, but, after the death of her husband, they tried to humiliate the queen of the tribe — Boadicea. She fought against them and even defeated their crack legions, but eventually suc­cumbed and was defeated by them at Soham Fen. It was, no doubt, from her capital at Exning that she set out for her battles.


The Exning of Roman times was not on the site of the village today, but was to the south-west of the Church. Here the remains of a Roman well have been found, with various pieces of pottery. At the other end of the parish, a site of a Roman villa has been excavated, on the edge of Moor Road (which connects North End with Burwell Road). In the excavations, deposits of mud have been found, suggesting that the villa had to be left owing to the inroads of the Fen.


Now we see from the geography of the place the importance of Exning. From the north it was protected by the Fen; to the west by Devils Ditch; and all around the deep forests of East Anglia.


In the time of the East Anglians, the people were heathen and the apostle to East Anglia was Felix of Burgundy. Now Felix came from a part of the country where the cult of St. Martin was pretty strong. He came to Dunwich. From Dunwich, where he set up his See, he eventually came to Thetford, and eventually Norwich. From there he came here, approximately in the year 630. which is 33 years later than Augustine landed at Kent in 597 A.D. In that period the East Anglian Kings were vassal kings to the Bretwallada, the great king of the country who was the chief king, and they owed allegiance to him, but they kept the title just like the chiefs and the kings who are responsible to Queen Elizabeth: and Anna of the Angles was the one who came and made his capital in Exning.


There was also a tradition of a saint long before that. St. Wendred's well shows us that well was a sacred well at the time of King Anna. It is remarkable that there is only one Church in the country which is dedicated to St. Wendred; that is March Parish Church, an ancient Church which had special dispensation from the Pope to be dedicated to St. Wendred. Now, who was St. Wendred ? We know that St. Wendred's body used to be in a golden casket, and when Edmund Ironside fought against Canute at the battle of Assandune, which is in north-east Essex just outside Southend, they brought her body out in the hope that she would perform a miracle; but they were disappointed, and Edmund Ironside was defeated; and, of course, her body and her golden casket became the spoil of the invader. Now no-one knows anything else about her, except her well.


It is possible St. Wendred's well is a Christianised version of a holy well of the Druids; for, when St. Augustine brought Christianity to the south of England, the policy laid down for him by Gregory was " Do not change too much, but where you have to change, Christianise the various heathen customs." He Christianised the Yule and it became Christmas; he Christianised the feast of the Eostre and that became Easter; that is why we use the name Easter instead of Pasque which is the normal name elsewhere. And so it is more than likely that St. Wendred's well was an ancient heathen well which became Christianised into St. Wendred's well because of the healing power of the water which was supposed to be good for wens or boils; and also it was used for walking the horses into (in living memory the horses have been brought from Newmarket).


It was also in the holy water of this well that Etheldreda, daughter of Anna and Hereswitha, was baptised. Etheldreda — foundress of E!y Cathedral — Saint and Virgin — born and baptised in this village. There is one interesting thing about St. Etheldreda. She was so loved by the people that her name was shortened to Audrey, and at the feast of St. Etheldreda they used to sell little coloured ribbons to wear in the hair — both men and women — called tawdry ribbons. So we get the word tawdry meaning cheap, but in the old days it meant things for Saint Audrey. They were sold at the fair at Ely. So we get a new word from Exning.


The great enemy of East Anglia was Mercia, which was a stretch right through the middle of England, and Penda was the great heathen king, and, of course, he was wanting to expand his kingdom; and also he hated the Christians. After his great defeat of the Northumbrians, when Oswald was killed, he came to attack this part of the country. But before this attack, the boundaries of East Anglia were as follows. The bridge at Landwade over the stream was the boundary of the kingdom — a place where a garrison was kept by the East Anglians, because the little hill at Landwade commanded a view of the whole of the Fen for a considerable distance. The Devils Ditch, which helped Boadicea, also helped the East Anglians to keep this corner of the country. And also Exning was a strong-hold — a fortress. Even now, if you go — in winter particularly — across Saltmarsh's land, along the stream just opposite the Vicarage, you will find that you come to St. Wendred's well where there is a natural amphitheatre, and in the middle of it you have fresh water which runs all the time and never freezes. No-one can ever remember it being frozen: neither can any-one remember it being dry. The ancients would say this was because it was holy. There you have a strong place, a strong-hold; then the set-up at Exning, the capital of East Anglia, was like Berchtesgarden as a strong­hold. It was a place that could be easily defended, was im­penetrable, and the only way in was to out-flank and come in from the east, which, of course, was nearly impossible to conceive.


But eventually Penda did come; Anna and the Christians were killed or scattered, and with their scattering they took their Christianity.


Now the next great thing in our history — 1066, Duke William. Exning was a Royal Manor held by Harold. Under Edward the Confessor it had been a Royal Manor, and then held by Duke William who became King of England; and it was quite a noted place. In Domesday Book it is called Essalinga. " King William held 13i hides of land there and there is land for 34 ploughs ... 35 Villeins, 34 Bordars, 7 Bondsmen ... 3 mills at 20s., 7,000 eels, meadows for 4 ploughs. It is worth £53 and when Godric received it he paid £12 but in the time of King Edward it was worth £56." One of the mills was probably on the same site as Mill House along the stream to the north of the Church.


Now, as you remember, Duke William won his battle against Southern England, Wessex, at the place called Battle, near Hastings, and in thanks for this battle he built Battle Abbey. Eventually Exning manor and the spiritualities of this place were given to Battle Abbey, which pre-supposes that there was a Church here before 1066. We know from the title of the Church, St. Martin's, that it must have been an ancient dedication, and it is possible that when St. Felix came in 600 - 630 he had consecrated or had built the first Church in Exning, dedicated to St. Martin — so it has been con­jectured and the evidence seems to support it. So it is possible that on the site of our Chancel there was a little Saxon Church dedicated to St. Martin.


From 1087 the Abbey at Battle were patrons of the Living, up to the Reformation. A conspiracy started here in Exning about that time against William by those people. The Marriage between Rolf, Earl of Norfolk, and Emma, daughter of Roger Fitz-Osborn, Earl of Hereford, which took place in Exning Church, was used to cloke over a conspiracy against Duke William. Waltheof, Earl of Northampton and Hunting­don, was drawn into it and lead to his execution the following year at Winchester: so states Rolf cie Dicete, Roger de Heveden and Walter de Coventry, and also a twelfth century manu­script in Douai on the life of Waltheof. This manuscript used to be in the Monastery of Crowland, Lincolnshire, but was removed to Douai at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.


Moiety of the Manor, was held by the d'Argentians. They were cup-bearers to William and they were Lords of the Manor here, because of marriage with Cassandra, daughter of Robert de Insula or L'lsle (Ely).


It is about this period that Newmarket began, and it is as well to dispose of a legend that there had been a plague in Exning to account for this. There is no reputable historian today who thinks this is true. It is more than likely, English nature being what it was^ that Newmarket came into being as the result of the traffic of pilgrims to Walsingham. The pilgrims from the south on the way to Walsingham to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, used to come up the Icknield Way (the A.ll) and when they came to the boundary of what is now Cambridgeshire and Suffolk on A.ll in our Parish, they would come to the nearest village of Exning, which, of course, was over to the north side, and they would come over what is now the race-course and hit Lacey's Lane at SwafTham Road. And then they came down Lacey's Lane and came to the Church. The Pilgrim Way, it is continually shown in historical records, came past the Church Door. No true record has been kept, but it is suggested that this may be part of it. The pilgrims would come first to the south porch (which is the entrance the people use) to see the niche with the statue of St. Christopher and Child (who is the patron saint of travellers and who is supposed to protect them). And then they would leave across Brickfields, hitting the Bury Road just the other side of where the railway bridge is now, and then continuing on to Walsingham. Obviously, some of them would not do that and would not make such an effort, and so, in order to help the pilgrims and to help themselves to the pilgrim's money, the Lord of the Manor set up a market at Newmarket. He also built a chapel-of-ease, dedicated to St. Mary, and little statues of St. Mary were sold; and this helped to swell the treasures of the Manor. Obviously, this little Church had to have some special patronage; and five Bishops and Archbishops in the South of Italy said that any pilgrims who prayed in St. Mary's should have forty days' Indulgence. So the market was set up there to swell the income of the Manor and to provide for the pilgrims. Again, there is more evidence to support this. The Cambridge parish of Woodditton was annoyed about this, because part of the Icknield Way was in their parish and they wanted some of the trade, so their Lord of the Manor asked for a chapel of St. Mary to be built; and so another one was built on the other side of the Icknield Way, about eighty to one hundred years later. And for a time there existed up to 1228 the ancient chapel of St. Mary in Exning and the new chapel of St. Mary in the Parish of Woodditton. The name of this latter chapel was changed to St. Simeon and St. Jude, and eventually became the modern parish of All Saints.


So we come to Medieval days. Well, of course, New­market being on the main road, people began to live there, and in 1228 we have the first note of the name John of Novo Mercato — Newmarket; a new place and a new name, and it was the new market of Exning.


If you look at the modern map of East Anglia, you will notice that the bulge of West Suffolk into Cambridgeshire consists of the ancient parish of Exning. Why was it that Exning was not incorporated in Cambridgeshire ? The reason given was the ancient name and fame of Exning from the past; so it was allowed to remain in East Anglia because Cambridge was not East Anglia in the real sense of the word.


This village has a great tradition behind it. Since those days, of course, the village has become more a village and Newmarket more and more the centre of things, because that is where the people lived; and when in recent times under the Royal Patronage of the Stuarts, Newmarket became the centre of racing, Newmarket outgrew its mother parish.


More information on the History of Exning and its Churches can be found in:

 "The Exning Story" which includes:

  • "The History of Exning" by Peter May and
  • "A Guide to St Martin's Church" compiled by Roy TRicker.

Published by The Paroochial Church Council of Exning w. Landwade 1986 and obtainable from St Martin's Church




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