Saturday, 18 December 2010

On the Dangers of Travelling in Winter

It's snowing in the UK, and my planned journey home is looking a little hazardous. Things were harder in eleventh-century Cambridgeshire, though, where the Fenland was apparently apt to freeze; somewhere like Ely could be completely cut off by impassable ice. I've had a year plagued by weather-related travel problems, but I haven't yet resorted to the method used by King Cnut in this delightful story...

During his reign in England (1016-1035), it was Cnut's custom to spend the Feast of the Purification at Ely Abbey every year. One year the winter was so cold that ice made the marsh surrounding the abbey impassable, but he declared that he was willing to travel on the ice from Soham to Ely by wagon if someone would go ahead of him. Cnut was not one to be daunted by a little bad weather! A twelfth-century history of Ely tells the story, in somewhat dry clerical prose:

It chanced that standing by in the crowd was a certain large and rugged man from the Isle [of Ely], Brihtmær surnamed Budde on account of his bulk, and he promised to go ahead of the king. Without delay the king followed behind in the wagon at a fast pace, while everybody marvelled that he should have attempted such a great act of daring. When he arrived at Ely he joyfully celebrated the festival there according to custom...

The king was accustomed to recount that it had so come about and been granted to him by the Lord that a large and rugged countryman had perceived not the slightest hindrance anywhere along the way, so that he himself also, an able-bodied man of ordinary stature, had been permitted to follow after, unswervingly and without fear. And moreover the king, being generous-minded and munificent, and wishing to reward the man’s effort, made a grant whereby he, together with his land-holding, became entitled to perpetual freedom, which rights persist to this day [c.1175.]
From Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth, trans. Janet Fairweather (Woodbridge, 2005), p.183.

Such a wonderful image: the great king Cnut trying to follow along and keep up in his wagon, as the huge peasant charges ahead across the treacherous ice!

1 comment:

Andrew Brown said...

It's interesting that it froze but not hard enough that the king could trust his wagon to it. Did a branch of the Ouse even then run south of Ely? That would explain the problem, because running water makes ice weak. But my impression is that much of the course of fen rivers is artificial, and some, I know, of the modern Ouse was dug under the supervision of the abbey at a rather later period.