Originally posted 7th April 2023

At Easter every year, Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. They believe this occurred in Jerusalem, at a site which has been marked by a church since the 300s and has been an object of pilgrimage ever since. However, the church that currently stands on the site was built following the First Crusade and completed in 1149.

The original church was mostly demolished in 1009 by the caliph al-Hakim on the grounds that the Easter-time Miracle of the Holy Fire, in which the lamps in the church appeared to light themselves, was actually a fraud. His orders were to demolish it “until all traces of it have disappeared”, but while the demolition was extensive, including breaking up the rock believed to contain Jesus’ tomb, the main circular area of the church surrounding the tomb site - known as the Rotunda - appears to have mostly survived and there are still fourth-century features visible in the modern church. Al-Hakim would go on to conduct a reign of terror over Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike and finally vanished mysteriously while walking in the hills above Cairo in 1021.

The Rotunda was reconstructed as a courtyard and garden by the Byzantines in the 1030s and 40s and remained a church occupied by indigenous Christian groups such as Copts and Nestorians. However, these local Christians were expelled following the conquest of Jerusalem in the First Crusade. The Crusaders set about roofing the Rotunda with a huge dome and reconstructing a large church around it and connected to it, also providing a royal mausoleum for the kings of Jerusalem. The result is a fascinating mixture of Eastern and Western styles, with Romanesque arches that would have been familiar to any European pilgrim decorated with carvings, mosaics, and icons that mingled Byzantine, European, Arab, and Syrian motifs.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre gave rise to several smaller copycat Churches across Europe, including the so-called Round Church in Cambridge.

Originally posted 13th April 2023

The usual image of Viking combat is a lightning raid on an undefended seaside monastery, after which the attackers retreat on their ships, leaving smoking ruins behind. However, they also carried out attacks inland and were capable of large raids and even sieges. They particularly targeted the Frankish kingdom of Louis the Pious (son of Charlemagne), sometimes allying with Louis’ own rebellious sons and nobility. Louis spent much of the last part of his reign building defences against attacks from Denmark and the North Sea, but these didn’t last long after his death in 840.

After Louis died, West Francia, including most of modern France, went to his son Charles the Bald, who continued to struggle with Viking raids, especially up rivers such as the Seine. Early in his reign, in 843, the Vikings overwintered at Noirmoutier on the west coast of France, the first recorded time they had spent the winter on campaign rather than returning home.

In 845, the Viking leader Ragnar (possibly the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok) led a fleet carrying over 5,000 men to attack Paris, breaking through the defences on the Ile de la Cite and plundering the city on Easter day. Ragnar often attacked Christian cities on holy days, since most people in the city would be at church. Charles was forced to pay a ransom of 7,000 pounds of silver to spare the city and its people any further massacre and plunder, but Ragnar and other Viking leaders went on to attack other parts of France and demand payment to go away. Most of these were paid and the taxation required to raise the money - as well as the Vikings’ spending on Frankish luxury goods - led to a significant increase in the use of coinage in West Francia.

Ragnar, however, did not live to enjoy his new wealth for long; he and many of those who had attacked Paris along with him died soon afterwards in an epidemic believed at the time to be divine punishment for his actions; King Horik of Denmark, who may have shared responsibility for the raid, immediately offered to release all Christian prisoners of war. However, he did not halt the advance of the Vikings into Europe.

Originally posted 20th April 2023

Rampton is one of the smallest fen-edge parishes. In 1086, when the Domesday Book was created, there were only 19 tenants compared to 23 in nearby Willingham, which grew to 79 by 1251 while even by 1563 there were still only 31 families in Rampton. In fact, Rampton may have originally been an offshoot of Willingham, judging by the fact that they shared fen pastures and before the Norman Conquest were both owned by the abbey at Ely. However, by 1066 they were separate parishes and Rampton had its own church by the 1100s, though little of the original church remains today.

After the Norman Conquest, the village - consisting of a single 6-hide manor - was taken over by Sheriff Picot of Cambridge despite the claims of the Abbey of Ely. However, the bishop’s ownership was re-asserted later and in about 1212 Robert de Lisle held it as a tenant of the bishop. He and his heirs held it until the late 1300s and were probably responsible for most of the church building that survives. The recessed tomb with an effigy of a knight that is still visible in the chancel used to be decorated with the arms of the Lisle family and comes from the late 1200s.

In 1270, Robert de Lisle was granted permission to hold a three-day fair and a weekly market, held on Thursdays. The village green may have been intended as a site for the market; the landholdings around the green appear to have been deliberately laid out and the development of the south side of the High Street may be later, building on a larger green. The green also has the stump of a stone cross; such crosses are often associated with marketplaces.

Originally posted 27th April 2023

The Ely Eel Festival has run every year on the Saturday of the Early May bank holiday weekend since 2004, but Ely has had annual fairs and festivals since the 1100s, when Henry I granted a fair to the bishop and chapter of the cathedral. It was confirmed by several of his successors and continued until the 1600s. The fair lasted for the seven days either side of the Feast of St Etheldreda on 23rd June and at its height it was a major money-maker for the cathedral, even more so than Ely’s other fairs of Ascension and St Lambert. This led to other fairs in the area being abolished if they were detrimental to the profits of the fairs at Ely.

St Etheldreda’s Fair was so popular that it left its mark on the English Language: the word “tawdry”, meaning “gaudy, showy, and cheap” is a short form of the term “tawdry lace”, itself a contraction of “St. Audrey’s Lace”, St Audrey being the commonly-used version of St Etheldreda’s name. It referred to ribbons sold at the fair which were in high demand even in the 1500s because they had touched St Etheldreda’s tomb.

The Eel Festival doesn’t reflect a religious festival but Ely’s long association with eels: it’s generally agreed that the city’s name means something like “the place of eels” and even the Domesday book mentions that Ely’s fisheries produced 3,750 eels per year. The bishop’s manors among the surrounding villages also produced large numbers of eels; some paid rent partly in eels, adding up to 14,500 eels per year in 1251. By that time the rent was mostly rendered in money, but Bishop Ridel, bishop of Ely in the late 1100s, still expected the eel rent to be paid in actual eels.