Whittlesea Mere

Whittlesea Mere in Holme, Huntingdonshire, England, UK


Witlesmere, x–xii cent.; Witelesmere, xi-xii cent.; Witelesmare, 1086; Wittlesmere, xvi cent.; Whittlesea, xviii cent. and Whittlesea Mere (Modern)

Whittlesea Mere was the largest fresh-water lake in the southern parts of England. It lay chiefly in the eastern part of the parish of Glatton cum Holme (now Holme), but a small part towards the north was in the parish of Farcet. It was traversed from the north-west to the south-east by the River Nene (old course), and was fed, in addition, by many water-courses running down from the surrounding high lands. Camden describes it as six miles long and three miles broad. He says that the sons and servants of Cnut, when crossing it on their way from Peterborough to Ramsey, were caught in a violent storm and whirlwind, and some of them were drowned. The king thereupon ordered a dyke to be made by his soldiers with their swords (hence called Swerdesdelf or Cnut's-dyke), in the adjoining marshes between Ramsey and Whittlesea. Presumably Cnut's intention was to put a limit to the waters on the northeast side. To arrive at Camden's dimensions we must include the whole of Farcet Fen up to Horsey Hill (thus bringing the Mere much nearer to the town of Whittlesea), and we must bring it south to Hook's Lode; it seems very doubtful if the Mere really was as large as this. The width of three miles would not necessarily apply to the whole Mere, and possibly the part south of Swere Point was much less, and known as Chelfremere. The area given in 1786 is 1,570 acres, and it is shown as about 2 miles from east to west and 1.5 miles from north to south. Its depth is stated to vary from 2 to 7 feet. The original 1 in. Ordnance Map (1824) shows it the same size, but Heathcote says that its size decreased after 1786, and was continuing to decrease, and that it went temporarily quite dry in 1826. That it must have decreased in size when Morton's Leam was cut (c. 1485), and when each step in the drainage of the Fens became effective, seems inevitable, and, therefore, without necessarily accepting Camden's dimensions, we may reasonably assume that it was once much larger than it was in Bodger's day.

The waters of the Mere were free from weeds, but were surrounded by a wide belt of reeds called shoals. The Mere was subject to violent storms, high winds and great waves; it was full of a great variety of fish and fowl, and during the 18th and 19th centuries seems to have been a favourite yachting resort, and there were yacht houses at Meremouth and at Port Sandwich.

The drainage of the Mere was commenced in 1849 and was completed in 1853. A silver censer and incense boat were found a little west of the eastern boundary dyke, in the former year, and an ancient spear head in 1866.


13th century Thurible found in Whittlesea Mere

13th century Thurible found in Whittlesea Mere


Whittlesea Mere is said to have been given by Wulphere, King of Mercia, to the Abbey of Peterborough, on its foundation in 657; the abbey, however, was destroyed by the Danes in 870, and its property lapsed to the king.

When Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester (963–984), refounded the Abbey of Peterborough, he gave it onefourth part of the Mere, and King Edgar, in his foundation charter, in 963, confirmed this to the abbey. The same king, in his foundation charter to the Abbey of Thorney, in 973, says that Bishop Aethelwold bought two parts of Whittlesea Mere from Ufan and his uterine brothers; and it goes on to say that the fourth part of the Mere, and two fisheries and ten acres, were exchanged between the Abbeys of Thorney and Burgh [Peterborough] for 120 pigs, and for the repair of houses, hedges and stables. The Liber Niger of the Abbey of Peterborough tells us that Abbot Aelsius (1006–1055) bought a fourth part of Whittlesea Mere from a nobleman named Thored, giving him in exchange land at Overton and a sum of money. This he added to another fourth part which he held before, which had been given to the monastery by Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester—and thus the Abbey of Peterborough possessed half the Mere. This purchase, together with the right to the entire moiety, with all the adjacent waters and marshes, was confirmed to the abbey by King Cnut. It is not clear how the Abbey of Peterborough's property in the Mere passed to the Abbey of Thorney, if it did, but possibly the Peterborough property consisted only of fishing rights, whereas Thorney held manorial rights as well.

In 1086 the fishing and mere of the Abbot of Ramsey were valued at £10, those of the Abbot of Thorney at 60s., and those of the Abbot of Peterborough at £4. The Abbot of Ramsey had one boat, the Abbot of Peterborough one, and the Abbot of Thorney two, but of these two the Abbot of Peterborough held one with two fisheries and two fishermen and one virgate of land.

In 1125–1128, the fisheries are set forth in connection with the boundaries of the Mere, with its fisheries, marshes (paludibus) and waters, thus: 'In the northern part of the pool is a water by name Merelade, going out of the river Nene where is the northern boundary of the pool itself. This with its marshes (paludibus) adjoins it [the Mere] having at the end one fishery called Aethemuthe. In the east part are two pools called Wellepol and Trendmaere. Between these pools is a narrow water two furlongs long, called Trendmaere Bece [i.e. beach], having in it two fisheries.

There is also a narrow water one mile long, called Falet, having in it one fishery. In that part between Witlesmere and Kyngesdelf, where is the eastern boundary, is a marshy place three miles broad, having in it a narrow water called Thescuf, and a wood called Ragreholt. In the south part is a narrow water three furlongs long called Scaelfremaere Bece [i.e. beach] having in it two fisheries. At the end of this is a pool called Scaelfremaere having in its southern part a narrow water called Ubbemaere-lade, half a mile long. Also at the head of this, that is at the end of the pool, is one fishery. Halfway along this water [Ubbemaere-lade] is a place on the opposite side in the marsh (palude) called Aldwines Barwe, where is the southern boundary. In the western part is a narrow water two furlongs long called Trendmaere bece [i.e. beach] having in it one fishery. At the end of this is a pool called West Trendmaere. There are also in that part waters whose names are Dreigmaere, Wellepol, Withibuscemaere, Langemaere, Keninges and Musclemaere. And also there is a water one mile long, even up to the land, called Deop Bece, having in it one fishery. At the end of this water is the western boundary of the marshes (paludum) and waters belonging to Witlesmaere.'

In 1306 it was found by inquisition that the Abbot of Thorney had five cotes abutting on the mere, and that the greater part of the fishery belonged to him; he had five boatsgates to fish in the mere at all times, except during Shelrode, which began a fortnight before St. George's Day and lasted until a fortnight after. Each boatsgate had forty pollenets, forty swerenets, twenty-five widenets, twenty-four bownets, one drage, one tramaile, also setting-tawe and syrelepes at the will of the owner. In 1401 the Abbots and Convents of Thorney and Sawtry were holding free fisheries.

In 1553 Edward VI granted the manor of Farcet to Sir Walter Mildmay, when the manor included the north part of Whittlesea Mere from Arlmyndes Hills to Falstubb; and this part passed with the manor of Farcet (q.v.). In 1629 Francis, Earl of Westmoreland, died seised of a free fishery in Chaldebeach, Archbeach [Ashbeach], and Conquestloadend in the parish of Glatton, late belonging to William Hansard.

Notwithstanding these grants to the Abbeys of Thorney and Peterborough, the greater part of the Mere probably lay in the manor of Glatton cum Holme, as it lies in the parish of Holme to this day.

Richard, Earl of Cornwall, to whom the manor of Glatton cum Holme (q.v.) had been granted by the king in 1243, gave all his right and claim in fisheries in 'Ubbemere' and 'Birkemare' and in three cotes on Whittlesea Mere to Ramsey Abbey, in 1261. The inquisition taken on the death of Edmund Earl of Cornwall (1300) mentions fisheries in Ubmere [Uggmere], Birshemere and Whittlesmere, for fishing wherein with boats the Abbot of Ramsey and others pay rents, a liberty of testing the nets with a certain billete by which they ought to be knotted for taking small fish, with power to the bailiff of the manor to burn all nets found beyond the assize, or take a fine. The overlordship of this part of the Mere passed with the manor of Glatton (q.v.) and was included in the purchase by Sir Robert Cotton in 1611; and Sir Robert died in 1631 seised of a free fishery called a boatgate in a water called Whittlesmere in Conington, Holme, and Glatton. It apparently passed with the manor of Glatton cum Holme, in 1752, to Mr. Wells, whose grandson, William Wells (d. 1889), drained the Mere in 1849–53.

In 1318 the Abbot and Convent of Peterborough were granted 3 acres of marsh by the perch of 20 feet in the king's marsh of Glatton, next the water of Wytlesmere where the abbot had free fishery. They could enclose the three acres with a ditch and build there, and their fishermen could spread out their nets to dry, and save themselves 'in time of tempests which often happen there.' The fishing rights held by the Abbey of Sawtry were granted with the rest of that monastery's possessions to Richard Williams, alias Cromwell, in 1537, and those held by Peterborough Abbey went to the Dean and Chapter. In 1614, at an inquisition held at Holme, it appeared that there were then 15 boatsgates belonging to the mere; the Earl of Lincoln had one, the church of Peterborough two, Thomas Glapthorne one, Sir Anthony Mildmay one, Sir William Fitzwilliam one, Robert Apreece one, and the lord of the manor seven. In 1786, Mr. Wells, lord of the manor, had eleven; Lord Brownlow, lord of the manor of Farcet, one and a private fishery; the church of Peterborough two, and Lord Carysfort one.

Victoria County History - Huntingdonshire Printed 1932