A Brief History of Yaxley

Note: An Illustrated History of Yaxley, the definitive and long gestating chronicle of the village will be published in 2015. Written by Stewart Howe with contributions by local historian Margaret Long and Tracey Mooney from the University of Nottingham, the book will be available from online retailers and this website with proceeds going directly to the Fenland Trust.

yaxleysignThe first recorded people to live in the vicinity of modern day Yaxley were the Sweordora, an Anglian tribe who, according to the Tribal Hidage (which assessed their territory at 300 hides) lived in the vicinity of Sword Point at Whittlesey Mere probably in the 6th Century. The Tribal Hidage is a list of thirty-five tribes that was compiled in Anglo-Saxon England some time between the 7th and 9th centuries. It includes a number of independent kingdoms and other smaller territories and assigns a number of hides to each one.

Yaxley began life as a kind of “new town” on the crest of the ridge overlooking the Fens during the early 900s. Although there is evidence that during the Roman occupation there was small scale native farming on the higher ground above the fen margins, it is fairly certain that no village of Yaxley existed before the Saxon era.

The very name Yaxley is pure Anglo-Saxon and represents the policy of re-conquest of parts of England held by the Vikings and known as the Danelaw. In 960-970 Bishop Aethelwold bought Glakeslea (as it is spelt in documents of the time) and gave it to endow Thorney Abbey. It quickly became the administrative center for the Thorney estates in the area, and the Abbot became the King’s ruling officer for the “hundred of Norman Cross.”

When Yaxley came into existence, it looked out on part of the vast waterlogged expanse of peat, criss-crossed by a maze of river, streams, pools and large lakes or meres, the largest of which being Whittlesea Mere. The river Nene on its tortuous way to the Wash flowed almost ot the edge of the village and turned to flow through this Mere.

Yaxley developed as a thriving inland port with considerable trade to the Wash. By the year 956 there were already three “hithes” or quays at Water End, which is now the east end of Main Street. Whittlesea Mere was then a large expanse of water, roughly circular, 5-6 miles in diameter and its deep water connected to Yaxley by a short and wide “lode”. Yaxley Lode canalised the route of Yaxley Brook between the village and Whittlesea Mere. The lode did not have exactly the same course as present, and the earlier route is marked by a linear deposit of marly-alluvium to the south-west of the present course.

In Anglo-Saxon days the fisheries were big business, divided out and often fought over by the landlords, including the surrounding Abbeys. Sedge, reeds and peat were readily marketed, and wills and directories show that trade was intense for many years. (Peat was only ousted by coke-firing in St. Peter’s church in the 1850s.)

As the village and port prospered a Thursday market was held in the area now known as the village green, and much of the produce came along the river Nene and was unloaded at Woodston. In addition to the market a yearly fair was granted in 1227 on the Saturday after Ascension Day and the four following days. In spite of pressure and court action by the burgesses of Northampton and later by the Dean and Chapter of Peterborough the market flourished, then declined, and was eventually suppressed. In the middle of the 17th century it was said that the market had “long since disappeared”. As silting up of the outfalls increased together with alterations and “cuts” in the Nene and other channels, the decline as a port was inevitable, but local water traffic continued. In the 17th century, lighters still went to Stourbridge Fair, and boatyards still existed by the Yards’ End Dyke in the mid 1700s.

From early times the inhabitants had whittled away at the edges of the Fen to form “holmes” or island fields, the pattern of which can still be seen. In the 1600s larger scale work was contemplated and became intensive in Cromwell’s time. With the scheme conflicting with the interests of the fishermen and others who valued the common pasture, the ill-feeling, unrest and rioting that occurred are typical of what happened all over the Fens. This work of drainage and enclosure was to continue with varying success and mishaps for over 200 years. In 1665 the Lord of the Manor “enclosed and divided Yaxley Fen”, which meant loss of grazing and peat cutting rights. In 1772 an Act of Parliament was needed to authorize further drainage efforts with dire punishments for the wreckers of the work carried out. It was not until 1850 that the vast expanse of Whittlesea Mere was pumped dry and a start made on its cultivation.

Source: Yaxley 980-1980 Millenary, Mr. W. Ash, Dr. C. Hart
Additions by Mr. S. Howe