St. Neots Town Council official website

text only | telephone: 01480 388911 | fax: 01480 388915 | email: contact form

You are here: SNTC.co.uk / About St. Neots / History

History of St. Neots

Overview

The Market Square, St. Neots
Above: The present day Market Square.

St. Neots, Huntingdon and St Ives were always referred to as the "Sister Towns" of old Huntingdonshire - and although each possessed its own individuality and different historical background - they were, in many ways, very similar - all well known Market towns of approximately the same size and population, within a close proximity of each other and all three riverside towns.

Due to development and expansion since the war, many changes have taken place and the similarity is now not quite so evident - although the weekly markets are still held, as they have done so for hundreds of years, and a band continues to link the three towns - unbroken through the centuries. The Great Ouse - this river has always been the chain that unites these "Sister Towns".

When first seen, St Neots has the visual charm associated with towns and villages in the old County, and for the tourist, there is much of interest to be seen and enjoyed.

The magnificent Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin is one of such outstanding beauty, that it has always been known as the "Cathedral of Huntingdonshire" and is indeed a "Cathedral" in miniature. This Church alone makes a visit to St Neots well worthwhile!

The town's famous Market Square is one of the largest and most ancient of its kind in the country. It is approximately 800 years old and surrounded by many fine listed buildings. A market has been held upon this square each Thursday of the week since its foundation.

Nowhere is the setting of the river more enhanced than at St Neots, for here it can be viewed from a lovely riverside park, set amongst huge sweeping willow trees. It has been designed specifically to provide the maximum pleasure afforded by the Great Ouse - with small lakes for boating and wildlife, bridges and footpaths. It has seating, catering facilities and ample parking space - an idyllic place to spend an hour or so of peaceful tranquillity on a fine day!

At weekends and Bank Holidays during the Summer, the Town Council's open cruiser runs a regular service providing river trips to the public. The water is widely used by private boat owners, the local Rowing Club and, of course, fishing enthusiasts. It is a beautiful river, with lovely views, and has close historical connections with the town, so an interesting and most enjoyable journey on the cruiser can be assured!

St Neots has always made sport a priority - the river providing the venue of course for many activities and a Rowing Club of national repute. It also has many other sporting facilities and clubs and has, on occasion, produced men and women who have achieved both National and International status in their respective field.

Another large open space is the ancient Common at St Neots. This land has always been of great interest to the botanist for the rare species of flora to be found, and home of the town's Cricket, Hockey and Rugby Clubs and matches.

Additionally, another public area of which the town is justifiably proud is Priory Park. Originally part of the private estate of the Rowley family - Lords of the Manor of St Neots - it remains as beautiful today as when it was privately owned, the mature and magnificent trees being a particularly special feature.

During the days of stagecoach travel, St Neots was a mainline stop-over station and a number of fine coaching inns can still be seen in the town today, providing food and refreshment, as they did for the weary travellers of those long past days. For those who enjoy the historical novels of the famous authoress Georgette Heyer, it will be of interest to know that many villages in this region, relating to coaches that travelled this line, are mentioned in her books!

A short distance from St Neots in the pretty village of Great Paxton, can be seen a church of great antiquity. This, an Anglo-Saxon Minster Church, is one of only five of its kind in the country.

The Library and Priory Centre, together with Council offices, form our town's Civic Centre, prominently situated by the riverside. The Priory Centre provides facilities for much of the town's entertainment and leisure activities, together with the local museum (www.stneotsmuseum.org.uk) and Tourist Information Centre in New Street, has information of other facilities and places of interest can be obtained.

So it will be seen that St Neots has much to offer for the visitor or tourist BUT - be not lulled into too much sense of security however - for any who visit either St Neots or Huntingdon may be forgiven for considering both as simple country towns with perhaps dull and uneventful backgrounds. Not so - for in one was born the man responsible for the beheading of a King of England, and in the other a man who carried out the only assassination of a British Prime Minister.

All is not quite as it appears in any part of East Anglia - outwardly such a peaceful, rural area. It has a turbulent past and a history of unpredictability that has on numerous occasions changed the whole course of British history - and earned it's people the title of "The Dissenters of England!" It was this ancient Anglian region however that gave the country its name - being known firstly as Angle/or Engle-land - it eventually became England and the language and people named as English. So perhaps we are entitled - now and then - to make our presence felt!

Formation of the Town

St Neots, far less ancient than Huntingdon and St Ives, is barely 1,000 years old although its parent settlement, Eynesbury, is steeped in antiquity, having been in the past both a Roman and an Anglo Saxon garrison or fort. But the town has a very interesting, colourful and in some respects unusual history. One significant difference between St Neots and most other towns and villages of the old County, lies in its origin, for it was part of a completely different tribe. Known in those days as the "Blue Marl" (possibly due to the particular clay or soil in this shallow basin of land) this region came within the boundary of that most famous and powerful ancient British tribe, the "Iceni" - whilst the greater part of old Huntingdonshire formed part of the land of the Catuvellauni tribe. Both were formidable warriors, each ruled by leaders, the names of whom have endured through the centuries - Queen Boudicca (or Boodecea) of the Iceni and Caractcus of the Catuvellauni.

These two great leaders and their people were regarded with the highest respect by the Romans, who occupied Britain at that time, in spite of the great uprising and constant opposition encountered from them. But then, the Romans - whatever else - were ever ready to respect and recognise courage and skill in battle - the Iceni in particular, due to their brilliant ability as charioteers. These tribesmen and women - known as "The People of the Horse" could drive full speed into battle whilst hurling spears with deadly accuracy, often leaping from their chariots and running back and forth along the central yoke-pole between the horses at the same time - a remarkable feat - and greatly admired by the Romans, for their own charioteering skills were mostly confined to circus racing, as portrayed in the epic film "Ben Hur".

This tribal background is important, for it is where our history begins and has left a legacy that has influenced our people through the centuries, and for Huntingdonshire it can truly be said that from the very beginning, it has always played a very important part in the history of this country.

St Neots was a town of which developed and thrived within the ancient villages in this region, remaining from its tribal origins to the present century a border settlement. It was separated from Bedfordshire only by the river and approximately three miles from Cambridgeshire, a town on the crossroads of three counties, but part of only one - Huntingdonshire!

That St Neots exists at all was due to the founding of a Priory built on the outskirts of Eynesbury in about the year 974. The founders of this - the original Priory, are rather uncertain, as records differ, but certainly a woman of considerable status was largely responsible, for it was she who became known as the "First Benefactress". A question frequently asked is "who was this Saint after whom the town was named - did he even exist?" He certainly did! Neot was known to be a monk at the famous Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset and, it has been claimed, was a brother of King Alfred the Great, although there is no evidence proving this to be so. There is much to indicate he may well have been a close relative and a member of the Royal House of West Saxony. Certainly there was a close and enduring friendship between Neot and the King, who visited him on numerous occasions for advice and spiritual guidance.

The figure portrayed on the famous Alfred Jewel, now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, is aid to be that of Neot - and the Anglo Saxon engraving around the figure roughly translated reads "Alfred had me made".

Neot was a very learned scholar, and in an age when few people could read or write, was much sought after in this respect. Such distinction was not to his liking however and he eventually retired to a secluded valley in Cornwall, living a hermit like existence until, at a later date, he founded a college of Priests at this place, of which he became Abbot, remaining there until his death in about 877 and the small community that settled around this Monastic College is now the present day town of St Neot in Cornwall.

How this particular Saint came to give his name to St Neots in Huntingdonshire makes a rather bizarre story. After the Priory at Eynesbury was built it was felt necessary to acquire some sainted relics, thereby providing a Patron Saint. As Relic stealing was common practice at the time, this was such an example, but particularly blatant as it was approved and sanctioned by no less a person than Edgar, King of England! When the Cornishmen discovered this sacrilegious act they set out to follow and recover the relics, only to be attacked by an armed force of the King at Eynesbury - and thus the remains of Neot came to be interred in the new Priory!

Over a period of time a new settlement began to form around the Priory, which eventually became a separate Parish, known at first as Neotsbury. It later became the town of St Neots. This is briefly how the town originated and acquired the name.

Eynesbury, Eaton Socon and Eaton Ford, the two separate parishes adjoining St Neots - now together - all form part of the town, although each proudly retain their individual identity - and rightly so, for these are two ancient historical parishes.

This sense of individuality has been a particularly important factor in the East Anglian region for over 1,500 years - a legacy from the Engle tribe, for whom the freedom of separate identify was a fiercely guarded way of life!

Eynesbury is the parent settlement, already an ancient village when recorded in the Doomsday Book. Indeed,m when first founded, our Priory and all records connected with it were referred to as 'The Priory of Einvlvesberrie', one of the old names of this village. It was only after the relics of Neot were interred and the new settlement became established, that it came to be known as St Neots Priory.

Also noted in the Doomsday Book is Eynesbury's lovely church of St Mary's. Here, beneath the centre aisle, lie the remains of George Toller - the 'Eynesbury Giant'. This young man was 8 ft. one and half inches tall and was aid to have been buried within the church to afford protection from the 'body snatchers' of the time.

Another interesting and somewhat amusing story of a burial at this Church is that of Saher de Quince, one time Lord of the Manor of Eynesbury, who was one of the Barons to sign the Magna Charter and was regarded by King John as a man whom he 'hated worse than kippers blood'. One can imagine there were many at that time who felt much the same way about John himself!

If space allowed much can be written of Eynesbury, so ancient that it's history extends into the mists of time!

The Two Eatons were up to the Post War years, part of Bedfordshire, the Great Ouse River being the boundary between the two Counties!

Eaton Socon is an attractive village of great charm and here again can be seen a beautiful Parish Church, another St Mary, which miraculously survived a great fire in 1930, when the interior was completely gutted. Older local residents who can remember the occasion recount this awesome spectacle, how the fire lit up the stained glass windows before they dissolved away and, as the intense heat rose to the tower, the Church bells began to slowly peal having a profound affect on the watching crowd.

It was later beautifully restored and re-dedicated in 1932 and set amongst magnificent old trees and a village green frontage. A visit to this Church can be most rewarding. School Lane, a road to the side of the Church, will lead to the river and on route, to much of the history of Eaton.

On the right hand side can be seen a 19th Century lock-up containing two tiny cells and approaching the river, an open field to the left, was the site of a castle built by the Norman Lord Hugh-de-Beauchamp - a man who generously supported the newly built Priory - supplying the Monks with unlimited fuel, and donating to them two fisheries. Only a few small hillocks remain today to identify this site.

Finally, one reaches a beautiful stretch of our river at Eaton Socon Lock and sited on the bank is the ancient River Mill which has been converted into a Bar and Restaurant. This whole location is one of the most attractive regions in the area.

Eaton Socon was on the main London Stage Coach route and as such has several fine Inns; "The White Horse" in particular being one of the most famous in the Country!

So, these were the three settlements that surrounded the little Anglo-Saxon Priory and which, almost 1,000 years later were together to form the town of St Neots as it is today.

The Priory

In 1010 the Danes came up the Great Ouse river in a savage attack, plundering and destroying all in their path, including the Priory, leaving it a partial ruin after which they established a permanent fort at Tempsford, a small village a little upstream from St Neots. Shortly thereafter in 1016, Cnut, of Denmark (Canute) became King of England, so for half a century the Priory was left derelict, with the relics of Neot having been safely hidden away.

After the Norman Conquest in approximately 1078 however, it was rebuilt in far greater splendour by the Countess Rohais, wife of Richard Fitz Gilbert St Clare, Lord of the Manor of St Neots, who became known as the "second benefactress"

The Lady Rohais then placed the Priory under jurisdiction of the Abbey of Bec in Normandy, the greatest religious and cultural centre of Northern Europe, and it became a Benedictine house, owning large and numerous tracts of land throughout the country, enjoying patronage from Kings, Nobles and highly influential men of the Church. One in particular, Saint Anslem, formerly Abbot Bec, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who highly revered the Saint Neot, referred to the Priory as his "most favoured child" and visited it on numerous occasions which resulted in many gifts and donations being bestowed and the Priory becoming a very wealthy Monastic House.

The first recorded donation was that of Mathilda, daughter of Simon de St Liz, 1st Earl of Huntingdon, who gave half her manor at Cratfield in Suffolk. But by far the greatest gift was that of the Lady Rohais, who in 1113 donated the whole of her Manor of St Neots to the Priory!

In recent years a curious discovery was made when two elaborate coffins were excavated on the Priory site and found to contain the remains of women, who, upon examination at Cambridge were said to be females of obvious wealth and status - one of middle years, the other much younger - all of which leads one to believe these could almost certainly be the remains of the two ladies held in such high regard by the Priory, the Countess Rohais and the Lady Mathilda.

There are three Royal Charters connected with St Neots and Eynesbury, these all being Monastic Charters granted before 1189 by Henry I and Stephen and Henry II. Very few Royal Charters are this old, so ancient in fact that there is no record of any dating from the 12th century in the London Public Records Office.

The Charters granted the Priory the privilege to hold three yearly Fairs and a Market each Thursday of the week, at which time the Benedictine Monks laid the foundations of the Market Square, also establishing the original Parish Church in about 1179 which they were later to re-build and greatly enlarge in about 1507, to become the beautiful church it is today.

The Priory provided a powerful and wealthy canopy for the town and surrounding area until, in 1539, at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it was completely destroyed and the site and its demese farm at Monks Hardwick was sold by Henry VIII to Sir Richard Cromwell. This, not without a touch of irony however, for at a later date it was to be a member of this family - Oliver Cromwell - who was in turn to topple the Crown of England.

Oliver Cromwell

It is difficult to imagine the devastating effect of Civil War, but in 1642 England was to be embroiled in such a bloody war. Families and friends split apart by dividing loyalties. The outcome was to result in the execution of Charles I and this country for the first and only time a Republic under the leadership of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Of this great man little need be written, but history frequently maligns this "man from Huntingdon".

He was a born leader, capable and fair-minded. He went to great lengths to avoid the execution of the King - the rest, as they say, is "history", but it is due to this man alone that we enjoy the privilege of our present democracy. St Neots was, of course, in the heart of Cromwell country and in general supported his cause, although it was said that the town had rather more Royalist sympathy than most in Huntingdonshire.

In 1648 a short but decisive battle occurred in St Neots when a party of Royalists, led by the Earl of Holland and other high ranking officers, including the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Peterborough, entered the town, taking it in the Kings name. During the early hours of July 10, having retired for the night, the Earl of Holland in the Cross Keys Hotel, was unexpectedly attacked by a force of Parliament's Army under command of Cromwell's famous Colonel Adrian Scrope, and there followed a short but heated battle at the foot of the Bridge and on the Market Square, which resulted in victory for Colonel Scrope and total defeat for the Royalist Party.

Although this battle was of short duration, Parliament was much elated at the outcome and to celebrate the event declared July 19 a day of Public Holiday and Thanksgiving throughout the country. The unfortunate Earl of Holland was sent to trial, found guilty of treason and executed on March 9 the following year, before Westminster Hall, just a few weeks after the execution of Charles I.

Famous Inhabitants of the Town

This seemingly quite ordinary rural town has quite a story to tell and has contributed quite considerably to our country's history. Ruled from its Tribal origins by the legendary Warrior Queen Boudicca, granted favour by three English Kings, and Bec's famous son, Saint Anselm, it has also produced inhabitants of its own from the town that have left their mark in history.

In 1812 the Prime Minister of Britain, Spencer Perceval, was shot - assassinated by John Bellingham, a resident of St Neots. Perceval, an extremely capable and respected politician, was the only Prime Minister ever to be assassinated in this County, this due to a deeply held grievance against the Government by John Bellingham, for payment he considered was due to him for a service he had at some time performed for the country, in Russia.

Bellingham was arrested and stood trial on May 11 1812 and executed one week later on 18 May. The house in which he lived, a large Georgian building, can be seen on the corner of Cambridge Street and Huntingdon Street in St Neots.

Over the centuries, although mainly a farming community, St Neots has had industries, a number of which were of considerable importance.

In 1799 St Neots Paper Mill was leased to a firm of paper makers, one of whom, Henry Fourdrimer, completely revolutionised this industry by inventing a new paper making machine which became in great demand country-wide.

Mention should be made also of the historical importance of this particular Mill - built in the beginning by the Monks of St Neots Priory and named at that time as Okestubbe Mill, it had produced flour throughout the centuries until acquired for the production of paper, hence the change of name, and is still a thriving business to the present day, therefore remaining a fully working mill for almost one thousand years.

Another famous businessman of St Neots was George Bower, founder of the Vulcan Iron Works who patented a number of significant improvements in the Gas Industry which were traded worldwide.

Other industries included Messrs. Paine & Co, Brewers of national repute; Joseph Eayre, a famous Bell Caster; basket making for the Lowestoft and Yarmouth fishing industry; parchment makers and a cricket bat factory which produced bats from local willow trees and used by famous County and Test cricketers the world over.

1935 saw St Neots once again in the world spotlight when the first ever surviving quads were born to Mr and Mrs Miles of Eynesbury. These famous children were always known as the "St Neots Quads". Ann, Michael, Ernest and Paul Miles attracted visitors, reporters and famous personalities from all over the world, and the house that they were brought up in can still be seen at 27 New Street.

The Impact of World War II

The outbreak of World War II was to bring about many changes. This whole East Anglian region was to be at the heart of the Bomber Command Squadrons of both the Royal Air Force and later the 8th United States Army Air Force, and was also to become known as "Pathfinder Country" for it was from this region that the elite Pathfinder Force operated.

The aircraft mostly to be seen in the skies above St Neots were the famous Lancasters and Mosquitoes of the RAF and the B17 "Flying Fortresses" of the USAAF, flying at such low altitude that the Air Ministry were sent to one section of the town to examine the height of the chimney stacks to ensure that there was sufficient clearance.

Local residents quickly became accustomed to the sight and deafening noise of these awesome bombers as they thundered overhead, and would anxiously await their return - for the casualties were horrendous - almost 100,000 RAF and US pilots and crew being killed.

St Neots became a host town for young serviceman from all over the world and it was only when the war came to an end that it was revealed that RAF Station Tempsford had been a Top Secret location - for it was from here that aircraft had taken trained resistance agents to be dropped onto enemy territory to begin their dangerous and so often fatal work. Many films and books have since been produced telling the story of these courageous and now famous men and women, who used this highly secret station.

St. Neots Today

The bridge into St. Neots Town Centre
Above: The bridge into St. Neots Town Centre.

The post war years were to see St Neots expand from a small country town into the largest town in Cambridgeshire. This growth continues and as new industries and ever more people arrive to trade and reside here the town is still enduring the "growing pains" of any rapidly developing area, but of course it must be remembered that many centuries ago St Neots began life as the "new town" of old Huntingdonshire and continues in that role.

Many residents, particularly the older families, look back with nostalgia to the peace and tranquillity of the past, but we are fortunate in that our town is still surrounded by beautiful countryside, pretty villages and a river as lovely as any in the country ~ also, that progress is inevitable and change invariably brings prosperity and increased amenities.

For any touring this region, St Neots, just over eight miles from Huntingdon and on route to Cambridge, is certainly worthy of a visit. Leave the car - free of charge - at the Riverside Park. Walk over the Bridge into town, from where one can admire a beautiful view of the river and, after a meal or refreshment at the Priory Centre or one of the old coaching inns in the vicinity, one can walk along the High Street, passing the Market Square, and turning right at Church Walk - a delightful little lane easily identified by a lovely Tudor jewellery shop at the entrance - will take the visitor directly to St Mary's beautiful Church and from there into Brook Street which runs between St Neots and Eynesbury. This road, flanked on one side by the pretty stream, Hen Brook, has a number of fine Georgian buildings. One in particular "Brook House", an imposing building of very fine Georgian architecture. Continuing to follow this road, one will pass another historic Inn - the Kings Head, re-entering the back of the Market Square.

For those looking around the shops, do not miss a walk through the Cross Keys Mews, set in one of the town's most attractive and historic coaching inns, which will lead to the one time site of our ancient Priory, now housing a modern supermarket. The left of this area will lead to the Priory Centre, Library and river and is the site of the most historic part of town.

For the more energetic, look for the sign "St Anselm's Place" and a small lane nearby which will lead directly to our ancient Common.

Upon returning to the car, why not spend a while at our lovely Riverside Park and perhaps relax in this peaceful and delightful place? Should one be faintly disturbed by the distant sound of charging horses and chariot wheels - well - this is the land once ruled by the mighty Iceni, the realm of those "People of the Horse"!

[Top of Page]