The History of Huntingdon
The strategic situation of Huntingdon, at a ford over the Great Ouse with elevated ground close by, suggests that it is likely to have been settled before the Romans arrived. But we have little evidence of even Roman occupation, except the route of Ermine Street passing that way. The fact of Huntingdon’s location on the great north-south route is of significance throughout its history.
The Romans settled Godmanchester on the south side of the Great Ouse ; it appears to have been the Vikings who established a settlement on the north side, in effect founding Huntingdon, a place with easy river communication with the Wash and their homelands beyond the North Sea. The Saxon King Edward the Elder took the town in 921, expelling the Danes, though they were far from a spent force – indeed in 1010 they again ravaged the area in a great raid.
Edward the Elder may have been the first ruler to have a bridge erected at what is now Huntingdon, facilitating control and reinforcement of the town. The bridge he ordered to be built was of timber, quickly built but not long lasting as the structure’s various incarnations testify until finally in 1332 a stone version was put in place.
In 1174 Henry II overcame rebels based in the town’s castle demolished it, but the prosperity of the town did not suffer: the traffic funnelled through the town by the Old North Road; the landing of foreign trade goods there brought up the Ouse from Kings Lynn ; and the market that John’s charter of 1205 confirmed (though one had probably existed for 200 years or more) all contributed to its economic rise.
Sadly for Huntingdon the Great Plague of 1348/9 reversed that rise: a charter of 1363 states clearly that much of the town had by then become uninhabited because of the toll taken by plagues.
During the following century the disaster to hit the town was man-made: in 1461 the Lancastrian army devastated the place as it did other settlements in the area.
Times under the Tudors were more settled, but the Dissolution hit the town hard: it had enjoyed the benefits social, economic, and educational of a large number of priories, abbeys and other religious houses until Henry VIII had them closed. But this chapter in Huntingdon’s history opened another, its association with the Cromwell family. In 1538 one Richard Cromwell took on former religious properties there; his family remained as local magnates, even welcoming James I on his 1603 progress south to London and the English throne. Such connections were costly; James continued to visit; the family continued to entertain lavishly, and eventually their great house, Hinchingbrooke , had to be sold in 1627 with family fortunes all but exhausted.
Before that date, however, the greatest of the clan, Oliver , had been born in Huntingdon in 1599. He was elected to represent the borough in Parliament in 1628, though that phase of his career was like the Parliament itself short-lived. He moved shortly afterwards to St Ives , apparently as the result of a dispute over a new charter for Huntingdon.
Huntingdon at the outset of the Civil War was a Parliamentary stronghold, key to controlling East Anglia and traffic between London and the North. Charles I himself led an army of 4000 in taking Huntingdon on August 24 1645. During this period Samuel Pepys was educated at the grammar school in the town. He remained fond of the place in later life, visiting often.
A less welcome visitor the following century, drawn there by the route through Huntingdon, was Dick Turpin , preying on the burgeoning coach trade that in the 18th century brought renewed prosperity to the town. This saw the first race meetings held beneath Castle Hill in the 1760s, as famed in their day as those at Epsom . A racecourse proper, however, was only built in 1920.
At the end of the 20th century Huntingdon achieved another claim to fame, with local MP John Major becoming Prime Minister, though he proved rather less radical than his 1628 predecessor.