Oldmarket's Saxon past

WHOEVER drew its ancient boundaries allowed Suffolk to bulge into Cambridgeshire at its mid-west. Moulton is roughly triangular and firmly joined to three Suffolk parishes, but from its westernmost tip is attached, by a channel no wider than a track, to the large quadrilateral of Exning out of which the Suffolk part of Newmarket later bit a tiny area, so that Exning might properly be called Oldmarket.

John Blatchly

WHOEVER drew its ancient boundaries allowed Suffolk to bulge into Cambridgeshire at its mid-west. Moulton is roughly triangular and firmly joined to three Suffolk parishes, but from its westernmost tip is attached, by a channel no wider than a track, to the large quadrilateral of Exning out of which the Suffolk part of Newmarket later bit a tiny area, so that Exning might properly be called Oldmarket.

No wonder Suffolk has always held on to Exning, for in Saxon times it included a royal residence where the Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely) claims that Aethelthryth, daughter of Anna, king of the East Angles was born and baptised there.

We have come to know her better as Etheldreda, or even Audrey, consort of Ecgfrith, king in Northumbria, abbess of Ely; she was eventually sainted.


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The Isle of Ely came to her from her first husband Tondberht, Prince of the south Fen-folk, as a sort of reverse dowry. Despite her two marriages, we have it on the authority of St Wilfrid (died 709) that in 679 she died a virgin.

The four oil paintings on wooden panels from the saint's life, made by Robert Pygot in Bury St Edmunds about 1450, are here shown with acknowledgement to the Society of Antiquaries of London. They were discovered by Thomas Kerrich, Cambridge University librarian, being used as cupboard doors in a cottage at Ely.

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In the upper pair, Etheldreda marries King Ecgfrith 'not in body but in law'. She is 'given as a bride, but her virginity is not violated'. The lower pair shows 'Here new monasteries for God she founds', and the scene 16 years after her death when she is taken from a common grave and reinterred in a fine marble coffin when 'she is as she was buried, uncorrupt'.

The churches around Exning are in the diocese of Ely, and the richness of the 13th century details of Exning St Martin church, with columns and capitals decorating the outside of the east window, reflects the enduring wealth of St Etheldreda's Ely foundation. Pevsner did not trust that east window, but even if it is restored it surely reflects what was there before.

Churches in this area often sport cupolas atop their towers, and Exning's can usually be glimpsed as one passes on the A14. The churchyard limes cast a delightful shade and several inns make the village a good staging post on east-west journeys.

Below the east window of the church is the memorial of Robert Peachy who chose that part of the churchyard for his burial when he died in 1702 aged 63.

Educated at Bury St Edmunds and Pembroke Hall, he was an earlier librarian at Cambridge University from 1667 until dismissed after 16 years for neglecting his duties. It suited him better to be rector of Stradishall and vicar of Exning for his last 20 years.

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