A dip into the research of Ken Sneath

When we reflect on the seventeenth century, our first thoughts may be of the civil war or the "great rebellion" depending on our point of view. How did this event impact on the people of the town? What kind of place was Godmanchester in the seventeenth century and who lived there?

Initial impressions could be gained from a stroll down Earning Street where there are some fine seventeenth century houses. They include Tudor House and The Gables. These striking houses could easily mislead us into thinking that Godmanchester was a very prosperous community. Another surviving building is the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School which was forty years old at the turn of the century.

A master was licensed to teach reading, writing or Latin grammar to the boys of Godmanchester. One of its eminent pupils was Stephen Marshall. Marshall was born in Godmanchester in 1595, just four years before Cromwell's birth in Huntingdon. The son of a glover, he gleaned the fields of Godmanchester to supplement the family diet. Although from a humble background, Marshall clearly had potential and went on to Emmanuel College Cambridge, a hotbed of Puritanism. The label "puritan" remains divisive today for some would view them as reactionary bigots opposed to freedom of thought whereas others hail them as torchbearers of religious liberty and political freedom. There is little doubt that the vicar of Godmanchester, John Wibarne would have been strongly opposed to Puritanism. In 1640, Charles I perhaps unadvisedly from his point of view, consented to the establishment of "fast sermons" to be preached before parliament. Fast sermons were so called not for their speed but because they were accompanied by absence of food! Marshall became a regular and noted preacher of these sermons to Parliament. By 1642, Marshall believed the time had come to "obey God rather than Caesar" and in his most famous sermon "Meroz Cursed" prepared the way for civil war and the shedding of blood which was to culminate in the death of the King.

In June1645, the decisive battle was fought at Naseby and royalist forces were defeated. In August, a brief skirmish took place in Huntingdon and Charles l arrived in the town. A tax was levied on the people of Godmanchester to present to the King. One who could not pay was John Robince an old man who was in debt. He was subjected to torture and after lighted matches were put between his fingers, his neck was tied and he was forced to lie all night in his barn.

When the restoration came in 1660, efforts were made to provide the King with sufficient income to avoid future conflicts with Parliament. This led to the introduction of the Hearth Tax that was levied at the rate of two shillings per hearth per annum. Tax records for Godmanchester survive and they give a fascinating glimpse of the town in 1664. From these records, the population of the town can be calculated at around a thousand. The three most populated parishes in the county were Ramsey, St Ives and Godmanchester with Huntingdon and St Neots only just over half their size. Not everyone paid the tax and the poor were exempt. The tax records give a very different picture of Godmanchester to a walk down Earning Street. Godmanchester is revealed as the poorest parish in the county with 48% of households exempt from the tax. The tax records also reveal a very different social structure in Godmanchester to Huntingdon and St Neots. In Godmanchester, only 1% of the population were gentry whereas 15% were gentry in Huntingdon and 13% in St Neots. Conversely 60% were labourers in Godmanchester compared to 32% and 31% in Huntingdon and St Neots.

Eighty three probate inventories survive from seventeenth century Godmanchester and although they must be interpreted with care give an insight into the lifestyles of the middle ranks. Not surprisingly, Social rank largely determined people's lives. Gentlemen possessed luxury furniture such as a mahogany bed and turkey work chairs. The quality of mattresses was linked to rank and only a gentleman possessed one filled with down. Lower ranks frequently only possessed inferior boarded beds. However, generally rising living standards can also be seen. Chairs were replacing stools and pewter dishes were superseding wooden ones. Lower ranks were not excluded from rising prosperity and often slept under feather rather than flock mattresses and possessed a Bible.

Historians suggest that there was a steady improvement in the nation's clothing as the century progressed. Gregory King prices the nation's total expenditure on clothes at over £10 million in 1688, a quarter of national income. In Godmanchester clothes were related to rank. Robert Tryce, a gentleman, had clothing valued at £20 whereas Edward Reeve's clothing was valued at just 3 shillings, little more than the value of one shirt. Women's costume consisted of underlinen, smock and petticoat, gown, "crosse cloths", apron, neckerchief and coat. Croftes had "two gownes, four petticoates, two wastcoates, a short cloake and a hat and a smocke" valued at 40s. Laxton had "three gownes, two pettecotes, and a little cloake" valued at £4, three other "wearinge pettecotes" at 6s 8d and one hat with a sipris" band at 4s. She has nine wearinge hed Circhers and two handchirches, foure smockes and two aprons valued at £2.

There are references to books in 29% of Godmanchester inventories in the first half of the century. Frustratingly only one title is given other than the Bible and this was a book of puritan piety. Stappard's will (1640) included a bequest to the "free scoole scollers of Godmanchester Ten Shillings to buie them a dixanerie". The inventory of the Vicar of Godmanchester, Badcock (1691), reveals that he had a library of books valued at £40. He also owned some London maps and an old map.

Arable predominated over livestock in the large farms of Godmanchester and the main crops were wheat and barley. Most of the population was engaged in agriculture of some kind and there were many part-time smallholdings where the owner possessed a cow and a pig. Inventories provide evidence for the debate about the transition from traditional to capitalist models of lending. In Godmanchester, money lending between individuals was common. Most debts were likely to be collected although it is not known whether interest was charged. Substantial amounts of ready money were held including William Green who held over £130 at the time of his death in 1627.

Finally, administration accounts give an insight into funeral practices in the century. These rarely survive but ten remain for Godmanchester. John Dickenson was a Godmanchester barber who died in 1675. At his funeral, bread cakes and beer were provided at a cost of £42s 6d. Payments were made to ringers, the clerk, sexton, two women for stripping the deceased and ten shillings for the funeral sermon. All told his funeral cost 20% of his assets.

"Sipris is cypress. Cypress was a name of textile fabrics originally brought from Cyprus also used in sign of mourning.


Ken Sneath is currently studying for a Masters Degree at Darwin College, Cambridge. His thesis is on the social and economic history of seventeenth century Huntingdonshire.