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The Legend of the Fens

The Legend of the Fens - origins

What were the Fenlands like?

Flag Fen
  • Flag Fen
  • The English Fenlands run from Lincoln in the north to Cambridge in the south. Much of the land was drained in the 17th and 18th centuries. Before that, the Fens had a landscape of islands, with lots of woods and heaths, which were surrounded by great marshes, shallow lakes and 'meres'. It was a damp, misty place with hot summers that brought mosquitoes and fever, and cold winters with strong gales and heavy rain; it often flooded.

    The people who lived in the Fens originally were Britons, a Celtic race of dark skinned, hardy people. They used the natural tracks to travel and meet and they fished using coracles (small round boats). It was a harsh life.

    Is any of the story true?

    Iron Age Hut
  • Type of dwelling the Celts may have lived in
  • Some parts of the story may have been based on fact. The Romans definitely saw the Fenlands as a good area for farming and fishing; at times there was fighting between Celts and Romans.

    Roman outposts (small bases for soldiers) were built on raised areas 'or islands' within the Fens. In A.D. 130, the Emperor Hadrian built a fort, palace and administration (office) block, with a slave area at Stonea. The Romans also built canals to drain areas of the Fens and to make trading routes. They built roads, such as Akeman Street, which opened up the area to people who could then come in and live, in the 2nd century.

    Although this was quite successful, in later years, Saxons and others invaded the area and the Romans fled from their villas. Flooding was another problem, which made people leave the fens for dryer places.

    How did the myth arise?

    Flag Fen
  • The Fens - an area of lakes and marshes
  • There are many myths that explain how something in the natural world came to be - these are known as origin myths.

    The people living at this time did not know about geology or the climate changes which had made the fens, and so they looked for other ways to explain them.

    They believed that the landscape was the work of the gods who had great power. These gods could control forces in the natural world such as the wind, rain and tides. In Celtic and Viking communities, the people believed that priests, or leaders with special powers, could talk with the gods and pass on messages to the community, as in the story.

    Origin myths were not just to explain events but often were stories to entertain people as well. They became changed and added to in the telling. The idea of the gods sending a great gale and tidal wave, as punishments for the wrong-doings of a people, is a common myth in many parts of the world. It also explained why the Romans left, as well as why the landscape is so strange.

    Today, there are only a few places like Wicken Fen, that give some idea of what the landscape may have been like. However, in Anglo Saxon times, the Fens were not seen as a place where people wanted to live - it was very frightening, with devils and ghosts, and covered in damp, dark mists.

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