The Soke of Somersham

Historical notes about the Soke of Somersham, Huntingdonshire, England, UK


The SOKE OF SOMERSHAM, which followed the descent of the manor, comprised Colne, Bluntisham, Earith, Pidley and Fenton. The jurisdiction over the soke was for a long time in dispute between the bishops of Ely and the abbots of Ramsey. The former pleaded the charters of Kings Edgar, William I and Henry III granting soc and sac and other liberties in their manors, and the latter the grant in fee farm of the hundred of Hurstingstone, within the ambit of which the soke lay.

The soke of Somersham is referred to in the 12th century, and in 1276 the Bishop of Ely claimed return of writs within it and would not permit the king's bailiff to execute any mandate of the king. The bishop also claimed to have view of frankpledge, gallows and assize of bread and ale. It was further presented at the hundred court that the free tenants within the bishop's soke of Somersham were accustomed to be in assizes and inquests but had withdrawn themselves because, when they were amerced, the bishop took the amercements. It was also presented that when the men of the bishop in the soke committed any crimes they were taken to the Isle of Ely and detained there until they were delivered from prison. It would appear that after this inquiry the sheriff about 1281 instituted proceedings to test the bishop's right to the return of writs and in 1283 judgment was given against the bishop. An attempt was made by Bishop Hugh de Belsham to regain the liberty, but he died before any decision was obtained. His successors, notwithstanding the judgment of the court, exercised the right and a long law suit between the bishop and the Abbot of Ramsey was the result. The matter was eventually arranged in 1339 by the abbot relinquishing any right to the return of writs in the soke of Somersham in consideration of the bishop surrendering his right to a fair at Ely which was prejudicial to the abbot's fair at St. Ives.

The Bishops of Ely continued to exercise rights in the soke until the exchange of the manor and soke with the crown. After this date the soke was shorn of many of its liberties and the court of the soke became merely a court leet.

Nothing remains of SOMERSHAM PALACE, the ancient house of the Bishops of Ely, the site of which is now occupied by the modern house known as Somersham Park surrounded by an oval-shaped moat. All that survive of the episcopal palace are the abutments of the bridge over the north arm of the moat and the 16th-century brick wall on the north and east sides of the garden. Somersham was no doubt used by the Abbots of Ely as a residence before the foundation of the bishopric in 1109, but immediately after the manor had been assigned for the endowment of the bishopric it became an episcopal residence. The bishops had to travel frequently from Ely to London, and Somersham was the first stage in the journey, which was apparently made by water.

In 1279 the house and garden covered 4 acres, and the fishponds, the remains of which still exist, covered 2 acres, while the park included 200 acres. The Bishops of Ely were frequently at Somersham; John de Hotham died there in 1337, and it was visited by kings. Edward III was there in 1334. The palace was enlarged, it is said, by that 'lewd and luxurious' bishop James Stanley, who had brought up a family in it. Bishop Nicholas West in 1520 speaks of his 'poor house at Somersham' and in a letter to Wolsey said that he was so surrounded with water that he could not leave and no one could go to him without great danger except by boat. The banks, he wrote, were in great danger and 500 men were working on them to prevent the low country there from being drowned, and 100 men watched at night, in case the water should break through, in order to stop it and to warn the country by the ringing of bells, which they had done several times.

Wolsey endeavoured in 1528 to obtain Somersham for the endowment of his college but was unsuccessful. In 1533 there was an idea of making Somersham the place of confinement of Queen Catherine of Aragon, but the opposition of the Spanish ambassador and others prevented it. The collection of building material here at this date probably indicates preparations for the queen's residence.

Thomas Goodrich Bishop of Ely died at Somersham in 1554. His successor Richard Cox was accused by Lord North of covetous and corrupt practices. To appease him the bishop, who was much harassed, in 1581 granted the park and chace of Somersham, the keepership of which had been the cause of many disputes, to Lord North and his sons John and Henry.  Later Lord North surrendered the grant to the bishop, who granted the keepership to his son John Cox, Roger Cox and Richard Arkenstall, which led to further disputes. The bishop seems to have leased the palace to Thomas Awder, a relative of his second wife Jane, daughter of George Awder. In the long vacancy following the death of Richard Cox it was proposed in 1588 to convert the bishop's palace at Somersham into a place for the confinement of recusants. As a consequence an order was given for making a 'Survey and View of all the Ruines and Decaies in and about the Mannorhowse of Somersham with the B[ishops'] olde lodging, sarvaunts' lodging, Barnes, garnards and stables: as also two grete Bridges belonging there unto: the one being the ordenarie passage into the howse the other from the howse [over the moat] into the parke.' It was made by William Medley and Thomas Lovell, the queen's surveyors for the county, and other experts.

This survey records the absence, in some cases as 'stollen away,' though in others by decay, of lead, glass, guttering, timbers, etc., and estimates the cost of repairs as not less than £253 6s. 8d., with 100 marks in addition for repairing a brewhouse, bakehouse and cooper's office all under one roof in the back court, 110 ft. in length and 30 ft. wide. 'The Romes belonging unto the chief house, being all upon one court and environ'd with Bricke,' include the lodgings in the tower next to the chapel, the bishop's own chamber, the bishop's oratory, the chapel, turrets, vestry, the gallery adjoining the bishop's chamber, the withdrawing chamber, great chamber, study chamber, chamber upon the garden, one other little chamber looking into a little court by the garden, the Cardinal's Chamber, and two other chambers under the same, the 'Guarde Robe' chamber, buttery, kitchen, larders and scullery. Besides this there was 'the B[ishop's] olde Lodging which lyeth on the Fronte and Face of the uttermost grete court comeing in,' 120 ft. long by 13 ft. wide, with stable and barnes in the said court; also ' a long frounte of building for servaunts lodgeings lyeing upon the north side of the howse,' wherein the porter's lodge, 240 ft. long by 18 ft. wide, one end of which 'sinketh towards the moat.'

The house was evidently in a bad state of repair at this time, as we learn from another report that it was in so great decay that its repair would cost £400 or £500. Presumably some repairs were made, for in 1592 Sir John Cutts, keeper of the house, was ordered to certify what accommodation there was for recusants and in 1594 directions were issued that the recusants in Huntingdonshire were to be committed there.

The manor with the palace was exchanged with the crown in 1600. James visited it in 1604 and evidently intended to make it into a hunting box for himself. He wrote to Sir John Cutts that the place was much to his liking and he greatly regretted the waste of the game and woods there. He ordered that the park should be restocked with deer ready for sport next summer and a careful gamekeeper should be appointed.   In 1611 the reversion of the office of keeper of Somersham Chace after the expiration of the grant to Sir John Cutts was granted to Thomas Earl of Suffolk. This office not only covered the keepership of the park and chace but that of keeper of the palace and bailiff of the manor and soke. The Earl was in occupation under this grant in 1630 and his rights were reserved from the sale by the trustees for the sale of crown lands in 1653. Under this sale it is stated that the site of Somersham Place covered 10 acres 1 rood and was bounded by a moat. The materials of the chief messuage or court house, over and above the charge for demolishing, were valued at £320, indicating that the palace was then in a state of ruin. Upon the south side of the moat was a cottage called the 'Doggehouse' abutting on a place called Willow Row. The park then contained 621 acres.

James Earl of Suffolk, grandson of Thomas Earl of Suffolk, granted the keepership to John, son of Sir Kenelm Digby, in 1670. The park, however, was disparked in the middle of the 18th century, about 1762, the time of the expiration of the 99 years lease of 1620 and its extension for 43 years. The lands were then inclosed and divided into farms.

The palace was allowed to fall into ruin while it was in lease. Anthony Hammond, who had the grant in reversion of it, apparently obtained possession of a wing of the palace, where he probably died in 1680, and was buried in Somersham church. His son Anthony succeeded him and seems to have allowed the house to fall into greater ruin. Thomas son of Anthony sold the palace with the manor in 1743 to Robert Duke of Manchester, who died in 1762. It was in this year that the leases fell in, and his son George apparently pulled down all that remained of the palace.

Victoria County History; Huntingdonshire ~ 1932