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Boston of the Fenlands and Its Stump

by Lisa Agnew

The original Boston, from whence the Pilgrim Fathers came and where they were put on trial and eventually imprisoned for a year or so, is located in the Lincolnshire Fens on the banks of the River Witham. This Boston has a history that harks back to the Dark Ages. Tradition has it that the settlement was founded in 654 AD by a Saxon monk named Botolph, who established a monastery here. The word Boston is supposedly a contraction of Botolph's Tun (tun being the Saxon word for town). Today, the town can be seen from literally miles away, courtesy of the Stump, or lantern tower, of St Botolph's church. At 83 meters high, it can be seen across The Wash in Norfolk. Again it is tradition that says that Boston Stump was built on woolpacks, possibly a too literal interpretation of the underlying motivation for its construction -- i.e. a surplus of riches brought to the area courtesy of the mediaeval wool trade.

Boston StumpThere is evidence of Danish incursion into Boston, yet there is no mention of the settlement in the Doomsday Book of 1086. By the year 1125, however, the town played host to an important annual fair, which still takes place on the British Bank Holiday of May 1st. St Botolph's Church was completed in 1470 and, in the 13th and 14th centuries, no fewer than four orders of religious friars came to establish themselves in the town, among them the notorious Dominicans, chief instigators of the Continental Inquisition. However, with Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, all four friaries were forcibly closed.

The Fenlands, with Boston situated at their northern limit, have a distinctive aura. The land is exceedingly flat, a legacy of the draining of the fens in the early 19th century. Before this great reclamation of the land, Fenlanders were viewed as a people apart, called 'slodgers' because they splashed through muddy water, or 'yellow bellies', for a certain type of frog they were said to resemble. [See reader note, below!] There were even rumors that they had webbed feet! Regardless of this watery ancestry, the town of Boston suffered devastation by fire, as did many other timber-built mediaeval towns, on at least one occasion, in 1281.

St Botolph's Church is open every day except Sunday in summer and on Wednesdays and Saturdays in winter and is the most spectacular and well known of the town's attractions, with an architectural style partly decorated and partly perpendicular. Those with stamina can climb the Stump itself to get marvellous views of the surrounding fenland but, as with any ancient staircase, one will need to beware the unevenness of the steps' surface, a phenomena caused by countless pairs of feet wearing at the stone; and the sense of vertigo that accompanies a swift ascent up a tightly winding flight of stairs. From the giddy heights and even at ground level, visitors can still get a sense of the town's mediaeval past, as the street layout has remained more or less intact.

Boston StumpThe old town is mostly situated on the east side of the River Witham, which began to silt up during the 15th century, exacerbating a general decline already felt by the town as the coveted wool trade shifted away from the Midlands. The area has several historic buildings which can still be viewed, in various states of ruin, among them Hussey Tower, the remains of Hussey Hall, the 15th century house of Lord Hussey who, whilst a favorite of the king's at one time, ultimately lost his head through earning Henry VIII's disapproval over the Lincolnshire Rising affair. Other historic sites include the Blackfriars Arts Center, which is housed in the old Dominican brothers' refectory, and the Grammar School, built in 1567 using masonry from the Franciscan friary which occupied the site.

Boston's fortunes seesawed greatly during the reign of Henry VIII, for it was he who gave the town its charter, in 1545. From 1552 onwards, Boston was graced with two sitting Members of Parliament.

Boston lies about 5 miles inland from the north coast of The Wash and some 100 miles north of London. Luton Airport is probably the closest to Boston, but only just. If you are heading out of London by vehicle, get on the A1 (M1 close to London) and stick with the road as far as Grantham. Then take the A52 east until it delivers you safely into Boston itself. Alternatively, there is a train service to the town.

There is a plethora of fine B&Bs in this part of Britain. Most are reasonably priced. Call at Tourist Information, Market Place, phone: 01205 356656.

Reader Comment: Regarding the term "Yellowbellies"... The local Frog story is spurious to say the least - as this was a local phenomenon not seen outside the county. Wikipedia gets a little closer but is still incorrect in its facts - The stage coaches that operated in Lincolnshire in times past had yellow body work. The livery for stage coaches from Lincoln was black but with yellow undersides and front. They travelled to London and other major cities on a frequent basis and were known 'abroad' as Lincolnshire Yellowbellies.

- David Horry, whose website (http://www.horrywood.co.uk/) offers more information on Lincolnshire and artist/stamp collector Hedley Mobbs.

Related Articles:

Winds of Change: Lincolnshire's Historic Windmills, by Mary Cook

More Information:

Lincolnshire Information


Lincolnshire Places: Tour of Boston

The Stump

Lisa Agnew is a freelance writer of articles and speculative fiction. She is based in Auckland, New Zealand. English by birth, she harbours a life-long fascination with the history and folklore of her native land. Her web site may be found at http://www.writingrealm.com.
Article © 2006 Lisa Agnew
Photo #1 courtesy of Wikipedia.org; Photo #2 © Lisa Agnew


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