More Ghosts of Cambridge
by Prudence Jones

August 2014

This year's astrological walk (at the AA's 2014 annual conference) will explore the ghosts of the Cambridge river meadows and of the establishments, monasteries and colleges which once depended on them. Cambridge, unsurprisingly, is full of ghosts, as we saw on last year's conference walk. The ghostly knight at Wandlebury hill fort, just outside the city, could with a spot of imagination be seen as the earliest one, one of the Iron Age Britons who built the original earthworks. Roman ghosts have been seen in the area too, as well as on some of the other Roman roads around the city. Cambridge is built on fenland river terraces, and the ghostly dog of the Fens, Black Shuck, has been reported as a denizen of the area at least since the hermit St Guthlac established his cell here in the 680s (?)

But most identifiable ghosts are mediaeval or modern, and that certainly goes for the subjects of this year's walk. Details of particular ghosts will be given on the walk itself, but here is the broad historical setting, the astrological background, and hints of a few other ghosts living outside the limits of this year's tour.

The Leper Chapel and Steresbrigge Fair

About two miles to the east of Cambridge a brook runs north into the River Cam, cutting the Newmarket road which runs parallel to the river here. The Newmarket road was a drove road, along which cattle were driven into the market in Cambridge, and the bridge on which they crossed the brook was known as the Steers' Bridge, or Sturbridge, later gentrified to Stourbridge. This was the eastern boundary of Cambridge and its common fields, and it was here, at the far edge of the city, that a hospital and chapel for lepers were founded in about 1150.

Leprosy abated over the next century, and the hospital was reported empty in 1279. It must have been a gloomy and ill-omened place, but no reports have survived of the ghosts of its unfortunate inhabitants. However the Newmarket road was later the site of a plague house for victims of the Black Death, and this may explain a mysterious figure on the road which we will learn about on our walk. Despite the decline of the Leper Hospital, its extensive water meadows, stretching north to the river, became the site of a great trade fair, originally giving the hospital an income from stall rents and taxes on goods, but soon becoming the greatest fair in the land, a major source of international trade.

Our first record of the Steresbrigge Fair (later Sturbridge or Stourbridge) exists in the grant of a royal charter for Holy Cross Day (14th September) in 1211, and here is our first horoscope. As later records show the fair always being declared open at noon on its first day, this horoscope is set up for noon Old Style.

The Sagittarian Ascendant and Moon perhaps show the fair's ownership by a religious house. But in addition they indicate the considerable international trade which the fair attracted. Barges came in from the seaports of the Wash to moor at the edge of Sturbridge fields and unload their goods. By 1289, with the demise of the Leper Hospital, the rights of the fair had passed into the hands of the Cambridge corporation, and by 1300 trade is reported in timber from the Baltic, silks from Italy, and iron from Spain. Household accounts show Cambridge people buying fish, spices, currants, raisins, almonds, saffron and other luxuries. Books, lenses and Venetian glass later joined the goods for sale, and local farmers exported wool, meat and grain. Here in the 1660s Isaac Newton brought Euclid's Elements and later his prism. The Sun and MC in Virgo well reflect the fair's mercantile interests, while Venus with Saturn and Pluto in Leo in the 8th house shows the straitened financial circumstances of King John "Lackland", who raised money by selling the rights to fairs. Across the river too, a ferry linked the fair with the royal manor and village of Chesterton, from which roads led north to Ely and to Huntingdon.

Do we see any ghosts here? Neptune in the 4th describes river trade and the fair's site in a charitable foundation as much as the wraiths of the living dead (on diagnosis, lepers sometimes had the Last Rites read over them) who must have fluttered to and fro in the mists of the river meadows where the stallholders slept in their booths. Ghosts from later centuries have been seen, and writers have found this an evocative area: two ghost novels set here are listed in the bibliography.

Barnwell Priory and the Midsummer Fair

But nearer the city centre, the next monastic location is full of the unquiet dead. Those who came on the Roman Cambridge walk will remember the priory of St Giles, set up near the Castle in 1092 by the wife of the Sheriff of Cambridge in thanks for her recovery from serious illness. Here is the location to which it eventually moved. The site was unsuitable for long-term monastic development, and so in 1112 it was moved to the "children's spring" or Barn-well, on the other side of the River Cam on the way to the Leper Chapel and, like it, between the Newmarket road and the river. It is said that here the local boys would come to wrestle, hold foot-races and sing every Midsummer's Eve, giving their name to the spring and to the village south of the road. And if you listen very carefully at that time of year, you can still hear the sounds of children singing. Here too a hermit nicknamed Godson, who is commemorated by a local road name, had set up his cell with a chapel dedicated to St Andrew. Shortly after his death the priory took over, with a dual dedication to St Giles and St Andrew. It later experienced an alarming haunting of its own, which you will hear about on the walk, and at the time of the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 became a focus of attack by the townsmen. The prior had recently reduced the width of the river below his abbey by over 12 feet, obstructing navigation, and this, together with his encroachment on common land, had been the subject of formal complaint.

However the many ghosts in the Abbey (as the priory is generally known) date from after its dissolution in 1538. One whole building, the Cellarer's Chequer, and a reconstructed manor house remain, as we shall see. The house was in private ownership, with all its noisy ghosts, until 2001, when it reverted to its original monastic use after being bought by the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. They too have ghost tales to tell, but more of these when we visit the site.

Barnwell Priory too had its fair on the meadows, the Midsummer Fair every June 23rd, whose unbroken continuity dates from its charter in 1211. It is thought to have originated from the village boys' midsummer games and is now once more a funfair, but in early modern times it was known as the Pot Fair, as stoneware and china were prominent among the goods sold there. In 1505 it was handed over to the Corporation, and the city Mayor opened it each year by throwing a bucket of re-hot pennies - miniature solar discs - into the crowd. Solar symbolism is reiterated in the showmen's tradition of marking the centre of the fair by their chief declaring "This is the spot!" as he strikes his heel into the exact point where the main roundabout is to go. Across the river from the Midsummer Fair, where the Cutter Ferry used to ply its trade, there were also ghosts, as we shall see when we visit, but now the dank fenland of the area known as the Willows has been drained and built on, these ghosts seem to have faded into memory.

Cambridge's natal horoscope

The river trade was the centre of Cambridge's prosperity as a county town and a mint from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. Although the town lost control of its finances during the Norman conquest, over the next two centuries it gradually regained many of its former powers, but from 1209 it had to battle with the growing power of the new University, the Crown-backed training establishment for royal civil servants. Here is the chart for the high point, King John's charter of 1201 to the town, authorising a guild of merchants, confirming the fairs and granting other financial and judicial privileges.

Although signed at King John's hunting lodge at Geddington near Kettering, the chart is set for noon (the usual mediaeval time for inaugurations) in Cambridge, on 8th January 1201 OS (corrected for Annunciation style). With 22 Taurus rising, the chart shows the financial interest of the town and perhaps anticipates the existing or later importance of the Steresbrigge fair and its cattle drove. Cambridge's aldermen are shown by the Ascendant ruler, Venus, close to the Sun (the King) and looking into the 10th house. Cambridge had bought its charter by the considerable expenditure of 250 marks the year before. Six years later, just after the Sun progressed into Aquarius, a second charter replaced the King's sheriff by an elected reeve (which evolved into mayor by 1231) and confirmed the town's independence of day-to-day government by the Crown. The King himself (Sun) is ruled by Saturn in Pisces, showing his dependence on the waterways which brought so much prosperity to Cambridge, and the modern planets Uranus and Pluto oppose him from the 4th house, once more, like the Sturbridge chart, underlining his nickname of 'John Lackland.'

The chart is overwhelmingly earthy , with only one planet in fire. Jupiter in Sagittarius in the 7th house perhaps shows the merchants coming from afar to trade. It also of course shows the importance of the Church at the time - all those monasteries and their fairs - and foreshadows the arrival of the students in 1209. Enterprising initiative (Jupiter) is thus taken by an outsider who has the big picture. Jupiter is also opposite Fortuna in Gemini - trade - and the latter's ruler Mercury is in Capricorn in the 8th, near Cauda Draconis. The picture builds of a guild of shopkeepers concerned with owning and accounting, but relying on an outsider to give them the big picture and a sense of direction. Mars in the 12th house in Taurus suggests that financial acumen could easily become self-defeating greed, and the Ascendant near to Algol warns against the danger of the town, figuratively, losing its head.

This is of interest because throughout the 13th century, the growing prosperity shown by the town's increasing control of taxes and local governance is counterbalanced by the arrival of the masters and scholars who became the university. Scholars lived in private lodgings in the town, as did their masters, and teaching took place in these lodgings or in churches. Students complained constantly about extortionate charges by their landlords, and this horoscope suggests that the charges might not have been fictitious. Equally, the townsfolk complained about the students receiving preferential treatment from the King's justices, and from 1231 onwards there were constant town-gown riots.

But are there ghosts in this horoscope? Well, Scorpio, a sign associated with death, is on the Descendant, with its ruler Mars in the 12th house of ghosts and hidden enemies. Enough said. These ghosts are the counterbalance to the materialism of the chart, the nightmares of an inferior feeling function. Cancer with the Node on the 3rd-house cusp shows the water-borne trade, and on the IC it describes Cambridge's site in the watery Fens. Perhaps the music of the monasteries and college chapels is shown here as well, but Cancer on the 3rd can mean an uncomfortably emotional and intensely personal cast of mind, spawning poltergeists and awkward synchronicities. Using the new planets, Uranus and Pluto in the 4th opposing the Sun certainly show powerful ancestral forces which would make their presence felt, and Saturn in Pisces, perhaps showing friendly ties with the Hanseatic merchants who later had their base at King's Lynn, is conjunct Neptune, intensifying the spirituality and wateriness of Pisces. Friendly ghosts perhaps? But Neptune is looking into the 12th house, so perhaps not so friendly after all. The nature of this conjunction became clearer after the town's first Saturn return.

Cambridge's fortunes were enormously changed by the Great Flood of 1236 which altered the coastline around the Wash and thus Cambridge's access to the sea. No date is known for this, but it is likely to have been at one of the equinoctial tides. I have drawn up the chart for June, midway between them, to give an idea of the travel of the faster planets that year.

The chart shows a second conjunction of Saturn and Neptune, this time in Gemini in the town's first house, joined by Mars in July and opposed by Jupiter in September. This is in broad applying square to the natal Saturn-Neptune conjunction. Gemini: commercial interests, or book learning perhaps, challenge the structured waterways of Pisces. Mars had progressed over Algol/Ascendant, and Jupiter was returning to its natal place. The merchants of King's Lynn, now governing the outflow of the Cam, demanded exemption from the shipping taxes at Cambridge. Presumably, with Mars on its Taurean ascendant, the Cambridge chamber of commerce dug its heels in. In the second half of the 13th century, we see financial distress among the merchants. A former mayor, John le Rus, had to sell his house to a group of friars because of his debts to the Jews, the bankers of the day. In 1266 the barons, holed up in the Isle of Ely and battling against Henry III, raided the Jewry and the Jewish chest to destroy all evidence of debts owed. Pluto was transiting across natal Jupiter and Saturn opposing it. As always in a credit crunch, the bankers took the blame and the Jews were expelled from Cambridge in 1275. This second half of the 13th century also saw the new university, likewise Gemini (at least with reference to its very young students), claiming power over its own affairs and extending this to other civil matters, for example half the supervision of the assize of bread and ale in 1268. However we are now straying into economic history, which is only the background for our ghosts.

St Radegund's Nunnery and Garlic Fair

Nearest to the town along the same road is Jesus College, the successor (in 1496) of the old nunnery of St Mary the Virgin, St John the Evangelist and St Radegund. This nunnery possessed the oldest recorded fair, the Garlic Fair, chartered c.1150, which bizarrely sold pots and pans, chains, locks and other ironmongery. St Radegund (c.520-587) was one of those tough-minded Saxon princesses of the Dark Ages, marrying only reluctantly and departing as soon as she could to found a convent . A dual convent, with both monks and nuns, of Our Lady of Poitiers was founded by her c.552, and Radegund placed her childhood friend the Lady Agnes in charge of it. One feature of its rule was that the nuns were required to be literate and to read the Bible and to copy manuscripts each day, so in a way Radegund can be seen as a patron of female learning. She died on 13th August 598, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and in the 9th century she was canonised as a saint. She is not, however, reported to have subsequently manifested as an apparition. Five English parish churches are dedicated to her, as well as the Cambridge nunnery which became Jesus College, and just across the road from the College is the St Radegund pub, built over an ancient well. Radegund is patroness of people who are in danger of drowning, as well as those in unhappy marriages or grieving the loss of a parent.

Garlic Fair was the smallest in scale of the three river fairs, but it survived into the early 19th century, when the local newspaper, the Cambridge Chronicle of 1809, reported its continuing but faded existence. There is a wonderful 18th-century ghost story attached to the college, which may make you nervous when you hear it about promises that outlast the grave, but just how much is history and how much is fiction remains unclear.

For astrologers, the most interesting old boy of Jesus College is perhaps John Flamsteed (1646-1719), the first Astronomer Royal. He only nominally attended the college, in 1670, but this allowed him to obtain his MA and claim his place in academic life outside Cambridge. His horoscope for the founding of the Royal Observatory at 3.14 pm on 10th August 1675 famously bears the legend: Risum teneatis, amici?, a quote from Horace, popular at the time, which means "(having seen this) can you refrain from laughing, friends?" Flamsteed is unlikely to have seen this as the laughter of delight, since he was a known anti-astrologer. But tradition still demanded that as the Astronomer Royal he had to draw up the horoscope for the new foundation, which with gritted teeth he evidently did, revealing by his choice of satirical quote that the horoscope was still to be seen as analogous to the jumbled monster described by Horace. Here it is in Ben Jonson's translation:

If to a woman's head a painter would / Set a horse-neck, and divers feathers fold / On every limb, ta'en from a several creature, / Presenting upwards a fair female feature, / Which in some swarthy fish uncomely ends: / Admitted to the sight, although his friends, / Could you contain your laughter?


However, as a horoscope it is not unpropitious. Flamsteed, nevertheless, is a harbinger of the modern age, which tired of the fanatical superstitions of the wars of religion earlier that century, trusted in reason rather than revelation, whimsical metaphor rather than the doctrine of true similarities. The ghost story of Jesus College, set 100 years after Flamsteed, shows what supposedly happened when young men on the cusp of modern materialism defied the spiritual traditions of the all-too-recent past.

The post-Reformation colleges

So Jesus College is a fitting boundary between the strange mediaeval world of the monasteries and their annual fairs, and the brave new world of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Strangely enough, the new colleges which were later founded along the old Roman road to London, at right angles to the Newmarket road, all have their ghosts. We shall not be visiting these colleges on our walk, but I shall outline their stories in a later issue.



The section on Cambridge's natal horoscope is adapted from my text for the pamphlet accompanying our AA walk, The Glittering Spires, at the 2007 Conference.

For the section on St Radegund I have paraphrased an earlier version of the text from the Jesus College website

Further reading

There are many books and websites on the history of Cambridge. Two serious ghost books which I have used are:

Robert Halliday & Alan Murdie - The Cambridge Ghost Book, Fern House, 2000

ditto Cambridge Ghosts, Arima 2010

Geoff Yeates - Cambridge College ghosts, Jarrold, 1994.

And two novels set in the area of the river meadows are:

Rebecca Stott - Ghostwalk, Random House, 2008

Ann Hales-Took - The Lost Priory, Milton Contact, 2009