At the time of the Roman invasion, Cambridgeshire formed part of the kingdom of the Iceni, being, according to Whitaker, inhabited by a tribe of that people, called the Cenomanni. In the first division of Britain by the Romans it was included in Britannia Superior; in the second, in Britannia Prima; and in the last, in Flavia Csariensis. During the heptarchy it was part of the kingdom of the East Angles; and on the subsequent division of England into three great districts, it was comprised in that styled Denelege, or the Danish jurisdiction. The county consists of the archdeaconry of Ely and a small part of that of Sudbury, in the diocese of Ely, and province of Canterbury, comprising the deaneries of Barton, Bourne or Knapwell, Cambridge, Camps, Chesterton, Ely, Shengay, and Wisbech; the number of parishes is 162. For civil purposes it is divided into the hundreds of Armingford, Chesterton, Cheveley, Chilford, Ely, Flendish, Longstow, Northstow, Papworth, Radfield, Staine, Staploe, Thriplow, Wetherley, Whittlesford, Wisbech, North Witchford, and South Witchford. It contains the city of Ely; the university, borough, and market-town of Cambridge; the market-towns of Linton, March, Thorney, and Wisbech; and part of those of Newmarket and Royston. Three knights are returned to parliament for the shire, and two representatives each for the university and borough. It is within the Norfolk circuit; and the assizes are held at Cambridge, where stands the county gaol and house of correction.
The surface exhibits little variety. The parts adjoining the counties of Suffolk, Essex, and Hertford, have gently rising hills, with downs, and open cornfields, and a considerable portion of wood in the part contiguous to Suffolk, from Wood-Ditton to Castle-Camps; but in other parts there is a scarcity of timber. Gogmagog hills, commencing about four miles southeast of Cambridge, though of no great elevation, yet, being the highest in the county, command extensive prospects. The northern part of the county, including what is called the Isle of Ely, is for the most part fen land, and quite level, intersected by numerous canals and ditches, and containing many windmills, like those of Holland, and steam-engines, for conveying the water from the land into channels for carrying it off to the sea; the inclosures are chiefly formed by ditches, and there are few trees except pollard willows. The great expanse of fen land in the district comprises nearly half of that extensive agricultural tract called the Bedford Level, the remainder of which is situated in the counties of Norfolk, Lincoln, Northampton, and Huntingdon. From the various remains that have been discovered in constructing the channels, it is conjectured, that at some remote period the county was all firm land, reduced to a marshy state by frequent inundations of the sea, and by the obstruction of the old natural outlet, at Wisbech, of the rivers Ouse, Nene, and Granta. To prevent subsequent inundations, commissions were issued, from time to time, to enforce the repair of banks and sewers. The most important work of this kind executed before the reign of James I., was the channel made by Bishop Morton, which carried off the overflowings of the Nene, and furnished water-carriage from Wisbech to Peterborough. From the reign of Henry VI. to that of James I. various commissions were granted for a general drainage; but no great progress was made. In 1630, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutchman, agreed to undertake the work; but the landowners rejected his offer, and petitioned Francis, Earl of Bedford, who had a large property in the fens, to undertake it, to which that nobleman acceded; and a deed of agreement, the foundation of the laws by which the Bedford-Level Corporation is still governed, having been made and ratified at a session of sewers held at Lynn, in 1631, the earl associated with himself others, to whom he assigned shares. So rapid was the progress of the work that, in about three years, the Great Level was adjudged to be drained according to the Lynn law, and 95,000 acres were allotted to the parties as a compensation for the trouble and expense they had incurred. However, at a session of sewers held at Huntingdon, in 1639, the whole proceedings were annulled, the drainage was adjudged to be defective, and it was determined that the earl and his associates were not entitled to the land that had been allotted to them. The king (Charles I.) now purposed to undertake the whole concern; but the national troubles which soon afterwards ensued having frustrated the design, the works progressively fell into decay, and continued so till the year 1649, when an ordinance was passed by the Convention parliament, declaring all the proceedings at Huntingdon null and void; and the entire management of draining the level, on the general plan of the Lynn law, was entrusted to the care of William, Earl of Bedford, son and heir of Earl Francis. This ordinance was confirmed by an act passed in 1662, by which also taxes were imposed on the 95,000 acres, for maintaining the works of the level, and this taxation was further adjusted by an act of 1667: 12,000 acres were allotted to the crown, including 2000 granted by Charles I. to Jerome, Earl of Portland; and the remaining 83,000 were vested in the corporation of the Bedford Level, which, under this act, consists of a governor, six bailiffs, twenty conservators, and a commonalty including all persons possessing 100 acres in the fens. The Great Level, comprising a tract of about 400,000 acres, has been from an early period divided into three districts, viz., the North Level, the Middle Level, and the South Level; the greater part of the Middle Level, and a considerable portion of the South Level, are in Cambridgeshire, containing the whole of the Isle of Ely, and a few parishes to the south-east of it, and consisting of nearly 200,000 acres.
The Substrata of the county are, chalk, which extends through the hilly part, from Royston to Newmarket; clunch, a calcareous substance found in large masses, but neither so white nor so soft as chalk, chiefly abounding in the parishes of Burwell and Isleham, and much used for lime and fire-stones; gault, a stiff blue clay, prevailing in the eastern and western parts of the county; sand, which, crossing Bedfordshire, begins in this county in the parish of Gamlingay; silt, a seasand finely pulverized by the agitation of the waters, and found in the marsh land of several parishes in the northern extremity of the county; peat earth, extending through the whole of the fen district; and gravel. The soil is chiefly arable, and produces an abundant supply of corn, particularly in the fen district: vast quantities of barley are constantly sent to Lynn, in Norfolk, and thence shipped to every part of the kingdom; and it is estimated that about one-fourth of the fen-lands actually in cultivation is sown with cole-seed, the plant being mostly eaten off by sheep. Hemp and flax are raised to a considerable extent in the parishes of Upwell, Welney, Outwell, Elm, and Wisbech, especially in the two first. The parishes of Chatteris, Mepal, Sutton, Swavesey, Over, Willingham, Cottenham, Rampton, Landbeach, Waterbeach, Stretham, Ely, Littleport, Soham, and Fordham, constitute the principal dairy-district, a great quantity of the butter produced in which is sent to London, and there sold under the name of Cambridge butter. In the parishes of Cottenham and Willingham is made the cheese so much esteemed for its flavour, called Cottenham cheese; and the parish of Soham is also celebrated for good cheese.
The principal Rivers are the Ouse, which is navigable in its entire course through the county; the Cam or Granta, formed by two small streams that unite between Grantchester and Harston, and navigable from its junction with the old line of the Ouse near Thetford, up to Cambridge; and the Nen or Nene, also navigable: the Lark falls into the Old Ouse at a place called Prickwillow, near the eastern border of the county, and is navigable to Bury St. Edmund's. The Canals intersecting the Isle of Ely were made for the purpose of drainage, but many of them are likewise navigable. Vermuyden's canal, commencing at Ramsey, enters the Isle near Ramsey mere, and extends to Welche's dam; it there joins the Old Bedford river, and, proceeding in the course of that river, leaves the county a little to the west of Welney. The New Bedford river is the main channel for barges passing from the upper to the lower parts of the Ouse. The Old Bedford river, which runs parallel with the last from Earith to Denver sluice, is now seldom navigated, excepting the lower part of it; having been almost choked up since the construction of the New Bedford line. A canal from Outwell to Wisbech was made about the end of the last century. There is also a canal from Peterborough to the Old Nene, a little below Benwich, and thence to March; besides short cuts from the Ouse to Soham, Reach, and Burwell. The county is well furnished with railway communication, which has been wholly effected by the Eastern Counties Company. Their main line enters the county, from Essex, at its southern boundary, and proceeds northward, by Cambridge, to Ely, a few miles from which it quits for Norfolk. Near Cambridge a line branches off in a north-west direction to Huntingdonshire; and from Ely there are branches, northward towards Lynn in Norfolk, north-westward to March and Peterborough, on the borders of Cambridge and Northampton, and south-westward to Huntingdonshire.
Few Roman antiquities have been discovered, except on the site of the station at Cambridge, the only one of importance within the limits of the county. The principal ancient roads that crossed the county were, the Ikeneld-street, the Ermin-street, and the great Roman way from Colchester to Chester; the first and last may be distinctly traced in different parts of their course. Before the Reformation the county comprised 32 religious houses, including two preceptories of the Knights Templars, two commanderies of the Knights Hospitallers, and three alien priories; of which there are various remains. Of ancient castles but little is left, except the earthworks. The most considerable encampment is that called Handlebury, on the highest part of Gogmagog hills, supposed to be of British origin. The most remarkable earthworks are the trenches that extended from the woods on the east side of the county to the fens: the most entire is the Devil's Ditch, which runs seven miles, from Wood-Ditton to Reach, in the parish of Burwell, nearly in a straight line; and parallel with it, extends another trench, called Fleam Dyke, at the distance of seven miles, stretching from the woodlands at Balsham to the fens at Fen-Ditton, but a large part of which has been levelled. The Isle of Ely gives the title of Marquess to the reigning sovereign.
Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.