Before the Romans had obtained possession of this part of Britain, the territory now included in the small county of Huntingdon formed the western extremity of the country of the Iceni. It subsequently became part of the great division of Roman Britain, called Flavia Cæsariensis; and at the period of the Saxon heptarchy, was at first included in the kingdom of East Anglia, and afterwards annexed by conquest to the more powerful kingdom of Mercia. Its early annals afford no materials for history, but such as relate to the acquisition and possession of its earldom by the royal family of Scotland, which furnished the two crowns with an additional object of contention and mutual annoyance. A short time before the Norman Conquest, the earldom, or governorship, of the shire (being then an office granted at pleasure, and not hereditary) was held by one Siward, who was in consequence styled Earl of Huntingdon, but who, having received a grant of the earldom of Northumberland, afterwards assumed the latter title. William the Conqueror, having taken into favour Waltheof, the son of Siward, gave him in marriage his own niece Judith, who, after the execution of Waltheof for high treason, was offered by the king in marriage to Simon de St. Liz, a Norman soldier, and, on her refusal, was deprived of her estates, which were conferred upon her eldest daughter, the latter at the same time espousing the Norman whom her mother had rejected. Simon de St. Liz thus became Earl of Huntingdon; but dying early in the reign of Henry I. his widow was married to David, brother and successor to Alexander, King of Scotland; who in her right inherited the possessions of Waltheof, and was made Earl of Huntingdon and Northumberland. After his death, according to the fluctuations in the tide of political events, or the caprice of the English monarchs, the earldom was sometimes enjoyed by the descendants of Matilda by Simon de St. Liz, and sometimes by her posterity by the Scottish prince. Henry, son of the latter, was at first admitted earl; but on his father's refusal to acknowledge the claim of Stephen, Count of Blois, to the throne of England, that monarch seized all the English possessions of the Scottish king, and restored the earldom to the young Simon de St. Liz. At the termination of the subsequent war between the two countries, through the mediation of the empress, one of the conditions of the peace was, that the counties of Huntingdon and Northumberland should remain in the possession of Prince Henry, as heir by maternal right, and that he and his successors should render homage for these lands to the kings of England: nevertheless, they continued a subject of frequent disputes between the two crowns. On the accession of Henry's grandson, Malcolm, to the Scottish throne, he was summoned to London by Henry II., to do homage for the lands of Cumberland, Northumberland, and Huntingdon; and not long after, Henry sent a second summons commanding him to repair to York, where a parliament had assembled, by which, on the charge of his having in the late campaign of France, whither King Henry had commissioned him, betrayed to the French the plans of the English army, he was condemned to forfeit all his English possessions. A war between the two countries ensued, which was terminated by a treaty concluded near Carlisle, when it was stipulated that Malcolm should receive back Cumberland and Huntingdon, and that Northumberland should be fully surrendered to Henry. In the war with Malcolm's successor, William the Lion, the Scottish monarch was made prisoner; and his English territories, being seized, were held in pledge for his ransom, until delivered up by Richard I., on condition that all the castles and fortified places within the earldoms of Huntingdon and Cumberland should be garrisoned by Richard's own officers and soldiers. In the subsequent wars occasioned by the rival claims to the Scottish crown, between the families of Bruce and Balliol, this earldom was finally seized by the kings of England, since which it has been granted successively to several families; a portion of the lands, however, was retained by the Bruces, and from them descended to the family of Cotton. The ancient celebrity of this part of the country for the purposes of the chase is indicated by the name of the shire and the county town. According to Leland, the shire was in former times very woody, and the deer resorted to the fens: it was not entirely disafforested until the reign of Edward I.
Huntingdonshire was formerly included in the diocese of Lincoln, but under the provisions of the act of the 6th and 7th of William IV., cap. 77, was transferred to the diocese of Ely; it forms an archdeaconry, comprising the deaneries of Huntingdon, St. Ives, Leightonstone, St. Neot's, and Yaxley, and containing 93 parishes. For civil purposes it is divided into the hundreds of Normancross, which includes the northern part of the county; Toseland, the southern; Hurstingstone, the eastern; and Leightonstone, the western. It contains the borough and market-town of Huntingdon, and the market-towns of Kimbolton, Ramsey, St. Ives, and St. Neot's. Two knights are returned for the shire, and two representatives for the borough. The county is included in the Norfolk circuit; the assizes and quartersessions are held at Huntingdon, where stands the county gaol. A peculiarity in the civil government of Huntingdonshire is, that it is included under the same shrievalty with Cambridgeshire; the sheriff being annually chosen, in rotation, from the county of Cambridge, the Isle of Ely, and this county.
The Soils consist chiefly of clay and loam of various qualities, sand, gravel, and peat-earth. Of these, the clay predominates, being found all over the county: the sandy and light soils, and the loams, are dispersed in small tracts in different parts; while the peat-earth is confined almost wholly to the fens, in the north-eastern part of the county. These fens, including the lakes, the chief of which are Whittlesea Mere and Ramsey Mere, comprise 44,000 acres, and form about one-seventh of the Great Bedford Level: 8000 or 10,000 acres of this area may be considered productive, but, as stated in the last agricultural survey of this county, made under the sanction of the Board of Agriculture, a sum equal to two-thirds of the rental is required to preserve even these from inundation; for, although they have a more elevated surface than those situated between them and the sea, yet they are not nearly so well drained, in consequence, as is asserted in the survey, of some defect in the original plan of the dykes. Timber is somewhat scarce, owing to the great demand for it in the fens. Turf is used for fuel in about half the parishes; but the inhabitants generally burn wood, and coal also, though in many places very little of the latter. The only Rivers of magnitude are the Ouse and the Nene; the latter forms the northern boundary of the county, and both are navigable in the whole of their course in connexion with it. Owing to the want of springs, the greater part of the county is supplied with water from ponds.
The chief Roman stations were Durolipous and Durobrivæ, the respective sites of which are at Godmanchester, or Huntingdon, and near Dornford Ferry. Of the ancient roads, the three principal were as follows. The British Ermin-street appears to have entered the county from the neighbourhood of Cæsar's camp, in Bedfordshire, and to have run by Crane Hill, in the tract since known by the name of Hell Lane, whence, passing through Toseland, Godmanchester, and Huntingdon, and by Alconbury, Weston, and Upton, and falling into the line called the Bullock-road, it entered Northamptonshire at Wansford. The Roman Ermin-street entered from Cambridgeshire in the vicinity of Papworth St. Agnes, and proceeding nearly in the line of the present high road to Godmanchester, thence followed the course of the British Ermin-street to the vicinity of Alconbury, whence branching off eastward, it resumed the line of the present high road through Sawtry, Stilton, and Chesterton, to the station of Durobrivæ, where it entered Northamptonshire. The Via Devana entered from Cambridgeshire in the neighbourhood of Fen-Stanton, and proceeded in the line of the present turnpike-road to Godmanchester, whence, pursuing the track of the British Ermin-street to Alconbury, it passed to the north of Buckworth and Old Weston, and entered Northamptonshire in the vicinity of Clapton. Numerous Roman coins have been discovered at Godmanchester: coins, coffins, urns, lachrymatories, &c., have been found near the site of the station Durobrivæ; urns and coins near Somersham; urns in Sawtry field; and Roman pottery at Holywell. The celebrated Cars-dyke, supposed to have been originally a work of the Romans, enters Huntingdonshire at Earith, crosses Huntingdon river, passes by Littleport, and proceeds northward to the stream named the West Water, by Benwick, and then by the Old River Nene, to Whittlesea-dyke. At the time of the Reformation, the number of Religious houses, according to Bishop Tanner, was nine, including one hospital: the principal remains are comprised in the gateway of the mitred abbey of Ramsey. Among the ancient Mansions the most interesting, from their antiquity and other circumstances, are Buckden Palace; Kimbolton Castle, the seat of the Duke of Manchester; and Hinchinbrook House, once the seat of the Cromwell family, and subsequently that of the Montagues, earls of Sandwich and viscounts Hinchingbroke. There is a mineral spring at Somersham, now in little repute.
Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.