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Visit of King James I to Godmanchester 29 April 1603
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The 400th Anniversary Celebrations of the Visit of King James I to Godmanchester 29 April 1603

Charles LookerCharles Looker had the foresight and the will to ensure Godmanchester celebrated the 400th anniversary of the visit of King James I on his first journey from Scotland to London as the King of England. Through much hard work on the part of Charles and help from many others, the Town celebrated the event on 29 April 2003 with the visit of HRH The Duke of Gloucester. The following pages record the celebrations and provide some of the background to this historic moment, emphasising Godmanchester's agricultural heritage and prominence at that time.

On 29 April 1603 King James VI of Scotland passed through Godmanchester on his way from Edinburgh to London, his first visit since becoming King James I of England. It was a significant time for the entire population because Queen Elizabeth I had no heirs and the relatively smooth transition was in stark contrast to previous successions. He was well received throughout his journey.

Godmanchester was used to the visits of Monarchs due to it's location on the route from London to York. However, the custom in Godmanchester of greeting the King with some 70 teams of horses and their new ploughs, is thought to be unusual for other locations judging by the reaction of James I. There is some slight variation in other references to more ploughs, but the records of the journey published in 1603 refer to three score and ten, with later correction to seventy. Verbal history in the Town recalls that the people here would meet their King at King's Bush. Within living memory there was an old tree, known as King's Bush close by the present entrance to Wood Green Animal Shelter; the address of the latter being King's Bush Farm.

The explanation given to the King by the people of Godmanchester for greeting him with their ploughs was “that it was their ancient custom, whensoever any King of England passed through their town, so to present his excellence”. Also, the people “held their land by that tenure, being the King's tenants” by way of the Charter of King John in 1212, although they were virtually their own masters. The King “bad them use well their ploughs” as he departed to Royston. It should be recalled that at time, much of the agricultural land was being turned to sheep not arable crops by the landlords. However, the Gumcestrians were rightly proud of their independence and one writer from the period claimed that they had the largest of land in any parish in the Kingdom under tillage (growing crops).

On 26 June 1604, King James I signed a new Charter for Godmanchester, which was detailed and much longer than the earlier Charters granted to the town, of which the first was King John's in 1212. The new Charter included detail on the constitution of a Common Council, including election of Members and Officers, believed to reflect his personal interest in political theory for the betterment of local governance. Interestingly, the Charter includes a clause whereby the farm horses should be excluded from requisition by the King, possibly due to his memory of his visit the previous year.

F W Bird describes the Mayoral Chain in his reminiscences (Memorials of Godmanchester – originally published in 1911 by Peterborough Advertiser Company, facsimile reproduced in recent years) and in Chapter IX recounts the appeal for funding in 1896-7 to manufacture it. Two of the medallions are described with relevance to King James I. Medallion No. 1 depicts an elm tree and is believed to relate to the visit in 1604 to receive the new Charter for the town, (presented on behalf of George Innes Bevan, Mayor 1880 and 1881 by his widow Rachael Bevan). Medallion No. 5 depicts a plough surmounted by a crow and with the text “Fourscore” beneath relating to the 80 ploughs that greeted King James I in 1603.

Celebration on 29 April 2003
The celebrations of this historic event were held at Godmanchester Community Primary School in Park Lane commencing with the royal visit of HRH The Duke of Gloucester accompanied by Mr Michael Marshall the Vice Lord-Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire. They were welcomed by the Town Mayor, Mrs Ann Looker and introduced to representatives from the Town Council, the two schools and the Community Association.

Ann Looker (Mayor 2003) with HRH The Duke of GloucesterDemonstrations of Heavy Horses were provided including Shires and a Suffolk Punch, drawn from farms in Cambs, Beds. and Herts. These included drawing a plough in transport configuration, chain harrows, tumbrel, a shepherds sledge and drawing spring tines. The families all had Godmanchester connections

Some 12 tractors were on display covering a wide era from a 1938 McCormick-Deering Farmall F20 row crop tractor (20HP) to a 2003 JCB 3185 tractor (170HP). Children from Year 5 of Godmanchester Community Primary School were led by Miss Jo Denman as Elizabethan Dancers, whilst children from St Anne's Church of England School recorder group were led by Mrs Heather Moger. Enactors were on hand with candlemaking demonstrations, street sellers, sellers of Nosegays and characters from our town and area. The weather was wonderful and the event a thorough success, highly enjoyed by everyone present as the photographs depict. On behalf of the Town, our thanks to Charles for the initiative and to all involved in making it a success.

Stuart Bond


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