The historians of East Anglia often choose Burwell and some of its neighbours as case studies in 'fen edge' settlement from Saxon and Medieval times; Burwell can also illustrate that it was settled in the Roman era. The Roman waterway of Reach Lode gave water-borne access to East Reach, which in turn served Burwell - and thus the town benefitted from access to the Cam river system.
Burwell, Burewelle in the Domesday book, and already in the manor of the Abbot of Ramsay, is thought to have derived its name from "spring by the fort". The name existed before the castle, and so we must conclude that there was a defended site at Burwell before King Stephen decided to build his fortification.
It was the work of archaeologist T C Letherbridge in 1935 that confirmed the length of occupancy of the Burwell castle site; he restricted his main report to interpretation of the castle but found the Romano-British building that lies in the ditch or moat, and the evidence of a medieval village that stood on the site before the castle was built. It will be future archaeologists who attempt to take the understanding of the non-castle finds further.
The castle itself was one of those built by King Stephen to try and control the rebellious Earl of Essex, Geoffrey de Mandeville. He had seized Ely and was using it as a base for raiding and pillaging along the fen edges. De Mandeville attacked the unfinished castle at Burwell in 1144 AD, but was killed during the siege of the site. It was never therefore necessary that the castle be completed.
The site was further complicated when the then Abbot of Ramsey erected a manor house within the area covered by the earthworks of the castle. House platforms of workers who toiled on the local manor estates for the Abbot have been found within the earthworks. Whilst the site today is grassed-over ruins, footpaths take you to a series of interpretation boards which help with understanding of the mounds and hollows.
The Devil's Dyke, possibly built by Penda, king of the Saxon's during the late 6th or early 7th century, is at its most dramatic as it crosses the main road between Burwell and Swaffham Prior. Today it has importance as both an historical monument and as a wildlife refuge; its original massive form is interpreted as providing a defence for the Saxons against the Britons to the west. The Devil's Dyke Restoration Project web site attributes the critical benefit of a substantial ditch as preventing the cavalry of the Britons being able to fight the warriors of the Saxons, who normally fought on foot. Other sources push the time of building earlier, perhaps to 410AD, attributing it to an unspecified Saxon warlord.
Burwell in medieval times was sufficiently properous for the fine church of St Mary's to be built, probably designed by the same architect as King's College in Cambridge. It continued to be dependent on Reach for water based transport, and then the Reach Lode (waterway) was cut, adversely affecting Burwell. In the mid-1600s Burwell New Lode was cut and prosperity returned, with an even better access to the river systems. Grain could be exported; timber, salt and iron could be imported. From the main settlement around the church the village had already expanded into a long, thin settlement. A waterway ran behind a long string of houses in the village, and many of them had their own landing stages. Richard Muir, one of the experts on East Anglian landscapes and settlements, points to the quality of houses that can still be seen, built by the prosperous merchants from the 1600s. Prosperity through access by water would last until the coming of the railway, the Cambridge - Mildenhall line being opened in 1884.
In telling the story of Burwell, it is necessary to recall the great tragedy of the fire of 8th September 1727. A public puppet show was being presented in a barn in the village, and a large audience attended, naturally many of them children. During the performance a candle was knocked over, resulting in a fire and the death of 78 people, 51 of them children.
Burwell today offers the opportunity to study life in a fen-edge village through a visit to its museum; Steven's mill is part of the museum - standing now not in open fields but surrounded by bungalows. The museum is not open all day, every day, so it is important to check days and times before visiting. Though a smaller size town, Burwell is well provided, with banking and postal facilities, a range of local churches and close enough to Newmarket and particularly Cambridge to act as a dormitory town.
It can be difficult to understand the layout of the castle and ditch or moat, but there are several interpretation boards to assist the visitor
Steven's mill is part of the complex which makes up the Burwell Museum, which illustrates fen-edge life
The tragedy at the barn is remembered in this stone in St Mary's churchyard
Burwell contains many buildings of historic interest. The Old School is from a later era than those cottages which are obviously timber framed and were once thatched, but it has its own attraction from the Victorian era
The massive ditch and bank of the Devil's Dyke is best seen at the point where it is cut by the Burwell to Swaffham Prior road