A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
The church, which has remained a rectory, belonged originally to the Vere fee: in the 13th and 14th centuries it owed a £3 pension to the Vere foundation, Hatfield Broadoak priory (Essex). (fn. 1) Before 1200 Jordan the chamberlain promised the church to Earl's Colne priory (Essex), also founded by the Veres, (fn. 2) but by 1200 the advowson was evidently shared between Jordan's widow Beatrice and Humphrey's widow Parnel, then occupying the two half fees, against whom Earl Aubrey de Vere then claimed it. (fn. 3) Following disputes over the advowson in 1220-3 and 1232 between Beatrice with her son Martin the Chamberlain, and William and Alice Talmasche, who alleged that Alice's mother Parnel had presented in the 1190s, (fn. 4) the Talmasches sold their rights to Martin in 1233. (fn. 5) The patronage belonged to Chamberlains manor in 1279 (fn. 6) and passed with it until the 1470s, (fn. 7) being occasionally exercised by feoffees. (fn. 8) Richard Quatermains devised it to his widow Sibyl and his chosen successor at Rycote (Oxon.), Richard Fowler, and charged them with choosing suitable priests. (fn. 9) Sibyl presented in 1481 and Fowler's son Sir Richard (d. 1528) in 1521. In 1526 Sir Richard objected when the chantry chaplain of Rycote, then lord of Rycotes, attempted to have himself instituted. (fn. 10) In 1545 Sir Richard's son George, despite having sold Rycote manor, sold a turn, which was exercised in 1555. (fn. 11) About 1570 the Hindes apparently conveyed the advowson with the manor to trustees for Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, which began to present that year. (fn. 12) It retained the advowson until the late 20th century. After 1974 it shared the patronage with the patron of Great Wilbraham, with which the benefice was thenceforth held in plurality. (fn. 13) The college had regularly chosen former fellows as rectors from 1570 to 1876, (fn. 14) thereafter still appointing, except in 1930, former members of the college. (fn. 15)
By 1279 the rector had 40 a. of glebe (fn. 16) with all the tithes. In the 17th and 18th centuries the glebe was 45-8 a. of arable with a 3-a. close. (fn. 17) Corpus Christi gave land to increase the rectory grounds just before inclosure, (fn. 18) when the rector was allotted 68 a. for glebe and 258 a. for the tithes. (fn. 19) In 1919 Rectory farm, c. 320 a., was sold to R. S. Hicks of Wilbraham Temple. (fn. 20)
The rectory was usually taxed in the 13th and 14th centuries at c. 10 marks, two thirds coming from tithes in 1340. It was worth £20 in 1276 (fn. 21) and again in 1535, (fn. 22) and £120 in 1650 and 1728. (fn. 23) After inclosure its value rose to £326 by 1830 (fn. 24) and c. £420-60 in the 1870s, but was halved between 1885 and c. 1895. (fn. 25)
In the Middle Ages the rectory house probably stood, as later, south of Green street, almost facing the church. (fn. 26) In the early 16th century it had a hall, a great parlour with a solar above, and chambers. (fn. 27) In 1615 it included a hall, parlour, chambers, and other offices. (fn. 28) The house had 7 hearths during Charles II's reign. (fn. 29) In 1780 William Butts, newly presented, had it completely rebuilt (fn. 30) in red brick, with three storeys and a pilastered doorcase in its symmetrical five-bayed east front. In 1806 a two-storeyed extension was added behind. (fn. 31) The rectors regularly lived there, (fn. 32) but by the 1940s the house, having three living rooms and five bedrooms amid landscaped grounds, was thought too large. It was sold c. 1950. Part of the 9 a. of grounds was reserved for a new glebe house, built 1955-6, (fn. 33) that remained with the living after 1974, although no longer housing the incumbent. (fn. 34)
Rectors were recorded from 1200. (fn. 35) About 1300 the church had c. 13 service books and 4 sets of vestments. By 1310 an altar of St. Mary, whose light was endowed with land by 1279, had its own set of vestments. (fn. 36) That altar still possessed land in 1408. (fn. 37) In the late 14th century there was usually a parish chaplain. (fn. 38) Ralph Wade, presented in 1392, (fn. 39) remained rector until after 1436. (fn. 40) After 1480 the rectors were often graduates, mostly in canon law, and frequently pluralists. (fn. 41) The church itself was served by chaplains or curates. (fn. 42) William Blackway, rector by 1506, may have been resident at his death in 1521, being buried in the chancel, where his kneeling brass survived in 1990. (fn. 43) His successor, Robert Budd, master of Wingfield college (Suff.) 1530-42, (fn. 44) after serving in person in the 1520s, (fn. 45) left the parish to curates. (fn. 46) He died at Little Wilbraham in 1555, leaving the church a chalice and vestments. His books included, besides a Bible and theological works, Erasmus on preaching and Reynard (the Fox). (fn. 47) John Fuller, rector 1555-8 and master of Jesus College, Cambridge, was conservative in religion. (fn. 48) The composer Christopher Tye, a pluralist and absentee, was rector 1561-7. (fn. 49)
In the 1520s land was held by the wardens of the Holy Sepulchre. (fn. 50) Thomas Taylor (d. 1526), probably the wealthiest villager, (fn. 51) gave almost all his lands to endow a stipendiary priest to pray for his soul and sing and serve in the church. The endowment, worth c. £6 10s, in 1548, included 100 a. in Little Wilbraham and 80 a. in Stow cum Quy. A priest was still then employed, but by 1552 the priest's house was occupied by the brotherhood managing the endowment. That land was sold in 1552 and 1553, the 100 a. passing to Edmund Lisle by 1598, by the Crown, which also then sold 10 a. of obit land, half also devised by Thomas Taylor. (fn. 52)
Robert Willan, who had Presbyterian inclinations, was rector, apparently residing, from 1570 to his death in 1612. (fn. 53) Under him parishioners were accused of absenteeism from church, working on the sabbath and saints' days, and in 1602 of sowing discord, and of incest and sorcery. (fn. 54) His successor, Samuel Walsall, master of Corpus Christi 1618-26, (fn. 55) employed curates. (fn. 56) The Laudian John Munday, 1626-44, who preached once each Sunday, compelled the parish c. 1638 to install costly new communion rails, and in the 1640s opposed parliament and its Covenant. Though ejected in 1644, he remained at Wilbraham until his death in 1653, in 1647 inciting villagers not to pay tithe to his 'troublesome' parliamentarian successor, whose 'constant' preaching was variously appraised in 1650. (fn. 57) The next rector, who obtained episcopal ordination when presented by the college, 1653-4, served until his death in 1679. (fn. 58)
His successor, Erasmus Lane, also held Great Wilbraham until he died in 1715. (fn. 59) He bequeathed £20 from whose income Corpus Christi was to give £1 yearly to the most regular poor churchgoers. (fn. 60) Distribution began c. 1753 and continued in the late 20th century, (fn. 61) when the income, £3 after 1982, was c. 1990 given triennially. (fn. 62)
Between 1716 and 1847 Little Wilbraham was held with Grantchester vicarage, another Corpus Christi living, by six consecutive incumbents, who mostly died in office. (fn. 63) They seldom resided before 1780. One c. 1748 was curate at Newmarket, employing as curate at Wilbraham the young antiquary Robert Masters. (fn. 64) Their curates usually performed only one service each Sunday. Even when rectors resided, as did Butts and his successor after 1780, they only held alternate morning and afternoon services as late as the 1820s. Communions were then held three times a year. There were only 8 communicants in 1807, c. 15 in 1825 and 1836. (fn. 65)
Philip Booth, rector from 1847, who soon restored the chancel and started a church school, (fn. 66) claimed in 1851 an average attendance of 120 adults in the afternoon, besides 50-60 Sunday-school children. The church could then hold 220. (fn. 67) By 1873, although communion was held eight times a year and there were, as there had been since the 1830s, two Sunday services with sermons, attendance declined to c. 55. (fn. 68) Booth's successor had 30-40 communicants in 1885 and no more, despite holding communion fortnightly, in 1897. There were then 280 churchgoers, but 50 people neglected all worship: three declared atheists professed disgust at the conduct of Cambridge university men. For the distant cottagers at Six Mile Bottom, services were regularly held from the 1890s to the 1920s at its school. About 1897 W. H. Hall would not let a mission room be put up there. (fn. 69) A mission church, styled St. George's, which was eventually opened in 1933 just inside Brinkley parish, remained in use in 1990. (fn. 70) H. P. Stokes, rector 1907-31, an expert on Cambridge antiquities, published a history of the Wilbrahams. (fn. 71) Presentation was suspended 1948-55, and from 1971 until the living was combined with Great Wilbraham in 1974. The last resident incumbent, 1974-86, held services alternately in each parish church. (fn. 72) In the late 1980s both were served from Fulbourn. (fn. 73)
In 1685 and 1729 £3 a year, increased in practice in the 1860s to £10, and officially in 1883 to £15, was assigned from Richard Johnson's charity to maintain and adorn the church, another 10s. going to the rector for work on the chancel. (fn. 74) Of £100 left in 1806 by the rector's sister-in-law Mary Butts £60 was to provide a cottage, built c. 1810 beside the churchyard, for the parish clerk. The remaining £40 was to produce £2 yearly, 10s. of which was to maintain the cottage and 30s. to be paid to the clerk. (fn. 75) He probably occupied the cottage until after 1950. It was sold in 1982. The resulting income, £1,300 c. 1990, was assigned in 1982 for repairing the church and maintaining the churchyard, for which H. L. Cross had given £100 before 1970. (fn. 76)
The church of ST. JOHN THE EVANGELIST, was so named by 1500: in 1520 its chancel contained an image of St. John. (fn. 77) The church, built of fieldstones, mostly rendered, with clunch and limestone dressings, consists of a chancel, a nave with north aisle and north vestry, a south porch and a west tower. (fn. 78) The stepped base of an early medieval cross survives in the churchyard. Much of the nave south wall and part of its west one probably remain from c. 1100: a small, round-headed window cut from one block and carved with scallop patterns was uncovered in the south wall in 1966. (fn. 79) The chancel was rebuilt in the 13th century: two lancets, unblocked in the 19th century, remain in its north wall. Its three-light east window has curvilinear tracery, restored, with mouchettes, (fn. 80) probably early 14th-century. The narrow threestage west tower, also of that period, clasped by the west end of the nave, is supported internally on three chamfered arches whose piers have semi-octagonal shafts. Later embattled, it was surmounted in the 18th century by a short, leaded spire. The north aisle or chapel, which is as wide as the nave and separately roofed, is entered through a three-bayed arcade on high bases, whose design resembles that of the tower arches. That aisle, probably added in the late 14th or early 15th century, possibly contained the lady altar recorded in 1501. (fn. 81) Its north wall retained in 1748 three-light windows with Perpendicular tracery, in decay c. 1827. (fn. 82) They presumably resembled the two surviving, restored, in the nave south wall. In the aisle windows such tracery was replaced, probably by 1844, (fn. 83) with plain intersecting tracery. Of the 15th century are the chancel arch, the squareheaded two-light windows inserted in the chancel south wall, and the south porch, whose doorway retains a carved 14th- century wooden door.
The octagonal font with traceried panels is 15th-century, as were the former low-pitched nave and aisle roofs, which were renewed after 1850 together with the rest of the chancel. Their jackposts were supported on wooden corbels carved with angel-musicians, some of which were removed c. 1849 to Anglesey Abbey; (fn. 84) three were later deposited in the church by the Saffron Walden museum. (fn. 85) Some panelling from late medieval seating survives, incorporated in modern seats. The roodscreen was apparently extant in 1748 and 1844. (fn. 86) Stairs on its south side remain, with a squint from the north aisle. In 1501 Richard Johnson left £10 to make a tabernacle of the Trinity. (fn. 87) Although in 1643 William Dowsing broke several 'superstitious' windows, (fn. 88) some medieval glass, with the arms of Vere, Burgh, and Lisle, survived in 1748, besides some brass indents and a 15th-century altar tomb on the north side of the chancel. (fn. 89)
The chancel was in decay in 1561, (fn. 90) its roof being neglected c. 1600. (fn. 91) Communion rails removed after 1645 (fn. 92) had not been replaced c. 1680, when the chancel walls were dangerously cracked. (fn. 93) About 1745 Robert Masters, while curate, obtained an altar and reredos, and rich hangings from Corpus Christi College's chapel, and the royal arms of William III, later Hanoverianized, from St. Nicholas's chapel, King's Lynn (Norf.). (fn. 94)
In the late 1840s the rector virtually rebuilt the chancel, reusing much old masonry, but dislodging Masters's imported woodwork. (fn. 95) The nave roof was renewed from 1855. Improvements undertaken in 1859, with R. R. Rowe as architect, included a new pulpit, replacing one of c. 1745. A gallery under the tower arch was removed and oak seats succeeded deal ones in the chancel. (fn. 96) Further renovations were effected 1875-89, a new organ being installed in 1879. (fn. 97) A vestry was built outside the nave north door by the 1920s. (fn. 98)
In 1552 the plate included only one silver chalice and paten, replaced in the late 16th century with the cup and paten still possessed in the 20th century. There were four bells in 1552, (fn. 99) the smallest damaged by 1558. (fn. 100) Of the three surviving by 1748, two had been recast c. 1575, the third in 1604. (fn. 101) Parish registers, the earliest copied 1660-79, are continuous from 1538. (fn. 102) The churchyard was enlarged in 1900. (fn. 103)