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.
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The patronage of Wicken church presumably belonged to the lords of the manor until Beatrice Malebisse, then its lady, gave the advowson in 1232 to the newly founded Spinney priory. (fn. 1) The priory soon appropriated the church, probably between 1254, when it received as a pension 5 marks out of the 18 marks upon which the whole benefice was taxed in the late 13th century, (fn. 2) and the 1270s. It was by then in dispute with Anglesey priory, perhaps over claims for tithe exemption on Anglesey's Wicken land. (fn. 3) From the 13th century to the 16th Rumburgh priory (Suff.) received a 15-s. tithe portion, (fn. 4) under a grant, made to its mother-house, St. Mary's abbey, York, c. 1130 by Wimar the steward, of his Wicken demesne tithes. (fn. 5)
By 1279 Spinney had had its appropriation of the church confirmed by the bishop of Norwich and the Pope. (fn. 6) No vicarage was established, and all the tithes, great and small, which in 1340 yielded only half the church's assessed income, (fn. 7) belonged thenceforth, with all other church income, to Spinney and then Ely priories. (fn. 8) After 1540 they were owned with Wicken rectory by successive lay owners of the former priory estate, who were also said from 1600 to have the 'advowson of Wicken vicarage', (fn. 9) which meant in practice the uncontrolled right to nominate the minister. (fn. 10)
The rectory, including the patronage and tithes, was separated from the Spinney estate following its sale in 1811. It was bought by John Rayner, the new lord of Wicken manor, before his death in 1813. His widow Sarah, patron c. 1830, left her rights in 1832 to her sister Mary Hatch. (fn. 11) Miss Hatch arranged to have all her Wicken lands, then 705 a., discharged of all tithes in 1837. The tithe due from the 411 a. of the Wicken Hall estate, sold with it to Dr. Dixon, was also in 1837 merged with its freehold. Dixon had in 1835 accepted the rectorial duties of maintaining the chancel and paying the curate's £20 stipend, (fn. 12) which fell upon succeeding owners of the Hall farm, among them from 1910 the county council, into the late 20th century. Its Wicken property was then called Chancel farm. (fn. 13)
In 1839, although the tenant of the Tithe farm at Upware had recently collected most tithes in kind, the villagers claimed to have for many years paid moduses of 8d. and 4d. respectively for milking cows and for foals. No tithes were customarily taken directly of calves, milk, or sedge, nor from the Spinney sheepflock, nor from the commonable doles in the Fodder fen. (fn. 14) When the tithes were commuted in 1842, Spinney Abbey farm, 374 a., was agreed to enjoy exemption as former monastic land, a privilege extended to Thornhall farm's 167 a. Those fenlands along Wicken's southern borders already held in severalty, nominally 350 a., at inclosure, but not the dolvers to the east, were allowed to be exempt from tithe by prescription, but allotments then made for the formerly exempt western doles were charged. The 1,551 a. then considered titheable, out of an estimated 3,812 a. in the parish, were subjected to a tithe rentcharge of £513, all payable to Miss Hatch. (fn. 15) After her death in 1858 £496 of that rentcharge was sold in 1858 to James Thornton (d. 1880), lord of the manor, (fn. 16) and passed by 1910 to Thomas Thornton, a solicitor at Mildenhall (Suff.). The Thorntons apparently still owned it, 1895-1926. (fn. 17)
In 1825 Miss Hatch vested her right of presentation to Wicken perpetual curacy, acquired in 1836, in five trustees, 'attached to the ... Reformed Faith', to include then and later three Anglican clergy, who were to present 'fit and pious' persons by majority vote. (fn. 18) From 1858 the patronage of the living, styled by 1870 a vicarage, was said to belong to a, and by the 1860s to the, Church Patronage Society, (fn. 19) which still had it in the late 20th century. (fn. 20)
When Mary Bassingbourn granted to Spinney priory in 1303 property, including 68 a., in Wicken to maintain four additional canons there, partly to maintain her family chantry, she required that two of them ride daily to celebrate masses in Wicken church. (fn. 21) By 1395 falling numbers of canons led the priory, despite opposition from the Peytons, then lords, to seek leave to stop sending the two canons to the parish church and serve it instead by a secular priest. (fn. 22) In 1416-17 the villagers complained that the prior neither sent the two canons, nor even provided, according to custom, a chaplain at the church, so depriving them of services. (fn. 23) In 1419, however, the canons obtained from Mary's heir the conversion of those obligations into commemorative services for her family in their own priory church. (fn. 24)
In appropriating Spinney to Ely priory in 1449 the bishop of Norwich permitted it to serve Wicken church either by a monk or a suitable secular chaplain. (fn. 25) One such chaplain died in 1492. (fn. 26) About 1540, when Ely priory was required to find, and pay £5 yearly to, a priest to serve Wicken church, the Spinney impropriator's lessee who occupied the 'parsonage' was expected to pay his wages. (fn. 27) The curate was paid only £10 yearly in 1603, (fn. 28) and £13 6s. 8d. in the early 1640s, besides 30s. of offerings. One curate then, when preaching, demanded that his parishioners should help him get more wages, or he would leave them to perish for want of teaching. (fn. 29) In 1650 the Russells allowed his successor £30. (fn. 30)
In the 1740s the duke of Somerset raised the curate's customary stipend, charged on the Spinney estate, from £18 to £20 net, besides £3 yearly from the churchyard rent and surplice fees. (fn. 31) That £20 continued to be received from Hall farm after 1835. (fn. 32) A grant by lot of £200 in 1748 from Queen Anne's Bounty was invested in 1765 in 22½ a. (originally) in Mildenhall (Suff.). Another £200 grant, matching a benefaction, of 1773 was used in 1774 to buy 25 a. in Outwell and Upwell (I. Ely). (fn. 33) That land, reckoned as glebe, yielded rents of £65-70 gross from the 1830s to the 1880s, (fn. 34) which later declined. Of 24½ a. owned at Mildenhall 20 a. was sold in 1921, as was 10 a. at Upwell in 1928. (fn. 35) By 1940 only 10 a. was left. (fn. 36)
Miss Hatch agreed in 1854 to make up the curate's annual income to £100 for 20 years. (fn. 37) In 1858 she bequeathed for the living £500 due on a sister-in-law's death, which was received in 1870. By 1873 the net income had risen from c. £115 to c. £150. (fn. 38) Later benefactions, also matched by augmentations, included £300 given by another kinswoman, Mrs. Sarah Archer, in 1880, and £500 more from the Church Patronage Society in 1885, (fn. 39) altogether increasing the vicar's income by c. £87 since the 1860s.
There was probably no clergy house before the 1830s. (fn. 40) In 1836 Miss Hatch acquired a 3a. plot north of Church Lane, just beyond the east end of the village, in order to build on it a house, let to the curate by 1842, which she gave for the minister in 1853. (fn. 41) The originally plain, rectangular greybrick house, enlarged with bay windows in 1869 and improved in 1946-7, (fn. 42) remained the vicar's residence in the early 1990s. (fn. 43)
A 'gildhouse' was mentioned in the 1410s. (fn. 44) In 1603 the chaplain reported 200 communicants. (fn. 45) In 1644 the curate Robert Grimer, sonin-law of his patron Isaac Barrow, was accused of upholding ceremonies, including churching women at the communion rail, and of encouraging villagers who sported on the sabbath by reading out the king's Book of Sports. Grimer had supported observation of saints' days, but not parliamentary fasts or the Covenant. He was ejected at once. (fn. 46) His successor, thought in 1650 of 'irreprehensible ... life', but not doctrine, was replaced by 1653. (fn. 47) In 1664 Henry Cromwell used his uncontrolled right to appoint curates to bring the Puritan Isaac Archer from Chippenham to serve Wicken, then reckoned a sinecure. Although Archer claimed to have won much approval by his preaching there, he left in 1665 when Cromwell found that he must, to avoid political trouble, procure another clergyman to administer the sacrament which Archer would not celebrate. (fn. 48) In the 1670s the patrons did not always provide a 'settled' minister, sending instead scholars from Cambridge, and the parishioners complained of having no-one to christen, bury, or visit the sick. (fn. 49)
Between 1764 and 1826 the parish was served by two successive vicars of Isleham as perpetual curates. (fn. 50) In the early 19th century the second of those curates successively hired, to serve Wicken, the vicar of Fordham from 1806 to 1813 and the curate of Kennett from 1817. Those hard-pressed clergy could only provide one service each Sunday, alternately morning and evening, at Wicken where the quarterly sacraments were attended by 15-30 people until the 1810s, supposedly by 70 in 1820. (fn. 51) In 1826 Mrs. Rayner appointed her kinsman Edward Hatch Cropley to Wicken. (fn. 52)
C. L. Allnutt, curate 1843-6, the first modern one to reside, started a Sunday school and district visiting, and had the church restored. Later incumbents resided thenceforth. Allnutt's successor, a fervent opponent of Dissent, (fn. 53) claimed in 1851, by when as later two Sunday services were held, an average attendance of up to 230 adults, besides 120 Sunday-school children. (fn. 54) Miss Hatch replaced him in 1854 with a more emollient German, C. W. Francken, who served until 1869: by the 1860s he was holding evening services and fortnightly mission ones, and from 1865 also harvest thanksgivings, the first of which attracted 400 people. Few among his 360 churchgoers were farmers. (fn. 55)
His successor claimed 100 churchgoers in 1873, out of the minority of the inhabitants, a third in 1897, who were church-people; 40-50 of them attended communion, held monthly by 1873, weekly by 1897. Occasional missions brought no permanent gain. By 1873 the vicar held winter cottage lectures for the distant hamlet of Upware, where a wooden mission hall was erected in 1883. (fn. 56) A brick Jubilee Mission Hall, opened in 1887 off the north-west side of the village green, accommodated in the 1890s the harvest festivals and a church Temperance Society. (fn. 57) In the 1920s the church roll numbered 70-100, and in 1940 115 people, (fn. 58) but by 1967 barely 20-30 might attend services in winter. (fn. 59) Although a small village, Wicken, though occasionally left vacant, usually had a resident vicar to itself throughout the 20th century; one of them served 1925-59 (fn. 60) and the latest, acting from 1974, was still there in 1994. (fn. 61)
The church of ST. LAWRENCE was perhaps so named by 1331 when a fair was granted at his feast, (fn. 62) although its dedication was uncertain in the 18th century. (fn. 63) It stands by the roadside ½ mile east of the village, just north of the modern Wicken Hall. Built of fieldstones and clunch, largely replaced with brick on the north aisle exterior, and partly dressed in Barnack stone, it comprises a chancel, aisled and clerestoried nave with south porch, and a three-stage west tower. (fn. 64) The fabric is mainly of the late 14th century, although the chancel sidewalls' western parts, which retain narrow lancets on each side, are presumably 13th-century. One of the two lancets on the north side is bisected where it meets a short eastward extension in ashlar.
Inside, the three-bayed nave is separated from the wide aisles by arcades with much-moulded arches on octagonal piers; they are possibly slightly later than the similarly moulded chancel arch. Possibly in the late 14th century two threelight windows with early Perpendicular tracery were inserted at the west ends of the chancel sidewalls. The five-light chancel east window also has Perpendicular tracery. The south aisle windows, with their double and triple lights under square heads, are perhaps late 15thcentury: they resemble one inserted near the chancel south wall east end. In the north aisle are traceried windows of two, and in its east wall, three lights, probably of the same period, like the clerestory with its short two-light windows. (fn. 65) The west tower, buttressed and embattled with renewed corner pinnacles, has a square stair turret on its south-east, and a west window of three uncusped lights over its plain west doorway, both possibly reset. In the angle between the tower and the north aisle is a small medieval vestry, which still had in 1769 on its east wall paintings of figures kneeling before a crowned letter M. Some remains of medieval stalls then survived in the chancel. (fn. 66) The medieval north doorway was apparently moved slightly during late 20th-century repairs. The porch outside the original south one has been reconstructed with a round-headed outer arch, and above it a sundial.
The nave roof, with braced collars resting on stone corbels carved with heads, is 15th-century. From that period survive also in the north aisle other braces, some elaborately carved, which were rehung in the 1980s below a renewed roof. In 1518 Sir Robert Peyton left Wicken church £1 for repairs and a cope, perhaps one of the two silk ones reported, with only two vestments, in 1552. (fn. 67)
In 1627 the steeple was said to be 'ruinated and fallen down', and the church walls, roof, and windows, much decayed. (fn. 68) A 17th-century communion table, railed in by 1769, has been removed to the north aisle, along with a simple, probably 18th-century, font, replaced after 1850. In the mid 18th century the lead was sold from the high-pitched nave and chancel roofs, sparing only the lower-pitched aisle ones, to pay for repairs. Thereafter the church was mostly tiled. (fn. 69)
Brasses survive of Margaret Peyton (d. 1414), a dog at her feet, probably once on an altar tomb at the south aisle east end; and of John Peyton (d. c. 1520) second son of Sir Robert (d. 1518). (fn. 70) Within the altar steps are floorslabs for Henry Cromwell (d. 1674) of Spinney Abbey, his widow, and a son and grandson. Their remains were removed c. 1880 from a vault below. (fn. 71) The churchyard contains numerous 18th-century headstones with lively cherubs, one with a gravedigger's tools. An early 19th-century sarcophagus there stands over a vault for the Rayner and Hatch families, which are also commemorated by Neo-Classical tablets inside on the chancel walls.
In 1844 the church was restored with £900 provided by the Church Building Society, some windows being unblocked and all reglazed. From that restoration dates most of the woodwork, including new deal seating in plain Gothic with flat poppyheads. Free, open benches for the poor were then provided in the nave, but still pews, some surviving in the 1990s, in the aisles. (fn. 72) Out of 257 sittings only 92 were free in 1873, but all by 1897. (fn. 73) The windband in the singing gallery was replaced by the 1870s with a harmonium, (fn. 74) succeeded in the 20th century by an organ. A legacy of £20,000 from R. Alsop (d. 1986) helped to repair the roofs from 1987, (fn. 75) while arches were installed across the north aisle to support the leaning arcade. A lychgate was erected in 1990-1 for the churchyard, (fn. 76) closed since 1876. (fn. 77) A burial ground with a small brick chapel, opened in 1877 on ½ a. just across the road, was enlarged in 1900, (fn. 78) and again c. 1980. (fn. 79)
In 1552 the church had only one silver chalice and paten. (fn. 80) The existing plate includes, as in 1834, a silver cup of 1838-9 and a silver flagon of 1685 given by John Margetson (d. 1690). (fn. 81) There were four bells in 1552, (fn. 82) five in 1677, as in 1769 and in 1994, when a new upper ringing floor was being installed. (fn. 83) The oldest, probably pre-Reformation, bell bears a Latin prayer in Gothic script to the Virgin. The others were cast in 1582, 1634 after money was left towards hanging recast bells, 1660, and 1703. (fn. 84) The parish registers, beginning in 1564, have two 2or 3-year gaps in the late 16th century. (fn. 85)