A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9, Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.
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Possession of the advowson of Fen Drayton was much disputed during the Middle Ages. The church had probably belonged in the 12th century to the Richmond manor: in 1184 Alan, viscount of Rohan, gave it in free alms to his newly founded abbey of Bon Repos (Côtesdu-Nord). (fn. 1) In the 1190s that abbey granted the church at farm for £2 yearly to the abbey of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus, Angers (Maine-etLoire), (fn. 2) whose cell, Swavesey priory, in 1198 bought out a claim to the advowson. (fn. 3) Bon Repos later alleged that c. 1200 the priory released to it all rights in the church. (fn. 4) In 1232 Roger la Zouche, newly lord of the Richmond manor, claimed the patronage from Bon Repos. (fn. 5) About 1276 the abbey at Angers renewed its claim, which Bon Repos bought out in 1280. The latter's fellow Cistercian house, Sawtry abbey (Hunts.), (fn. 6) was thereupon granted the Breton abbey's English to hold at farm for 70- 80 marks a year, including probably 10 marks for Fen Drayton. (fn. 7)
Sawtry abbey presented at least three rectors between 1280 and 1330. When in 1343 the Crown claimed the patronage as belonging to an alien religious house, Sawtry's plea that it had presented in its own right, not as a proctor, was rejected. (fn. 8) Disregarding appeals to the archiepiscopal and papal courts by partisans of Sawtry's candidate, (fn. 9) the king presented in 1343, 1356, and 1357, (fn. 10) and again, after Bon Repos had temporarily had its property restored following the peace of 1360, (fn. 11) in 1371. (fn. 12) In 1378-9, after a suit against Bon Repos, Sawtry abbey won by default a judgement that that abbey had granted it the advowson, allegedly under Henry III. (fn. 13)
When the French war was renewed in 1413, the Crown presented twice in that year. (fn. 14) In 1447-8 Henry VI granted the advowson of Fen Drayton to God's House, Cambridge, (fn. 15) adding by 1458 the farm payable by Sawtry. (fn. 16) The abbey, however, maintained its claims, purporting to grant the patronage to a layman for life in 1475. (fn. 17) Its refusal c. 1500 to pay the 10-mark farm to God's House was only ended in 1520 by an arbitration that awarded both patronage and farm to God's House, by then refounded as Christ's College. (fn. 18)
Henry VII licensed the college in 1505 to appropriate Fen Drayton without endowing a vicarage, but instead to minister the sacraments through a suitable priest. The bishop, effecting the appropriation in 1509, directed that the college should serve the cure by a 'sufficient temporal vicar', personally resident and removable at its pleasure, but with no fixed income. (fn. 19)
The college thus acquired the whole rectorial endowment, which had been worth 8 or 9 marks before 1260 (fn. 20) and £9 or £10 in the late 13th century. (fn. 21) In the 1590s the glebe was reckoned at 36 a. of arable and 24 a. of meadow and fen, (fn. 22) c. 1680 as 51 a. altogether, (fn. 23) and c. 1770 as c. 30 a. of arable and 20 a. of grass. (fn. 24) The house of the college's lessees (fn. 25) stood in a 1-a. close across the street north-west of the church, (fn. 26) probably once the site of the parsonage house. The existing house there, basically 17th-century, probably had 10 hearths in 1664 (fn. 27) and was enlarged and much remodelled, partly in brick, in the 18th century and later. (fn. 28) After inclosure in 1839 the college had 63½a. of glebe. (fn. 29) It still then received the tithes mostly in kind, although by 1800 owners of sheep and cattle paid traditional cash renders in pennies. (fn. 30) Immediately after inclosure the tithes, from which Far fen was exempt by custom, were commuted for a rent charge of £447. (fn. 31)
By the 1540s the parish was being served by curates appointed by the college, (fn. 32) and not instituted. (fn. 33) As a donative the cure was later so much under the college's control that from the mid 18th century it was treated as virtually a peculiar: the bishop neither visited it until the 1870s (fn. 34) nor licensed the curates until the 1890s. (fn. 35) The rectory lessees were required to pay the minister a stipend set at £20 by 1627 (fn. 36) and at £28 in the 1640s and from the late 17th century to the late 18th. (fn. 37) An augmentation of £36 granted in or after 1645 lapsed after 1660. (fn. 38) The stipend was raised to £35 from 1793, (fn. 39) to £100 by 1830, (fn. 40) and to £150 in 1887. (fn. 41)
A 'vicarage house' owned by the college in 1800 (fn. 42) possibly stood just south of the church. (fn. 43) In 1680 the parishioners had agreed to attach common rights to it, to encourage the minister to perform his duties more diligently. (fn. 44) Described in 1783 as a mere cottage, (fn. 45) it was not inhabited by the curates, who probably used instead a room in the parsonage farmhouse. (fn. 46) By 1830 there was no glebe house. (fn. 47) Frederick Shaw, curate 1850-90, built for himself in a close south-west of the church a house, which the college bought from his heirs in 1900. Soon afterwards Christ's apparently built on the same plot another house as a home for future ministers, which it gave to the living in 1931. (fn. 48) A new minister was then instituted as a perpetual, instead of a stipendiary, curate, so that he could legally receive the £361 of tithe rent charge which the college annexed to the living in 1933. It reserved another £60 to cover its remaining liability for chancel repairs. (fn. 49) The new house was used by incumbents until c. 1970. (fn. 50)
Rectors were recorded from the late 13th century, (fn. 51) some of whom gave service books to their church. (fn. 52) One king's clerk, presented in 1343, was absent in the royal service in 1345, (fn. 53) though perhaps not permanently. (fn. 54) The royal nominee of 1371, (fn. 55) probably resident in 1379, (fn. 56) was later a client of Hugh la Zouche, lord of Swavesey. (fn. 57) From the 1470s God's House gave the rectory to its fellows or proctors, including William Basset (d. 1496). John Syclyng, who served while master, 1496-1506, (fn. 58) sometimes perhaps slept in the parish. (fn. 59) Absentees' duties were presumably performed by the poorly paid parish chaplains occasionally recorded, as in 1379, (fn. 60) 1487, (fn. 61) and 1499. (fn. 62)
An altar of St. Nicholas mentioned in 1499 (fn. 63) probably served the guild of St. Nicholas recorded in 1511 and 1521, (fn. 64) which had a stock of £10 in 1524. (fn. 65) A timber-framed 16th-century cottage east of the high street, with a projecting upper floor and two windows with moulded mullions, (fn. 66) was possibly the guild hall. The wealthier yeomen, some of whom in the 15th century already claimed burial in the chancel, made generous bequests for lights and for acquiring for the church candlesticks 'such as be at Boxworth' and service books, often also leaving £10 or £20 for temporary chantries. (fn. 67) Such gifts presumably produced the 10 a. of arable and 12 a. of meadow given to support obits, lights, and alms for the poor, sold for the Crown in 1548 and 1572. (fn. 68)
After 1560 the church was served by curates, seldom in office for more than two or three years. (fn. 69) Some after 1600 were fellows of Christ's. (fn. 70) In 1561 services were not held at the proper times, and no fellows gave sermons. (fn. 71) In the 1630s Francis Apthorpe, then rectory lessee, and his son and namesake refused to kneel for prayer and disturbed and insulted the minister during catechizing. (fn. 72) In 1645 the parishioners alleged that the college had latterly provided curates of 'scandalous life and unsound doctrine', and procured the ejection of one. His 'orthodox' successor was 'of godly life and conversation'. (fn. 73) The minister in 1650 was commended for his preaching. (fn. 74)
It was later said that from 1660 to 1840 none of the ministers, mostly fellows of Christ's, ever resided in the parish. (fn. 75) In 1728 the curate, living at Cambridge, held two Sunday services in summer, only one in winter. Some 80-100 people then attended the three annual communions, (fn. 76) still celebrated in 1825. (fn. 77) Frederick Shaw, not a Christ's man, (fn. 78) came to reside in 1850. Later remembered as a benevolent despot, he ministered vigorously until his death in 1890, (fn. 79) restoring the church, starting a choir, (fn. 80) and building and maintaining a school. In 1851 he claimed an adult attendance of 130 at the afternoon service. (fn. 81) By 1873, when he preached weekly, c. 20 out of 35 communicants went to his monthly communions. (fn. 82) In 1897 there were c. 30 communicants, and the 190 churchgoers, two thirds of the population, could almost fill the church's 220 sittings. (fn. 83) By 1930 there were only 30-50 regular churchgoers out of 100-150 nominal adherents. (fn. 84) Two successive curates had resigned, disheartened by the 'cantankerousness' of a faction of parishioners. (fn. 85) When a union with Conington, whose rector had been curate 1927- 30, was proposed in 1930, the villagers nevertheless opposed almost unanimously the possible loss of a resident minister. Their appeal to the Privy Council delayed until 1934 the union of the two benefices, whose patrons were thence forth to present alternately. (fn. 86) Fen Drayton was held by a resident minister, styled vicar, until 1972, (fn. 87) being served from Long Stanton until 1979 and later with Swavesey. (fn. 88)
The church of ST. MARY, so named by 1184, (fn. 89) built of field stones dressed with ashlar, comprises a chancel, nave with south aisle and clerestory and north and south porches, and west tower. (fn. 90) The nave may retain its 12th-century shape. In the early 14th century the chancel was rebuilt and possibly extended and the threestage tower, with its broach spire with small lucarnes, was added. Later in that century the four-bay south aisle and arcade with its octagonal piers were put up, and the chancel arch, whose mouldings match those of the arcade, was renewed. In the 15th century all the windows except those of the tower, which retain curvilinear tracery, were also renewed, mostly with plain tracery. The similar clerestory windows were probably then also added. The three-light windows on the north side of the nave have cusped transoms, similar to those in the south aisle at Swavesey. A 14th-century double piscina and double sedilia, much restored, survive in the chancel south wall. The crucifix on the rood loft was recorded in 1499, (fn. 91) and the screen was possibly still intact in 1744, but only the lower part with arched panelling survived in 1850, having been used as backing for two large box pews to the east, which were still there in 1983. Except for the massive Jacobean communion table, the other chancel woodwork with meagre Gothic detailing is probably early 19th-century. The plain octagonal font was still built into an aisle pier in 1850. A Jacobean pulpit had stood by another pier in 1744.
The site of the dismantled altar had not been levelled in 1552. (fn. 92) In 1638 the parishioners complained that Francis Apthorpe both neglected his duty to maintain the chancel, and refused to pay rates for repairing the remaining fabric. (fn. 93) Both the nave and the chancel, where the women sat, needed much refurbishing in 1685. (fn. 94) The chancel was reroofed c. 1844, (fn. 95) the north porch towards the street rebuilt by 1850, (fn. 96) and the south porch later. From 1855 Frederick Shaw spent heavily, mostly from his private means, but partly from the town land revenues, on restoring the nave and tower. (fn. 97) In 1874 Christ's College had the chancel repaired: its east wall was rebuilt and the five-light east window tracery probably renewed. (fn. 98) A new roof on the medieval corbels and a new pulpit were then installed in the nave. The high pews, surviving in 1904, (fn. 99) were partly replaced with new seating when the nave and aisles were refloored in 1906. (fn. 100) An organ, replacing a harmonium, was placed in the aisle in 1980. (fn. 101)
There was no paten in 1685. (fn. 102) A new cup and paten were acquired in 1701. Another pair of 1842 in Gothic style, the first designed under the auspices of the Cambridge Camden Society, were bought with a flagon and almsdish in 1843. (fn. 103) The three bells recorded in 1552 (fn. 104) were lost by 1570, allegedly by the fault of Thomas Croxton. Although rejecting responsibility, he left £10 to replace them 'of goodwill'. (fn. 105) There were again three bells by 1744, (fn. 106) but only one, made at Cambridge and hung in 1828, in the 1850s and later. (fn. 107) The parish registers, which begin in the 1570s, have substantial gaps for marriages in the 1670s, for burials 1630-53, and for baptisms 1783-1812. (fn. 108) After 1900 Christ's College gave a strip of glebe to enlarge the churchyard. (fn. 109)
A 1-a. plot allotted in 1839, in lieu of certain customary rights, to support the parish clerk, (fn. 110) yielded £2 a year when the last clerk resigned in 1926. A Scheme of 1928 authorized its income to be used to pay a sexton or bellringer. (fn. 111)