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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Fragments of an Anglo-Saxon cross and grave covers have been found at Willingham and there is architectural evidence for a church in the 12th century. (fn. 1) By 1251 the benefice was a rectory in the patronage of the bishop of Ely, (fn. 2) who retained the advowson when the manor was alienated in 1599. (fn. 3) The king presented during a vacancy in 1302, (fn. 4) parliament ordered an institution in 1647, (fn. 5) the archbishop collated by lapse in 1753, and the Crown presented during a vacancy in 1812. (fn. 6) Together with the other of which the bishop was patron, Willingham was exempted from the jurisdiction of the archdeacon of Ely in 1401 (fn. 7) and remained so until 1915. (fn. 8)
In the 13th century Willingham was among the more valuable benefices in Chesterton deanery, being taxed on 22 marks in 1254 and 40 marks in 1291. (fn. 9) The assessment of over £18 in 1535 was exceeded by few parishes in the county. (fn. 10) The living remained a rich one later. In 1650 it was worth nearly £250, (fn. 11) rising to £300 by 1775. (fn. 12) In the 18th century most of the income was from the tithes, which were leased in 1727 for £250, the 82 a. of glebe being rented for £38 16s. (fn. 13) By 1831 the gross income had risen to £680 (fn. 14) and by 1848 was over £1,000. (fn. 15) The tithes were commuted in 1842 (fn. 16) and in the late 19th century the tithe rent charge formed nearly three quarters of the revenue, which was £846 net in 1873. (fn. 17) The rector was allotted 156 a. for glebe in 1853, besides 2½ a. in Berry croft. (fn. 18) The 142 a. which formed Glebe farm were sold in 1918 (fn. 19) and only 11 a. of glebe remained by 1947, including the rectory grounds. (fn. 20)
The rectory house stood on the south side of Church Street. In 1615 the farm buildings included two stables, a malt kiln, and a dovecot. (fn. 21) In 1662 the house had 8 or 9 hearths. (fn. 22) The rector rebuilt it in 1891, (fn. 23) re-using some old carpentry. In 1953 the house and grounds were sold to Cambridgeshire county council for an old people's home, (fn. 24) a replacement rectory house in High Street having been bought in 1951. (fn. 25)
In 1392 John Bourn gave a house and 14 a. of land for a chaplain to say daily masses for himself and his ancestors. (fn. 26) The chantry chapel, dedicated to St. Mary, was in the south aisle. In 1463 its priest was paid 9 marks. (fn. 27) The endowment was augmented in 1487 with land worth 5 marks a year under the will of another John Bourn (d. 1475). (fn. 28) After the chantry's suppression the Crown sold 8 cottages and over 90 a. of land to two Londoners, (fn. 29) who sold them in 1550 to John Reston, master of Jesus College, Cambridge. (fn. 30) In the early 16th century there were guilds dedicated to the Holy Trinity and Corpus Christi, one of which was endowed with 16 a. (fn. 31)
The rectors (fn. 32) included in the early 14th century royal clerks and pluralists; one who had failed to obtain papal dispensation was deprived. (fn. 33) The king's appointee in 1302 was a baron of the Exchequer and the rector c. 1330 later became chamberlain of North Wales. (fn. 34) The rector presented in 1319 was possibly a relative of Bishop Hotham of Ely. (fn. 35) The church often had attentive incumbents in the late 14th and 15th century. Adam Lynham, rector from 1342, gave a breviary, missal, chalice, and full set of vestments. (fn. 36) Two chaplains were named in 1379 and 1406, John Crouch being mentioned both times. (fn. 37) The other chaplain in 1406 later became rector and died as such in 1447. (fn. 38) The rector John Newhouse (d. 1472) left money for church furnishings. (fn. 39)
From the 16th century the wealthy living consistently attracted the well connected, particularly heads of Cambridge colleges. Lancelot Ridley, rector 1545-54, was a first cousin of Bishop Ridley of London and a notable protestant exegete. (fn. 40) He was assisted in his parochial duties c. 1546 by the chantry priest. (fn. 41) Ridley's successor and brother-in-law Thomas Parkinson (fn. 42) conformed under Elizabeth and retained his benefices (fn. 43) but in 1561 neither he nor the curate preached regularly. (fn. 44) From Ridley's time wills made by Willingham men showed reformed religious opinions (fn. 45) but several men were presented for non-attendance at church between 1560 and 1600. (fn. 46) Christopher Vittels, a leading member of the Family of Love, was claimed to have spread his subversive doctrines in the village. (fn. 47) Parkinson's successor William Smith, rector until 1615, and his successor Jerome Beale were both heads of Cambridge colleges. (fn. 48) Curates were recorded from 1590, mostly serving between three and six years, (fn. 49) though both Smith and Beale took an interest in the parish, Smith making substantial charitable benefactions (fn. 50) and Beale acting on behalf of the inhabitants in Chancery. (fn. 51) Bishop Wren tried to collate a strongly royalist former curate in 1647 but parliament had already ordered the institution of Nathaniel Bradshaw, a member of the Presbyterian Cambridge Association. (fn. 52) Bradshaw's twicedaily preaching was variously reported as profitable or wearisome. (fn. 53)
The church was normally served by transient curates under the absentee pluralist rectors appointed after 1662. (fn. 54) Only James Martin, rector 1706-38, is known to have lived in Willingham. In 1728, when Martin was ill, a curate held two services each Sunday and one on other festivals and administered the sacrament thrice a year to an average of c. 30 communicants. (fn. 55) Similar services were held in the 1770s by Thomas Paris, curate 1759-95. (fn. 56) The number of communicants had reached an average of c. 50 by 1807, when it was said to be still rising. (fn. 57)
George Henry Law, rector 1804-12 and later bishop of Bath and Wells, was resident and was assisted between 1806 and 1811 by an able curate, James Slade, (fn. 58) but for most of the 19th century the rectors were non-resident. (fn. 59) Most 19th-century curates stayed for less than 10 years (fn. 60) but E. J. T. Laughlin, a former army officer, served from 1866 to 1886. (fn. 61) He held three Sunday services with sermons, communion twice monthly, and morning and evening prayers on two weekdays, but did not halt the slow decline in the number of communicants, which averaged 22 in 1825, c. 15 in 1836, and 11 in 1885. (fn. 62) Adult attendances on Census Sunday 1851 were 45 at morning service and 130 in the afternoon. (fn. 63) In 1873 Laughlin estimated that c. 400 people, a quarter of the population, attended church. (fn. 64) John Watkins, rector 1890-1906 and the first to reside since 1812, thoroughly restored the church and revived religious life. He held confirmation classes and five communion services a month, at which numbers had increased to 66 by 1897. Under his guidance the Sunday school, a reading room, and a branch of the Church of England Temperance Society all flourished. (fn. 65) His successors in the 20th century were all resident. J. S. Francis, rector 1965-82, held ecumenical services. (fn. 66) From 1982 Willingham was held in plurality with Rampton (fn. 67) but retained a resident incumbent.
The church of ST. MARY AND ALL SAINTS, first recorded by that name in 1763 (fn. 68) but in the late 15th and early 16th century called St. Matthew's (fn. 69) and in the early 18th All Saints', (fn. 70) comprises a chancel with north vestry, an aisled and clerestoried nave, and a south porch, mostly built in coarse rubble, and a west tower with a distinctive spire. It stands in part on the foundations of a 12th-century church. Recut Anglo-Saxon stones used in the south wall of the 12th-century chancel have since the 1890s been in the porch. (fn. 71) The first nave for which there is evidence was probably aisleless and short; later in the 12th century it was doubled in length to six bays and had narrow aisles added. (fn. 72) A 13th-century lancet window, set in a deep recess with contemporary wall painting which includes the figure of St. Etheldreda, (fn. 73) was discovered during restoration at the west end of that narrow south aisle. The north aisle was widened later in the 12th century, its outer wall being rebuilt on a plinth with roll-moulding, similar to that of the chancel. In the 13th century the south aisle was widened and the chancel received lancet windows (fn. 74) and a piscina and three sedilia.
Much work was undertaken in the early 14th century, all of it presumably completed before the ordinations which the bishop held in the church between 1341 and 1343. (fn. 75) The main addition was the west tower, of limestone ashlar with a richly moulded west window and crowned by a broach spire linked to four corner pinnacles by small flying buttresses. In the same period the south aisle, the nave arcades, and perhaps the chancel arch were rebuilt, the south porch was added, and new windows were inserted in the north aisle and the chancel south wall. Canopied niches were added at each side of the east window. The north vestry is also of the early 14th century. It is entirely of dressed stone, the roof being supported by slender arches and large external buttresses. The small windows, originally with bars or grilles, and the narrow, massive, and lockable doorway suggest that it may have served as a treasury for the bishop, especially as the treasury of his manor house nearby was dilapidated by 1357. (fn. 76) Tables, chests, or benches, later removed, were built against the walls. (fn. 77) That at the east may have been or have become an altar, since there is a pillar piscina against the south wall.
The two eastern bays of the north aisle have an early 14th-century parclose screen enclosing a chapel claimed as that of the episcopal manor, (fn. 78) but which contains a pair of identical 14thcentury tomb recesses, presumably for a layman and his wife. The chapel is now mostly occupied by the organ built in 1912. (fn. 79) The two eastern bays of the south aisle, with a 15th-century parclose screen, probably formed the Bourn chantry. (fn. 80) A tomb recess in the south wall is perhaps that of John Bourn (d. 1475). (fn. 81) The rood screen is 15th-century, its loft reached by a stair enclosed in a brick turret outside the church. The stair emerged on the east side of the chancel arch and the platform between the door and the rood loft formed a canopy over the chancel stalls which was still intact in the 18th century. (fn. 82)
The nave walls retain much 14th- and 15thcentury figure painting, including St. Christopher, St. George and the Dragon, the Visitation, and the Assumption. The Last Judgement above the chancel arch was mostly destroyed by the insertion of a window, (fn. 83) presumably after the Reformation. The chancel east window was replaced by a five-light Perpendicular window which cut into the flanking niches, perhaps in the time of Archbishop Bourchier (1454-86) and Bishop Grey (1454-78), who were commemorated in armorial glass surviving in the window in the 18th century. (fn. 84) The chancel and aisles have flat 15th-century roofs with carved bosses, those in the aisles ignoring the stone corbels of earlier roofs. (fn. 85) The clerestory windows date from the late 15th or early 16th century. The double hammerbeam nave roof was brought from elsewhere and recut to fit the church, perhaps in 1613, the date painted on one of the principals. (fn. 86) It dates from the mid 15th century and when complete probably had three tiers of angels on each side. By 1880 only those on the wall plates survived (fn. 87) but replacements were later made to restore the original arrangement in the eastern half of the nave. (fn. 88) In the 18th century the roof was thought to have been brought from Barnwell priory. (fn. 89)
By the late 19th century the fabric and fittings of the church were greatly decayed. The top of the spire was rebuilt in 1825 (fn. 90) and buttresses were placed against the aisles and the south wall of the chancel, though they too were in disrepair by 1890, (fn. 91) when much window tracery had disappeared and most of the woodwork was in poor condition. The whole church was restored after 1890 under the direction of R. H. Carpenter. It was reopened for worship in 1895 though internal work continued until after 1905. The east window was reconstructed on the basis of 14th-century tracery from the original window found during restoration, much new tracery was inserted in other windows, and the chancel and aisle walls were restored. The nave floor was lowered, the piscina and sedilia were renewed, and a west gallery was removed. Much medieval seating remained in the nave until the restoration, though it had been enclosed in box pews. (fn. 92)
Among the fittings in the church in 1982 were the three medieval screens and 16 chancel stalls, all much restored, a 15th-century pentagonal pulpit on a slender stem, and a communion table, perhaps that ordered to be made in 1665. (fn. 93) There were four bells and a sanctus in 1552. (fn. 94) Five new bells were cast in 1755 (fn. 95) and recast in 1924, when a sixth was added. The registers begin in 1559 and are complete. (fn. 96)