Cottenham: Church

Pages 64-67

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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The location of the parish church at the north end of the village overlooking the fens has given rise to a tradition that the inhabitants tried to move it to a more central site, Church Hill near Crowlands manor house, and were thwarted by the mysterious return of the stones to the old site by night. (fn. 1)Although the legend and the place name have been thought to imply the removal of the church, perhaps in the 11th century, (fn. 2) it is more likely that Church Hill was named from an otherwise unrecorded second church, belonging to Crowlands manor, which disappeared early.

The church contains 12th-century masonry. (fn. 3) The patronage belonged to the bishop of Ely. (fn. 4) The king made four successive presentations between 1357 and 1361 during the exile of Bishop Thomas de Lisle, (fn. 5)and presented during a vacancy in 1388. (fn. 6) The prior and convent of Canterbury presented in 1500 when both Ely and Canterbury were vacant. (fn. 7) John Pepys presented for a turn in 1581, the archbishop of Canterbury by option in 1620, 1671, 1715, and 1839, and the Crown in 1621 and 1628, both times on the elevation of the incumbent to a bishopric, and in 1886 during a vacancy. (fn. 8)

The living was already a rich prize in the 13th century, being valued at 30 marks in 1217 and 60 marks in 1291, when it was the sixth highest in Cambridgeshire outside the Isle. (fn. 9) It remained as wealthy in relative terms in the 16th century (fn. 10) and later, and was worth £280 a year in 1650, £450 in 1728, and over £1,000 in the 1870s. (fn. 11)

Barnwell priory, succeeding to Picot the sheriff's grant of tithes to the church of St. Giles in Cambridge c. 1092, (fn. 12) took a pension of 15s. in 1254, (fn. 13) 20s. in 1291, (fn. 14) and 40s. in the early 16th century. (fn. 15) In 1315 the rector lost a dispute over the tithes of Westwick with the rector of Oakington. (fn. 16) Smithey fen, the Lots, the Undertakers, and Chittering Hill were tithe free in 1642, and in 1596 the rector was allotted c. 70 a. in lieu of tithes on recently inclosed land. (fn. 17) By the 1690s most tithes were paid in cash. (fn. 18) A lengthy tithe dispute ended in 1826. (fn. 19) In 1832 the tithes provided over three quarters of the income; (fn. 20) they were commuted in 1840. (fn. 21) The rectory manor comprised 2 hides of land held of the bishop of Ely in 1279, when its arable amounted to 155 a., (fn. 22) but only 98 a. in 1318. (fn. 23) After inclosure in 1847 the glebe comprised c. 135 a., (fn. 24) of which 86 a. were sold in 1911 and the remainder evidently by 1921. (fn. 25)

The medieval rectory house was alleged in 1538 to have fallen into extreme ruin during the previous four years. (fn. 26) Its successor, after 1964 called the Old Rectory, is built of brick to a regular H plan. In 1638 it had a hall, two parlours, and several service rooms beneath a set of chambers. (fn. 27) The central range was probably built in the late 16th century. Its roof is of two and a half bays with arch-braced collars above a steeply cambered tie beam, the short southern bay perhaps indicating the former position of a screens passage. (fn. 28) The north cross wing is probably that rebuilt in or soon after 1696, which was required to be of six rooms, two on each floor, with a cellar. (fn. 29) A 19th-century staircase in that range retains a balustrade rail of c. 1700 at attic level. The roofs were also replaced c. 1700 and have a prominent dentilled cornice. During substantial repairs undertaken in the early 1780s, (fn. 30) or shortly after 1800, a canted bay was added to the south front (fn. 31) and the walls of the south wing and much of the central range were refaced. At the same time the interior was remodeled. A new staircase was put into the north end of the hall, and a Tuscan screen was built across one end of the south-east room. It was possibly only during those alterations that the main front of the house was made symmetrical and the service accommodation moved from the south to the north wing. About 1900 most of the fireplaces and the main stair were altered. The house was sold in 1964, (fn. 32)and a new rectory was built in the grounds to the south.

A chaplain serving a chantry at the altar of St. Mary in the parish church was endowed in 1392 with 23 a. of land, (fn. 33)and between 1403 and 1410 other benefactors gave an additional 22 a. (fn. 34) After 1410 the chantry priest was to be chosen by seven good and honest men of the parish. Their successors retained control until the 16th century as the 'seven men of Cottenham'. (fn. 35)At its dissolution in 1547 the chantry's endowment comprised a priest's house, eight other houses or cottages, and 49 a. of arable and meadow. (fn. 36)

The chapel of ease which was believed in the 1640s to have stood at Green End (fn. 37) was presumably a recollection of the private chapel of Harlestones manor house. (fn. 38)

A royal clerk was rector of Cottenham in 1265, (fn. 39) though it was probably more common in the 14th century for the benefice to be given to servants of the bishop, like the graduate Nicholas of Cambridge, rector for 20 years or more from the 1330s. (fn. 40) He and Bartholemew de la Haye, rector in 1286, (fn. 41) gave vestments and plate to the church. (fn. 42)

From 1375 to 1388 the benefice passed rapidly from rector to rector, including a master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and two who gave up the archdeaconry of Ely in exchange for it. (fn. 43)Only one of eight incumbents in that period died in office, bequeathing £20 to clothe his poor parishioners. (fn. 44) The parish had four chaplains in 1379 (fn. 45)and three in 1406. (fn. 46)From the mid 15th century the living attracted distinguished churchmen. Lawrence Booth, rector 1445-56, became archbishop of York. (fn. 47) John Warkworth, master of Peterhouse, (fn. 48)had a parish chaplain to serve the church during his long incumbency, 1458-1500. (fn. 49) William Warham, later archbishop of Canterbury, held the living for two years from 1500. (fn. 50) Pluralist rectors later in the 16th century were mostly prebendaries or university men, (fn. 51)and the parish was probably served by curates. (fn. 52) Non-resident rectors in the early 17th century (fn. 53) included two who were heads of Cambridge colleges when collated. (fn. 54) The longest serving of the early 17th-century curates was John Tenison, 1624-40, (fn. 55) whose son Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury, was born at Cottenham in 1636. (fn. 56)

Absence from church and hostility to the minister were frequently reported in the late 16th and early 17th century, (fn. 57) and one parishioner was suspected of wizardry in 1609. (fn. 58) Further opposition was reported in 1638 to John Manby, (fn. 59) rector from 1635 and son-in-law of Francis White, bishop of Ely. (fn. 60) Manby's adherence to episcopal and royal government and a petition against him by the parishioners led the House of Commons in 1642 to appoint lecturers to preach in his church. (fn. 61)The benefice was sequestered in 1644 for Peter French, a puritan minister whose wife was Cromwell's sister Robina, and Manby's family was eventually expelled from Cottenham. (fn. 62) French was still incumbent in 1650 (fn. 63)and perhaps until his death in 1655; from 1656 to 1658 his successor attended the Presbyterian classis in Cambridge. (fn. 64)

Manby was restored in 1660. (fn. 65) Most of his successors until the mid 19th century were Church dignitaries who served through curates. One resigned on becoming bishop of Oxford in 1674. (fn. 66)His successor John Fitzwilliam resigned his preferments in 1690 (fn. 67) but by will proved 1699 endowed the purchase of Bibles, prayer books, and the Whole Duty of Man for the poor of Cottenham; (fn. 68) the income was still spent on books for the church in 1987. (fn. 69)

The next two rectors, though pluralists, served personally and were buried at Cottenham; John Dowsing, 1715-22, was from a Cottenham gentry family. (fn. 70) Two bishops of Ely collated their sons Charles Fleetwood, 1722-37, and Thomas Greene, 1737-80, when they were in their 20s. (fn. 71)Fleetwood was resident in 1728, assisted by a curate, (fn. 72)but from the 1730s the parish was mainly entrusted to curates, being served for many years by the vicar of Histon, John Scaife. (fn. 73)In 1742 Greene was said to be highly regarded by his parishioners, (fn. 74)but by the 1770s he had long ceased to reside for more than four or five weeks a year. (fn. 75) J. H. Sparke, 1819-27, was another young man appointed by his father the bishop. (fn. 76) The last of the non-resident pluralist rectors died in 1839. (fn. 77)

Throughout the 18th century and the early 19th, when curates did most of the work, there were two full Sunday services with sermons, and in the 18th century three communions a year, a fourth being added by 1807. There were only about a dozen communicants in the early 19th century, but the number was said in 1836 to be rising, (fn. 78) through the influence of the curate from 1832, Adam Fitch; in 1839 the parishioners, with the support of the nonconformist ministers, sought unsuccessfully to have him made rector by the archbishop of Canterbury. (fn. 79) The rectors after 1839 all lived in Cottenham and in the late 19th century had considerable success in attracting the villagers back to church, sometimes assisted by curates, as in 1845, the mid 1880s, and c. 1900. (fn. 80) Attendance on Census Sunday 1851 was 74 adults at the morning service and 182 in the afternoon, with c. 50 children at each. (fn. 81)Samuel Banks, rector from 1851, (fn. 82) instituted evensong in addition to the existing services, and claimed in 1873 that there were 700-800 churchgoers, about half of whom were baptized. A monthly communion was begun by 1873, when the average number of communicants was 27, and Banks was holding weekly communions by 1885 for c. 100 communicant church members. (fn. 83)He opened a mission room next to the almshouses in Green End in 1855, which was still in use in 1897. (fn. 84)

The church of ALL SAINTS, so called by 1403, (fn. 85)consists of chancel, clerestoried nave with aisles and north and south porches, and west tower. It is built, except for the tower, mainly of rubble with ashlar dressings. Re-used masonry is all that remains from the 12thcentury church, many fragments being set in the outer walls, especially of the chancel. The chancel arch was widened in the early 13th century, re-using the 12th-century piers and bases and rebuilding the arch in clunch. The lower part of the tower, including the west doorway, dates from the early 14th century. Inside, weathering from the roof of that time shows that the church then had no clerestory and probably low aisles.

The rest of the church was rebuilt in the 15th century, the chancel probably preceding the nave and aisles. Work may date from the time of John Warkworth, rector 1458-1500. The new chancel incorporated much moulded ashlar from the earlier chancel. The piscina and triple sedilia were added later, possibly in the early 16th century, overlapping one of the tall chancel windows. The five-bayed nave and aisles were rebuilt to a unified design, with the addition of porches and a clerestory. The earliest window is probably that from the nave to the upper storey of the north porch.

The tower was felled by a storm in 1617, only its lower parts surviving. In the rebuilding which followed, commemorated in numerous initialled stones set in the bottom stage, the upper stages were made of two shades of pink brick with a new west window and bell openings in stone. The tower is capped by corner turrets ending in distinctive ogee domes, balls, and pinnacles.

The medieval chancel screen, on or above which a doom was painted c. 1516, (fn. 86) survived until 1742 or later. At that date there was little painted glass and the walls were decorated with scriptural texts, recorded in 1663; the west wall had painted figures of Time and Death. (fn. 87) The chancel was reroofed c. 1783. Much of the window tracery had by then been blocked up and the church as a whole was said to be kept in a slovenly manner. (fn. 88)

All the window tracery was replaced and the church was several times restored during the 19th century, mainly out of the income of the Church and Causeway charity estate. A west gallery was built in 1833, and new seats, a pulpit, and a reading desk were made in 1836. (fn. 89) The chancel was repaired in 1842-3, (fn. 90) and a new open chancel screen, later removed, was made in 1848. (fn. 91) A new east window inserted in 1853 copied that in Prior Crauden's chapel at Ely. (fn. 92)The nave was restored in 1867, when all the box pews were removed. (fn. 93) The west gallery was taken out in 1880. Following further restoration in 1893-4, the tower arch was unblocked in 1905 and a western porch formed under the ringing chamber. (fn. 94) That was the normal entrance to the church in 1987.

At the restoration of the tower in 1928 (fn. 95) one contributor was Calvin Coolidge, president of the U.S.A., whose ancestor John Coolidge emigrated from Cottenham to Massachusetts c. 1630. (fn. 96)

A 13th-century marble grave slab of a priest was in the south porch in 1987. In 1552 the church had an organ, two steeple bells, and a sanctus. (fn. 97) By 1634 the rebuilt tower evidently had five bells, (fn. 98) recast as six in 1800. (fn. 99)

The registers of baptisms and marriages are complete from 1572 to 1725, and of burials from 1582 to 1725, but those covering the years 1725- 1812 are missing. (fn. 100)

Charitable provision was made for church repairs in 1543, and after 1736 a regular income was received from the Church and Causeway estate. (fn. 101) Endowments totalling £1,335 were given for the upkeep of the church and churchyard between the 1930s and 1960s. The combined income from them amounted to £187 in 1986, when the Church and Causeway estate provided £500. (fn. 102)


  • 1. e.g. Porter, Cambs. Customs, 184.
  • 2. Ravensdale, Liable to Floods, 123.
  • 3. Below.
  • 4. e.g. Cal. Pat. 1247-58, 533; E.D.R. (1904), 169, 234; (1905), 44.
  • 5. Cal. Pat. 1354-8, 644; 1358-61, 31, 158; 1361-4, 47, 51, 77; D.N.B. s.v. Lisle.
  • 6. Cal. Pat. 1385-9, 437, 507.
  • 7. Ibid. 1494-1509, 215.
  • 8. E.D.R. (1914), 379; P.R.O., IND 17002, f. 58; IND 17005, f. 62; IND 17008, p. 135; IND 17013, ff. 440v.-441; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1628-9, 214; East Anglian, n.s. xiii. 49-50, 280-1; C.U.L., Add. MS. 6380, p. 79; Crockford (1896), 554.
  • 9. Val. of Norwich, ed. Lunt, 538.
  • 10. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii. 502.
  • 11. Lamb. Pal. MS. COMM. XIIa/3, ff. 313-14; C.U.L., E.D.R., B 8/1, f. 7v.; ibid. C 3/25.
  • 12. Liber de Bernewelle, 40, 42-4.
  • 13. Val. of Norwich, ed. Lunt, 220.
  • 14. Tax. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 265.
  • 15. P.R.O., SC 6/Hen. VIII/7286, m. 11.
  • 16. Below, Oakington, church.
  • 17. P.R.O., E 134/18 Chas. 1/Trin. 4, dep. of Wal. Maile to interr. 9, 14; dep. of Giles Robson to interr. 13-14; Camd. Misc. xii. 250-2.
  • 18. C.R.O., R 50/9/36/1; R 50/9/36/6; cf. Camd. Misc. xii. 250-2.
  • 19. Camb. Chron. 9 May 1823, p. 3; 12 May 1826, p. 2; C.R.O., R 50/9/41/13-14.
  • 20. Church Com. file NB 14/67, return 1832.
  • 21. Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851), 340.
  • 22. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 410-11.
  • 23. Page, Crowland, 344.
  • 24. C.R.O., Q/RDc 66.
  • 25. Church Com. file 62553 (1), corr. 1910-11; file NB 14/67, return 1921; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1888-1925).
  • 26. P.R.O., C 1/868, no. 20.
  • 27. C.R.O., R 50/9/35/1.
  • 28. The main front, actually facing SE., is here described as if it faced E.
  • 29. B.L. Add. MS. 5847, f. 45 and v.
  • 30. C.U.L., E.D.R., B 7/1, p. 31.
  • 31. e.g. C.R.O., Q/RDc 66, map.
  • 32. Ibid. 515/SP 2400; inf. from Mrs. G. E. Cann, Old Rectory.
  • 33. Cal. Pat. 1391-6, 193.
  • 34. Ibid. 1405-8, 203; P.R.O., C 143/434, no. 6; ibid. SC 6/1269/7.
  • 35. P.R.O., PROB 11/18, ff. 109v.-110; ibid. C 3/36/34.
  • 36. Ibid. E 318/Box 38/2064.
  • 37. Ibid. E 134/18 Chas. 1/Trin. 4, interr. 16 and dep. of Wm. Jackson.
  • 38. Above, manors.
  • 39. Cal. Chart. R. 1257-1300, 56.
  • 40. Emden, Biog. Reg. Univ. Camb. 119; E.D.R. (1893), 43, 107, 136; (1894), 275.
  • 41. P.R.O., JUST 1/86, rot. 18.
  • 42. Vetus Liber Arch. Elien. (C.A.S. 8vo ser. xlviii), 77.
  • 43. E.D.R. (1895), 35, 55, 125; Emden, Biog. Reg. Univ. Camb. 109, 174, 194, 421-2, 672.
  • 44. Ely Episc. Rec. ed. Gibbons, 199.
  • 45. East Anglian, N.S. xiii. 222; cf. B.L. Add. MS. 5842, f. 16v.
  • 46. E.D.R. (1899), 174.
  • 47. Emden, Biog. Reg. Univ. Camb. 78-9.
  • 48. D.N.B.
  • 49. E.D.R. (1906), 185; (1907), 136; (1909), 128.
  • 50. D.N.B.
  • 51. Emden, Biog. Reg. Univ. Camb. 594; Alum. Cantab. to 1751, i. 355; ii. 148, 377; iii. 68, 362.
  • 52. e.g. E.D.R. (1912), 205; B.L. Add. MS. 5813, f. 70; C.U.L., E.D.R., B 2/6, p. 141; B 2/8, pp. 13, 98, 157; B 2/11, f. 25; B 2/13, f. 104.
  • 53. P.R.O., E 134/18 Chas. I/Trin. 4, dep. of Wm. Vale.
  • 54. Alum. Cantab. to 1751, ii. 13; iii. 155, 165.
  • 55. B.L. Add. MS. 5849, f. 91.
  • 56. D.N.B.
  • 57. C.U.L., E.D.R., B 2/3, pp. 62, 122; B 2/4, p. 180; B 2/13, ff. 30 and v., 63v.; B 2/28, ff. 34v.-35; D 2/5, f. 49v.; D 2/10, ff. 136v., 224v.; Trans. C.H.A.S. vi. 9.
  • 58. C.U.L., E.D.R., B 2/28, f. 33v.
  • 59. Cambs. Village Doc. 60.
  • 60. Alum. Cantab. to 1751, iii. 132.
  • 61. Walker Revised, ed. A. G. Matthews, 83-4; C.J. ii. 561 [for 557].
  • 62. Walker Revised, 83-4; C.J. iii. 522; Alum. Cantab. to 1751, ii. 178.
  • 63. Lamb. Pal. MS. COMM. XIIa/3, f. 313.
  • 64. Bury Classis (Chetham Soc. n.s. xli), pp. 190, 201-4.
  • 65. Hist. MSS. Com. 6, 7th Rep. I, H.L. p. 105.
  • 66. Alum. Cantab. to 1751, i. 378.
  • 67. Ibid. ii. 146, 466; D.N.B.
  • 68. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 84; P.R.O., PROB 11/449, ff. 313-15; cf. below, charities.
  • 69. Char. Com. file 203613; inf. from Mr. D. G. Bradley, Cottenham.
  • 70. Alum. Cantab. to 1751, ii. 62; iv. 100; Mon. Inscr. Cambs. 33-4.
  • 71. Alum. Cantab. to 1751, ii. 148, 258.
  • 72. C.U.L., E.D.R., B 8/1, f. 7v.
  • 73. B.L. Add. MS. 5809, f. 54; Add. MS. 5849, ff. 95v.- 97.
  • 74. Ibid. Add. MS. 5802, f. 61.
  • 75. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 1/1.
  • 76. Alum. Cantab. 1752-1900, v. 598; vi. 346.
  • 77. Ibid. ii. 252.
  • 78. C.U.L., E.D.R., B 8/1, f. 7v.; C 1/1; C 1/4; C 1/6.
  • 79. Camb. Chron. 25 May 1839, p. 2; Alum. Cantab. 1752- 1900, ii. 507.
  • 80. e.g. C.R.O., R 50/9/37/6 (from cat.); Ely Dioc. Cal. (1883), 99; C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/30; E.D.R. (1901), 118; (1902), 43.
  • 81. P.R.O., HO 129/186 (1), f. 19.
  • 82. Alum. Cantab. 1752-1900, i. 142.
  • 83. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/25; C 3/30.
  • 84. Ibid. C 3/30; C 3/36; Camb. Chron. 10 Mar. 1855, p. 4.
  • 85. P.R.O., C 143/434, no. 6.
  • 86. P.R.O., PROB 11/18, f. 109v.
  • 87. B.L. Add. MS. 5802, ff. 63, 64; Cambs. Episc. Visit. 1638-65, ed. Palmer, 107.
  • 88. C.U.L., E.D.R., B 7/1, p. 31.
  • 89. C.R.O., char. acct. bk. (uncat.).
  • 90. Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851).
  • 91. Ibid.; Trans. C.H.A.S. ii. 83; Short Account of Cottonham (1961), 8 (copy in Cambs. Colln.).
  • 92. Short Account, 8.
  • 93. Ibid. 6; C.R.O., char. acct. bk.
  • 94. Short Account, 6.
  • 95. Ibid. 9.
  • 96. Ibid. 5; Burke's Presidential Fams. of U.S.A. (1981), 464; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1929).
  • 97. Cambs. Ch. Goods, temp. Edw. VI, 12.
  • 98. Proc. C.A.S. xxxv. 77.
  • 99. Cambs. Bells (C.A.S. 8vo ser. xviii), 137.
  • 100. C.R.O., P 50 (uncat.).
  • 101. Above, local govt.
  • 102. Inf. from Mr. Bradley.