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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Beorhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex (d. 991), granted 2 hides in Fen Ditton to Ely abbey, and his widow Aelfflaed granted the rest of his land in the vill to the monks c. 1002. (fn. 1) In 1066 the abbey held the whole of FEN DITTON with HORNINGSEA, assessed at 7 hides, as a single manor. In 1109 the manor passed to the newly created bishopric of Ely, which retained its ownership for almost 500 years. (fn. 2) In 1251 the bishop was granted free warren on the manor. (fn. 3)
The manor remained in episcopal hands until 1600 when it passed by exchange to the Crown which sold it in 1605 to Thomas Willys (d. 1626), (fn. 4) whose father had acquired Eye manor in Horningsea in 1555. (fn. 5) In 1608 the family acquired Sibills manor in Horningsea and in 1619 Mochettes manor in Fen Ditton. (fn. 6) From 1619 until 1732 the Fen Ditton estate, comprising all the medieval manors in the two parishes of Fen Ditton and Horningsea, remained in the ownership of the Willys family. (fn. 7) Thomas Willys (d. 1626) had survived his son Richard (d. 1625), so that the estate then passed to Richard's widow Jane, who held it until her death in 1628. The heir was her under-age son by Richard, Thomas Willys (cr. Bt. 1641). (fn. 8) He served as sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire in 1665-6. On his death in 1701 he was succeeded by his son Sir John (d. 1704), whose son and heir Sir Thomas died in 1705. (fn. 9) Thomas's infant son, also named Thomas, under guardianship of his mother Frances until 1722, died unmarried in 1724. (fn. 10) The manor passed to his probable first cousin, another Thomas Willys, who died a bachelor in 1726. On the death of his unmarried brother Sir William c. 1732 the Willys succession in the male line came to an end. (fn. 11)
The Fen Ditton estate descended jointly to Sir William Willys's six sisters, from whom it was bought by Sarah Churchill, duchess of Marlborough, for her daughter Henrietta Godolphin, the next duchess (d. 1733). (fn. 12) After Henrietta's death it was used as a marriage gift for her daughter Mary, who married in 1740 Thomas Osborne, duke of Leeds. They sold the estate in 1749 to Thomas Panton (d. 1782), who settled it in 1767 upon his son, also called Thomas, sheriff of Cambridgeshire in 1789. (fn. 13) Following his death in 1808 the manor passed to his niece, Priscilla Burrell, Lady Willoughby de Eresby (d. 1828). (fn. 14) Lady Willoughby's son Peter Robert, the next lord, sold the manor in 1843 to the Cambridge physician, Prof. John Haviland. In 1848 it was sold to John Hale, (fn. 15) and purchased by Clement Francis in the early 1850s. (fn. 16) The manorial lordship descended thereafter to successive members of the Francis family of Quy Hall. In 1941 Maj. W. Francis occupied 641 a. in Horningsea parish and 608 a. in Fen Ditton parish. His great-grandson Mr. R. M. Francis was a major landowner in both parishes in the 1990s. (fn. 17)
Another manor, later called MOCHETTES, originated with 1 knight's fee held by William Muschet from the bishop of Ely in 1166. (fn. 18) The land lay mainly in Fen Ditton with parcels in Horningsea. (fn. 19) It was held c. 1210 by another William Muschet (d. 1228). (fn. 20) On his death there was a dispute between Richard Muschet and William's son and heir Henry, tenant in 1251. (fn. 21) His son William held the fee in 1269 and 1279. In 1302 it was held by John Muschet (fl. 1316). (fn. 22) The manor presumably passed to his son, the merchant William Muschet (fl. 1336 × 1362). (fn. 23) In 1372 his son George conveyed the manor, possibly by way of mortgage, to John Queenborough, who was in possession in 1392. (fn. 24) Henry Cheyney, however, inherited its fee simple in right of his wife, who was probably George Muschet's daughter. (fn. 25) The manor was settled in 1377 on Henry's son Sir William Cheyney (d. 1399), whose widow Catherine held the manor in 1419. (fn. 26) It had passed by 1428 to Sir William Cheyney's son Lawrence (d. 1461). (fn. 27) In 1480 Lawrence's son and heir Sir John (d. 1489) granted Mochettes manor to his eldest son Sir Thomas, (fn. 28) who died in 1514. His daughter and heir Elizabeth brought the manor by her marriage to Thomas Vaux (b. 1509), later 2nd Lord Vaux of Harrowden. (fn. 29) Thomas and Elizabeth both died in 1556, and the manor passed to their son and heir William. (fn. 30) On his death in 1595, it descended to his grandson Edward, Lord Vaux, who sold it in 1619 to Thomas Willys (d. 1626). (fn. 31) The manor thereafter formed part of the Fen Ditton estate.
The summer residence of the bishops of Ely, later known as Biggin Abbey though never occupied by monks, stood on a formerly moated site in the north-west extension of the parish, opposite Bait's lock on the river Cam. (fn. 32) During the 13th and early 14th centuries it provided successive bishops of Ely with a residence close to Cambridge. In 1276 Bishop Balsham was granted permission to enclose and crenellate the residence. (fn. 33) Between the 1220s and 1320s kings passing through Fen Ditton on their way to Ely and East Anglia may sometimes have stayed at the bishop's mansion, as Henry III probably did in 1238, when he spent three days at Fen Ditton. Edward II was there for three weeks late in 1315. (fn. 34) Bishops of Ely continued to visit Fen Ditton at times in the mid and late 14th century. (fn. 35) The house, which was rebuilt in the late 14th century, consisted of a residential range of two storeys, and an additional building on the south side, possibly containing butteries. In 1478 Biggin was occupied by the bishop of Ely's physician. (fn. 36) The Abbey was remodelled in the 17th century to include an internal chimney stack and a winding stone staircase. In 1768 the stonework was 'much going to decay'. (fn. 37) In the late 20th century clunch and freestone walls were rendered with cement. An adjacent 17th-century house of one storey with an attic had red brick walls and a gabled roof.
Fen Ditton Hall, standing south-west of the church on low ground by the river, probably occupies the site of William Muschet's manor house. (fn. 38) The medieval house on that site was substantially enlarged in the 17th century by the Willys family. (fn. 39) Built in red brick with tiled roofs it has two storeys and three large attics. It incorporates part of an early 15th-century house, of two storeys with a single continuous roof of five bays, which probably had a central ground-floor hall with a large room above and a parlour in the eastern bay. An oratory, mentioned between 1345 and 1392, may have lain east of the hall.
Substantial alterations undertaken by Thomas Willys were completed before 1641. He enlarged the house to an irregular U-plan, so that the medieval house occupied the central section of a symmetrical south front of seven bays under Dutch gables, alternately large and small. The east front had on the ground floor a three-bayed arcaded loggia, later closed in. The drawing room, dining room, garden room, and first-floor library contain 17th-century panelling and ornate decorations, and the elaborately balustraded staircase rises in six half-flights to the upper floors. In the early 19th century the western half of the house was demolished and the rest refenestrated. South of the Hall long shallow ponds formed part of a water garden in the late 17th century and early 18th. In 1820 Prof. Haviland purchased the Hall, probably living there until his death in 1851. It was bought by Caius College, Cambridge, in 1898. (fn. 40) The Hall was sold in 1961 and remained in private ownership thereafter.