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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One Wulfhun, on becoming a monk of the newly founded Ramsey abbey (Hunts.), gave it, probably c. 970, a church with 40 a. at Wilbraham, which the abbey gave to Aethelwold, bishop of Winchester, by exchange before 984. (fn. 1) After the Conquest Great Wilbraham church was probably attached to the Richmond fee: by 1155 that church owed to Mont St. Michel abbey in Normandy (Manche) a £2 pension, (fn. 2) still due in the mid 13th century. (fn. 3) About 1160 Robert the chamberlain gave, and his lord Count Conan of Brittany confirmed, to Ely priory's newly founded cell at Denny in Waterbeach his church and demesne tithes at Wilbraham. By 1169 the monks had agreed to grant the church and tithes, with the other Denny endowments, to the Knights Templar, to whom Robert's son George confirmed those rights c. 1175. (fn. 4) Great Wilbraham still had a rector c. 1225, (fn. 5) but the church was later appropriated to the Templars. A vicarage was ordained c. 1250, (fn. 6) whose advowson remained with successive lords of Temple manor. The king presented in 1313, (fn. 7) and the Hospitallers from the mid 14th century to the 1530s. (fn. 8) In 1541 the advowson was granted with Temple manor to Sir Edward North (fn. 9) and in 1553 to Sir John Huddleston, (fn. 10) whose descendants or their widows regularly exercised it, despite being papists, into the mid 17th century. About 1609 Dame Dorothy Huddleston successfully resisted a claim by Cambridge university to present. The bishop of Ely presented by lapse in 1661. The Crown presented in 1678. William Stockman, tenant of the manor house, was patron in 1669, but Sir Robert Huddleston's widow Mary presented in 1688. (fn. 11) Thereafter the patronage was exercised by the owners of Temple manor into the late 20th century; (fn. 12) the advowson was sold to James Hicks in 1788, but the impropriate rectory only in 1797. (fn. 13) After the living had been united with Little Wilbraham in 1974, presentation was suspended in 1986. (fn. 14)
The church was taxed at 30 marks c. 1217 and in 1254. (fn. 15) When the bishop ordained the vicarage c. 1250, he assigned to the Templars for their sick brethren at Denny only the great tithes on corn, worth 40-50 marks. All other tithes and issues were assigned to the vicar, with a £2 pension out of the rectory, (fn. 16) paid at least until the 1540s. (fn. 17) In 1279 the vicar had 30 a. of glebe. Another 30 a. given c. 1220 by Hugh de Malalney to a former rector was by 1279 yielding only rent. (fn. 18) In 1633 the glebe was 27 a., in 1787 34 a. of arable. (fn. 19)
In 1788 Thomas Watson Ward released to James Hicks the corn tithes of the land then sold to him, but Ward's son reserved those from one farm not sold in 1797. (fn. 20) Under an agreement then made the rectorial tithes of Lisles demesne were released to Lord Aylesford in 1815. (fn. 21) At inclosure, when Ward's and Aylesford's lands were reckoned tithe free, (fn. 22) Hicks received 137 a. for the remaining rectorial tithes, and the vicar 117 a. for tithe and 40 a. for his glebe, besides 6 a. of closes. (fn. 23)
In 1757 a bequest of £200 from Joanna Clench (d. 1736) was used with matching funds from Queen Anne's Bounty to buy for the vicarage a close in Great Wilbraham, 14 a. in Cherry Hinton, and 2½ a. in Shelford. (fn. 24) The vicarage farm, 168 a. south-west of the village, was mostly sold to the owner of the Fulbourn estate in 1901, (fn. 25) leaving 10 a., partly let as allotments by 1959. (fn. 26) Katherine Beatrice Hicks by will proved 1961, left her net estate, worth £3,796, to augment the vicarage. (fn. 27)
The vicarage was taxed on £8 in 1291, (fn. 28) but was worth less than that c. 1445-65. (fn. 29) It was assessed at almost £12 in 1535, (fn. 30) and was worth £30 on 1650 (fn. 31) and c. £35 by 1728. (fn. 32) Following inclosure the glebe brought in £203 c. 1830, half being paid to a curate, (fn. 33) £213 in 1851, (fn. 34) and c. £225 in the 1870s, but after 1885 the vicar's income fell sharply, by 1900 by two thirds. (fn. 35)
In 1633 the vicar's house stood in a 2 ½-a. close south of Vicarage Lane. (fn. 36) Though repaired c. 1775 it was described in 1782 and c. 1830 as a mere cottage, (fn. 37) and was probably soon after converted into outbuildings for the new vicarage with five bedrooms, built nearby off Temple End by 1851. The older house may have been demolished c. 1957. (fn. 38) The new one, remodelled, remained with the living into the 1980s. (fn. 39)
Vicars were recorded occasionally from the mid 13th century, (fn. 40) frequently from the 1350s. (fn. 41) One served from before 1378 to 1396. In his time, there were two chaplains, (fn. 42) as in 1406. (fn. 43) Only after 1500 were graduates sometimes pre sented. (fn. 44) Parish priests, one hired to sing a year's masses, also served in the 1520s. (fn. 45) An academic vicar, presented in 1538, who also held Bottisham, (fn. 46) was resident in the 1540s. (fn. 47) In 1549 he refused to contribute to buying a Bible and Erasmus's Paraphrases. (fn. 48) In the early 1550s Great Wilbraham was served by his curates. (fn. 49) He was deprived in 1558. A non-graduate vicar was resident in 1561. (fn. 50)
A guild of St. Nicholas, the patron saint, whose tabernacle was to be gilded in 1530, was recorded in 1492, and one of Our Lady in 1519. There was then a guildhall, (fn. 51) presumably that ostensibly sold for the Crown in 1564 and 1570-1, with some equipment for feasting, (fn. 52) and held by 1573 of Lovetots manor. (fn. 53) Land totalling 32 a. given for lights and obits was sold by the Crown between 1548 and 1553. (fn. 54)
A graduate vicar presented in 1573 (fn. 55) was nonresident; his curate was only in deacon's orders and little exercised in the scriptures. (fn. 56) Joseph Summer, vicar from 1584 to his death in 1609, (fn. 57) was probably resident in 1593, sometimes preaching sermons described as soporific. (fn. 58) In 1605, when a witch was reported and villagers worked on holy days during harvest, Summer preached less than monthly. (fn. 59) In 1623 the rectory lessee did not come to church, (fn. 60) and there were two recusants in 1638. (fn. 61) Richard Clayton, then vicar, though not formally ejected, had removed to Essex by 1644. (fn. 62) His successor, named by Sir Robert Huddleston in 1647, (fn. 63) was thought no preacher in 1650. (fn. 64) He was sequestrated by 1653 and only reinstated, after two intervening ministers, after 1660. (fn. 65)
In the 1670s the rector of Little Wilbraham served as curate. (fn. 66) From the 1680s to the 1760s most vicars held Great Wilbraham for terms of 10-20 years, one (1688-1705) with Sawston, another (1724-35) with West Wratting, where he lived in 1728. (fn. 67) The next vicar held Great Wilbraham successively with a Suffolk living and from 1758 with Bottisham. (fn. 68) John Stevenson, related to his patron by marriage, was vicar from 1762 to his death, aged 92, in 1829. (fn. 69) In 1775 he lived on his Essex rectory, his curate holding a single Sunday service at Great Wilbraham. (fn. 70) Stevenson when resident in 1807 and 1825 held alternate morning and evening services, (fn. 71) as in 1836 did the curate shared with Little Wilbraham. (fn. 72) In 1728 there were nine communicants at sacraments held, as in 1830, thrice yearly. (fn. 73)
From the 1850s vicars were regularly resident. (fn. 74) In 1851, when the church could hold 330, attendance at its afternoon service was 150, with 88 Sunday-school children. (fn. 75) F. W. Hudson (1864-91) was preaching at two Sunday services by 1873 and was holding communion monthly, and by 1897 weekly. (fn. 76) Great Wilbraham had only six incumbents between 1896 and 1974. (fn. 77) It was held with Little Wilbraham 1974-86, and by 1990 served from Fulbourn. (fn. 78)
The church of ST. NICHOLAS, so named by 1520, (fn. 79) standing where Angle End meets Church Street at the north end of the village, is built of fieldstones dressed with ashlar, formerly of clunch renewed in limestone, and tiled. It consists of a chancel, transepts with crossing, a four-bayed aisleless nave with south porch, and a west tower. (fn. 80) The square font, its edge carved with bands of diamonds, waves, and zigzag over volutes, (fn. 81) survives from a 12th-century building. The thick nave north wall of that period, in which small 12th-century windows were discovered in 1893, (fn. 82) was retained when the church was rebuilt to a cruciform plan in the 13th century, probably in two phases, both nave and chancel being extended westward and eastward. The arches of the central crossing are chamfered over octagonal responds, that facing the nave having many mouldings. Simple lancets survive from the 13th-century rebuilding in the nave north wall, the chancel, and (later blocked) in the south transept west wall. The chancel east window has three stepped lancets within arcading with banded shafts. In the south transept east wall an archway, later blocked, richly moulded with dogtooth, may have led into a chapel. The similarly moulded nave south doorway was probably contemporary.
In the 14th century the chancel received new square-headed south windows, including a 'low side' window. The three-stage west tower, buttressed, parapeted, and pinnacled, was built c. 1400. In 1748 it retained a short spire, probably removed after 1783. (fn. 83) In the 15th century threeand four-light Perpendicular windows were inserted in the transept north and south walls, and similar smaller windows in the nave south wall, and a south porch was added. The upper doorway of a roodstair survives at the chancel's north-west angle. The late medieval screen to which that stair led may be that, replaced by another under the chancel arch by 1748, which later stood under the lofty tower arch. About 1425 the Templars' lessee left the chancel almost ruinous and roofless. (fn. 84) Few early fittings survive: in 1644 William Dowsing destroyed 13 'superstitious pictures', presumably in the windows. (fn. 85) The chancel contains several wall monuments to the Ward and Hicks families; those to T. W. Ward (d. 1750) and his daughter Mary (d. 1756) are primitive early examples of Gothick. (fn. 86)
In 1561 the site of the demolished altar had not been repaired. (fn. 87) The central lancet at the chancel east end and two others at its sides, largely blocked by 1662, (fn. 88) had not been reopened nor the communion rails reinstated by the 1680s, when the chancel needed tiling. (fn. 89) The north transept fell down c. 1844 and was rebuilt in 1846, its north window being replaced with three lancets allegedly reusing original stonework. (fn. 90) Further restoration from 1878 under J. D. Wyatt began with the chancel. Work on the west tower with its west window was completed in 1882-3, a singers' gallery across it being removed. (fn. 91) James Benstead (d. 1884) gave a clock and £90 to maintain it. (fn. 92) Following work on the transepts the nave was restored, receiving a new roof, in 1892-3. (fn. 93) In 1911 a new vestry was screened off in the south aisle. (fn. 94) A new organ, succeeding the previous one, was installed in 1868. (fn. 95)
There were two chalices and patens, both parcel gilt, in 1552. (fn. 96) The existing communion plate was given by Edward Hicks in 1836-7. (fn. 97) The four bells of 1552 were recast in 1709 and a fifth was added in 1837. (fn. 98) All five, not rung for fifty years, were rehung in 1958-9, one being recast and a sixth added. (fn. 99) The parish registers, whose first part was recopied c. 1600, are virtually complete from 1561, with gaps in marriages 1616-30 and burials 1575-80, and for both during the Interregnum. (fn. 100) The churchyard, too small by the 1870s, (fn. 101) was enlarged in 1889 with land given by S. E. Hicks. (fn. 102)