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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Woodditton parish church stands by the presumed site of Ditton Valence manor house, (fn. 1) whose lords probably founded it. Droard son of Cade gave it to Thetford priory (Norf.) in the early 12th century. (fn. 2) Thetford created a vicarage, of which it held the advowson until its dissolution in 1540. Presentations were made by the Crown in 1342-3 and 1370, and (under royal grant) by Mary (née de Brewes), countess of Norfolk, in 1346 and 1350. (fn. 3) From 1540 the advowson descended with the rectory manor and from 1742 with the Cheveley Park estate. (fn. 4) The Crown presented in 1551, (fn. 5) Henry Coke in 1661 evidently as guardian of the minor heir, (fn. 6) and the Crown in 1834 by lapse. (fn. 7) John Egerton, earl of Ellesmere, bought the patronage from the Cheveley estate in 1920; his son John, duke of Sutherland, retained it in 1987 when the benefice was united with those of Ashley with Silverley, Cheveley, and Kirtling. (fn. 8)
The vicar received £1 a year in 1254, (fn. 9) £6 13s. 4d. in 1291, (fn. 10) and £12 16s. 4½d. in 1535. (fn. 11) The impropriators kept half the small tithes of Ditton Camoys, and tithes on cattle, sheep, and the mill were commuted by 1709. (fn. 12) Before inclosure the glebe amounted to only 2 a. of open-field arable. Tithes and glebe together produced £20 in 1706 and £46 in 1770. (fn. 13) The tithes alone were worth £80 a year in 1792. (fn. 14) At inclosure in 1815 the vicar was allotted c. 200 a. forming an irregular T south of the church. (fn. 15) The net annual income c. 1830 was £375, (fn. 16) but fell to £250 in 1858. (fn. 17) The vicar sold 29 a. to the Cheveley estate before 1883 and 164 a. in 1898, retaining only 12 a. around the house. (fn. 18)
Until the 18th century the vicarage house stood on the north side of the churchyard. (fn. 19) It had been demolished by 1794. (fn. 20) In 1849 a large red-brick house was built on 12 a. of glebe west of Vicarage Lane. (fn. 21) It was sold in 1963, when a smaller house was built on a corner of the plot. That house was sold in 1985. (fn. 22)
Until the Reformation, Woodditton's vicars seem rarely to have served more than a few years. (fn. 23) Lights in the church were endowed with 2 a. by 1364, (fn. 24) and there was a guild by 1471. (fn. 25) During the longer incumbencies from the 1550s into the 18th century, vicars often employed curates. (fn. 26) Robert Levitt, vicar 1618-58, though ejected from Cheveley in 1644, kept Woodditton despite his apparent unsuitability. (fn. 27)
In 1717 the vicar was presented to Newmarket St. Mary (Suff.), holding both until his death in 1752, (fn. 28) with the result that the rights of the two livings became confused. In 1752 they were consolidated as a single benefice (fn. 29) which was served until 1847 by incumbents who normally lived in Newmarket and held a single Sunday service in Woodditton. (fn. 30) The low attendance in 1851, fewer than 200 from a population of 1,300, (fn. 31) was partly explained by long years of neglect and partly by the dispersed settlement pattern. The benefices were disconnected in 1847. (fn. 32) Woodditton had its own incumbent until 1946, (fn. 33) and a resident vicar who also served Stetchworth from 1946 to 1974. (fn. 34) It was held in plurality with Kirtling 1975-84 and additionally with Cheveley and Ashley with Silverley 1984-7, and the four benefices were united in 1987. (fn. 35)
The devotion to duty of the Victorian clergy (fn. 36) probably had some effect in promoting attendance (fn. 37) despite the rival attraction of proliferating dissenting chapels. (fn. 38) By 1873 the curate of Cheveley was holding Sunday services at Saxon Street. (fn. 39) A purpose-built chapel of ease, Holy Trinity, was opened there in 1877 by Lady Adeliza Manners in memory of her husband Lord George Manners. (fn. 40) Also called the Lord Manners Memorial Church, it was designed by J. D. Sedding and comprises a chancel and nave, in red brick with yellow brick banding, lit by grouped lancets, and entered by a west door. (fn. 41) Regular services were held by Woodditton clergy until it closed c. 1986. (fn. 42)
About 1284 the lord of Ditton Camoys gave away land belonging to a chapel, so that it could no longer support a chaplain. (fn. 43) Its advowson was conveyed with the manor in 1374. (fn. 44) No other reference has been found but the existence of an endowment suggests that it had not been simply a private manorial chapel.
The parish church was dedicated to All Saints from the 12th century to the early 19th, (fn. 45) its modern name of ST. MARY being first recorded in 1852. (fn. 46) It comprises a chancel with modern north vestry and organ chamber, an aisled and clerestoried nave with south porch, and a west tower, built throughout of flint rubble with ashlar dressings. (fn. 47) The church, which in 1300 presumably consisted only of a chancel and nave, was progressively enlarged by the addition of a short north aisle in the early 14th century, its later extension to the full length of the nave, and the addition of a south aisle c. 1400. Both aisles are narrow and of four bays. The piers of the south aisle are of a design found in Norfolk, reflecting Thetford priory's ownership of the rectory. The chancel was rebuilt in the mid 14th century when the arch was widened, though the surviving wooden screen is 15th-century. The only 14th-century window left is that at the east end of the north aisle; the others were remodelled in the 15th century with two or three lights. The chancel east window, apparently of three lights in 1752, (fn. 48) was rebuilt in the 19th century as a four-light window in the Perpendicular style. Some medieval glass survives in the chancel.
In the 15th century the nave roof was raised to make a clerestory, and the west tower and south porch were added. The tower is square in section to above the height of the nave roof, then octagonal, and looks intended for a spire which was never added. The 15th-century roofs of the aisles and porch survive, as do the inner door of the porch and the 15th-century font. A bell of c. 1480 (fn. 49) perhaps indicates the date when the tower was completed.
The late medieval church had altars in both aisles. Statue niches of the 14th century flank the east window of the north aisle, while the south aisle may have been the private chapel of the lords of Ditton Valence: a brass for Henry English (d. 1393) and his wife is set in the floor under a medieval piscina and niche. (fn. 50) The high altar stood between double niches of the late 14th or 15th century, one of which survives in the original, the other as a modern copy. Numerous fragments from an apparently large alabaster reredos were discovered during the 1890s and have been reset in the north aisle. (fn. 51) Several 15th-century benches with poppy heads have been preserved. A matching bench end was apparently taken to America by an emigrant former churchwarden in the 17th century and survives in a museum there. (fn. 52)
By the 18th century the centre of the church was probably crowded with the private pews of which the vicar complained in 1873. (fn. 53) Some of the more prominent families are commemorated by three mural tablets and one floor tablet, and the impropriate rector Charles Nowes (d. probably 1710), 'a very whimsical sort of person', had himself buried in a vault in the chancel in a coffin set upright, so that 'a sort of raised altar tomb' protruded above it. (fn. 54) Other wealthy parishioners were content with the churchyard, where a group of stones carved with angels, drapery, and emblems of mortality lies northeast of the church.
During the 19th century the church fell into disrepair (fn. 55) until 1897-9, when Col. Harry McCalmont of Cheveley Park met the cost of reroofing the chancel and nave, repairing windows, clearing the interior of its post-medieval accretions apart from the monuments, and adding a vestry and organ chamber on the north side of the chancel. (fn. 56) The iron and brass gates under the tower arch, dated 1805 and supposedly brought from Jerusalem, were probably also fitted then. (fn. 57)
The registers run from 1567. (fn. 58)