Wisbech: Church

Pages 247-250

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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A vicarage was instituted in or before 1252, when Bishop Northwold presented William de Northwold to it. The vicar was to receive the tithes except those of flax and wool. Land and other tithes were assigned to him for conducting the services at the chapel of Kilhus in Wisbech St. Mary (q.v.). (fn. 1) In 1275 Bishop Balsham appropriated the church of Wisbech to the prior and convent of Ely, with the rectory house and a house for the priest at Kilhus. The profits of the rectory were devoted to the refectory of the monastery, which was inadequately endowed. (fn. 2) The vicar was to be resident and was to bear the ordinary burdens of the church; special expenses and the repair of the chancel were to be borne by the convent and the vicar jointly. If the lands from which the convent received the tithes of sheaves were flooded, they were to receive the tithes of all the lands of the vicarage. (fn. 3) In 1298 the prior and convent paid 500 marks to retain this appropriation, which had been made without licence. (fn. 4) In 1338 they received licence to say mass in the oratory of the rectory. (fn. 5) The right to appoint the vicar remained, as it has since done, with the bishop. (fn. 6)

The church was valued in 1217 at £33 6s. 8d., and in 1254 the rectory and vicarage were returned at £20 and £6 13s. 4d. respectively. (fn. 7) The vicarage was unchanged in 1291, when the rectory had increased to £26 13s. 4d. (fn. 8) In 1535, the vicarage, with the chapelry of Wisbech St. Mary, was returned at this latter sum. (fn. 9) The rectory is not distinguished from the other spiritualities of Ely monastery in the Valor, but in 1538-9 it was farmed at £18 13s. 4d. (fn. 10) In the early 18th century it was on beneficial lease to Arthur Jermy at £17 a year, at fines of £96 (1708), £100 (1715), and £160 (1712). A pension of 6s. 8d. a year was also payable to the dean and chapter from the vicarage. (fn. 11) An earlier pension of £2 13s. 4d. (one-tenth of the 1535 value) had been awarded from the vicarage to Bishop Cox. (fn. 12)

The uncertainty of the boundary between Wisbech on the one hand and March and Doddington on the other caused as much trouble over the tithes as over rights of common. (fn. 13) In 1347 there was a cause in the Court of Arches between John de Herle, Rector of Doddington, and the prior and convent of Ely regarding the tithes of Henlonde. They were allotted to Ely. (fn. 14)

The patronage of the church of St. Augustine (1869) is with the Bishop of Ely. The Octagon Chapel in the Old Market, opened in 1831 as a chapel of ease to the parish church, was a perpetual curacy in the patronage of trustees, (fn. 15) but has been closed since 1946.

The church of ST. PETER AND ST. PAUL consists of chancel, south vestry, south chapel, clerestoried nave, two south aisles, south porch, north aisle and north-west tower. The history of the fabric is involved and of unusual interest; the plan, too, is extraordinary. The oldest part of the existing structure dates from the third quarter of the 12th century. At that time there was a chancel, clerestoried nave, aisles, and engaged west tower. At the beginning of the 14th century the chancel was rebuilt on an enlarged scale and a large chapel added on the south side, the south aisle was widened and provided with a clerestory and another aisle added to the south; the north aisle was also widened at this time. A little later in the century the south porch was erected. Early in the 16th century the west tower seems to have partially collapsed, and this necessitated a considerable reconstruction. The south arcade of the nave was rebuilt and the north clerestory reconstructed. Both the nave and inner south aisle were provided with ceilings of beams and plaster and a single high-pitched outer roof was placed over them. The east arch of the tower was removed and a large window was inserted in the west wall. The southwest stair turret of the tower was retained and covered with a bell-cote. About this time a vestry was added to the south-east of the chancel. Finally, about 1525, a fine tower was erected at the north-west of the north aisle, the base of which serves as a porch. An extensive restoration was begun in 1856. The chancel was reroofed and the early 16th-century window at the west end of the nave was replaced by one of 14th-century character.

Plan of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul

The chancel has an east window of 5 lights with geometrical tracery, which has been renewed. There are angle buttresses with 2 set-offs. In the north wall are 4 windows with flowing tracery, the east and west of 3 and the middle two of 2 lights. On the south side above the vestry is an early 16th-century window of 9 lights with trefoiled heads under a square label. The chancel opens to the south chapel by an arcade of 3 bays with 2-centred arches of 2 orders, chamfered and resting on clustered piers of three-quarter rounded shafts with moulded caps; the west respond has a foliaged cap. There is a plain square-headed piscina of the 14th century. The chancel arch is 2-centred with 14th-century mouldings and a hood terminating in masks which have been renewed. The roof is modern. The vestry communicates with the chancel by a door with continuous mouldings and hood. The vestry has an east window of 5 trefoiled lights under a segmental head. The south window is divided by a heavy central mullion into 2 portions of 3 lights each. The embattled parapet has an elaborate band of decoration divided into panels each displaying a carved device; these include the emblems of St. Peter and St. Paul, the arms of Ely, a chalice and host, the Tudor rose and the monogram and rebus, four times repeated, of Thomas Burwell, who was an official of the Holy Trinity Guild at the beginning of the 16th century. The east side of the parapet rises in the centre to form a low gable. There is a doorway in the south wall with continuous chamfer.

The south chapel has a 15th-century east window of 5 lights, and 3 windows in the. south wall each of 3 lights; the 2 eastern are of the 15th century with cinquefoiled heads and rectilinear tracery above, and the western of the 14th century with trefoiled heads and segmental arch. There is a plain doorway in the south wall with continuous chamfer. The arch communicating with the inner south aisle is similar to the chancel arch. There is a piscina with traceried head and a hood terminating in male and female heads. The highpitched roof appears to be ancient; it is canted and boarded.

The nave has a 12th-century arcade of five bays on the north and an early 16th-century arcade of four bays on the south. The former has round arches which are plain except for one with cheveron ornament; the caps are square and chamfered with acanthus decoration. Two of the piers are round and the others, and the west respond, are clustered. In two of the spandrels are sunk quatrefoils and in another a circle. The chancel when rebuilt was widened on the north, as a result of which it was necessary to throw a skew semi-arch across from the east pier of the arcade, which was strengthened when the clerestory was rebuilt by the insertion of a supporting arch. The clerestory consists of seven three-light windows with cinquefoiled heads under a square label. The south arcade dates from the 16th-century reconstruction. The wide obtuse arches of two orders rest on lofty and rather slender piers with engaged shafts and moulded caps on their inner faces. In. 1856 the bases of the original arcade were discovered beneath the floor. The west end of the nave was originally the base of the 12th-century tower. In the 16th century the tower arch and wall above were completely removed, but the side walls were retained. They are pierced by plain and massive pointed arches of Transitional character, which prove that the tower was engaged by the aisles. The large west window of four lights with tracery of 14th-century type was inserted at the restoration, and replaced an early 16th-century window. The west doorway is late 12th century and deeply recessed. The octagonal turret, formerly the stair turret of the tower, is crowned by a pyramidal stone cap and has an opening with a pointed head in each face of the top stage. The nave has a flat beam roof of 16th-century date, which from its plain character would seem to have been intended as a temporary covering.

The inner south aisle has an arcade of five bays similar to the chancel arcade, but the arches are less acutely pointed. There is a clerestory, the windows of which are alternately of two and three lights, the former with trefoiled heads and a trefoil above and the latter cinquefoiled under a segmental head. The west window is of five lights with flowing tracery. The roof is similar to that over the nave. The outer south aisle was provided with new windows early in the 16th century. The windows are of uniform design with cinquefoiled lights under a square head, the east, the third from the east and the west being of four lights and the remainder of three. In the east wall is a recess, possibly intended for relics. The buttresses are 14th century, but some of them were partly remade in the 16th century and the date 1586 appears on one of them. The roof is of lean-to character with moulded principals and rafters and brackets with pierced quatrefoils. The porch has an outer arch of two orders, two-centred with moulded caps and bases to the responds. There is a single trefoiled light on the east and west. The inner doorway has continuous mouldings. There is a flat plastered ceiling. Above is a parvise with a window of two cinquefoiled lights on the east, west, and south. There are angle buttresses with two set-offs. The plain low-pitched roof of the parvise is of uncertain date.

The north aisle, which was rebuilt in the first half of the 14th century, was provided with new windows early in the 16th century similar in design to those in the outer south aisle. There is a blocked 14th-century window at the west end of the north wall, and a piscina in a rectangular recess in the same wall. The lean-to roof is similar to that of the outer south aisle and probably dates from the beginning of the 16th century. The north doorway is an excellent piece of 14th-century work; it has a two-centred arch of several orders enriched with carvings in low relief of birds, animals, foliage, and grotesques on the exterior.

The tower consists of three stages, and is constructed throughout of ashlar; it is enriched with bands of carved panels. The lofty north arch is two-centred and of two orders with moulded caps and bases to the responds, while the spandrels have shields with the emblems of St. Peter and St. Paul. There is a two-light window on the east and west of the ground stage with cinquefoiled lights. The south arch, which gives on to a narrow space between the tower and the aisle, is twocentred and of two orders, similar to the outer arch. The ground stage has a plain wooden ceiling with massive beams. The lower string-course is ornamented with a band of quatrefoils, while the upper has a series of shields, which are blank except on the north where they are charged with the arms of England, Canterbury, and Ely and the emblems of St. Peter and St. Paul. The second stage has on each face a recessed two-light window with an embattled transom; the belfry windows are similar but are not recessed. Above on the south and east are angels holding religious emblems; similar figures on the north and west were destroyed to make room for the clock dials; over these are canopied niches and various devices including the emblems of St. Peter and St. Paul, the arms of Canterbury and Ely, the wheel of St. Catherine and the chalice and host. There is an embattled parapet pierced and stepped, with lofty angle pinnacles and lower pinnacles in the centre of each side. Below the parapet is a band of ornament with shields, floral designs and the emblems of St. Peter and St. Paul. The tower is crowned by a leaded pyramidal cap. The newel stair is in the southwest angle, and the lower doorway has a four-centred arch with hood-mould and traceried spandrels; the plain door and its hinges are original. All the roofs are leaded.

The 14th-century font has a plain bowl resting on clustered shafts. In the south-east window of the chancel and in the tracery of the east window of the south chapel are fragments of 15th-century painted glass, and several windows have clear glass in rectangular leading. There are three stalls now in the sanctuary with misericords carved with human heads and grotesques on the elbow rests. The communion table is early 17th century, and the altar rails and paving in the sanctuary are a century later. There is a particularly fine royal arms of James I, carved and coloured.

On the chancel floor is a magnificent brass of a knight in armour commemorating Thomas de Braunstone, Constable of Wisbech Castle, 1401. The canopy shields and part of the inscription in old French are missing. The dimensions including the border are 9 ft. by 3 ft. 10 in., and the effigy is one of the largest in England. In the south chapel is a brass inscription with shield of arms to Nicholas Sandford, 1638. On the north wall of the chancel are 2 marble monuments, each with kneeling figures of a man and wife. One commemorates Thomas Parke, 1628, and Etheldreda his wife, and the other Matthias Taylor, 1633. In the south chapel is a mural monument to Edmund Southwell, 1787, with allegorical sculpture by Nollekens. Bishop Watson (fn. 16) and Abbot Feckenham (fn. 17) (see Recusants in the Castle) are buried in the church without monuments.

The plate consists of two chalices, two patens and a flagon, all silver, 1862, a chalice of metal, and an almsdish of brass.

The tower contains ten bells by Dobson of Downham, 1823. There were formerly eight, of which the 5th was by John Brend of Norwich, 1566, the 6th and 7th by John Draper of Thetford, 1608 and 1640. The present 5th and 6th were the gift of Dr. Abraham Jobson, vicar 1802-28. (fn. 18) The present 4th is inscribed 'Long live King George the Fourth' and the 7th 'Prosperity to the town of Wisbech St. Peter, 1823'. (fn. 19)

The registers begin in 1558 and are complete.

The OCTAGON CHURCH (fn. 20) is a brick building, faced with stone and embattled. It was erected under an Act of Parliament of 1827 (fn. 21) as a chapel of ease to the parish church, and consists of chancel, octagonal nave, porch at the south side and a turret containing one bell. The building was designed by William Swansborough in imitation of the Octagon of Ely Cathedral, but the lantern became unsafe owing to defective foundations, and was replaced in 1846 by a battlement with pinnacles. (fn. 22)

The plate consists of two communion cups, three patens, and a flagon, all silver, 1829.

The church of ST. AUGUSTINE, erected in 1868-9, is of brick with stone dressings and consists of chancel, clerestoried nave, aisles and a turret containing one bell. The registers begin in 1870 and are complete. The ecclesiastical parish was formed in that year from Wisbech St. Peter and Leverington.


  • 1. Doc. copied into reg. of Bishop Fordham (Ely Dioc. Remembrancer, No. 192, p. 97.
  • 2. D. & C. Mun., Ely, Carta 33.
  • 3. Ely Dioc. Remembrancer, No. 192, p. 98.
  • 4. Cal. Pat. 1292-1301, 363.
  • 5. Ely Dioc. Remembrancer, 1889, 344.
  • 6. During the Commonwealth John Thurloe as lord of the manor presented William Goldwell (Woodgate MSS.).
  • 7. W. E. Lunt, Valuation of Norw. 539.
  • 8. Tax. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 265.
  • 9. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii, 500.
  • 10. Dugd., Mon. i, 493.
  • 11. D. & C. Mun., Ely (Bentham Transcripts).
  • 12. Cal. Pat. 1560-3, 226.
  • 13. See above, p. 238.
  • 14. D. & C. Mun., Ely, Carta 712. This suit had been started in or before 1341, as Prior Crauden, who died in that year, was cited in the first instance.
  • 15. Crockford's Clerical Dir. 1940.
  • 16. D.N.B.
  • 17. Infm. Mr. G. M. G. Woodgate.
  • 18. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 599.
  • 19. J. J. Raven, Church Bells of Cambs. (1869), App.
  • 20. a. Demolished 1952.
  • 21. 7 & 8 Geo. IV c. xcii.
  • 22. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 605-6. A scathing denunciation of the style, planning, and construction of the chapel.