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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Elsworth had a church by a.d. 1000 whose advowson, then given to Ramsey abbey, (fn. 1) remained with it throughout the Middle Ages. (fn. 2) In the early 1180s the abbey assigned Elsworth church, reserving only its demesne tithes, to its dependent priory of St. Ives, (fn. 3) but the priory's interest was commuted c. 1220 for a 10-mark pension, (fn. 4) still payable in the 1530s. (fn. 5) The Crown sold the advowson to Dr. Thomas Wendy with the manor, (fn. 6) with which it descended until after 1800. (fn. 7) Matthew Holworthy, who presented himself in 1791, retained the patronage when he sold the manor, and on his death in 1826 was succeeded as patron and rector by his eldest son Matthew (d. s.p. 1836). (fn. 8) The advowson belonged to the dukes of Portland from 1851 (fn. 9) until it was ceded in 1945 to the bishop of Ely, still patron in the 1980s. (fn. 10)
About 1180 Ramsey abbey had promised to St. Ives priory the whole crop of 5 a. instead of the demesne tithes. (fn. 11) Later, the benefice having remained a rectory, the incumbent was entitled to all tithes, great and small. By 1279 he also had 2 yardlands held in free alms, and his customary tenants occupied 7 houses with 13½ a. and 3 cottages. (fn. 12) In the early 17th century the glebe arable included 270 'lands', probably c. 90 a. (fn. 13) The tithes were sometimes in the late 18th century paid according to a long unaltered composition. At inclosure the rector, who had 7 a. of old inclosures, was allotted 58 a. for his glebe and 597 a. stretching along the southeastern edge of the parish for the tithes. (fn. 14) Of his farmland 335 a. were sold in 1907, 327 a. in 1918-19. In 1922 the rector retained c. 15 a. of grass closes and 19 a. let as allotments. (fn. 15)
Elsworth remained a valuable living until the late 19th century. In the early 13th it was taxed at £15 without the pension, (fn. 16) in 1291 at £30. (fn. 17) About 1517 it was reckoned as worth £20 a year, (fn. 18) though taxed at only £14 in 1535. (fn. 19) In 1650 it yielded £140, (fn. 20) by 1728 well over £150. (fn. 21) Following inclosure the income increased from £510 gross c. 1830 (fn. 22) to £835 gross by 1874, of which a quarter was absorbed by repaying a land drainage loan. (fn. 23) By the 1880s it was again below £400. (fn. 24)
Presumably from the Middle Ages the rectory house stood in a 4-a. close north of the churchyard, surrounded by the copyhold closes held of the rectory manor. (fn. 25) It had 9 hearths c. 1665, (fn. 26) and was repaired by Thomas Whincop, rector 1632-56, and William Lunn, 1694-1747. (fn. 27) Since Matthew Holworthy (d. 1826) dwelt at his manor house, (fn. 28) the rectory gradually became derelict (fn. 29) and his son rebuilt it in grey brick c. 1835. (fn. 30) That house, in use until the 1950s, (fn. 31) was sold when the rector moved to Boxworth c. 1961, (fn. 32) and was later remodelled.
The first recorded rector, c. 1180, Master Matthew, presumably a graduate, probably left the parish in the care of Manfred the priest, who had his house there. (fn. 33) Later Ramsey abbey usually chose as rectors other university-trained, well connected clerks, often pluralists and absentees. One in 1221 was the bishop of Ely's official, (fn. 34) another in 1277 had two other livings, (fn. 35) and the royal clerk Robert Retford, not even in orders, was dispensed in 1307 to hold Elsworth with three other. (fn. 36) The illegitimate John Coupland, rector 1325-54, (fn. 37) was succeeded by two canon lawyers, John Merton, c. 1356- 84, (fn. 38) and Simon Neylond, 1384-1401, who was three times licensed to be absent for three years. (fn. 39) Henry Granby, rector from 1401 and master of Michaelhouse from 1402, received a similar licence in 1405. (fn. 40) Thomas atte Wood, c. 1421-56, master of Gonville Hall by 1426, who perhaps came from an Elsworth neif family, held the rectory with Boxworth, later with a Norfolk living. (fn. 41)
The parish was probably served by the chaplains recorded, sometimes two at a time, from c. 1300. (fn. 42) One, who was perhaps supported by an endowment to sing masses for the Virgin, sued for arrears of his wages in 1316. (fn. 43) In 1463 the parish chaplain's wage was 8½ marks. (fn. 44) Coupland was licensed in 1353 to give 30 a. in Elsworth and 40 a. in Boxworth to found a chantry providing daily masses in Elsworth church. (fn. 45) Its patronage was assigned to Ramsey abbey, which nominated chaplains until the early 16th century. (fn. 46) Despite the size of the endowment, the income sometimes proved insufficient. Chaplains had to be licensed to serve annuals in Elsworth church to supplement its yield, or in 1376 for rebuilding their dwelling house there, blown down in storms. (fn. 47) Part of the land was possibly sold in 1549. (fn. 48)
Some pluralist rectors were generous to the parish with their purses. Retford gave three sets of vestments. Merton gave two vestments and two service books (fn. 49) and left 5 marks for church repairs and money to mend the books in the chancel. (fn. 50) Thomas atte Wood left two 'beautiful' antiphoners and a vestment, (fn. 51) while William Hill, rector c. 1483-91, (fn. 52) gave money to buy an organ. (fn. 53) About 1310 the church had c. 15 service books and two chalices; (fn. 54) one chalice was worth £2 in 1409, when a chantry chaplain was charged with purloining it. (fn. 55) By 1550 it had two silver gilt chalices and many vestments, several of silk or velvet. (fn. 56) Church reeves (iconomi) were recorded by the 1370s; (fn. 57) in 1540 the churchwardens held of Ramsey abbey a guild hall, (fn. 58) possibly the town house sold for the Crown in 1572. (fn. 59) A guild of St. Catherine was recorded c. 1522, (fn. 60) one of the Virgin Mary, probably connected with her altar in the church, c. 1537. (fn. 61)
Early 16th-century incumbents were also pluralists. William Smith, rector 1499-1516, another canon lawyer, who held Elsworth with two successive archdeaconries, (fn. 62) was succeeded by a theologian, John Watson, master of Christ's College 1517-37. (fn. 63) A correspondent of Erasmus, (fn. 64) Watson even so provided in his will for masses and an obit at Elsworth. (fn. 65) The next rector (fn. 66) left the parish to curates in the 1540s. (fn. 67) Dr. Wendy chose as rector in 1559 Philip Baker, provost of King's College 1558-70, who also employed curates at Elsworth. (fn. 68) In 1570 he lost his preferments, having fled overseas, as a suspected papist. (fn. 69)
Succeeding rectors from 1571 were probably usually resident (fn. 70) and mostly held the living until their deaths. Thomas Whincop, a Crown nomination in 1632, (fn. 71) apparently a moderate Anglican, retained Elsworth until his death in 1656, (fn. 72) preaching twice there every Sunday in 1650. (fn. 73) Nicholas Dickens, 1656-93, (fn. 74) probably resided in the 1660s, (fn. 75) as later did William Lunn, 1693-1747, archdeacon of Huntingdon from 1725 and a J.P. (fn. 76) In 1728 he held two services every Sunday and the sacrament, attended by up to 50 people, five times a year. (fn. 77) Lunn's third son and successor, Edward, 1747-91, (fn. 78) likewise in 1775 held two services a week and catechized regularly. (fn. 79) Both practices were continued, in person, by the two Matthew Holworthys. Nevertheless there were by 1808 many dissenters, although most also went to church, and only 16 communicants, although the number had risen to 30 by 1836. (fn. 80)
In 1851 the morning congregation numbered only 76 adults, but attendance rose to c. 160 at the afternoon and evening services, which both included sermons by the 1870s. (fn. 81) A choir had been started in 1849. (fn. 82) The rector's authority was increasingly challenged by dissenters, led by prominent farmers. From the 1840s they opposed the levy of church rates, and obliged the rector to contribute for his glebe and from 1858 to accept that the rate be voluntary. From the 1870s it was often unpaid. (fn. 83) J. R. Dobson, rector 1853-74, formerly chaplain to the duke of Portland, (fn. 84) claimed in 1873 an average congregation of 200; 100 others neglected all worship. At communions, held monthly from the 1870s, only c. 15 attended regularly. In the 1880s and 1890s there were c. 340 churchgoers. From the 1880s the rector gave evening sermons in Lent and by 1897 had a paid lay reader. (fn. 85) The benefice was united to Knapwell in 1934. (fn. 86) After 1961, following its tenure with Boxworth, the rector lived there. (fn. 87)
The church of the HOLY TRINITY, before whose image in the chancel rectors asked for burial in 1389 and 1498, (fn. 88) consists of a chancel, aisled and clerestoried nave, and west tower, built of field stones dressed with limestone and, inside, clunch. (fn. 89) A fragment of carving in the vestry may derive from a 12th-century building. The church was rebuilt in the 14th century, probably beginning with the three-bay chancel, which had a five-light east window with reticulated tracery, still extant in 1745, and side windows with mouchettes in their tracery. That to the south-west was later replaced with a square-headed four-light window. The chancel south wall contains a double piscina and triple sedilia, rediscovered and restored in 1850-1. (fn. 90) The chancel arch stood on triple shafts, later cut back, and partly restored in the 19th century. The four-bay nave has moulded arches upon quatrefoil piers, and a clerestory of quatrefoils. The four-light aisle windows facing east have ogee cinquefoil heads, the others three lights with reticulated tracery, matched by that of the tower west window. The broad three-stage west tower, buttressed and embattled, contains inside the springing of a vault. A new south porch was added in the 15th century, when also the chancel walls were heightened. The church also then received much elaborate woodwork. From the nave roof survive supporting angels, now standing on its former corbels. The north and south aisles contain seating with carved bench ends and poppy heads, and the octagonal pulpit has traceried panels. Of the late medieval screen, apparently intact in 1745, there remain stumps of its shafts and panelling from its base. The late medieval stalls, backed by two tiers of linenfold panelling, have massive ends with poppy heads, and panelled book cupboards. Of nine indents for brasses, all robbed by 1745, one of a priest in the chancel may be that of Thomas atte Wood. (fn. 91) A vestry, for which John Watson left a press in 1537, (fn. 92) was demolished between 1587 and 1601. (fn. 93)
In the 17th and 18th centuries the north aisle's leaning outer walls were recased in brick and supported by massive brick buttresses, and its east window's tracery was replaced with wooden mullions. (fn. 94) Mrs. Elizabeth Holworthy, who in 1733 gave the silver cup and paten, flagon, and almsdish still in use in the 20th century, (fn. 95) had by 1745 made a family vault under the altar. She provided a new communion rail, still in place in 1982, and by 1750 had installed in the chancel panelling and a new reredos, with a pediment on Ionic columns. To accommodate it the east window was filled in and a round-headed one inserted. (fn. 96) On the chancel north wall are two monuments, one put up by Samuel Holworthy in 1756 to his ancestors, (fn. 97) and one of 1850 to his son Matthew and Matthew's children.
The insecure nave roof was reconstructed in 1843-4. (fn. 98) The tower and the chancel were repaired c. 1870. (fn. 99) A thorough restoration, to designs by J. L. Pearson of c. 1860, (fn. 100) was executed under W. M. Fawcett's supervision only in 1891-2. The north aisle wall was entirely rebuilt, largely re-using the old dressings, its window tracery being replaced. The Ionic reredos was removed to screen off a vestry in the north aisle, and the reopened chancel east window received new reticulated tracery. (fn. 101) About 1910 a new organ was installed in the north aisle. The upper part of the tower was repaired then (fn. 102) and again c. 1930. (fn. 103)
The tower contained four bells in 1552. (fn. 104) The four existing ones, recorded from 1745, (fn. 105) include three dated 1616, 1628, and 1675. (fn. 106) A copyhold house at Cowdell End was obliged to furnish one bellrope. (fn. 107) The registers begin in 1538 (fn. 108) and are substantially complete. (fn. 109)