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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The church at Over was mentioned in 1178 in the possession of Ramsey abbey, (fn. 1) to which the advowson belonged until the Dissolution. The king presented rectors in 1231 and 1318 during vacancies. (fn. 2) In 1332 the abbot was licensed to lease the advowson but the king presented twice on the grounds that the temporalities of Ramsey had been in royal hands in 1316. (fn. 3) The pope provided to the rectory in 1358 and again in 1361 when the incumbent died at Avignon (Vaucluse). (fn. 4) In 1528 the abbot granted a turn which passed in 1545 to the Crown, (fn. 5) already owner of the advowson. In 1546 the rectory was appropriated to the king's new foundation of Trinity College, Cambridge, which was ordered to create a vicarage. (fn. 6)
The living was one of the most valuable in the rural deanery in the 13th century, being taxed at 53 marks in 1291. (fn. 7) The glebe in 1279 amounted to 42 a. (fn. 8) The vicar's annual stipend from Trinity College was set in 1546 at £19 0s. 7d., (fn. 9) about a fifth of the value of the appropriated rectory in the late 16th century. (fn. 10) By 1615 the college had allotted the vicar c. 11 a. as glebe. (fn. 11) The vicar's income was augmented temporarily during the Interregnum (fn. 12) and permanently with £400 in 1835 by Trinity College and Queen Anne's Bounty. (fn. 13) At inclosure in 1840 the vicar received 6&frac1/2; a. for glebe and 44 a. for the small tithes. (fn. 14) About half the glebe was sold in the 1920s (fn. 15) and the remainder in 1944. (fn. 16)
The medieval rectory house, mentioned in 1327, (fn. 17) may have stood north-east of the church. After appropriation it became the rectory farmhouse. (fn. 18) Trinity College seems at first to have provided a vicarage house, which in 1615 perhaps stood south of the church on the site of the later church school. (fn. 19) It was not recorded again and had certainly gone by 1728. (fn. 20) The rectory farmhouse was rebuilt in 1727 by Richard Bentley, master of Trinity, perhaps as a fishing lodge. (fn. 21) The rectory lessee apparently occupied it in the 18th and early 19th century. (fn. 22) Bentley's house formed a small two-storeyed rectangular block with a hipped roof and dormers, four bays wide and two rooms deep, built of gault brick. The ground floor comprises four small rooms and an elegant staircase rising from a hall with unmoulded panelling. In 1840, when Charles Warren became vicar and the rectory farmer lived elsewhere in the village, the college gave the house for use as the vicarage, as it remained in 1983. Warren added domestic offices at the back and side of the house and blocked or moved many windows. (fn. 23)
In 1389 the rector John Burton and others founded a chantry at St. Mary's altar in the south aisle of the church. It was endowed with 23s. 8d. rent and the reversion of 11 houses and c. 70 a. of land, mostly in Over. (fn. 24) The founders presented the first chaplain in 1391. (fn. 25) After Burton's death the patronage passed to the abbot of Ramsey. The chaplain was to say daily masses for Burton's predecessor Robert Muskham. (fn. 26) A house was given in 1396 for him to live in. (fn. 27) Later chaplains included a university graduate who exchanged a rectory for it. (fn. 28) The chantry was worth over £5 at its dissolution in 1548. (fn. 29)
Rectors were recorded from 1231, when the king presented one of his clerks, the brother of the resigning rector. (fn. 32) All three rectors presented by the king in the early 14th century were royal clerks. (fn. 33) By the mid 14th century the benefice attracted prebendaries and pluralists, among them a royal ambassador (fn. 34) and two Oxford canon lawyers. (fn. 35) Between the 1350s and 1370s there were at least two parish chaplains; (fn. 36) in 1406 four were recorded, including the chantry priest. (fn. 37) There were several long incumbencies in the 15th century, William Lassels serving from 1415 to 1443 and Thomas Maunchell from 1443 (fn. 38) until 1467. Maunchell left the church his missal and money for repairs but wished to be buried at Ramsey abbey. (fn. 39)
In the late 15th century and the early 16th the living again attracted pluralists. Successive rectors between 1489 and 1518 were masters of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, (fn. 40) the college of St. Mary-on-the-sea at Newton in the Isle, (fn. 41) and Peterhouse, (fn. 42) and an archdeacon. (fn. 43) The next, though a Cambridge fellow, undertook to reside (fn. 44) and was buried in the chancel in 1521. (fn. 45) Two parishioners were accused in 1536 of proclaiming their opposition to the king's religious changes and their willingness to help the northern rebels. (fn. 46) The rector presented in 1521 (fn. 47) probably remained until 1543, after which the living was briefly served by curates appointed by the Crown's rectory lessee. (fn. 48)
As required under the appropriation of the rectory, Trinity College presented Ralph Wilson as vicar in 1547. (fn. 49) He was excused from his duties on account of infirmity by 1561, when some absenteeism from church was reported. (fn. 50) Four consecutive vicars in the late 16th and early 17th century were graduates of Trinity. (fn. 51) Under John Lively, 1605-25, the schoolmaster Ezra Purkiss held services in church until 1610 or later. In 1609, though not in holy orders, he was reported to have buried the dead, said divine service, preached, and in reading the collects substituted the word pastor for bishop. (fn. 52) During the Interregnum Trinity College, with the parish's consent, presented a minister regarded in 1650 as a good preacher. (fn. 53) By the 1680s many people were absent from services. (fn. 54) From the same decade Trinity regularly presented its own members to the living. The first two were recent graduates taking up their first benefice. (fn. 55) Thomas King, 1685-1714, was said in 1701 to have made house to house calls in a successful effort to bring more people to prayers and communion (fn. 56) and his successor William Downs, 1714-37, resided in 1728 even though there was no vicarage house. (fn. 57) From 1738 the college appointed its fellows, all of whom seem to have remained resident at Cambridge. Until 1777 there were 13 such vicars, the longest serving being the first, who stayed seven years; the others averaged less than three. All had been fellows, mostly unbeneficed, for at least 12 years before receiving the living; they included a Regius professor and a future bishop of Norwich. (fn. 58) Curates were regularly appointed during the longer incumbency from 1777 of Thomas Spencer, another fellow of Trinity. (fn. 59) Three of the four known were young graduates of Trinity in the first stage of a clerical career. (fn. 60) The fourth lived in Cambridge in 1807 and served the church single-handed because of Spencer's insanity. He preached twice on Sundays and gave the sacrament four times a year to a dozen communicants. (fn. 61)
Trinity men continued to hold the benefice throughout the 19th century. In the 1820s successive vicars were the prominent clerical liberals Thomas Musgrave, later archbishop of York, and Connop Thirlwall, later bishop of St. David's. (fn. 62) Church life in the parish was perhaps at its lowest ebb under Musgrave, who held a single Sunday service, alternately in the morning and evening, and in 1825 reported no more than 10 communicants and rampant dissent. (fn. 63) By 1836 there were again two Sunday services and a Sunday school had been started. (fn. 64) A fuller revival of church life came under Charles Warren, vicar 1840-73. (fn. 65) By 1851 there were 100 Sundayschool children and the average adult attendance at church was 70 at the morning service and 250 in the afternoon, nearly as many as the Baptist chapel. (fn. 66) Besides rebuilding the chancel Warren founded a highly regarded church choir. (fn. 67) By 1877 there were three Sunday services, weekday evening services in Lent and Advent, and monthly communion. (fn. 68) The vicar in 1897 reported that in a total population of c. 900 there were 500 dissenters and 320 church people, of whom 60 were communicants, though he added that his flock was 'unreasonably afraid of Rome'. (fn. 69) Trinity men were occasionally presented as vicars in the 20th century. (fn. 70) The parish still had its own vicar in 1983.
The church of ST. MARYhas probably always been so named: the dedication is that of its patron Ramsey abbey (fn. 71) and there is a much weathered sculpture of the Assumption over the west doorway, (fn. 72) perhaps once painted. (fn. 73) The church comprises chancel, aisled and clerestoried nave with south porch, and west tower with spire. The exterior walls are rendered but the quoins, buttresses, and tracery are of good quality freestone. The nave and aisles, particularly the exterior of the south side, are sumptuously decorated. The 12th-century nave had narrow aisles which have left traces at the west end, including a length of roof weathering and a fragment of a wall painting. The widening of the aisles was part of an extensive rebuilding of the early 14th century, probably completed shortly before an ordination was held in the church in 1338. (fn. 74) The aisles and porch were built to a single structural and decorative plan, though the window tracery and ornamentation of the south side is richer than that of the north. A frieze of ballflower and vine tendrils was carried round the porch, which has pinnacled buttresses, while the south aisle has large gargoyles. (fn. 75) Internally a contemporary stone wall seat, from which shafts rise between the windows, runs along the length of the north, south, and west walls of the nave, with a break for the tower arch.
The tower was added in the early 14th century, perhaps being started before the rebuilding of the aisles, since their plinth mouldings are discontinuous. Above rises a lofty broach spire with small solid buttresses at its corners. The chancel may have been rebuilt at the same time. Before the thorough reconstruction of the 19th century a number of 14th-century features survived, (fn. 76) now represented only by the hoodmould of the east window, re-used for a wider opening when the chancel was remodelled in the 15th century. Externally the mullions of that window descend below the sill to form blank panelling. The other chancel windows and the west window and door of the tower were also inserted in the 15th century. The arms of Ramsey and probably Ely, now unrecognizable, flanked the sculpture of the Assumption on the west wall of the tower. (fn. 77)
The main work of the 15th century was the reconstruction of the six-bay nave arcades and the addition of a clerestory, perhaps paid for by selling the parish's manor. (fn. 78) The piers were well designed but carelessly built. (fn. 79) The same masons worked on the blank arcade of the chancel side walls. The nave roof is also 15th-century. The medieval chancel roof remained finely painted in 1748, especially over the altar. (fn. 80)
The east ends of both aisles retained parclose screens in 1776, (fn. 81) later removed. The south aisle contains a piscina which predates the foundation of the chantry there in 1389. The 15th-century chancel screen has lost the panels from its lower part and much highly decorative tracery but retains a ribbed coving projecting over the eastern side. Six chancel stalls which formerly stood against the screen were moved in 1858. (fn. 82) All have misericords, one of which bears a ram's head in reference to Ramsey abbey.
The north side of the church was said to be ready to fall before it was repaired in 1609. (fn. 83) A brick buttress was built c. 1738 and there was heavy expenditure in the 1750s. (fn. 84) More repairs had recently been finished in 1807. (fn. 85) The spire was rebuilt in the early 1820s. (fn. 86) Although a thorough restoration of the chancel was put in hand in 1840 it was badly done and uncompleted and the chancel's present appearance probably largely dates from J. H. Blunt's remodelling in 1857, (fn. 87) which left little medieval work intact. The north aisle was repaired in 1847 (fn. 88) and the tower and spire between 1858 and 1864. (fn. 89)
At least two men left money in 1532 to make a new high altar. (fn. 90) A faculty was granted in 1685 to adorn and beautify the church: (fn. 91) the date is painted high on the west wall of the nave but it is not clear what work was done. An ornate 17thcentury pulpit and domed tester stands on a pedestal partly of an earlier period. Among other fittings is a chest with medieval ironwork. There were a pair of organs, a peal of five bells, and a sanctus in 1552. (fn. 92) The uninscribed sanctus survives, housed in a small bellcot above the chancel arch. The tower bells were refounded as six in 1819, two more being added in 1931. (fn. 93) The parish registers are complete from 1577 except for gaps 1587-97. (fn. 94)