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.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
The church, recorded by 1217, (fn. 1) probably by then belonged to the Beaumes family. Sir Robert de Beaumes was patron in 1279. (fn. 2) In 1299 the archbishop of Canterbury nominated the rector by lapse (fn. 3) during the minority of Sir Robert's son William, who in 1306 alienated the advowson with ½ yardland to John Knyvett. (fn. 4) Richard Knyvett was patron in 1341; (fn. 5) his son Sir John held the advowson at his death in 1381. (fn. 6) The Knyvetts frequently presented during the 15th century. (fn. 7) In 1448, soon after the advowson had been said to appertain to William Malory's manor, John Knyvett (d. 1490) formally proved his hereditary title to it. (fn. 8) Between 1466 and 1486 by Knyvett's grant rectors were nominated by a clerk, William Pettit, who used his second turn to present himself. (fn. 9) John's son Sir William Knyvett presented in 1497 (fn. 10) but did not possess the advowson at his death in 1515. (fn. 11)
In 1546 the Crown presented Thomas Lydgold. In 1550 (fn. 12) William Malory, who apparently then occupied the rectory as lessee, claimed to be patron and opposed Lydgold's admission. (fn. 13) After Lydgold's deprivation Malory presented in 1554, (fn. 14) as did his son William in 1599. (fn. 15) Thereafter the patronage was acknowledged to belong to the Malorys (fn. 16) and was regularly conveyed with the manor, being exercised successively by the Caters, (fn. 17) Pigotts, (fn. 18) Graces, (fn. 19) and Sperlings, (fn. 20) until the late 20th century. Turns to present were often, as in 1704, (fn. 21) 1734, (fn. 22) and 1787, (fn. 23) granted to others, who presented relatives. Otherwise the patrons used the rectory as a family living. The rectors from 1637 to 1704 were Thomas Cater's brothers-in-law William Hayes (d. 1673) (fn. 24) and Daniel Hayes (d. 1704), (fn. 25) those from 1730 to 1744 Robert Pigott's younger sons William (resigned 1740) and Benjamin (d. of drink 1744). (fn. 26) After 1800 the rectory was held successively by the patron H. P. Sperling's sons Henry Grace (rector 1819, d. 1821) and Harvey James. After the latter died in 1858 his eldest son Arthur presented his younger brother Frederick Hayne Sperling, rector until 1892 (fn. 27) but by the 1870s usually non-resident through ill health. (fn. 28) The last rector to live there, Y. D. Stewart, 1924-49, was also related to the Sperlings. (fn. 29)
The living remained a rectory from the 13th century to the 20th. (fn. 30) In the early 13th century it was taxed at £5, (fn. 31) in the late 13th at £13 6s. 8d., probably including Huntingdon priory's £3 tithe portion, (fn. 32) and in 1535 at just under £10, (fn. 33) although soon afterwards the tithes alone were claimed to yield £20. (fn. 34) In 1650 the living was worth £85, (fn. 35) by 1728 c. £100, (fn. 36) and by 1830 £250 net. (fn. 37) The ancient glebe, sometimes leased to the Malorys in the 16th century, (fn. 38) amounted to 28 a. in 1279 (fn. 39) and in 1615 to 70 a., including 63 a. of arable with a 2-a. close around the rectory house. (fn. 40) In 1585 William Malory ordered the house's hall and chamber to be made anew in timber. (fn. 41) Though again rebuilt in 1715, (fn. 42) the house was dilapidated by 1807. (fn. 43) In 1803 the rector agreed to exchange his open-field arable, supposedly 68 a., for a block of 63 a. on Lattenbury Hill, upon which c. 1820 H. G. Sperling built a new parsonage house. In 1854 his successor H. J. Sperling arranged to exchange that block for 79 a. stretching east from the village. (fn. 44) About 1848 he had built a new glebe house south-east of the church in plain late Georgian style. (fn. 45) The tithes, paid by composition c. 1830, were commuted in 1839 for a rent charge of £320, £15 of which was at once exchanged for 11 a. of land. (fn. 46) The living, worth £230 in 1851 (fn. 47) and £390 net in 1873, (fn. 48) retained all the land and the rent charge into the mid 20th century. (fn. 49) The house was sold to Mr. St. J. H. Sperling in 1958. (fn. 50)
Medieval rectors were often non-resident or unqualified. (fn. 51) The archbishop's nominee in 1299 was not ordained priest until 1301. (fn. 52) Between 1337 and 1340 another rector, still a deacon, was thrice licensed to be absent for study (fn. 53) and in 1347 a successor was absent, probably in Sir John Engaine's service. (fn. 54) In the 1390s the rector was twice licensed to be absent, two other priests being deputed to hear his parishioners' confessions. (fn. 55) The canon lawyers occasionally presented in the 15th century were probably also absentees and pluralists. (fn. 56) The church was then served by parish chaplains, recorded from the late 14th century. (fn. 57) Thomas Crewe, rector 1526- 46 and another pluralist, probably lived in London or Kent (fn. 58) while Papworth was served by curates. (fn. 59) Thomas Lydgold described himself c. 1550 as aged and impotent. (fn. 60) The next rector, a local man, (fn. 61) was succeeded by his newly married curate John Andrew, rector 1561-99. (fn. 62) In 1563 the church was being served irregularly by an intruder. (fn. 63)
The church had one silver gilt chalice in 1552. (fn. 64) A brotherhood of Corpus Christi was mentioned in 1469. (fn. 65) Later a guild of St. Mary may have used the north aisle, also called the lady chapel, mentioned in 1546, (fn. 66) and St. Mary's hall, sold by the Crown in 1571. (fn. 67) Land given for lights was sold in 1549 and later. (fn. 68)
From 1601 to 1637 the living was held with Papworth Everard by Robert Bury, who regularly employed curates at Papworth St. Agnes, (fn. 69) but the Hayes brothers after 1637 apparently resided at the rectory. (fn. 70) William Hayes, described in 1650 as an able pious man, (fn. 71) was persuaded in 1662 on latitudinarian grounds by his kinsman Gerard Cater to renounce the Covenant. (fn. 72) Thomas Rutherford, rector 1704- 34, who studied Cambridgeshire antiquities, (fn. 73) also resided. In 1728 he read two services every Sunday and celebrated the sacrament for c. 15 communicants four times a year. (fn. 74) Edward Vaughan, rector 1744-87, (fn. 75) was by 1775 living at Hamburg (Germany), while a curate served Papworth. Then, as until the 1820s, only one service was held each Sunday and sacraments thrice a year. (fn. 76) The next rector but one resided in 1803. (fn. 77)
H. J. Sperling began c. 1830 to hold two services every Sunday. He claimed in 1836 that the number attending communion, held every six weeks, had increased from 12 to 20. (fn. 78) In 1851, when evening services were also held, his curate reported adult afternoon congregations averaging 90. (fn. 79) Sperling also made the yearly village Feast an occasion for missionary preaching in a barn. (fn. 80) By 1873 communion was held monthly and by 1897 weekly; about half of c. 45 communicants attended regularly. In 1885 almost the whole adult population went to the services, of which three with sermons were held every Sunday by 1897. (fn. 81) The last permanently resident rector served from 1892 to 1916. (fn. 82) From 1916 to 1924 the benefice was served from Graveley and from 1924 was held with Hilton (Hunts.). After 1949 it was held with Graveley. (fn. 83) By 1970 services, attended on average by only four people, were held every other Sunday. They ceased entirely after 1975. (fn. 84) In 1976 the parish was united to Graveley. (fn. 85)
The church was called from the 13th century (fn. 86) to the 16th after St. Peter, whose image stood in the chancel c. 1540. (fn. 87) From the mid 18th century it was called ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST. (fn. 88) In the late Middle Ages it consisted of a chancel, nave, and three-storey west tower. The four-bay nave had three-light Perpendicular windows. The tower and chancel arches were of the same period. (fn. 89) In the 1530s the chancel was taken down for rebuilding. Anthony Malory (d. 1539) bequeathed £10 towards the work, provided the parishioners went forward with it upon the stone foundations already laid; he also gave timber for a new roof. (fn. 90) The Reformation probably stopped the rebuilding: in 1601 it was said that there had been no chancel for sixty years. (fn. 91) In 1745 the communion table, without rails or steps, stood against the plastered boarding which still filled the old chancel arch. (fn. 92)
H. J. Sperling rebuilt the church handsomely, in ashlar chequered with flints, mainly in the Decorated style, beginning with the west tower in 1848 and finishing c. 1854. As rebuilt (fn. 93) it had also a three-bay nave with north porch and chancel with north vestry. The old chancel and tower arches were partly copied and a squareheaded early 16th-century doorway from the old nave was re-used as the west door. In 1851 the church had 180 sittings. (fn. 94) The plain octagonal medieval font was placed in the churchyard when a new one was given c. 1890. Late 19thcentury stained glass inserted in the windows in memory of several Sperlings (fn. 95) was removed to the Ely glass museum after 1976, when the church was made redundant. It rapidly became derelict and ivy-grown and was transferred in 1979 to the care of the Friends of Friendless . In the 1980s it was repaired for use as a village hall. (fn. 96)
Of the three great bells in the tower in 1552 (fn. 97) and 1745, (fn. 98) one was taken down by 1783. (fn. 99) The other two, presumably those recast in 1637, hung in the new tower from the late 19th century. (fn. 100) The modern plate included a paten of 1669 and two cups of 1772. (fn. 101) The earliest register runs from 1558 to 1616 but registers are continuous only from 1695. (fn. 102)