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English Church Architecture -



WILLINGHAM, St. Mary & All Saints (TL 405 705)      (July 2008)

 (Bedrock:  Upper Jurassic, Ampthill Clay)


This is a large building retaining features representative of most periods even though much of the exterior has been heavily restored.   The church consists of a chancel with an independently-gabled N. sacristy, an aisled nave with a S. porch two bays deep and a modern parish room attached by a corridor from the north, and a W. tower with a surmounting spire (shown left, from the southwest), and architecturally, it is probably most important for this last and for its early fourteenth century work, both here and elsewhere.


Evidence from Saxon and Norman times is now limited to a few isolated fragments re-set at random in the S. wall of the porch (on the inside), where a few corbel heads may be seen together with an arch decorated with chevron and some short lengths of shafts with chevron round them and cushion or scalloped capitals.  (See the photograph right.)  Early English times (i.e. the thirteenth century) are probably represented by much of the building’s basic fabric, as suggested, in particular, by the surviving lancet in the W. wall of the S. aisle (to the north of the later three-light reticulated window), which is significant not only as an indication of the aisle’s much narrower original width, but also for the excellent wall paintings preserved on its internal splays, featuring two graceful female figures, identified by Alan Fawcitt in his notes on the church (2007) as St. Etheldreda (or Aethelthryrth - d. 679 according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), right, and St. Sexburga, left, respectively third and eldest daughters of Anna, King of East Anglia (d. 654), and successive Abbesses of Ely.  


However, most important features at Willingham derive from the early fourteenth century and are Decorated in style.  The chancel windows are two-light and renewed to the south while the E. window consists of fragments of cusped intersecting tracery pieced together by the restorers.  Various suggestions have been put forward for the original purpose of the N. sacristy (by Pevsner, Fawcitt, and others), although this was a common position for the dwelling of an acolyte priest or hermit in the Middle Ages, as seen at Toddington in Central Bedfordshire and Gipping, Hessett and Hitcham in Suffolk.  Its most remarkable feature is its steeply-pitched stone roof, supported within by three flat-chamfered stone ribs with open tracery above. The aisle windows are two-light to the north and three-light to the south, with renewed reticulated tracery.  The W. tower is supported by angle buttresses and divided by a single string course immediately beneath the bell-stage.  It is lit by a W. window with trefoil-cusped Y-tracery, a little trefoil-cusped lancet above, and two-light bell-openings with reticulated tracery, and rises to battlements and octagonal corner pinnacles of three stages, from which crocketed flying buttresses with open tracery beneath, spring across to a broach spire pierced by three tiers of gabled lucarnes in the cardinal faces - of two lights in the second tier and a single light in the first and third.  The S. porch has two very large, renewed cinquefoil-cusped lancets on either side, set in the original blank arches internally, bearing one flat and one hollow chamfer separated by semi-octagonal shafts;  the outer doorway carries a series of mouldings borne on semicircular responds with fillets, and there is a blank niche above and little pinnacles at the angles.


Inside the nave, the six-bay aisle arcades are composed of double-flat-chamfered arches springing from piers formed of four semi-octagonal shafts.  (See the S. arcade, left.)  This looks like late - rather than early - fourteenth century work, but Alan Fawcitt records that the church was used for large-scale ordination services from 1340 onwards, so perhaps this is an example of an advanced form employed in parochial work at a relatively early date.  The tower arch consists of two orders bearing wave mouldings, with semi-octagonal shafts supporting the inner order and the outer order, continuous down the jambs.  The interior walls of the tower feature single blank arches to the north, south and west, with the last surrounding the W. window.  The chancel arch is likewise of two orders, but the inner order now springs from corbels.  A recessed sedilia in the chancel S. wall (right), is formed of three equal bays with trefoil-cusped arches and columns between, and this is immediately followed by a trefoil-cusped piscina to the east.   The E. window has a niche on either  side, with crocketed ogee gables, containing statues of SS. Mary and Etheldreda, respectively left and right.


Church carpentry is important for both the elaborate nave roof and the parclose screens enclosing chapels at the east ends of the aisles.  The former  is of double-hammerbeam construction (see the photograph, left), with castellated hammerbeams supported by arched braces with carved spandrels, and with open tracery in the triangles between the hammerbeams, rising struts and principal rafters.  (The three tiers of angels are wholly renewed.)  However, its curious feature is the complete lack of collars, which - while clearly not structurally necessary - gives it an incomplete appearance at the ridge (but see also the nave roof at neighbouring Rampton).  That this may not have been the original arrangement is suggested by the tradition, recorded by Alan Fawcitt, that this roof was brought here in 1613 from the ruined priory at Barnwell, Cambridge, when it was probably cut down to fit its new situation.  Indeed, the extent of this cutting back may possibly be calculated to around 30% of the original, for the purlins one would expect to be at the ⅓ and ⅔ positions are now nearly halfway up the pitch of the roof in the first instance and only just below the ridge in the second.   In consequence, by comparison with this, the heavy but attractive aisle roofs, thought to have come from the same source, seem both to fit and look better.  


As for the screens, the fine, early fourteenth century parclose screen around the N. chapel, decorated on the dado with green parrots painted on a red ground, was considered by Pevsner to be one of the earliest in Cambridgeshire. The screen around the S. chapel is Perpendicular and features a row of carved faces and roses on the top rail but only traces of paintwork, and the dado of the rood screen, which also appears original, has applied blank tracery forming two-light sections.  The attractive but ill-designed pulpit, seems likely to be coeval and is oddly composed of an irregular pentagon.  


Finally, a note should be added on the other wall paintings in the church (i.e. aside from those on the splays of the S. aisle W. lancet), of which there are many indistinct fragments.  However, an important exception is the restored panel in reds and greens above the N. arcade (illustrated right), showing St. Christopher carrying Christ across the river, with fish teeming round his feet.  It is probably contemporary with the arcade and subject to the same considerations.