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English Church Architecture.


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


(Bedrock:  Upper Jurassic, Ampthill Clay Formation.)


An over-restored church that nevertheless retains a variety of features of interest.


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 (illustrated 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 interior S. wall of the porch, 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 below right.)  Early English work is probably represented by much of the building’s basic fabric, as suggested by the surviving lancet in the S. aisle W. wall (north of the 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, 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 (shown at the foot of the page on the left), 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 over-timbered nave roof and the parclose screens enclosing chapels at the east ends of the aisles.  The former (shown below)  is of double-hammerbeam construction 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 would probably have been necessary to cut it down to fit its new situation.  Indeed, the extent of this cutting back may even perhaps be estimated to have been 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 equally heavy but more 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 Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970, p. 488). The screen around the S. chapel, which only retains traces of paintwork, is Perpendicular and features a row of carved faces and roses on the top rail, and the dado of the rood screen, which also appears to be original, has applied blank tracery forming two-light sections.  The attractive but ill-designed pulpit, seems likely to be coeval and comprises an oddly irregular pentagon.  


Finally, a note should be added on the other wall paintings in the church (aside from those previously mentioned on the splays of the S. aisle W. lancet), of which there are many mostly indistinct fragments but also a restored panel in reds and greens above the N. arcade (illustrated below 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.