This is a magnificent church, one of the very best in Cambridgeshire (and one of my very favourite churches anywhere). Partly for that reason, I’ve put off writing about it for a long time. As I’ve noted elsewhere in respect of my other favourite church in the county, Leverington, the task of writing about these very special places is more daunting than usual. One aspect of this is that I’ve periodically needed to return to Willingham to refresh my notes and pictures, so I’ve now seen St Mary and All Saints more than any other church in the county outside Cambridge. And that is quite nice, I think. Many of the churches I’ve written about here were visited only once, and I will likely never see them again, which has lent parts of our journey a melancholy air.
With Willingham, it’s all different, and as I’ve moved through my life I’ve also been able to watch the church here change and develop. Mark and I first visited on a trip up to Lincoln and York, when I was waiting for my undergraduate exam results in 2003, full of nerves and fear-of-disappointment, and for that reason especially moved by what we found. I also came here with Susan Bowden-Pickstock, the producer at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire with whom I made a long string of radio programmes about the county’s churches. We had earlier visited Wilburton on a stormy summer evening, and had driven to Willingham via Erith, speeding along beside the Ouse and watching sunlight and rainbows chase each other across the golden land and the inky sky, before trying to record a programme here surrounded by the amazing din of the rain beating down on the slates and the cherry trees. Mark and I have been back several times since, on our way to and from the churches of the far north, and so the writing of my doctoral thesis has been interwoven with the restoration of the building, the two stories proceeding side by side. I like visiting Willingham: more than anywhere else in Cambridgeshire, I feel like I’m seeing an old friend, and what a splendid one!
St Mary and all Saints sits proudly next to the crossroads at the heart of the village, in a large churchyard filled with daisies and purple-leaved cherries. It’s a noble building, though not especially spectacular on the exterior (certainly not as grand as the nearby giants of Sutton, Over and Swavesey). It is built of stone, with battlements picking out the lines of the aisles, clerestory and chancel. The most striking feature outside is the tower, which is rather fine. Angle buttresses rise on the corners to polygonal pinnacles on the battlements, which support – unusually via both broaches and flying buttresses – a stubby octagonal spire, pierced at various levels with little windows. The history of the building is clear enough from the outside. The oldest surviving material is the north chancel wall, dating from the thirteenth century. Most of the rest is early fourteenth century – the tower, much of the nave and aisles – with a fifteenth century clerestory matched by a few contemporary windows inserted into aisles and chancel. The latter was largely rebuilt in the 1890s, but very sympathetically: the overall impression is of long and harmonious development.
Entry is through the south porch. This is spacious and welcoming, with side benches under large arched openings and a little pillar-stoup by the door. Into the walls are set various fragments of Norman and Saxon stonework, rescued from the south wall of the chancel when it was rebuilt.
From there, one steps into a broad and spacious church. The western end is dominated by the two eastern buttresses of the tower, which project prominently into the nave. They frame the tall and elegant tower arch, around the edges of which (and along the base of the entire west wall) there is a nice stone bench on the same model as those in the porch. Above the arch is a blocked window. The space beneath the tower is also blocked off, with a modern wooden screen. Peering through, I could see various bits of bell-ringing paraphernalia, and a small west window with an elaborate frame. It seemed to have a little bit of old glass in the top depicting a figure, but I couldn’t tell what it might be.
Turning round, the nave arcade has six relatively plain fourteenth-century bays: the piers sit on big, solid bases with shafts composed of four half-octagons pressed together. The arches are rather low, leaving quite a lot of space between them and the surprisingly sparse clerestory (there’s a reason for that, which I’ll come to shortly). One might expect a church like this to have a great blaze of glass rising above the nave, but in fact the fifteenth century bequeathed only six relatively small windows - three on either side. They’re pleasant enough, prominent stone frames and square-topped openings, however even when aided by a small window placed over the chancel arch, this is a clerestory doesn’t make much clear - the roof is shrouded in darkness.
This is a great pity, for here we have a roof that, in all Cambridgeshire, only the multi-winged marvel of March can beat. It hangs above your head like thunderclouds, ancient, black, heavily timbered and hammerbeamed, tendrils of tracery in the spandrels and apexes. Yet it doesn’t quite fit, for it was not made for this church.
Shortly after 1538, when the priory church at Barnwell, down the road in Cambridge, was being dismantled, this roof was salvaged and brought here piece by piece. The original building was clearly a little wider than this church, and the pitch of the beams is very steep, the double hammerbeams tilting inwards and upwards out of alignment with each other. This, if anything, only adds to its charm. A few angels flutter around the east end playing musical instruments, almost all of them Victorian replacements. Runner-boards along the walls are decorated with many carvings of angels, crowns and roses. The aisles also contain fine ancient rooves especially the south, decorated with rose-shaped bosses and sitting on corbels carved into faces, dragons and demons.
Below the clerestory are more of the treasures in St Mary, namely the wall-paintings. Willingham has an absolutely superb collection, spanning the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries. These have recently been restored, and look very much better than they did when Mark and I first visited.
The south arcade contains the remnants of a series depicting the life of the Virgin. At the west end she stands wearing a sea-green dress and carrying a set of scales. Alas, much of the middle section has been covered by crude sixteenth- and seventeenth-century biblical texts, and paintings of the Theological Virtues or Apostles (Faith and St James the Great stand out); these are not uninteresting, but I would have loved to see more of the earlier cycle. I presume it’s still there, beneath the later plaster, but it seems terribly unlikely that it’ll ever be revealed. The only other visible element (though the excellent guidebook refers to fragments of an Assumption, which I couldn’t make out at all) is up at the east end, where we find The Visitation. The scene depicts a conversation between the pregnant Virgin and her cousin Elizabeth, carrying Christ and John the Baptist respectively. They both wear rich clothing, the laces at the front of the gowns let out to accommodate the pregnant bellies beneath - and reveal petticoats. There is a devil sitting nearby, but it looks a bit disconsolate, and the cousins chat quite unconcernedly – alas, I couldn’t work out what was written on the scrolls emerging from their mouths.
Above the chancel arch are the remains of a contemporary doom, partially obscured by the roof and with a window cut through its centre. Even leaving aside those indignities it hasn’t survived very well, the various figures are now just white silhouettes on a black background. On the south side the doomed are tormented by demons, while on the north the blessed are welcomed into heaven by St Peter.
Earlier paintings, above the north arcade of the nave, date from the middle of the fourteenth century. My favourite is St Christopher, above the second pillar from the east. The great benevolent figure - calm eyes gazing out from over a neat and curly beard – wears a red and green robe and a dinky fur cap. He carries the Christ child in his left arm, and a staff topped with a tau cross in his right. As per the story, he is wading through a river, which is where the artist really had fun: undulating green-blue water teems with fish of every conceivable kind, like an illustration from a medieval bestiary. Next to St Christopher is a more degraded picture of St George and the dragon, surrounded by a frame. The lower half survives quite well: I could easily make out the horse, the saint’s broken lance, and the thrashing coils of the dragon with blood flowing from its side. In the upper half St George’s body is almost entirely gone, his head existing only as a ghostly outline.
The oldest paintings of all are in the south aisle, up at the west end. Here we see one of the few features that reveal the true age of the building – surrounded by big Decorated and Perpendicular windows, flooding the aisle with light, there is a much older lancet. It sits in a very deep recess, the sides of which are decorated with paintings. There are two layers. The oldest, on the left, is thirteenth-century, and depicts relatively plain floral motifs. On the right, probably also thirteenth-century, are two female saints in conversation. These are St Etheldreda (or Aethelthryth, or Audrey), and her sister St Sexburga (or Seaxburh), two pious princesses, patrons of Ely and of Cambridge respectively. Theirs was an interesting story, though a bit involved: you may want to skip the next few paragraphs if you’re not interested in Anglo-Saxon political and religious history.
They were born in the seventh century, two of the five daughters of King Anna of the Wuffings - the royal family of East Anglia. Anna himself was the nephew of the famous King Raedwald, who had ruled for twenty years not only as king of East Anglia but also as Bretwalda, which is to say roughly an overlord over a large part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. Raedwald himself was a pagan – indeed, the marvellous ship burial at Sutton Hoo in the Deben Estuary in Suffolk is sometimes said to be his – but Anna was a Christian, possible even converted by St Felix while he was involved in missionary work at Dunwich (on the Suffolk coast) and Soham (then an island in the fens, west of the boundary of Anna’s kingdom). He acted as an important patron of early Christianity, helping St Felix, granting land to St Botolph for his monastery at Icanho (probably Iken in the estuary of the Alde), and hosting St Hilda for a year while she was visiting her sister at his court.
It sounds like Anna was an astute political operator. He used Northumbrian backing to seize East Anglia back from Mercian control, and then exploited the mutable balances of powers between the three principal Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to maintain some measure of independence for the small kingdom of East Anglia. This was always a difficult balance, and alliances with Northumbria and Wessex could not in the end save him from the fearsome (and resolutely pagan) King Penda of Mercia. In 651 Penda attached him at the rich monastery of Cnobheresburg (probably Burgh Castle in south-eastern Norfolk), and while Anna held on long enough to allow the monks to escape, he was eventually defeated and fled to exile in Shropshire. In 653 he returned, but was defeated and killed, along with his son Eormin, in a great battle with Penda in Suffolk.
Anna had five daughters, several of whom were important political and religious figures in their own right, and all of whom were canonised (at least partially through successful lobbying by the family). The most famous was Etheldreda, born in about 632 at Exning on the Suffolk border. She was first married in 652 to Tondberct, a minor prince of the fens, enabling her father to extend his kingdom westwards beyond the Devil’s Dyke to include the territory around Ely. After Tondberct’s death in 655 she retreated to Ely for a while, but in 660 was sent to marry the key ally Ecgfrith of Northumbria. This was not an especially successful marriage. Etheldreda had supposedly remained a virgin throughout her marriage to Tondberct, and wanted to do the same with Ecgfrith, to this end she became a nun shortly after the marriage. Her new husband wasn’t keen on this idea, first trying to bribe Archbishop Wilfred of York to persuade her to yield, and thereafter trying to take Etheldreda from her cloister by force. She evaded him and fled back to Ely, where in 673 she founded the great monastery. (Ecgfrith, meanwhile, remarried and spent several years arguing with Wilfred to distract him from his disappointment). She died in around 679.
The other princess in this painting was the eldest sister, Sexburga (or Seaxburh). In 640 she was sent by Anna to marry Eorcenberht of Kent, and lived happily with him until his death in 664. She then ruled as regent for a little while, during the minority of their eldest son Ecgberht. Retreating from high politics she founded a monastery at Minster-in-Sheppey eventually leaving to join Etheldreda in Ely, succeeding her as Abbess and ruling until her death in 699.
The two least interesting sisters were Ethelburga (or Aethelburg) and Sethrida (or Saethryth). They didn’t marry any kings, instead becoming nuns at the Abbey of Fairmoutiers in the French region of Brie, which had just been founded by Saint Burgundofara. First Sethrida, and then Ethelburga, succeeded Burgundofara as abbess, the latter eventually dying in 664.
The youngest sister was Withburga or Wihtburga, born in the years just before Anna’s death at Bulcamp. She founded a convent at East Dereham in Norfolk, and – presumably much to her sisters’ annoyance – enjoyed the most successful crop of miracles of the lot, including the gift from the Virgin Mary of a pair of does who provided milk for her workers. She eventually died in 743 and was buried first in the cemetery, and then – after fifty-five years, in which her body had (predictably) not decayed at all – in a fine tomb in the abbey church. This made Dereham something of a centre of pilgrimage, and prompted some envy from other religious establishments in the area. In 974, Abbot Brithnoth of Ely decided to steal her relics so as to add to the stock of holiness (and, presumably, also augment the revenues) at Ely. The story goes that Brithnoth and some confederates visited Dereham and organised a feast, getting the locals drunk and then stealing Withburga’s body. The Dereham party woke and discovered this, and chased the Brithnoth and his party. There was something of a fight, but the Ely group got away, and Withburga was interred with her sisters in the great Fenland monastery. Dereham had to be content with a spring which appeared in Withburga’s tomb, though in later years that proved to be as miraculous and remunerative as the original relics had been.
Ely definitely benefited from the theft, though, and was throughout the Middle Ages an important centre of pilgrimage. Since one of the old routes to Ely passed through Willingham, lots of pilgrims presumably stopped off at the church here: I wonder whether Etheldreda and Sexburga approved of their successor’s ill-treatment of their sister’s remains.
There are other fragments of wall-painting, but I’ve now mentioned the most interesting ones, so I’ll let you discover any others for yourselves. We’ve still not exhausted the interest of St Mary and All Saints, though: we can now move on to the excellent fittings. To start with, right beneath Saints Etheldreda and Sexburga is a Perpendicular font. It is a little battered, and not as elaborate as some others in the county (Leverington, for example, is far more spectacular), but it’s quite nice: there is blind arcading on the shaft, and quatrefoils decorating the faces of the octagonal bowl. More excitingly, both aisles contain parclose screens at their east ends. The one in the south aisle is Perpendicular, with square-topped tracery crowning openings with three lights. The dado facing west is decorated with oak leaves and quatrefoils, and there are remnants of red and green painting on the panels, though no distinguishable images (save a couple of places where people have obviously used sets of compasses to scratch patterns into the wood). The original gates survive, and through them one enters a little modern Lady Chapel, decked out in blue, with a little piscina in the corner. In the south wall there is an empty tomb recess, which is rather good: the arch is broad and rather weathered, and is decorated with three blank shields covered in centuries-worth of graffiti.
The screen on the north edge of the chapel fills two bays of the nave arcade, and is slightly different to that on the west. The patterns on the dado are different, and the panels below are framed more elaborately in blank arcading, which has lots of animals, demons and a green man in the spandrels. It faces a much older screen enclosing the last two bays of the north aisle. The openings here have two lights, separated by dowel-like pillars in which support little ogeed arches over the top. There is not much decoration on this screen which survives, but the easternmost panel in the south face is still painted with lots of green popinjays on a red background. It looks as though there might have been something equivalent facing them from the south, but everything is so scratched and worn that it’s very hard to tell.
The north parclose screen contains only the organ and vestry, and in general the north aisle is less interesting than the south, though the roof here is still fine, with fine tracery in the spandrels above the horizontal beams. A doorway here does lead through into the new octagonal parish room, which I thought worth a mention: it is well-built in nice warm brick with big windows, and from the outside sits very sympathetically with the main body of the church. It also seems to be a constant hub of activity, since there has been some event or other going on there every time I’ve visited.
Turning east once more, we pass under the Doom into the chancel. There is still a rood screen, incidentally, but only the dado and panels below are original, and at any rate aren’t nearly as good as the two sets of parclose screens. The chancel – which, recall, was (save for the north wall) reconstructed in the 1890s – is generally a bit of a disappointment after the rest of the church. It’s large, but plain to the point of austerity. I did like the choir stalls, though, with little faces on the handrests between each seat. The east wall is stripped bare of plaster, leaving the stonework clear. Two retooled niches frame the east window, which contains some modern glass as a memorial for the dead of the two World Wars. The niches themselves have statues of the Virgin, who carries a boring lily, and Saint Etheldreda again, who carries a much more exciting crozier and a model of Ely Cathedral. A set of three sedilia and a piscina have been reset in the south wall, echoing another empty tomb niche on the north wall.
Next to that tomb niche is a little doorway leading into the most intriguing feature here in Willingham, a small cell dating from the early fourteenth century. This is a stone room, perhaps ten feet wide by twenty long. It has quite fine two-light windows in the east and north walls, and a little pillar piscina in the south wall. Nicest of all is the high pitched roof, all made of stone and supported by three big curving arches, themselves also made of stone and decorated with quatrefoils and dagger shapes in the gaps between the ribs and the ridge. It’s unclear precisely what function this little structure would have served, though opinion is moving away from Pevsner’s guess that it was a sacristy (after all, why make it so grand?) and towards the view that it was an anchorage, though I still don’t find that entirely satisfying either. It is anyway rather nice to have some mystery left to contemplate when leaving this magnificent, fascinating church – and another excuse to return, too.
St Mary and All Saints is frequently open, and keyholders are listed for when it isn’t.