The Church Building
Pevsner, in the Huntingdonshire volume of his series on the Buildings of England, describes it as one of the largest most uniform late mediaeval churches in the county. It is sometimes known as the cathedral of Huntingdonshire.
The tower is 128 feet high to the top of the pinnacles. There are also intermediate pinnacles on merlons, midway between each pinnacle, decorated with the signs of the evangelists. The parapet has faces and paterae. A niche halfway up the south face has an angel supporting a pedestal upon which is carved a shield charged with a chevron thought to be the arms of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, Patron of the Priory at that time.The niche itself is empty but presumably it once housed a statue, perhaps of Our Lady. The buttresses of the tower are of the set back type and have gablets applied to them.The buttresses end in their own pinnacles detached from the body of the tower, a style typical of Somerset which has led some to think that the masons were from that county. To the north and south there are blank three light windows; that on the west has four lights and a castellated transom. Inside the tower has a very high arch which is separated from the nave by modern (1918) oak screen. The west doorway has a four centred arch under a square head with traceried spandrels. The bell stage has pairs of two light openings again with castellated transoms and crocketted ogee labels.
Looking at the exterior of the church, the walls are built of irregular stones (called clunch), apart from the east wall which is 19th century ashlar. All are embattled. The embattling on the chancel was added in 1901. The windows are large, most of them two point arches. The buttresses have gablets with finials. The clerestory windows have four point arches and this, together with the marks of the old roof line above the tower arch indicates that this was the 15th century stage of the rebuilding of the earlier church. The north porch was rebuilt in the 19th. century using mostly old materials. The south porch, which has two storeys, has windows to east and west. Its doorway has traceried spandrels. It formerly housed the library and is known as Dove’s Chamber after a seventeenth century incumbent.
The outside nave roof is capped by a sanctus bellcote which was restored in 1881 and a cross added, the original being long missing, as was the bell. It was further repaired in 1953 and a suitable old bell given by the contractors was hung there. The rood staircase, which was extended in the sixteenth century, is capped by an octagonal lead roof.
The interior, much more obviously than the exterior, bears the mark of successive generations of worshippers. The present church is, as a place of worship, very much the work of the Victorians: the pews, the pulpit and the choir stalls. This arrangement, intended for cathedral style worship with a robed choir, and introduced in the last century, has been modified only partly by the introduction of a nave altar.
The font stands in the traditional position at the west end of the nave signifying as it does, the means of entry into the congregation of the Church by baptism. It is thought to be one of the oldest parts of the building, possibly having come from the Priory. It seems to be not later than Norman. It has a crude octagonal bowel with a plain ring moulding beneath, sitting on a squat round base apparently made from a rough block for a capital.
The nave has five-bay arches with slim piers of moulded section having two sunk quadrants of the Decorated Style. The porches are opposite the centre bay. The north arcade ends at the rood staircase, but the south arcade has an arch which dies into the chancel arch. It is one of a number of puzzling features since the two arcades fit ill at both east and west ends; there is the beginning of an arch, north and south, at the tower end and the arches die into the chancel arch to the east. The chancel arch is of the same period as are the west arches of the two side chapels. The chancel arch cuts through the string course and is thought, for that reason to replace a smaller lower one. Likewise the blocked up rood door is too low for the base of the arch at which height the rood would have been placed.
The pews date from 1847 and were originally designed by James Jacy Wing of Bedford, though those in the front half of the building have been remodelled into movable seven foot units as part of the re-ordering undertaken this year when the front half of the nave was refloored with stone slabs and an have altar dais created. The pulpit and chancel stalls were put in later in 1860 . They are by Rattee and Kett. The pulpit has around it the figures of St. Peter the four Evangelists and St. Paul.
The nave roof is original (though much repaired); it is ornately decorated. Like the rest of the roofs in the Church it is of a type frequently found in Huntingdonshire, of very low pitch with tie-beams on shallow arched braces with bosses at the intersection of principles with ridge beam and purlins. Over the nave is an arch-braced cambered beam roof with traceried spandrels between the braces and the roof. Its cornices display a bestiary carved in high relief above a running vine motif. The beams have demi-angels on each face, one with bagpipes, another with a flute and the rest with plain shields. Attached to each principal midway is a large angel. These have in their hands, on the north side from the east, an open book, a shield, a scroll, a chalice and bread and, opposite them, their counterparts have a shield charged with a cross botonny, a book and others with plain shields. On the nave cornices can be seen a deer, a lion passant, another regardant, griffons, hunting dogs, eagles, a doe, wyverns, hares and camels on the north and hares dogs and hounds, rams and deer on the south. Next to the chancel wall the first beam encloses a narrow bay which formed the celure over the Rood; this had its painting and gilding restored in 1863. An oddity of the south aisle roof is that it does not fit. That is to say the roof jacks do not match the arches. The north aisle wall is thought to be fourteenth century. It has in it a niche with a nodding ogee arch whose naturalistic oak and vine leaves and fruit appear to belong to the early part of that period. It will presumably have had a statue in it at one time.
The Chancel is part of the earlier church, as evidenced by the remains of the thirteenth century window in the north side of the sanctuary. It is partly obscured by a memorial. The two aisles forming the two side chapels are later and are separated from the chancel by wide four-centred arches with parclose screens which appear to post-date the roof. The wall posts of the chancel roof rest on the heads of eight figures of the Apostles. They can be identified as follows: on the north side Bartholomew with the flaying knife, James the Great with wallet and scallop shell on his hat, probably Matthew (or Thomas) with a book and John with a chalice; on the south side from the west are Thomas (or Matthew) with a book, possibly Andrew, Philip with three loaves in the fold of his garment and Peter with a key. Both John and Peter are without beards. The chancel roof was restored and regilded (but not repainted) in 1901 by the Rowley family.
A monument to a member of the Rowley family dominates the south wall. Says Pevsner “The monument to G.W. Rowley and his wife is a fabulous piece of display. The recumbent figure of Mrs. Rowley +1886 is hardly visible behind the grille and the closest most ornate decoration and the canopy rises, with statuary and canopy and pinnacles to the roof”. The Laudian altar with its wrought iron communion rail dates from the 18th. Century.
The Lady chapel was added in the fifteenth century. A recess beneath the east window suggests that there was originally a reredos. The present communion table is Elizabethan, probably dating from about 1600; it was formerly the high altar, guessingly replaced by the present one. The wooden screen is Perpendicular. Its top transom is carved either side with a trail of vine leave and grapes and surmounted by brattishing, or cresting, each side of Tudor flowers. The roof resembles that of the south aisle with its large angels on the principals, holding respectively a crown with the fleur-de-lys design, a book and a scroll. Here the timber oak roof is cambered like the nave instead of pent like the aisles. This has necessitated an outer roof to carry the lead cladding. Following the 1847 re-ordering there was no altar here and the pews faced the chancel. The present layout was introduced in 1961.
The Jesus chapel, to the north of the chancel now houses the organ though it still retains some traces of its former use as a gild chapel. The exterior buttresses have crocketted gablets and shields with the letters IHC (Jesus) on them. The roof has moulded timbers and carved braces, demi-angels on the cornices holding shields with IHC and crowned angels at the feet of the intermediate principles. Unlike all the other roofs it has no bestiary and the angels on the principals are wingless. It is plainer and cruder. It has retained its Perpendicular screen which has fine vine scrolls over the entrance. It may be made up of parts of the original rood screen removed on the orders of Edward VI’s Commissioners between 1547 and 1553. On the east wall is the mutilated fragment of an inscription “OR: THE SOV” [pray fOR THE SOUl of…] above a crown; such inscriptions would be typical in a chapel devoted to prayers for the dead. There is also a memorial in Norman French offering indulgence to those who will pray for the soul of John Gousle; it was originally inlaid with brass showing a foliated cross with a pet dog at the foot. The old fourteenth century doorway from the vestry into the Jesus chapel was blocked up probably when the organ was moved and the east end refurbished.
Another fourteenth century feature is the niche in the north wall, which has a nodding ogee arch decorated with oak and vine leaves and fruit.
The glass is Victorian much of it by Messrs. Hardmans of Birmingham and the remainder by Clayton & Bell . Much was given by the Rowley family, some by subscription and at the instigation of the Revd. Richard Corker Meade, during whose incumbency much of the glass was put in. Christ’s life has been depicted in order from the Lady chapel down the south aisle and up the north aisle to the chancel. We begin, in the east window of the Lady Chapel, with the Adoration of the Magi (which is by J. Hardman Powell and was exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1867); if we move clockwise, we see the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Presentation in the Temple, the Marriage Feast, the Woman of Samaria, the Raising of the Widows’ Son and other raisings (all by Hardman). The Baptism of Our Lord at the west end of the south aisle is by Clayton & Bell; so also is The Transfiguration at the west end of the north aisle. Moving eastwards on the north wall we come to The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, the Pool of Bethesda, the Anointing of Christ’s feet (by Hardman - exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876) and the Entry into Jerusalem. The Agony in the Garden (also by Hardman) is in the Jesus Chapel.
The East window, put in in 1865 when the East wall was rebuilt, shows, in the lower part, the crucifixion (above) , with the figures of the Virgin with Mary Magdalene and St. John, the soldiers dicing for the seamless robe and Joseph of Arimathea and, in the upper part, our Lord’s Exaltation with St. Michael and St. Gabriel. There is also a three light window in the south wall of the chancel, the first to be reglazed, in 1859, depicting the Resurrection. The west tower window, by Clayton and Bell, has SS. Alban, Augustine of Canterbury, Ethelbert and Venerable Bede in the lower panels with the four Latin doctors (teachers) of the faith above: SS. Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory. It was given, together with the five south clerestory windows, in memory of the Revd. D. H. Collier who died in office in 1866. The latter depict Old Testament figures, principally, David, Deborah, Barak and Moses. On the north side clerestory there is a fragment of the original glass with part of the shield of the See of Canterbury. There is more fifteenth century glass, depicting St. Lawrence and St. Stephen which was formerly in the Dove chamber but this is now stored in the vestry. (See the more recent article on the windows)
One of the functions of a tower is to carry bells; their provision was one of the responsibilities of parishioners some of whom left money for the purpose. We have no record of how many bells there were when the tower was built or how they were rung. All were required to be removed, apart from a single tolling bell, by Edward VI’s Injunctions of 1547. By 1674 payments for ringing are mentioned in churchwardens’ accounts and four or five bells are recorded as being hung for ringing by 1688. By 1753 there were seven bells, no doubt recast from the earlier bells, the tenor being added in 1764. All were cast by Joseph Eayre, a local bell-founder. The tenor was at 25 cwt. the largest bell in the county but it caused problems and, in 1832, was recast by William Dobson of Downham Market (a descendant of Eayre’s foreman). They were rehung in 1896, but the bells had deteriorated so that little ringing was taking place; the tenor was once again cracked. All were eventually recast and hung in a new steel frame in 1919 as a memorial to the men of the town who fell in the Great War. Taylors of Loughborough, the successors of Eayre, did the work following an appeal to the town. Ringing revived and the bells were rung regularly until the Second World War when all ringing was stopped, bells to be rung only to signal an invasion. In 1971 the bells were rehung on ball bearings to improve the ‘go’ of them and in 1984 after a bequest to the tower together with covenants from ringers and friends, two new treble bells were added to complete the present ring of ten bells. The inscriptions on the bells are as follows:
The organ dates from 1855 and was built by Messrs. G. M. Holdich of London. It replaced the Morse organ, built originally for Barnet Parish Church which was brought to St. Neots in 1749 and placed in a gallery at the west end. There were certainly organs before that, however: a bequest of 1531 for a gradual and breviary for the organist indicates that there was an organ in the church before the Reformation. In 1738 money was left to pay the organist and by 1745, the organist was being paid 30s. by the vicar. William Tans’ur, author and compiler of a number of books of psalmody and composer of the tune Bangor lived in the town from about 1743 until his death in 1783; he is buried in the churchyard. He may have been organist for some of that time.
The Holdich organ was commissioned by the Revd. C. L. Vaughan for whom Holdich seems to have built an organ wherever he went; it is not sure how much of the Morse organ remains. One part of it, the 18th century case, was sold to pay for the work and is now to be found in Birmingham cathedral.The organ is one of very few unaltered examples of Holditch’s work. It was restored in 1900 and again in 1972 by Bishops.
Reordering work in the building has recently been undertaken – see the history page.