History of the Parish

Time(See also the list of past vicars of the parish)

The parish of St. Neots originally formed part of Eynesbury, an ancient Saxon settlement on the banks of the river Ouse, but when in 1113 the Priory of St. Neots was given a whole manor in which the priory was situated, the monks formed their lands and tenants into a separate township and the name of St. Neots was given to it. The final severance was in 1204 when the ecclesiastical division of the parishes took place. Geographically the new parish practically cut that of Eynesbury into two portions. The river Ouse now forms the western boundary and its tributaries the Hen Brook and the Gallow brook form parts of the southern and northern boundaries.

The Priory stood on the river a little way north of the present Market Square. It was originally founded in the latter half of the tenth century, about 974 by Earl Aelric (or Leofric) and his wife Aelfleda (or Ethelfleda) who granted it two hides of land, part of the manor of Eynesbury, later called the manor of St. Neots. It is said that the relics of the Cornish saint, St. Neot, were obtained illicitly from Neotstoke (now St. Neot) in Cornwall and brought to the priory in order that it might have relics to attract pilgrims; hence the name of the town. In 1113 the whole manor was granted to the monastery by its then holder Rothais, wife of Gilbert de Clare. She and her husband had already refounded it as a cell of the Abbey of Bec Harlouin in Normandy. Bec was at that time a great centre of culture and learning in Europe and it was the great abbot, St. Anselm, subsequently to become Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent eighteen monks to St. Neots to replace the Saxons and to re-establish the foundation as a Benedictine Priory, a cell of the mother Abbey, in 1081. St. Anselm apparently visited the shrine of St. Neot prior to this in 1078-9. The manor was held by the monastery until the dissolution in 1539.

Because it was an alien house, i.e. it belonged to a French mother house, it suffered some difficulties during the Hundred Years’ War. It was continually having its property seized whenever hostilities between the English and French blew up until, eventually, it was given its independence in 1409.

The Church of St. Neots was first served by chaplains whose names frequently appear as witnesses to charters in favour of the priory. The vicarage, however, was instituted by 1238 or 1239, when Alan, one of the chaplains, was presented to it. After the dissolution Edward VI granted the advowson (right of presentation of an incumbent) to Elizabeth I and it remained with the Crown until it was bought by George William Rowley about 1850.

The Church dates from the end of the twelfth century. In 1183 the Priory was granted the right of appropriating the churches in their lands to the use of the Priory, and of appointing vicars, by Pope Lucius III (1181-85) and, in consequence ‘the Church of St. Mary of St. Neots’ was appropriated, but it is not certain whether a second church, (in addition to Eynesbury) had been built as yet. The name St. Neots, might possibly have been applied to a parochial altar in the nave of St. Neots priory, and in a bull of confirmation by Pope Celestine III in 1194 only the church of Eynesbury is mentioned. In any case the church had been built by the time of Prior Roger (1218-23). Walter, chaplain of the parish church is mentioned in 1218.

Of the original thirteenth century church little remains. Parts of the chancel wall are from that period and part of a lancet window remains in the chancel. The north aisle and the vestry are 14th. century and there are signs of a substantial 14th century building much on the same plan as the present one but with a lower steeper roof, a smaller chancel, possibly without side chapels and with a lower rood loft.

What we see now, however, in the stone work at least, is a largely unified fifteenth century church. Much more modest than splendid rebuilds such as Long Melford and Lavenham in Suffolk it is, nevertheless, contemporary with them. Rebuilding was probably due to a number of factors. The town had grown up around the Priory, to which Henry I and Henry II granted very important privileges, including that of holding a weekly market (about 1120), but the chief cause conducive to the prosperity of the town was at first a ford or ferry and later the bridge across the Ouse. Main roads from Huntingdon, Kimbolton and Bedford converged at this point on the west side of the river, and from Godmanchester, Cambridge and Sandy on the east side; they were fed by secondary roads from the neighbouring villages, as they still are. Moreover, the better place for a bridge was to the north of the Henbrook, which runs into the Ouse from the east i. e. into St. Neots, rather than south of the brook into Eynesbury. The older settlement thus became less significant than the newer. The bridge, known as High Bridge, is referred to in 1180.

However, the fourteenth century work, of which the Decorated arcades and the string courses are evidence, must have been on roughly the same plan, at least in the case of the nave, as the present building. The impetus for the rebuilding seems to have been a combination of factors. Edward IV, on his return from exile in Flanders in 1471, during the Wars of the Roses, was determined to restore the country’s fortunes and to foster artistic endeavour. It is said that from about 1475 until the dissolution of the monasteries, “hardly had such towers risen on all sides; never had such timber roofs and screens been hewn and carved… “1 The revived Perpendicular style became the last fling of English Gothic. It was also a time of flourishing popular devotion: prosperity, popular devotion and artistic flourishing combined. Many local wills record the progress of the building from about 1485; the building of the tower began in 1489, was completed by 1494, though the pinnacles were completed as late as 1535, just a year before the dissolution of the monasteries brought an era to an end.

Like a good many churches of the period it was supported by at least one gild which was one of the expressions of this popular devotion. The Gild of Jesus existed in St. Neots in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It consisted of a president, wardens and brethren, who will have built and used the Jesus chapel on the north side of the chancel. Various people left property to the Gild by will. Jesus altars were very much a feature of late mediaeval churches. Lay people paid for the setting up of nave altars for the saying of Mass during the week including a requirement that particular lections should be used. The Mass in honour of the Holy Name of Jesus was, throughout the fifteenth century one of the most popular of all votive Masses. It was celebrated regularly, usually on a Friday, paid for by the gild at an altar on which the figure of Christ was fixed separate from the crucifix above the chancel step.

Many mediaeval gilds were craft gilds but the overwhelming majority were dedicated to religious purposes. They grew in popularity during the latter half of the fourteenth century right up until the dissolution. Gilds had three basic functions: the first was to maintain a great torch or candle in honour of the saint to whom they were dedicated and before the Blessed Sacrament; the second was the procurement of alms and prayers from all the members for the repose of the souls of deceased brothers and ensuring the attendance of gild members at funerals - the burial of the dead was one of the seven corporal works of mercy; the third was the promotion of charity and a communal sense. They often employed a gild chaplain to say Mass, if possible every day.

When the functions of gilds were made illegal in 1547, the lands of the Jesus gild in St. Neots were concealed until 1552 when the matter was reported by the Commissioners by one Robert Payne. (See separate article on the Gild)

The fifteenth century was a time of great devotion to the Passion of Christ. Consequently, the rebuilt church had, above the chancel step, a Rood or statue of Christ upon the cross supported by the figures of the Blessed Virgin and St. John. (The doorway at the north side of the chancel arch is still intact and the blocked up doorway to the rood loft can be seen above it.) In 1486 Thomas Mylys left money for the making of the rood and in 1489 William Crouker left money ’ to the repariacion and makynge of the Rodeloft”; there were many others. The rood was removed in the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553) but was replaced during the reign of Queen Mary. It was again torn down after 1559 by Elizabeth I’s Commissioners. Even now, on the wall beside the pulpit, can be seen fragments of the Rood Screen, probably the original rather than the restored Marian Screen. The panel, an example of late mediaeval art depicts two bishops(their faces having been vandalised shortly before the removal of the screen itself).

The south chapel was dedicated to Our Lady, the mother of Christ. Here again there was a deal of devotion for there are many wills of the period referring to it: Robert Arnold in 1504 desired to be buried in the chapel of Our Lady annexed to the chancel of the parish church. In the roof there is still a carving of an angel with a fleur de lys, the emblem of the Blessed Virgin. Wills testify to the existence of other altars - to the Trinity (1486), and images of our Lady of Pity next the chapel of Jesus (1528); St. Gregory the Great in the south aisle (1534) and St. Ninian (1544). Side altars existed for use by the chantry priests who, though they were paid to pray for the souls of the departed, also did pastoral work in the parish. There was a tabernacle of St. John (1529). The feast of the Nativity of St. John Baptist had eucharistic associations and was a very important feast in the church’s year such that ironically, when Elizabeth I abolished all devotions other than those of the Book of Common Prayer (for a second time - they had been revived under Mary) the act of Uniformity came into force on the feast of the Nativity of St. John Baptist. There remain in the vestry some fifteenth century glass panels with the figures of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence which were formerly kept in the Dove’s Chamber above the south porch.

The reluctance of the town to give up the old religion is testified to by the concealment of the gild lands from Edward’s Commissioners until 1552, though there were also some local image breakers. A dispute between a number of townspeople and two members of the gentry, Sir Lawrence Taylard and Oliver Leader Esq., over the removal of images was brought to the Privy Council - which took the side of the iconoclasts.

Then, on Edward’s death in 1553, Mary ordered the restoration of churches but not the return of lands. Cardinal Pole’s Commissioners came to St. Neots in August 1556 and ordered that all altars should be as before the schism and should be re-erected by the end of the month together with the Rood Loft, and that images should be restored by the following Easter. On Mary’s death, childless, in 1559, what proved to be the final reversal came. Elizabeth I’s Commissioners were instructed not merely to removed images, stone altars and the like but to seek out such objects as the parish has removed and concealed against a further reversal. St. Neots was the subject of visitation early on, in August 1559, just a month after issuing of the injunctions. Three Commissioners including Dr. Bentham, shortly to become bishop of Lichfield, ordered the altar and rood to be removed. They were “cut down by the seates of the quyer, leaving no memorial thereof…. as an example to the residue of the country to do the like”. The degree of determination of the Reformers is indicated by the attitude of Peter White, who became incumbent in 1573 and was then presented by the Queen to Eaton Socon. He found the rood gone but the rood loft remaining. Fearing that the mere memory of the crucifix and figures would lead the congregation astray, White preached on the necessity of its destruction. Thus gradually, and only as a result of constant visitations, were all the artifacts of mediaeval religion removed: stone altars, roods and their screens, statues, vestments, communion vessels, organs and even bells Only a single tolling bell would have rung to call people to their worship.

The post Reformation Church

The immediate effects of the Reformation worked themselves out over a long period. In some places clergy continued to celebrate the new communion service wearing vestments and with Catholic ceremonial, Perhaps because of this the Book of Common Prayer, which had been criticised by conservatives during Edward VI’s reign as “a christmas game” compared with the Mass, was now attacked by the new generation of Reformers (who became known as “puritans”) as being papalist. In other places, puritan clergy were set against people. Peter White is a good example. White was, intermittently, incumbent from 1573 to 1616, and is described as “a severe Calvinist”. John Calvin(1509-64), the Genevan Reformer had famously taught the worthlessness of human effort and our utter reliance on the grace of God who has already determined our eternal fate. Calvin was opposed to ceremonial of any kind in worship. Both Peter White and his son Francis, who became Bishop of Ely in 1631engaged in controversy with the Jesuits, by pamphlet and face to face, during that time “that he reduced many seduced Romanists to our Church”. Francis even thought the Presbyterians suspect as denying the idea of predestination. The influence of Peter White was considerable, not only because of his strong view and indefatigable pamphleteering but also because he was incumbent of St. Neots, albeit as an absentee in Eaton Socon for much of the time, from 1573, with a gap, until 1616.

The seventeenth century saw the continuation of religious turmoil,. Attempts were made to change the new Prayer Book during the reign of James I, who would have none of it. It was eventually made illegal in 1645 when Parliament came into open opposition to Charles I and abolished bishops and the prayer book in one go. St. Neots had been a supporter of the royalist cause and was a battleground in 1648 during the final stages of the Civil War when the Earl of Holland, retreating from Kingston, was finally taken prisoner. Defeated Royalist soldiers were held in the church and there is evidence in the timbers that the soldiers fired leadshot into the roof, and doubtless at the angels, to amuse themselves.

In 1642 Parliament had also instructed a further phase of destructive action to parish Churches. William Dowsing was appointed by the Earl of Manchester to undertake this task in the Eastern Counties. Fragments of this diary reports his well-known smashing of windows in many Cambridge colleges and similar work in Gamlingay and Gransden. He may have reached St. Neots. At any rate, number of stained glass windows, still in place in 1613, were lost during the period, containing several coats of arms.

Many clergy were deprived. The incumbent of St. Neots, Thomas Phage, who was presented in 1622 and was described as “a preaching minister” in 1651. But in 1653, according to Eynebury church records, ‘John Luke of Eynesbury, gent. was sworn Register of the severall parishes of St. Neotts and Eynesbury’. ‘Registers’ replaced ordained clergy in a many parishes. During the Commonwealth, Cromwell encouraged so-called Independents to ignore the Presbyterian form of Church government, which replaced episcopacy, and to establish what we would now call “house churches”. Luke kept the registers at Eynesbury until 1657. The next record we have in St. Neots is of the presentation of James Mabinson as vicar in June 1670, some eight years after the restoration of the monarchy in 1662 under Charles II. The Prayer Book was then returned to use.

Protestantism was associated with learning. On the dissolution of the gild, it appears that the Jesus chapel became a school. In 1556, Faucet, the vicar, is also described as schoolmaster and John and Francis White, sons of the vicar of of Eaton Socon and St. Neots from 1570 to 1615, are recorded as being educated at St. Neots Grammar School. It continued during the Commonwealth as, in 1658, £20 was allowed from church property to pay the schoolmaster. Other sources of income were to come from the wills of Loftus Hatley who died in 1757 and Alderman Newton of Leicester who died in 1760. As a result of the terms of Newton’s will, the school became known as Green Coat School. It moved in 1803 to a newly built schoolhouse in Church Walk, though the Jesus Chapel was still used from time to time to alleviate overcrowding.

The eighteenth century saw the continuance of the old arguments and the appearance of some new ones. The uncertainties were not at an end but it was seen by many as a time for stability. John Tillotson became archbishop of Canterbury in 1691. He believed in moral reformation, self-discipline and public charity as necessary after the confusions, angers and destruction of the Civil War. It seems that the clergy in St. Neots agreed with him for there is a complete set of Tillotson’s sermons in the little library which still resides in the church. The library was presented to the Church by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, which had been founded in 1698. The books were evidently intended to be the stock-in-trade of a conscientious parish minister and they were added to by gifts from the rector of Eynesbury. They include works by Calvin and Peter Martyr, two of the leaders of the continental Reformation, but also later works defending the prayer book and the Church. The new agenda was provided by the appearance of the so-called Enlightenment, which led to a cooler kind of piety. Christianity was defined more as being essentially rational and in accordance with scientific thinking. Nature was to be the new Scripture. The works of men such a Stillingfleet (1635-99), bishop of Worcester, are found in our library. Stillingfleet had written attempting to bridge the gap between theology and the new empirical methods of science. He believed that the continuing faith and order of the Church was itself a product of the interaction of scripture, tradition and reason. (See separate article on the Library)

In 1712 the chancel floor was raised and an altar and rails erected by one Charles Baynton, a local benefactor. Altars (as distinct from communion tables) were a mark of high churchmanship.

An engraving in Gorham’s History of St. Neots, dated 1820, indicates that by the early nineteenth century the Church had become a preaching box with a pulpit some way down the nave surmounted by a tympanum and seats in the chancel facing down towards it. Chancels had, in many churches become largely disused; the focus was not to the altar but the pulpit. A revival of religious enthusiasm in the eighteenth century was associated with the Wesleys, who came to St. Neots on several occasions. Evidently the general revival of preaching reached our Church. The eighteenth century organ was at that time under the arch of the tower. It had been brought from Barnet near London by Dr. Justinian Morse.

Another revival, this time from an entirely different quarter brought about several waves of considerable change to the church. The Oxford movement, which began in 1833, was an attempt to derive new inspiration from the pre-Reformation Church. It was, at first, theological, arguing that the Church was primarily a divine society not an arm of the state. At first a separate development was investigation into how the Church before the Reformation was used.

Thus, in 1844, under the incumbency of the Revd. James Appleton, a massive restoration of the church, began. Externally, the north porch was rebuilt in stone, the south porch restored and new finials were put on the roof. Several windows which had been blocked up were reopened and glazed, the floor was lowered - by some three feet in places- and paved with old grave stones. In 1847 the interior, apart from the chancel, was cleared and the seating was completely replaced with new pews with poppy head pew ends, designed by James Jacy Wing. The Church could now seat 800, a classic example of Victorian optimism. The organ was moved to the Jesus Chapel. Revd. C. L. Vaughan continued the work of restoration, installing heating for the first time. A new organ by Holdich was acquired in 1855. The completion of this process in 1860 was the provision of stalls for a surpliced choir in the chancel.

The Church was now laid out for cathedral style worship where the focus moved from the pulpit to the chancel and high altar. This followed a fashion set by Leeds parish church, itself in imitation of the worship of ancient cathedrals. Many cathedral statutes predated the Reformation, and they had remained more resistant to change, particularly where their chapters had been secular canons rather than religious. The chapters and choirs had continued to occupy their chancels, whereas singing in parish churches in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries had been provided either by “cock and hen” choirs of men and women or by charity school children in west gallery singing pews. St. Neots had such a gallery. Robed choirs singing in the chancel were intended to give a more devotional feel to congregational singing, bearing in mind that this was also a time of enormous resurgence in hymn writing.

The re-ordering was an attempt to recover the past, though there were too many pews for processions and Roodlofts were much too advanced for them. The repewing was also related to the enormous programme of Church building in which the Victorian engaged. They believed that what was needed was enough spaces for the population of growing towns. In fact, by this time there was much competition.

In 1851, in St. Neots, as everywhere else in the country there was, for the first and last time a religious census. Some commentators suggest that its results were so startling that the Church of England resolved that there should be no repeat of it. What it reveals here was that half the people in church on the designated Sunday worshipped elsewhere than the Church of England. There were, by that time, five other chapels in the town, not including Eynesbury and Eaton Socon. The dissent, with which Archbishop Tillotson had attempted to negotiate, had grown measurably and considerably.

A further element of the Oxford movement was the recovery of sacramental worship. During the latter part of the century the Communion became once again a weekly event instead of monthly or quarterly, celebrated at 8.00 a. m. The restoration of the east end indicates the return to a Eucharistic devotional tradition with the priest celebrating facing eastward. A new High Altar was given in 1878 in imitation of the Laudian style by the Revd. Richard Corker Meade, the then incumbent. Meade was accused of papistical practices after he proposed to place the Elizabethan communion table, which had been recovered from Offord D’Arcy, in the Lady Chapel, on the grounds that a Church should have only one altar. He was responsible for some the the new glass.

In this century the search for authenticity in the past has gone even further. Worship in the churches of the third century was in a rectangular building with the bishop and his presbyters standing behind the altar, visible rather than concealed, facing the congregation rather than with his back to them. The so-called Liturgical Movement in this country dates from the1930s. Its implementation in St. Neots dates from the 1960s when a nave altar was introduced, the altar itself coming from an Anglican convent in Camberwell (whence Samuel Jones, gummed paper makers of St. Neots, originate also). Vestments had been introduced in 1943 by Canon Leonard Galley and were renewed in the 1960s with more modern styles. Canon Galley had also introduced a Choral Communion instead of the normal Mattins, initially on one Sunday a month. In 1961, the Lady Chapel was renovated for use as a private chapel and, for the first time since the Reformation, the Sacrament was reserved there in an aumbry. Reservation would originally have been in a hanging pyx over the altar. Canon Galley’s successor, the Revd, Stanley Griffiths did away with Mattins altogether and with the early celebration of communion (since restored), and set up a nave altar so that priest and people could see each other. He did not restore the Rood (though that happened before the war in Eaton Socon), but the pulpit was moved so that access can now be had to the rood staircase leading to the roof and to the still-blocked- up door to the empty space where the rood loft was.

In 1998, the re-ordering was carried further by the reflooring of the front half of the nave and the creation of a dais at the same height as the chancel for the celebration of the Communion. The pulpit was moved yet again to the south side of the chancel arch and the Wing’s pews in the front half of the nave were repaired and remodelled into seven foot movable units. The side aisle pews were turned inwards. The font was given its own water supply so that it may always be full.

This is part of a long term process which includes the refurbishment of the organ and the creation of a narthex under the tower.