A Brief History and Features of the Church

The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Gamlingay.

"Many Churches present us with slices of history. They are often beautiful works of art but their spiritual power is their essence. Without it they are empty barns. Admiring a church for its beauty alone is like admiring a Monet for its frame."

JohnLayer 17thc. “a very hanesome faire large church.";

William Cole, 1747 "... a faire large and comely...."

Nicklaus Pevsner, 1954 "... the most impressive church in this part of the county."

In the 13thc. the present structure was begun, a nave with, first a north aisle and then a south aisle, together with achapel to the south were in time joined by a chancel, all beneath steep pitched roofs that were almost certainly thatched. The entry to the church at this time was through a porch on the west end. None of this is now visible since the tower adjoins the nave at that position fully enclosing the porch construction.

In the 14thcmajor changes occurred. The tower was built on the west front and a north porch was inserted. The chancel may well have been extended at this time to the size now seen.

In the 15thc the whole concept of church worship underwent considerable change. No longer was the nave dim and mysterious instead it became fall of light. This involved a very considerable remodelling of the whole church fabric the windows being enlarged and the roof changed to a flatter pitch by the use of lead covering. This allowed the insertion of the clerestory lighting over the aisles.

The south transept chapel was remodelled between 1460 and 1490 by the guilds of The Guild of the Blessed Trinity and the Gamlingay Guild. The north chapel was also remodelled, the works being the gift of one Walter Taylard (died 1466), who was a Steward to Merton College. The works were completed in 1490 when both the altars and at least two bells were consecrated by Bishop Alcock,

Little is known of the building during the next 300 years. The south porch was an early addition. The bells were rehung in 1653 by Miles Gray. The replacement bells were cast within the parish. Of the bells cast at this time three remain, namely the second, third and sixth

An etching of 1804 shows that the external walls were plastered. In 1846 the Nave roof virtually rebuilt at a cost of £ 200.

In 1880 a faculty was granted to carry out a complete refurbishment of the Church. Almost all you see of the present interior dates from that time. Works included removing virtually the whole of the internal fittings accumulated over the previous centuries. Almost nothing was spared from the floors, pews, galleries, many memorials, and windows to the vestry and organ. Considering the extent of the works Gamlingay is perhaps fortunate that on the whole the works harmonise so well with the church as we know it today.

Features of the Church that are particularly worthy of note.

1) The Font

The font within the church appears to be formed from two font basins. Prior to the works of 1880 there were two fonts, one in the present position and one in the centre aisle. The present font cover was repaired and re-hung in its original position. It is likely that the font basin now in use is in its original position. The basin to the other font has been used as the base for the present construction with 19thc. centre shaft and surrounding shafts supporting the present basin. Both fonts are of early English form, the base font may well have been that of the earliest church on this site.

2) The Banner Cupboard

The high narrow cupboard in the south aisle close to the South Porch was used to store standards and banners for processions and ceremonies. This would indicate a dominant presence of guilds and charities in a thriving community.

3) The South transept

The transept was originally a chapel dedicated to St Lawrence. This has been regarded as the chapel for the four medieval guilds. The recess in the wall to the south chapel has sockets for a grille around its perimeter. At one time this held an appropriate relic.

The pews here are older than the other pews in the Church. They were obviously used as a pattern when the nave and aisle pews were constructed as part of the 1880 restoration.

4) The Rood Screen.

This fine screen has been much altered. The oldest parts are thought to have been in position after the 1480s restoration. There are traces of the mediaeval paint colours of red, green, cream and gold. At that time there would have been a small winding staircase (a vice) leading up to the top of the screen from behind the present pulpit. The doorway leading onto the screen is still to be seen. This door must have been much used if the wear on the threshold is anything to go by. The vice was bricked up in the reformation. However the remains of the first few steps of the vice can be seen besides the modern pulpit.

5) The Apostle Windows.

Above the rood screen there are four windows at clerestory height. These are 1880 insertions. The stained glass represents the Gospel writers St Mathew, St Mark, St. Luke and St John.

6) Misericords.

On the Chancel side of the rood screen there are four miserichords. It is thought that they are imported into the village from some other site. It is certain that they were re-positioned in 1880 from the south wall of the chancel. They may well have served the six priests known to be in the village in 1490. Details are set out in the longer Church guide.

7) Sedilia

The chancel contains three sedelia of hooded form with cusped decoration. These are thought to be mostly modern (but I have serious doubts as I think that they are old) only the jambs in each case being of 15thc.

The communion rails are again part old and part 1880. The panelled standards and twisted balusters came to the church on the bequest of William Meadston who died in 1683. His floor slab is immediately in front of the communion rail

8) The Reredos

The reredos at the end of the chancel behind the high altar was given to the church by the Orlebar family of Tetworth Hall. It is a replacement of the previous reredos now in the Church Hall adjacent. This original reredos with its Corinthian pilasters and segmental pediment together with swags and cherub heads above the panels, came (1690) from the chapel near to Ely House in Holborn London.

9) The East Window

This window is a memorial to A. S. Orlebar. He was the uncle of Air Vice Marshal Orlebar who was the captain of the famous Schneider Trophy seaplane racing team which won the Schneider Trophy for Great Britain in 1929 and outright in 1931. This aeroplane was the forerunner of the Spitfire. This window was designed and constructed by Morris and Son of London and shows Christ in glory being worshiped by men and women from the earliest times to the present day. The top row represents Old Testament figures of David, Moses, Noah and Elijah. The saints in the central row depict the saints to whom the Taylard Chapel is dedicated.

10) The Vestry

The present vestry dates from the 1880 restoration. The vestry table is thought to have been the sounding board of the pulpit prior to that presently used, the old pulpit having come from Ely House in Holborn.

11) The Squint

The pillar to the north of the Chancel arch is penetrated by a squint or hagioscope. This is not a leper squint as it has always been within the church building. It is at low level. However, it does afford a good view of the altar provided it is viewed from the kneeling position. It is thought that this squint allowed services to be synchronised in the times of a thick rood screen.

12) The War Memorial Chapel.

The stained glass window is made from fragments many of which are medieval and 17th c. The two small shields represent the arms of Fitzjames, possibly Richard Fitzjames who was a warden of Merton College from 1483-1507.

Between the north porch and the north chapel is the remaining fragment of a tomb enclosure cut off when the north chapel was built in the 15th c. The tomb was that of a member of the Avenelle family and the recess was originally of a moulded trefoil shape with the remaining portion of the coffin lid showing a plain cross. Such desecration of an important manorial tomb is fairly unusual.

13) 13thc window

Immediately to the east of the north porch is the sole remaining original window to the church. This is of a lancet form and windows of this type were originally to be seen throughout the church. It was obscured during the major works carried out in the 15th and 16th centuries, but was re-opened when fragments were found in the restoration of the 1880' s.

14) South Aisle arcade

Perhaps the oldest part of St Mary’s Church is the three roundels over the pillars of the South Wall arcading. It is thought that these could have been taken from the original Saxon Church.

North Porch.

The benches on either side of the porch are made using old stone coffin lids. Over the north porch is a doorway leading to a circular stairs serving a very small room immediately over the top of the porch known as a parvis, [literally a small room] used by the priest.

Outside the Church

The Exterior allows you see the "bones" of the church and to detect the various methods and ages of construction.

Start from the North porch of the church. The porch is remarkable for the great reddish coloured stones. These were quarried from a site in the village now known as "The Butts". The construction of the Porch is dated early 15th c.

Going clockwise the base of the wall of the North aisle is dated 12th to 13th c. The composition is of field stones set in mortar. Note the small window. This is the original size of the very few windows that lit the Nave of the original Church. The roof of the original building would have been thatched and this material dictates a steep pitch to the roof so the eaves level until about 1460 would have been just above this small window.

Continue Clockwise and note the first of the perpendicular 15thc windows. The change from thatch to lead in covering the roof allowed all the pitches to be made much less steep. Not only could the Aisle windows be much enlarged but a new row of windows (the clerestory) inserted at a higher level.

The west wall of the North transept (The Taylard Chapel) comes next. This shows very clearly the method of wall construction. Shuttering some 1m depth was placed on the foundations and then filed with field stones set in lime mortar. Once set the shuttering is moved up for the next layer to be formed. These layers are obvious on this wall. As you move past the transept it is possible to see that the East and North walls are not parallel with the rest of the Church but are skewed by some 60. This reflects the belief that the head of the dying Christ lolled to His right on the cross.

After the Vestry comes the Chancel. The eastern part is thought to be an extension (built before 1490) of the original Chancel. Do look upwards to see the gargoyles. These are fantastically carved stone spouts threw the water well away from the base of the walls. There are several devilish figures imps, outside the Church inside you will only find angels.

Along the South side of the Chancel there is the priest's door and after that a small widow low down. This small window has its counterpart on the other side of the chancel. It is thought that these windows provided ventilation in a time of much incense and smelly bodies both living and dead!

Close to this window there are two Mass dials (one very decayed). These are sun dials and were used to indicate the times of Services. Their siting is curious as they would now be in the shadow of the South transept. It is possible that the dials have been moved but more probably were formed before the Transept and the South Aisle were constructed.

As you walk along the south of the Church note the remains of the stump cross that was used in medieval times for preaching sermons. This was destroyed following a visit from William Dowsing on March 16th 1643 because it was considered idolatrous.

The Tower was not part of the original Church but was built in the 15th c. It encases the original West Gable though you can still see the line of the ridge of the original gable by standing well back and looking under the louvers of the eastern wall of the Tower. The effect of the weather on the exposed east end is obvious from the state of the carvings. The original Holy Water stoop is much decayed as are the carved heads on either side of the door. The ones on either side of the window are in better order. It has been suggested that they depict King Edward IV and his Queen Elizabeth Woodville.

Further and more detailed guides are on display and sale within the church or from The Friends of St Mary's.

These include:-

"The Church of St. Mary The Virgin". A comprehensive guide and history of the Church written by P. M. Gorton. Price £7.50.

"Medieval Graffiti in St Mary's Gamlingay". There is a large and interesting collection of graffiti from medieval times onwards.

"So Great a Cloud of Witnesses". This booklet sets out all the names that can be found in the Church and the Churchyard.

Friends of St Mary's c/o The Emplins Church Street Gamlingay Sandy Bedfordshire SGI9 3ER.

Telephone 01767 650581