The History of
All Saints’ Church


The History

Ihere has been a Christian settlement in Melbourn from the earliest times. Archaeological digs have revealed graves, dating from the 7th century which showed signs of Christianity, the bodies having been buried in an east/west orientation.

During the Saxon period worship was conducted in the open air or in primitive buildings until the first church of Melbourn was built, possibly around AD 673 by St Ethelreda (or Audrey), founder of the Abbey of Ely. By the 10th century and with the coming of the pagan Danes, religious life in the area was pushed underground and it wasn’t until they had intermingled with Saxons, that Christianity was established.

The first mention of a church in Melbourn was in AD 959, in a charter by King Edward (Edgar) to the Priory of Ely. It is thought that it may have been a small wooden structure situated north of the site of the present Melbourn church, in order to serve the 50 or 60 inhabitants living here at the time. It is known that a wooden church was constructed in Meldreth around this time, served by nine priests who carried the Gospel around to the neighbouring villages.

The present building dates back to the mid 1200s. Being the only building of substance apart from the manors, the early church would have been the centre of life of the community. There were no pews and it was very noisy, though the floor was strewn with rushes which remained a practice until the early 1500s. It was here that people could find someone who could read and write. Mass was said in Latin in the chancel behind the rood screen­­­ ­­– a part of the church reserved for this purpose. The rich and powerful people would gather by the rood screen to hear the consecration while the poor had to stand at the sides – they literally ‘went to the wall’. During the medieval period, the interior of the Church was far more colourful than it is today. The walls and pillars were painted with biblical scenes, statues of saints stood in niches and the priest would have been richly dressed – to simple country folk it would have appeared impressive, although the Latin services would have been incomprehensible. Two damaged niches remain today in the church (right).

The Niches

The building then was often open to the elements as glass was extremely expensive and many windows were unglazed or broken, allowing birds to fly in and nest there. For this reason the priest covered the chalice with a small square cover, a practice which still continues to this day throughout the country. Similarly, altar rails were originally introduced to keep stray animals away from the altar.

The only remaining evidence of a Norman church today is the font. Set in the southwest corner the font dates from around 1130 and is the oldest artefact in the church. It was probably during the 13th century that it was cut into its present octagonal shape, possibly to fit against the western-most pillar of the south aisle. It stood there until 1882 when it was moved to its present position. The side facing east still has the Norman arcading, the trefoils on the four sides are from the medieval period. Traditionally the font stood at the entrance to the church as a symbolic welcome.

The Parvis

The entrance to the church is via a porch to the south door through wrought iron gates made by Ironworks of Letchworth, which were a gift of Daphne Black in the year 2000. The porch with the Parvis Room above was rebuilt in 1884 when the clerestories of the church were replaced in flint.

The Parvis

The archway of the south door has two bosses, one of which is an original head, the other a replacement.

Once inside the church, to the left is a small wooden door leading to the Parvis, accessible via a steep spiral staircase. This small room, which contains a stone fireplace and mantel, was possibly the lodging for the medieval priest and where the first school of Melbourn was held.

A donation left by William Ayloffe of the Bury who died in 1691 provided a free school for 40 boys of Melbourn & Meldreth. It enabled the boys to be taught to read, write and to answer questions on the Catechism on condition that they were members of the Church of England. Instruction was given by the Parish Clerk on two evenings a week. The schoolmaster was chosen by the Minister and the Churchwardens of both Parishes and paid £15 annually. The school was in operation for over 100 years.

The Parvis today houses the Melbourn Parish Chest dated 1825, which holds out-of-date prayer books.

A ladder has been recently installed for roof maintenance but there is no public access.

The Parvis

The Font

In the southwest corner is the Norman font, which dates from around 1130 and is the oldest artefact in the church. It was probably during the 13th century that it was cut into its present octagonal shape, possibly to fit against the western-most pillar of the south aisle. It stood there until 1882 when it was moved to its present position. The side facing east still has the Norman arcading, the trefoils on the four sides are from the medieval period. Traditionally the font stood at the entrance to the church as a symbolic welcome.

Prayer books from the 16th and 17th century specified that children should be baptised in the first week after birth. Although many baptisms were carried out during the first month of life, in Melbourn between 1795 and 1830 half of the 800 children baptised were over five months old, and it was not unusual for baptisms to take place at the age of five, ten, or fifteen.

There was often a ‘season’ of baptisms taking place in the village, which included family related children being baptised together. One reason for this seasonal event was that baptism was a semi-social affair and was associated with village festivals. In Melbourn, from 1740 to 1840 over a third of all baptisms occurred during July and many of these took place on the first Thursday of that month, during the annual Feast.

The Tower

From the centre of the transept can be seen a wooden linenfold screen to the bell tower carved by Gus Hale. It is dedicated to the memory of Harry & Marianne Cranfield, who kept the Post Office in the early part of the 20th century and was the gift of their son H.P. Cranfield. Designed by Hughes & Richmond of Cambridge, it was erected by Jacklin & Hale of Royston.

The tower was built towards the end of the 15th century and is curiously out of line with the axis of the nave giving an odd appearance when looking down the nave from the altar. This may have been the result of trying to avoid earlier foundations during rebuilding.

The tower arch is from the 13th century and is set upon responds (half-pillars attached to the wall for support) dated around 1500. It is possible that this was the chancel arch, which was removed when the chancel roof was raised about 10 feet and then re-used in this position. The arch shows the marks of beams, which once supported a ringers gallery, but the ringing chamber is now much higher at the top of 39 steps. Beyond is the base of the steeple with its wonderful views of Melbourn from the top. However, due to the ever-increasing encroachment of pigeons, the area has been netted and can only be opened now on rare occasions. The tower looks spectacular when floodlit at night.

The window in the west wall of the tower is regarded as the most beautiful in the church and is attributed to the mid 14th century, when it was probably situated in the gable ended west wall of the church. 150 years later it was placed above the new west doorway to the tower.

The west door shows the sockets into which bars were inserted to secure the doors.

The Tower

View from the church tower looking South-West over Melbourn.

The Bells

The first bells were installed in 1507 although the earliest bell in the church today dates from 1615. There is a full ring of eight bells, the youngest bell being donated at the end of the 20th century. Melbourn is fortunate to have an enthusiastic team of bell ringers who frequently host visiting groups of bell ringers. The first peal of 5040 changes was rung by the Ely Diocese Association of Bell Ringers on 20th July 1920 it took 2 hrs 44 minutes – the bell chamber having first been lined with matchwood to deaden the noise in the chamber!

The bells were re-hung in 1912 utilising money from the fund-raising of church members at an estimated cost of £200 for this and the restoration of the church tower. Bowells of Ipswich carried out the work on the bells – they were hung on a steel frame at a final cost of £175! Repairs to the tower were undertaken by Robert Wade of Doddington, near March for £260.

In June 1912, the bells were removed from the tower and were the subject of great attraction as they lay in the churchyard awaiting transportation to the bell foundry at Ipswich on a steam lorry belonging to Percy Elbourn.

The bells awaiting transport to Ipswich

After all the restoration was complete a service was held by the Bishop of Ely, dedicating the new treble bell. In The Church Bells of Cambridgeshire a report by the Rev. J. Raven writes of the of Melbourn bells ‘the Tenor is a magnificent bell’.

The inscriptions on church bells are:

  1. In memory of our son Graham 1972
  2. In memory of our son Graham 1972
  3. Jesus be Our Spede 1615 R.O.
  4. Praise the Lord 1616 (generally ascribed to James Keene)
  5. John Briant, Hartford, fecit 1789
  6. Richard Chandler made me 1688
  7. Cast by Bowell 1912

Bells 1 and 2 were a gift in 1987 of Mr. & Mrs. William Coningsby in memory of their son Graham and were cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

The Nave

The double line of 12 pillars supporting the clerestory windows are made of clunch – a chalk used extensively for building in the Melbourn area for centuries. The red floor tiles are Victorian and the heating grills and radiators were installed in 1922 at a cost of £240, the proceeds of a summer fete. Above set at the cross-members of the timbered roof are a number of intricately carved gold bosses, some with foliage, some maybe heraldic devices or other decorations, others feature animals and birds.

Some of the gold bosses seen in the timbered roof along the Nave.

Above the rood screen sitting just below the roof line are three stone carvings of Christ flanked by St Paul and St Peter (holding the keys to the Kingdom).

Either side of the Nave the corbels supporting the columns for the roof vaulting are carved with Seraphim. Although the stone work is not elaborately carved but there are several interesting features.

The north door was lowered to nave level during the alterations of 1884 and now leads to the church hall. On the wall, there is a wooden plaque to members of the church and further down is a brass plaque in memory of a member of the congregation, Gertrude Marion Strong 1865–1937. Towards the organ, on the left is a door to the vicar’s robing room (private). It was made and erected in 2005 by Michael Walford of Meldreth.

The area of the chapel now occupied by the organ was the original site of the Argentine Chapel or Chapel of the Holy and Undivided Trinity and remained in use until its removal in 1619. The Argentine family of Lordship Farm were given the manor of Melbourn by William I. Sir Richard de Argentine originally applied to the Bishop of Ely in 1220 for permission to build a chapel within his house at Lordship Farm. The rector of Melbourn, John de Foxton, opposed the application and managed to have the building of the chapel deferred for some years, for fear that the appointment of a chaplain there might encroach on his dues and rights.

The Parvis

The original site of the Chapel of the Holy and Undivided Trinity c.1900s.

The north wall has been rebuilt several times – there was a narrow aisle here until the end of the 16th century when the wall was moved four feet further to the north, possibly to make a worthier setting for the Chapel.

The organ stood in the Lady Chapel for many years but at the beginning of the 20th century it was moved to its present position. In October 1912 Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropist, donated £215 towards the cost of a new organ (the total cost was £430) which was installed by 22nd July 1913 when a dedication and opening service took place. It was made by Alfred Kirkland & Brycesson Bros. of Upper Holloway, London.

In front of the organ are banners belonging to All Saints’ Girl Guides, the Royal British Legion, the Womens’ branch of the Royal British Legion and a Union Flag. Behind the organ are the remains of the staircase to the rood loft which used to be above the chancel and was probably where the priest slept.

A singing gallery once ran from the tower arch to the passageway, and would be where the church band played. The band, leading the singing, would consist of a double bass, cello, flute hautboy, clarinet and fiddle. The last leader of the band was a gamekeeper, famous for his voice as well as for his music.

The gallery was dismantled and placed in the north-west corner for the use of schoolchildren by the vicar in 1820 and moved yet again in the 1860s by his successor to the north east corner. Afraid that it would not stand another move his successor sold it!

The old Sanctus bell turret was removed, having once hung in a cote over the junction between the roof of the nave and that of the chancel, and the north doorway lowered to nave level.

The modern claviola was the gift in 2005 of SOAS (The Supporters of All Saints’).

The Chancel

Dividing the nave from the chancel is the Rood Screen, a fine oak screen with vined wreath carving and the five wounds of Christ are depicted on shields in the form of inverted crowns. It was the gift in 1504 of Thomas Hitch, whose family owned the manor of Argentyne, it cost £1 3s 6d. The rood (the Cross bearing a figure of Christ and possibly the Virgin Mary and St John) was seized from the church in 1529 and subsequently lost during the Reformation when Bishop Goodrich of Ely ordered sacred relics to be destroyed. The rood loft is no longer in existence. The walls of the chancel were raised during the rule of Bishop Alcock in 1487. At the same time the large east window behind the altar was replaced by that one which you now see.

In front of the Rood Screen is a tomb slab on the floor with a much-worn Latin inscription to William Ayloffe who founded a school for six boys and six girls, which was held in the Parvis Room. This tomb was originally situated below the south window of the chapel.

Bishop Alcock Bishop Alcock’s rebus (a shield – a representation by pictures of objects or symbols whose names resemble the intended word – necessary as the majority of parishioners were illiterate) can be seen on the second tie beam, a cock standing upon a globe facing a wyvern. He was a great and popular Bishop who ‘laughed, preached and mended every wrong’. The chancel arch, then too low, was removed and replaced upon its own capitals about six feet higher. Above the archway is the head of Christ, St John the Baptist and St Peter with the keys to Heaven.

The church plate dates from around 1563 when records show that 80 households worshipped in the church, the chalice and its cover are dated 1562 and inscribed FOR THE TOWNE OF MELBOVRN.

At the entrance to the chancel, the north wall on the left has two lancet windows. Installed in 1278, they remain almost as they were built in the 13th century. Another lancet window can be seen in the south wall.

The choir stalls bear shields and coats of arms of the Argentynes, Ayloffes, Bishop Alcock and the Diocese of Ely. The Argentyne family held the hereditary post of wine tasters to the king and their coat of arms shows three goblets. In the north wall is a 13th century doorway with two fine carved heads leading to the tiny vestry, which is kept locked. Immediately beyond the doorway to the east is a rectangular recess, used as an Easter Sepulchre and installed by Dom Georgius in 1285.

Coats of arms of Argentyne, Ayloffe, Hatton and the Diocese of Ely.

To the right of the table altar is a fine double piscina dating from the late 13th century which probably replaced one with a single drain. Its inclusion caused the removal of the furthest lancet window. The purpose of the piscina is to ensure that Holy water blessed by the priest goes down to the church’s foundations and not into the public sewers.

Double piscina dating from the late 13th century.

Beyond this is a double aumbry from a later period used to hold the Blessed Sacrament for the benefit of the sick and dying. The lamp which burns above is a reminder that it is in use. In the window, above are the last remains of the medieval glass which once filled every window until the despoiling during the Reformation.

Looking down the aisle, the misalignment of the bell tower window with the nave is very noticeable. On the left is a small door to the churchyard in front of which stands an ancient chair. The gilded bosses of Bishop Alcock can be seen above. There are more tomb tablets beneath the carpet which are inaccessible.

On the south wall of the chancel is a tablet to the memory of Lady Mary Hatton who lived at Trayles Manor, now called the Old Manor House in the High Street. She died in 1760 at the age of 76 and was buried in the Hitch family tombs, having lived through the reigns of Charles II, James II, William & Mary, Georges I, II and possibly III!

The Lady Chapel

Beyond the pulpit is the Lady Chapel which was built around 1340. The east window is from that date, the niches on either side are of a later period. The one on the left possibly held a statue of the Blessed Virgin and to the right possibly one of St Wyburgh, as a guild of that name is mentioned as late as 1542. The chapel was despoiled during Thomas Goodrich’s Bishopric around that period and about 100 years later William Dowsing did further damage.

The Lady Chapel was formerly the family chapel of the Ayloffes. The stained-glass window is in memory of second lieutenant Henry Brodie Day, killed in 1918 during the first World War aged 21. There is also a later plaque to his brother. The other window is dedicated to Saints Michael and George, paid for by parishioners in memory of the 1914-18 war and there is also an illuminated Book of Remembrance to World War II victims.

The wrought iron altar ornaments were produced from an original design by a Fen craftsman, Tony Hodgson, in 1966. The blue chairs in the Lady Chapel bear dedication plaques in memory of loved ones.

On the south wall are two wooden plaques with the roll of vicars and rectors of Melbourn from 1229 to the present day.

The present Mother’s Union banner was made by Gwen Fisher and Margery Coningsby, replacing the one made by Gus Hale which was dedicated by the vicar in July 1922.

The Girls’ Friendly Society was dedicated in church in April 1927.

The Exterior and
Churchyard

The exterior of the church is clad in flint, although it was not always so as the earliest photograph of the church shows, taken in 1865. The clerestories were replaced in flint in 1884, a stone found in abundance locally and was ‘knapped’ or cut to fit.

The Norman tower at the west end, which houses the bells, has a small steeple and cross.

Archaeological excavations in 1989 prior to plans for a new church hall, showed the churchyard was in use for many centuries. From eighteen holes that were cut of one metre square (later to be filled with concrete to act as foundations to the building) the deepest graves were found in the chalk level. Others were closer to the surface and as numerous bodies were discovered through the depth, it showed that later burials had been cut through earlier ones. The church held no records during the early period and so there was no recollection of where previous burials had taken place.

In most of the holes, archaeologists found the remains of at least five individuals some bodies having been interred together. The burials were Christian as bodies were orientated east-west.

The graveyard was found to have been in use from medieval times to the Victorian period, the last person to be buried here being James King, who died on 13th June 1902. He was the landlord of The Rose Inn which had been in the King family for over 100 years.

The churchyard is now ‘closed’ and apart from the area for the interment of ashes, no further burials take place here. There is, however, an interesting gravestone, now a listed monument remaining in the churchyard, that of Benjamin Metcalfe, a central figure of the Puritan Movement within the village 1595–1651.

The Parvis