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History of Great Wilbraham Church

There is known to have been a church in the Wilbrahams in Anglo–Saxon times, as it is mentioned in a 10th Century document recording the grant by Wulfun of a church and forty acres to the newly formed Denny Abbey when he became a monk, probably in 970. By 984 the Abbey had given it to Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester. After the conquest the church was probably attached to the Richmond fee; and by 1155 it owed to the Abbey of Mont St Michel a pension of £2, still due in the thirteenth century. In 1160 the Church was given to Ely Priory’s newly formed cell at Denny; and by the turn of the century the monks had granted it to the Knights Templars. We do not know whether the Anglo Saxon building, or the early Norman church that replaced it, stood on the same site as the present building.

The present building dates mainly from the 13th century, when the Knights Templars undertook substantial rebuilding. It is built of fieldstones, originally dressed with clunch but later replaced with limestone. Part of the north wall of the nave is thought to be the only remaining part of the 12th century building. A small Norman window in this wall was discovered during repairs in 1893. The size and style of the original building may have resembled the Stourbridge Chapel on the Newmarket Road leading into Cambridge, a 12th century building which has survived largely intact.

The church was remodelled in a cruciform plan and probably enlarged in two phases, with later additions to the nave and chancel. The substantial crossing arches indicate that at this stage the church had a central lantern tower. Simple lancets survive from the 13th century rebuilding in the northern nave wall, chancel and south transept west wall.

In the early 1300s the Knights Templars fell from favour, largely due to their having acquired immense political and financial power. There was a concerted move against the order across the continent; and in 1308 the Master of Wilbraham Temple and two of the brethren were arrested. In 1313 their lands, including the church, were given to Brother William of Sawston on behalf of the Knights Hospitallers of St John, the Templars’ great rivals; and they held the advowson, or patronage, until the early 16th Century. The Church is known to have been dedicated to St Nicholas by 1520.

After the suppression of the religious orders during the reign of Henry VIII, the manor was given to Sir John Huddlestone. He acquired further land in the parish but was resident elsewhere; and for several centuries the village was run by a succession of dominant farming families. In the 17th century the village became a hotbed of religious dissent; and there are records of meetings of Freewill Baptists being broken up by the local Magistrates and prominent local farmers being imprisoned.

In 1683 Dr Thomas Watson acquired the Temple Estate. A college tutor who became Bishop of St David’s, he was later deprived of his office and excommunicated as an alleged simoniac, (selling of ecclesiastical offices). Rumour has it that upon his death he was secretly interred within the Church. His descendants owned the estate until 1788 when it was sold to the Rev. James Hicks, whose family dominated village life throughout the 19th Century, contributing substantially to the building of the old school in 1873, and giving land for the enlargement of the Churchyard. During this period the Church building remained largely unchanged, although major renovations were undertaken between 1878 and 1893; and the north transept was rebuilt in the mid 19th century. Sketch of St. Nicholas' Church c.1748-1752
Sketch of the Church from the North. William Cole, c1748-1752