The Parish Church of St Nicholas, Great Wilbraham is typical of many village churches found across the shires of England. Whilst unremarkable in many ways, it has a number of interesting features; and it forms an integral part of the village landscape. For some nine hundred years the people of the village have prayed and worshipped in a building on this site. They have been baptised in its font, married at its altar, and buried in its churchyard. It is tempting to believe that during that time the stones, mortar and tiles may have absorbed some of the spirituality and devotion of those souls.
Today, the building remains a focus for worship in the community, a place of quietness and a sanctuary from the rush of modern living.
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. (more history ..... )
The eye is led to the East Window, with its stepped triplet of lancets within arcading and banded shafts. The stained glass was given in memory of Stanley Edward Hicks, after his death in 1900.
The North wall has a blocked aumbrey, where sacred vessels were once stored, and two curious holes, one of which may have had some connection with a rood loft. However, anyone using this small opening must have been very tiny indeed!
Thomas Watson, the disgraced and allegedly simoniac Bishop of St David’s, (see History), was secretly interred in the church in 1717; but there is no indication of whereabouts. However his secretary, John Ward, whom his heiress married, is remembered in a long laudatory inscription high on the North wall of the Chancel. His son and granddaughter are commemorated in the naïve neo-gothic taste of the 18th century just beyond the altar rail. Mary Ward died in her sixteenth year; and the inscription on her tablet is worth reading for its sentimental charm. (Click here for enlarged image.)
Moulding around the door opening to the South wall of the Chancel is probably contemporary with the blocked arch in the South transept. The two light transomed perpendicular window to the West end of this wall is, according to Pevsner, an addition made in many Churches at that time, and never adequately explained.
|Standing in the aisle and looking towards the chancel, the most striking features are the four steep Early English crossing arches. In all probability these originally supported a lantern tower, which was replaced in the late middle ages by the present west tower. The arches are identical except for the fine-keeled mouldings to the nave facing side of the western arch. Elsewhere there are semi octagonal responds, plainly moulded capitals and double chamfered arches. Chequer work patterns on the arches are believed to date from the 14th century.|
|On the North wall, two Early English lancet windows flank a smaller Norman window, thought to be the only remaining feature of the original 12th century building. This is mirrored on the opposite side of the Nave by faint traces of a similar opening in the plaster of the South wall. The larger windows survive from the 13th century rebuilding. The later windows to the South are excellent Perpendicular.|
|The late Norman font, dating from 1150, stands in the central aisle immediately inside the south door. It is a substantial square stone structure with volutes (or scrolls) at the corners, and decorated with chip carved saltire crosses and rosettes.
In what is now the Lady Chapel, there is a large blocked arch to the left, which originally opened into a separate chapel. This has a dog-tooth decoration and a dripstone in stiff-leaved stops.
To the right of the arch there is a small piscina, where sacred vessels would have been washed. The west wall to the right has two small lancets; and at the South end is a fine four light perpendicular window.
The West tower dates from the late middle ages, replacing the original crossing tower. Outside it has diagonal buttresses, stepped battlements and pinnacles at the angles. Cole’s sketch shows that it previously had a small spire, of a style sometimes known as a Hertfordshire spike, because of the prevalence of such features in that county.
Inside, the west end is dominated by the lofty tower arch, with the perpendicular west window beyond. The tower has a ring of six bells. Made originally in 1709, one bell had to be replaced in 1837; and another was recast in 1958. A new Treble was cast and raised in 2008.
An early altar stone with double omega ornamentation is set under the tower floor.
|From the path to the South Porch, a small area of raised masonry is visible at the junction between the roofs of the nave and the transept. This is perhaps the remnants of the old lantern tower, which rose above the crossing during the time of the Templars.||
|Around the Church building it is noticeable that there are variations in the style and ‘texture’ of the flint work to several elevations. This is most striking on the North wall of the Chancel. It is tempting to imagine that this could indicate the different ages of the building, giving us some idea of its earlier size before the Nave and Chancel were enlarged and the two transepts added. The length of this is, interestingly, precisely the same as the length of the crossing. A similar variation can be seen to the North wall of the Nave, beyond the buttress.||
North chancel wall and north transept
Also in the North Chancel wall there is a small blocked door now corresponding to the position of one of the memorial tablets internally, and a high level blocked opening in the corner by the transept, probably originally leading to the rood loft.
The North transept was rebuilt during the mid 19th century with a three lancet window at the north end, replacing the decorated window shown in Cole’s sketch. The North wall of the nave again shows signs of having been lengthened beyond the buttress.
The text was created by Graham Pye, a former churchwarden of St. Nicholas and currently Deanery Synod representative. He drew on 'St. Nicholas Church History' and the 'Great Wilbraham Parish Guide', both by R. Bolgar, as well as Pevsner's 'A History of Cambridgeshire' and 'A History of the Wilbrahams' by Canon H.P. Stokes.
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