A Brief History
St Mary's, Burwell
The first thing you notice about St Mary’s church is its size, because this fine mediaeval building, which is in the perpendicular style, is visible from many miles away. Although there is evidence of an anchorage on this site dating back to Anglo Saxon times and the lower part of the tower is Norman, most of the current building dates from the 15th century and is attributed to the architect was Master Mason Reginald Ely, who also worked on Kings College chapel. The tradition in Burwell is that he ‘practised’ on Kings College and then did his best work on St Mary’s church. This is summed up in an old rhyme:
‘When the building of Kings’ College Chapel was done,
Soon after its workmen to Burwell did come.
There an elegant structure indeed they did raise,
Which to this very day, may be seen to their praise.’
On entering the building for the first time, most people remark how high and light it is.This is partly due the light coloured local building material, clunch, and partly to the tall, elegant windows, which are glazed with plain glass. The slender pillars draw your eye upwards to the carved roof, where you can see elephants, tigers, camels, eagles and griffins. Although the carpenters were undoubtedly highly skilled, it is clear that in 15th century Burwell, they really had little idea what all these exotic animals looked like and most of them bear strong resemblance to horses and cows!
When the church was built, it would all have been brightly decorated, but now only one wall painting of St Christopher remains, which you will see just above the north door. This traditional position for such a painting ensured that the saint would bless travellers as they left the building to continue on their way.
Until the sixteenth century, St Mary’s was under the patronage of Ramsey Abbey, and the last Abbott of Ramsey, John de Warboys, lived in the Parsonage at Burwell prior to his death in 1541. He was obviously very fond of Burwell because he left instructions in his will that he wanted to be buried here, and he also left a number of treasures to the church, as well as £10 in money – a considerable sum in those days. Today we can see a brass in the chancel floor dedicated to his memory.
During the Civil War in the seventeenth century, the Suffolk puritan William Dowsing visited hundreds parish churches in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk to remove and destroy stained glass and other 'superstitious' imagery, including monumental brass inscriptions and statues of angels and saints. The story goes that he came to Burwell late one January afternoon and the many empty niches are testimony to the items he removed. However, some carved angels high up in the roof survived, presumably because the meagre candles provided by the churchwardens cast insufficient light to illumine the high corners on that winter’s afternoon.
The church contains a number of memorials dating from this period, one of which commemorates Lee Cotton, who died in 1643. He was a major benefactor and philanthropist, who owned several ‘little mansions’ for the poor at the edge of the churchyard. In his will he left them to the church ‘for ever’, to be used for the benefit of the poor. His large canopied tomb, complete with his effigy, was restored in the 20th century, but unfortunately it is not often possible for the public to see it because it is now situated in one of the vestries.
Burwell has always been a lively village and in the mid-eighteenth century many of the villagers turned out with great enthusiasm to view a show by a troupe of touring puppeteers. The show was held in a barn and unfortunately ended in a terrible tragedy when 78 people, many of whom were children, perished in a fire. Apparently, the audience could not escape from the blaze because the doors were locked to prevent people from getting in without paying. In the churchyard, just to the west of the main door, there is a mass grave for the victims, which is marked by a stone that depicts a heart enveloped in flames.
By the nineteenth century, St Mary’s was already 400 years old and in need of some renovation. When Rev Cockshott arrived in 1858, he found the church in a state of some dilapidation, but during the next 20 years, he oversaw many improvements. Apart from repairing the roof and floor, he installed the pews that you can see to day, as well as the current pulpit, the reredos behind the altar and the panelling in the chancel In fact, although the elegant structure of St Mary’s dates from mediaeval times, many of its current decorations and furnishings are Victorian. Rev Cockshott also donated the beautiful rose window high above the chancel arch, in memory of his daughter.
The only other stained glass windows in the church, at the east end of the nave date from the early twentieth century. They depict four scenes connected with the Virgin Mary, to whom the church is dedicated. Another twentieth century addition is the etched panel in the centre of the east window above the altar, which was donated in 1992 in memory of various members of the Mitcham family, who are well known in Burwell. In the south aisle you will see the war memorial, which commemorates the people who died in the two World Wars. As in most villages around the country, the list of names on the memorial is long and shows that few families escaped the loss of loved ones during that time.
Every generation for the last 500 years has, in its turn, contributed to the beauty of this sacred building, and the current generation is no exception. To celebrate the Millennium, a new glass panel was installed above the screen that forms the choir vestry at the back of church. It is a modern design in fused glass, which nevertheless blends well with the earlier styles in the building. Rev David Bush, the honorary assistant priest of St Mary’s and a former architect, designed and implemented this project as a gift to the parish and the names of all the craftsmen who contributed are carved on tiles and displayed in the vestry.
St Mary’s isn’t just a historical monument. It is a building that has served the needs of its congregations over the centuries and continues to do so. As you enter the church today, you will see colourful posters and displays about the activities of a living and lively church, from teddy bears’ picnics to café style services. The congregation is now considering ways in which the church can be modified again to meet the expectations of the twenty-first century. While some of our predecessors might be a little shocked at these changes,perhaps they would also understand that we are following in their footsteps and continuing the tradition of adding the very best of what is available today to the best of former times. In the words that Rev Kenneth Haynes, vicar of Burwell in the 1960’s, wrote for the guidebook,
“For nearly a thousand years, a Church has stood here to bear witness to the greatness and glory of Almighty God. It would be ungrateful to conclude this brief description without recording our deep gratitude to those faithful and generous people throughout the ages who loved and cared for this beautiful and historic church”.