We do not know when the Christian Faith first reached this part of the Fens, but there is little doubt there was a church in Chatteris by the 9th century. Huna, St. Ethedreda's steward, who became a hermit at Huna (Honey) Hill on the road to Manea, moved here on the death of his mistress in 679. By then, Christianity was established in the settlement. The name Chatteris derives from the Anglo-Saxon CAETERIC - CETO (a wood) and RIC (a river). Any religious buildings would later have been destroyed by the marauding Danes in their raids in 870 and 1010 which were accompanied by burning and pillaging.
Aelfwen, the Countess of East Angles founded the abbey in Chatteris circa 980 AD. She had been married to Aethelstan and the practice of prominent ladies to retire in nunneries founded by themselves was common in Anglo-Saxon society. There was also a revival of Benedictine monasticism at this time.
CHURCH AND PATRONAGE
The Parish Church was given by Bishop Nigel of Ely in 1162. The Abbey held the patronage or 'right of presentation', and was to provide a chaplain to conduct services. The living remained the gift of the Abbey till the Dissolution in 1536, passed to the Manor of Chatteris Nuns until the late 1700s, was then sold to The Revd. Robert Chatfield who became Vicar of Chatteris in 1803 and by 1851 The Rev. M.A. Gathercole was both patron and Vicar. In 1909 the living passed to Gonville and Caius' College, Cambridge, who remain the patrons today.
In the 14th century the first vicar was instituted and a regular stipend provided. He was Richard de Carton and was Vicar in 1347. A complete list of vicars from then to the present day can be seen by the main door.
The parish church, the Abbey and much of the town of Chatteris, was burnt down in a fire which raged between 1306 and 1310. Not until 1352 was the church restored, rebuilt and reconsecrated - by the Bishop of Ely. So the Vicar at the time, Richard, was a priest without a church and died in 1349. This 1352 church was the church basically that was restored and mainly rebuilt in 1910. (see illustration)
During the next few centuries, the church lost its steeply pitched roof and gained the South West Porch (most of which is still extant). The date 1594,inscribed high upon the tower, may mark some further changes that were not always for the best. The clerestory windows lost their tracery.
The lovely north aisle Gothic windows were replaced by ugly rectangular ones. Tower masonry and flat nave ceilings were plastered. Thick wooden galleries were added on two sides of the church, spoiling the elegant Gothic nave columns.
These galleries and box pews were added circa 1720. By 1747 the whole roof was rebuilt, probably the one illustrated in our 18th century sketch. Then the north wall was rebuilt in brick and the traceried windows replaced. Another gallery was added (the west gallery) in 1804, where the first organ was sited. Until then, a band of wind instruments accompanied services. The clock (now replaced) was dated before 1726, as are 5 of the 6 bells that now hang in the tower.
The Rev. W. Holden was the first vicar to live in Chatteris for some time, others being absentees.
Then came the Rev. R. Chatfield, who had the new school built in 1819. He was followed by the Rev. M. A. Gathercole who carried out a battle against non-conformists, while the Parish church was allowed to deteriorate and fall into disrepair. A visitor in the 1880s wrote... "windows, concealed by giant nettles. ...inside - atmosphere of the earth. ... Dust was in evidence. ... the most depressing church."
The roof leaked, the masonry was crumbling and weeds grew between the flag stones of the church floor. It was in a sorry state.
BETTER DAYS - THE 20TH CENTURY
The Rev. J.J. Jones, curate in 1899, and from 1901, The Rev. H.F. Bagshaw -Vicar, set about restoring and repairing the church. Money was scarce. But on Christmas Day 1904 the Vicar announced a huge bequest. Robert Wright had died in 1903. He had been a choirboy and sexton's son at Chatteris.
He had emigrated to America and made his fortune with a laundry chain. He had left £5,000 to Chatteris Church in his will. The patron of Chatteris the Rev. Brocklebank added another £1,000. Work began in 1909. Not till 1916 after all debts had been paid would the Bishop of Ely reconsecrate the church.
The Rev. McNeice (curate) worked hard to raise extra cash. The restorers worked skillfully and lovingly using as much of the original material as possible. Much thought was given to the architectural history of the church.
The tower was re-pointed in part, but is essentially the 1352 tower, though its lower courses are even older. The rest of the building was re- built around the nave pillars - widening the side aisles, extending by a bay the nave length and building a new chancel and chapel. The old chancel window frames were set in the new East End. A coke-fired central heating system was installed.
A new central heating - gas fired, fan assisted system, toilets and kitchen were added to celebrate a millennium of the Christian faith in Chatteris in 1980, and later a meeting room - The Bricstan Room was added in 1988. The hall was further extened in 2005 thanks to a grant from SureStart and the new facilites provide a focal point for the whole community.
In 1992 over £60,000 was raised from Chatteris to further restore masonry (particularly of the Tower) and the church today is in good structural order. The bells and bell-frames have been rehung and improved and much work has just been completed to restore the double-action Harrison organ, sited the north bay by the chancel since 1935 – one of the finest in the area.
The church floor was sanded and resealed in 1999 and new comfortably upholstered chairs bought (pews were removed as early as 1915 and replaced by wooden chairs). In 2006 the floor was found to be subject to wet rot and has been completely replaced with oak blocks.
Our latest project has been the installation of a new sound system. Installed in 2006, this now provides 24 channel mixing facilities for both speech and music. New speakers have been added to both the chancel and the recently refurbished Bricstan Hall.
The main church now has a direct Bose speaker system with a mixing desk at the rear - including loop system cd/tape player and audio visual inputs for projection. The Parish Church Council work hard to maintain the historic fabric of the building whilst making it fit for purpose.
Building for Mission
As the oldest and largest gathering place in Chatteris, the parish church building needs to be repaired and upgraded for each generation. Presently, we are fundraising for the following improvements:
- Refurbish the kitchen to semi-commercial standard & redecorate the Bricstan Hall
- Replace the inside main church entrance door with a glass disabled access
- Upgrade the church lighting system with an energy saving LED system to include theater lights for concerts
As we look to the future, Chatteris church needs your support to keep this historic building a flexible and welcoming place for everyone. Please consider investing in the future of our parish church. Your donation will make a difference! Many thanks for your help.