A prayerful place
A patch of wooded land surrounded by misty watery fen made Chatteris an isolated and perhaps spiritually thin place from the start. Little is known about the earliest peoples but there is no doubt about the presence of the Church by the ninth century. As Etheldreda's former personal chaplain and priest, Huna chose to retire from his duties at Ely monastery in 670 on the death of his mistress. Looking for a quiet life, Huna settled at what came to be known as Huna (‘Honey’) Hill. Pilgrims continued to seek him out for his spiritual guidance and healing prayers. By then, records indicate that Christianity had been established in the settlement. Following Huna’s death, his body was venerated for its miraculous properties before being taken to Thorney Abbey under orders from King Cunute. The name Chatteris derives from the Anglo-Saxon CAETERIC - CETO (a wood) and RIC (a river). For more information about the history we recommend contacting the Chatteris Museum.
Holy women & MEn
During the Medieval period, the town was dominated by Chatteris Abbey a small Benedictine nunnery dedicated to St Mary. The convent, including the church, was founded in 980 by the Aelfwen niece of the Saxon King, Edgar, and one of only eight nunneries mentioned in the Domesday Book. Aelfwen, the Countess of East Angles had been married to Aethelstan and the practice of prominent ladies to retire in nunneries founded by themselves was common in Anglo-Saxon society. Religious communities encouraged Biblical literacy and ordered lives through the rhythms of prayer, work and rest. Throughout its existence, the abbey retained it’s connection with Ely yet remained comparatively poor to other foundations, due to a lack of royal patronage and consequent lack of tithe estates. As a result, the abbey survived the first wave of closures during the Dissolution of the monasteries, but was surrendered to the king's commissioners in 1538, by which time there were eleven nuns in residence.
One of the first recorded residents of the town was a man named Bricstan. He was a free tennant with a wife and family, known for sharing his resources with others; “content with what he had, meddled not with what belonged to others”. Having a depth of Christian faith, Bricstan decided to present himself to the Abbott in Ely, submitting himself to the rule of St Benedict and assume the habit. As news of his example spread, an unscrupulous agent of the king named Robert Malartis met with the Abbott to undermine Bricstan’s character, accusing him of being a thief and a fraud. Afterwards, the Abbott was left with no choice but to have Bricstan stand trial in Huntingdon. Even as Bricsan pleaded his innocence, the court made sport of him for being “somewhat corpulent, short of stature, and had what one might call a homely face.” He was judged guilty and sent to the Tower of London where he was put in chains and tortured.
In his sorrowful state, Bricstan never stopped crying out to God for mercy. After five months, a miracle took place. The dungeon was filled with a bright light so that Bricstan had to shield his eyes. St Benedict and St Ethelreda and her sister, Sexburgh, appeared to ask Bricstan if he wanted deliverance. Etheldreda instructed Benedict to “do what was ordered by the Lord.” At this, the venerable Benedict laid his hand on the fetters, and they fell in pieces, so that the prisoner's feet were released without his being sensible of any act, the saint appearing to have shattered his chains by his word alone.” He then threw the fetters to the ceiling, making a noise that alerted the soldiers who were lying on the floor above. Fearing that prisoners were escaping, the soldiers rushed to find the gates untouched. A prisoner in the cell with Bricstan spoke of people coming into the dungeon with a very bright light, although he did not hear the words they had spoken. In the morning, news of the miracle man reached Queen Matilda of Scotland who was in the city at the time. She commanded that Bricstan be released. After telling her of his story, he went to all the religious houses throughout London sharing the news before being obedient in living out his religious calling in Ely monastery. His broken fetters were displayed on a pillar in Ely cathedral to remind every poor soul who looked on them of God’s faithful care and protection.
a CHURCH for the Parish
The original church along with other buildings in the town were burnt to the ground in a wave of Viking attacks leaving the convent to struggle with burden of rebuilding. A new Parish Church was given by Bishop Nigel of Ely in 1162. The Abbey nuns were given the patronage or 'right of presentation', and were responsible for providing a chaplain to conduct services. Another fire hit the town in 1302. In 1347 the first vicar, named Richard de Carton, was instituted and a regular stipend provided. A large portion of the town was destroyed by a great fire in 1310, which also destroyed the nunnery and a large portion of the church, leaving only sections of the base of the church tower. The Vicar at the time, Richard, was a priest without a church and died in 1349. It was not until 1352 that the church was restored, rebuilt and reconsecrated by the Bishop of Ely.
The living remained the gift of the Abbey till the Dissolution in 1536 when it passed to the Manor of Chatteris Nuns. Fires in 1706 and 1864 destroyed most medieval and Georgian architecture. During this time 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. Box pews and a Victorian rood screen were added circa 1720. Tower masonry and flat nave ceilings were plastered. By 1747 the whole roof was rebuilt, probably the one illustrated in our 18th century sketch. Then the north wall was rebuilt with common brick and the traceried windows replaced. A year later, a second gallery was added (the west gallery) allowing for a small organ to provide the latest in musical accompaniment. Until this time, a band of wind instruments accompanied services presumably from the first gallery. The clock (now replaced) was dated before 1726, as are 5 of the 6 bells that now hang in the tower.
A complete list of vicars from then to the present day can be seen on the wall by the main door. The Rev. W. Holden was the first vicar to live in Chatteris for some time, others being absentees.
In 1803 came the Rev. R. Chatfield, who had the new school built for the town in 1819. He was followed by the Rev. M. A. Gathercole in 1861 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.
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. A former choir boy named Robert Wright had died in 1903. He had emigrated to America and made his fortune with a laundry chain leaving £5,000 to Chatteris Church in his will. The patron of Chatteris the Rev. Brocklebank added another £1,000 and building work began in 1909. In 1909 the living passed to Gonville and Caius' College, Cambridge, who remain the patrons today.
The Rev. McNeice (curate) lived in the parish and worked hard to raise extra cash. The restorers worked skillfully 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. Not till 1916, after all debts had been paid, would the Bishop of Ely reconsecrate the church.
A Community resource
During the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the clergy including Revd David Towers, Revd Chris Myhill, Revd James Thomson and Revd Canon Wendy Thomson continued to take an active interest in developing the parish Church as a resource for the whole town. In 1935, the same year that Kings’ College, Cambridge, installed their new Harrison & Harrison pipe organ, one of the finest double-action pipe organs replaced the old organ in Chatteris. It was sited in the north bay by the chancel. It continues to be regularly maintained by Harrison & Harrison and attracts organists from around the world to see it.
The First world war hit Chatteris hard; sixty-one young men were lost. Memorial windows were put inside the church along with a memorial outside in front of the church. A special window commemorates George Clare VC a former Chatteris chorister who died carrying his comrades across no man’s land. Around 1930 electricity arrived and lights were installed. In 1980 celebrations were held for a millennium of Christian faith in Chatteris and included the addition of toilets and a new central heating system which was gas fired and fan assisted. During the 1980s the Catholics were looking for a new home as they had outgrown their meeting houses. The parish Church offered to share their building. In 1992 over £60,000 was raised to further restore masonry particularly of the Tower. The bells and bell-frames were rehung and improved. The Bricstan Room was added in 1988 and named after the miracle man from Chatteris to provide a space for children’s groups. In 2005, the room was extended and refurbished in 2018.
The church floor was sanded and resealed in 1999. However, in 2006 it was found to be subject to wet rot and had to be completely replaced with oak blocks at a cost of £80.000. A new BOSE sound system was installed in 2006, providing 24 channel mixing facilities for both speech and music, including loop system cd player and audio visual inputs for recording and projection.
In 2018 the heavy inside oak door was removed from the entrance and replaced with glass doors improving disabled access and allowing people to see inside the church. The Parish Church Council (PCC) work hard to raise funds to maintain the historic fabric of the building whilst making it fit for the whole community to use.
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:
Upgrade the church lighting system with an energy saving LED system to include theater lights for concerts. The current lights were put inside the church in the 1930s when electricity came into the town. The whole system needs to be upgraded and improved to meet current safety standards as well as the needs of the community (approx £80,000)
Upgrade the current CCTV security and alarm systems (approx. £40,000)
Ongoing maintenance and repair work including plastering and improving the inside entrance porch (approx. £ 10,000)
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.