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Little is known of any predecessors of the present church. Tradition speaks of a Saxon church standing on the same site which was burnt down at the beginning of the tenth century. If this is true, rebuilding soon followed, for we know from a charter of King Edred (confirming Turketel’s benefaction to Crowland Abbey) that there was a church in Cottenham in 948. There must have been at least one other building between this church and the present one, for embedded in the outside of the south chancel wall may be seen small fragments of Norman masonry, one of them carrying a typical Norman zigzag moulding. The existing church is dedicated to All Saints; the earlier churches are said to have been dedicated to St Peter and St Paul and, though there is no record of the change, there may well be some truth in the tradition for in 1264 the rector was granted the right to hold a three-day fair at the festival of St Peter and St Paul.
As you enter by the south porch, you will see the Royal Arms above the door together with remains of a very interesting monument set into the wall on the right. These are two sections (the middle part is missing) of what was once a fine thirteenth century tomb cover, made of Purbeck marble. This slab seems to have been used as a paving stone, face downwards, for a long time; at some modern restoration it was removed to the Museum of Archaeology in Cambridge, and its fragments have now been returned to the church. It commemorates a priest, perhaps a former rector, who is depicted with tonsured head and wearing vestments. Round the edge of the slab ran a Latin inscription in Lombardic capitals, now much defaced and partly lost, which in its entirety must have read
CHRIST ALME DEUS PRECOR MISERERE MET
(0 Christ, merciful God, I pray thee have mercy upon me)
On entering you will be aware that the church is a large, well-proportioned building, mainly in the Perpendicular style of the fifteenth or late fourteenth century. The plain, octagonal piers of the nave arcade give it a sense of space and dignity, which is enhanced by the wide aisles. There is an interesting series of corbel heads or masks along the arcade, both in the nave and in the aisles.
The nave has undergone much restoration in the last hundred years or so. As with many parish churches where the village grew prosperous in the nineteenth century, almost all the old monuments were swept away (we know of their previous existence from the accounts of early antiquaries), and the building has been filled with heavy Victorian woodwork. In the long history of the church, the pews are a relatively recent addition being installed in 1867. The pew ends represent the leaves and flowers of plants growing in the fen nearby. In 1880 a western gallery was removed where the organ was situated; twenty-five years later the wall which stood behind it was also removed to disclose the tower arch, and at the same time the present western screen was erected, to form the west porch (now used as the choir vestry) with the ringing chamber above. The glass screen enclosing this was designed by Mac Dowdy and installed in 1969. The aim of the screen is to remove the draughts that eminated from the chamber, as well it is said to cut down the sound of muttered oaths coming from the bell-ringers. The glazing bars were so positioned that at sunset around the time of St Etheldreda's Day, 17 October, their shadows were cast down the nave forming two crosses which, under the most supportive circumstances of light, would 'frame' the altar cross. Certainly the shadow moves up the chancel.
In more recent years there have been further alterations with the pulpit moved to the other side of the nave, an open area formed at the front and back of the nave and most recently, an area for welcome made by the south door.
The tower does not abut squarely on the nave; the nave wall extends about a foot further to the west on the south side than on the north, and a glance upwards at the rafters of the nave roof shows the same lack of symmetry. The nave itself is not quite true, for the arcade is slightly lower on the south side than on the north; at the north-east corner of the nave the string course running from the capital of the nave respond joins the capital of the pier of the chancel arch, but at the south-east corner, the corresponding string course is about three inches below the capital.
At the west end of the nave stands the font, a plain octagonal work of about 1600 with a cover given by John Frere in 1843 which has a Latin inscription on the underside commemorating the baptism of his children.
An addition to the musical side of our worship is a modern music stand, used as a lectern, designed and made of mahogany and sycamore by Tony Smith in memory of Arthur Pauley.
The children’s corner was formerly the choir vestry. You will see that the screens are made from parts of pews that were originally sited at the front of the church.
The vestry door, in the north aisle, was formerly an outside door, and has a fine hood moulding above it on the vestry side. The vestry was added during the 19th century. Beside the door in the church is a recess which once held a holy water stoup.
The church possesses an interesting collection of records. The registers date from 1572, and there is a valuable series of documents relating to the Rectory Manor (one of the six mediaeval manors in the parish), the estates of the Church and Causeway Charity (a fund for the maintenance of the church fabric and of certain pathways in the village and in the fen) and other charities for educational purposes. The parish received a number of endowments for charitable purposes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which are recorded on charity boards in the north and south aisles.
There is also a fine collection of church plate, some of it dating from the early seventeenth century.
The state of the church before the alterations of the mid to late 1800s may be seen from a wooden model which stands in a glass case in the north aisle. Restored by Luke Gifford, this model was made in about 1860 by Jonathan Haird, a local craftsman, who was also responsible for the pew ends in the nave. The roof of the model lifts off to show the gallery, the double-decker pulpit halfway down the nave and the old high pews around it, many facing the pulpit rather than the altar. The model stands on a fine iron-bound chest of uncertain date. This was certainly here in the seventeenth century, and may be even older. It was originally used as a safe, with five keys being needed to open it. These were held by the Rector, the two churchwardens and two civil officers known as overseers, and all these five persons had to be present to unlock it.
The organ, a converted barrel-organ, dates from 1847 and made by Hills and Co. of London. This formerly stood in the western gallery. The organ was restored in 1966 and restored and enlarged in 1994.
Behind the organ, at the east end of the north aisle, is an interesting stirrup-shaped piscina, remarkable for the fresco which decorates the background; though now much decayed and damaged by an arson attack, this fresco has been identified as late thirteenth century work. Close by on the east wall is a stone bracket for a statue, with a rose carved on the under side.
The column of the lectern is good mediaeval work, delicately carved; the book desk being given by the Brackenbury family of Mitchell House in memory of their son who was killed in the second world war. The hanging on the lecturn was designed by Mac Dowdy and executed in needlework by Doris Turkentine. The core of the design is a vertical cruciform shape, common to many of his religious designs. The vertical cross-piece is very short, and from it explodes the main form of a cross, like petals on a flower. It is a powerful form in gold with subtle red accents set on an ivory background. May the words from the speaker's lips surround and engulf the listeners.
The chancel arch is earlier than the main structure of the nave and chancel; it is a graceful four-centred arch dating from the early thirteenth century. The screen of heavy Victorian workmanship, which was removed in 1966, replaced a blue painted screen which stood there until 1745.
The chancel itself is the most impressive part of the church. It is Perpendicular work, like the nave, but rather earlier. In 1939 the sanctuary was remodelled and enlarged to its present size, and the fine oak sanctuary fittings designed by Dykes-Bower were installed. This alteration, together with the more recent removal of some of the Victorian choir stalls, has given the chancel an air of lightness and spaciousness, which is enhanced by the tall side windows.
The decorated east window is a modern work, being a copy of the east window in Prior Crauden’s Chapel at Ely. It was inserted in 1853 as a memorial to the Reverend John Frere, Rector from 1839 to 1851. Fragments of much earlier glass can be seen in some of the side windows. The church lost much of its stained glass when one of the famous fires of Cottenham came close enough to melt the lead in the windows. The altar cloth was designed by Mac Dowdy and created in the studio of Jane Lemon and the Sarum Group of incredibly talented needlewomen from near Salisbury. The abstract forms and the muted but deep yellows are given delicate linear accents in blue, gold, amber and red, to emphasise the images. The images, their shapes and proportions and relationships with each other, are aimed to conjure comforting spiritual feelings poignant to the individual at the moment of viewing. The aim is to make it supportive and encouraging, and not to be dominant. The altar cloth is part of the whole ambience of the church and worship.
The sedilia and piscina on the south side of the sanctuary provide what is perhaps the finest feature of the church. Forming a single unit under a common entablature, and stepped progressively downwards from east to west, they are a good example of delicate Perpendicular work.
The entablature carries a quatrefoil ornamentation, and the four centred arches below it are enriched with cusping. The work has been extensively repaired; very slight traces of red colouring are still discernible, and at one time no doubt the whole was richly decorated.
The twelve branch candelabrum is an excellent Elizabethan example.
The roof of the chancel is modern, and has been greatly lowered; the original roof line can be traced outside the church on the east wall of the nave.
The side altar is thought to be part of an earlier altar used in the sanctuary. Considerably reduced, it stood for many years in the clergy vestry before being restored by Tony Smith. The kneeler in front of this altar was made by Joyce Fleck and the small cross on the altar was designed and constructed in nails by Mac Dowdy. It is of a scale suitable and supportive of worship and contemplation in intimate surroundings. The cruciform shape is not obvious, but emerges as an abstract form which will mean different things at different times to the prayerful. There is an underlying feeling of the image of Christ on the Cross.
The board detailing the Rectors in the south aisle goes back to the beginning of the thirteenth century. It contains a number of distinguished names, including several masters of Cambridge colleges, one Lord Chancellor, two archbishops and Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law. Most of these Rectors, of course, did not necessarily live and work in Cottenham, and until about 1800 the resident Parson was usually the Curate. Thomas Tenison, the famous seventeenth century Archbishop of Canterbury, was the son of the Curate of Cottenham, and was born here in 1636.
The tower, standing about 100 feet high, was rebuilt in 1617-19 replacing a previous steeple destroyed in a gale. (The date may be seen carved on the outside wall of the tower, near the base, together with names and initials of persons connected with the rebuilding). The lower part survived the disaster being early fifteenth century work faced with ashlar masonry. The upper part is of local seventeenth century brick, part yellow and part pink; the brickwork was originally cased in stucco, but this gradually decayed and in 1928 it was removed and the brickwork repointed. Repointing of the brickwork on the tower was again carried out during restoration work in 1980. The pinnacles form a very striking feature of the tower. Pinnacles are, of course, common on towers of this date (for example they were added to the tower of Great St Mary’s in Cambridge in about 1600), but the bulbous, ogee shape of these is very remarkable; Cole, the eighteenth century antiquary, compared them to pineapples and said of the tower that it was "the admiration of all the country thereabout". It has been suggested that they show Dutch influence; Dutchmen were active in the seventeenth century in East Anglia where they played a prominent part in the draining of the fens, but this explanation seems unlikely. They are not unlike the pinnacles on the four corners of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. The tower certainly provides a landmark for miles around especially when floodlit at night. It is possible to see the outline of an earlier clockface below the present clock on the west side of the tower. Made by Smith of Derby, the dials were painted and re-gilded in 1995. The weathervane was re-gilded at the same time with the addition of compass points made and donated by Robert Clarke in 1996. On the south side of the tower can be seen a sundial with the inscription, "The time is short". The curiously stepped battlements of the tower are also worthy of note, as are the very fine gargoyles along the nave and chancel roofs.
The tower contains a peal of six bells, cast by John Briant of Hertford in 1800. The first bears the inscription:
JOHN BRIANT: HARTFORD FECIT, AN: DOM: 1800.
OMNES INCOLAE PLAUDITE
(Made by John Briant of Hertford, AD 1800.
0 clap your hands together, all ye people)
The second, third and fourth have only the founder’s name, but the fifth and sixth are remarkable for an array of officials’ names, including that of the Rector. The wooden frame pre-dates the present bells and probably belongs to a previous set of five bells. Records show that they were in place in 1723. The bells were all restored in 2002, when a new metal ringing frame was installed below the old wooden one, which remains in place.
Set into the wall of the choir vestry under the tower is an interesting slate slab.
It came originally from the schoolroom that once stood in the churchyard. It records the rebuilding in 1699 of the schoolroom which was destroyed by the fall of the steeple eighty years before. This schoolroom apparently stood to the north-west of the church, in the angle between the tower and the north aisle. It was certainly still in existence in 1742. The cost of the rebuilding was met by Mrs Katherine Pepys, who also endowed the school with her grand daughter, Alice Rogers, to enable twenty-one local boys to receive a free education.
The churchyard contains a number of elegant seventeenth and eighteenth century headstones.
The Garden of Remembrance was created in 1972 for the burial of cremated remains. The main gates, installed in 1971, were designed by Tom Morris and made by George Lack. The pedestrian gate on the north side was carefully matched in design by Ed Gifford in 1995 for a second gate, thus allowing vehicles to enter and leave the area easily.
This history was prepared in 1996 by the Rev’d. Ian Friars using the original text of Canon Lionel Maurice, with kind assistance from Olwyn Peacock and Marian Bicheno. During 2001, this web-text version benefited from additions by Mac Dowdy