Picture of St Mary the Virgin, Gamlingay


The Early Years

A church certainly existed in Gamlingay before 1120. In about 1125 Augustinian canons from the Priory of St Botolf, Colchester, came to live in the town (as the village was them called). There were probably as many as six priests, who said their offices - Mattins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline - in church and said Mass every day. The people were free to come and listen to these services, but would only occasionally receive communion.

Unfortunately the Augustinians started to appoint lay canons to fill vacancies caused by death, gradually losing their influence, so that new lay patrons had to appoint two vicars to do the work. Each of them had to pay a small pension to the canons. By the end of the 13th century the canons were virtually excluded from the management of the church.

By this time Merton College, Oxford, had become patron of the moiety (a half share) of one of the vicars, eventually, in 1413, gaining the patronage of the other moiety, which by then was a rectory. Successive fellows of the college were given the rectory, while comparatively uneducated priests received the vicarage until the 17th century, when they tended to be Cambridge graduates. It is recorded that in 1406 there were four chaplains and chantry priests in the parish, indicating that the church was flourishing and, indeed, had become very much the hub of village social life. It was, after all the only place large enough to accommodate all the village!

The Middle Years

During the tremendous religious enthusiasm of the 15th century the building of the church as we know it today was completed, Bishop Alcock of Ely himself coming to consecrate the high altar in 1490. There would have been a mass every Sunday and on saint's days, while the chaplains would continue to say or sing their offices daily.

At the same time the church was used for many secular functions - feasts on saint's days, fetes, church ales (an alcoholic bazaar) , as a store, armoury and a place of business. Holy days of the church were public holidays.

Gamlingay had its own Guild of the Trinity (Guild Chapel), membership of which entitled villagers who paid their dues to the Guild to protection from infirmity and old age, and provided for funerals and masses for repose of their souls. The Guild employed its own priests and held its own property. The Guild Chapel was in the south transept.

Decline and Revival

"I like coming to Gamlingay church, you can feel the years of worship oozing out of the stone-work" Revd Bill Patterson

Altogether the 15th century was the best era for devotion of the people and the use of the church. Henry VIII soon put a stop to it all! After the dissolution of the monasteries and the break with Rome the church as a whole declined. Under the Elizabethan Settlement rules relaxed and by 1562 the Bishop of Ely discovered that neither the rector or the vicar resided in the parish of Gamlingay, the offices were non-existent and the people were deprived of their sacraments. He therefore started to appoint vicars, while the rectors presumably continued to reside in Oxford.

Things improved in the time of James I and Charles I, but the Puritans concentrated on hour long sermons, or, indeed, often longer, with no real liturgy at all. Then came the 1662 prayer book which concentrated on morning and evening prayer. Notice had to be given by the parishioners if they desired a service of Holy Communion, the result was Communion at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

The 19th century with the Oxford Movement began to bring the Church to a greater understanding of Christian worship and Christian living, and gradually over the 20th century the Holy Communion or Holy Eucharist was restored to the place it had held in the 15th century.

Thus in 1990, when the writer left this parish, we were worshipping far more in the way our ancestors worshipped when Bishop Alcock came. The Rood was restored above the screen, many candles were used to adorn the altars, the Blessed Sacrament was above all again housed in the sanctuary, and music with adequate ceremonial involved all the congregation in the worship of God.

The Rev. E. de T. W. Longford,
former Rector of Gamlingay.

Top of page