The United Benefice of Fen Drayton with Conington and Lolworth and Swavesey
The Parish Church of St Mary, Conington
CONINGTON is a parish in Cambridgeshire near the
town of Saint Ives. It lies to the south of the A14 road
between Cambridge and Huntingdon, in the Rural
Deanery of North Stowe and in the Archdeaconry and
Diocese of Ely. Its parish church has been dedicated to
Saint Mary certainly since 1465 and perhaps two
Confusion sometimes arises because there is a second
village called Conington lying to the south of
Peterborough in the former county of Huntingdonshire
but which is now also included in Cambridgeshire. The
church of All Saints in Conington near Peterborough is
in the care of the Redundant Churches Fund. The
ecclesiastical parish of this Conington is united with that
of Holme in the united benefice of Yaxley and Holme
The name Conington may derive from a personal or
tribal name 'Cuna' or it might come from the Anglo-
Saxon word for a 'king'. The suffix '-ton' originally
signified an enclosure and later a homestead or a
collection of dwellings. Conington might thus have been either 'Cuna's enclosure' or 'the King's enclosure'.
St Mary's Church
The Parish Church of Saint Mary is of unusual appearance, displaying three distinct styles. The oldest part of the present
church is the west tower, probably dating from the 14th century and built of stones collected from the village fields. Some
years after the tower was built, it was topped out with an octagonal spire rising to 29m. As built, the tower was only 3.2m
square but in the 18th century it was supplied with massive sloping red-brick buttresses because it was settling towards the
southwest, not having originally been built to bear the weight of the spire.
The church is entered from the west through the tower by way of a rusticated doorway dating from the time the nave was
rebuilt in 1736-7. Above the doorway is a broken pediment enclosing an oval window. There are still traces of an original
tower west window. The arch in the east wall of the tower between the tower and the nave is probably original to the building
of the tower.
There is a gallery in the tower from which the bells are rung. A balustrade to the gallery in the tower arch dates from about
1737 but is not in its original location.
By 1911 the tower had deteriorated into a dangerous
condition and a major work of strengthening and repair was
undertaken. The spire and weather-vane were also attended
to at this time.
By 1736 the nave of the mediaeval church had become
unsafe and so, together with the north and south aisles
which probably flanked it, it was demolished to make way for
the present brick-built nave. The moving light behind this
reconstruction was Dingley Askham of Conington Hall. The
nave is rectangular with three round-headed windows on
each side. As is common, green 'cathedral' glass is used for
the glazing on the south side, clear 'common' glass on the
The nave displays what has been described as 'the finest
collection of funerary monuments in East Anglia', including
the only known marble monument signed by Grinling
Gibbons (though there is similar work in All Saints',
Conington (Hunts)). The monuments commemorate several generations of the Cotton family who lived at Conington Hall.
Their surnames include Cotton, Askham and Gardner. Those commemorated are buried either in the nave itself or in a large
red-brick vault which was constructed on the site of the south aisle when the nave was rebuilt. It is curious to note that
another branch of the Cotton family owned the village of Conington near Peterborough in the late 17th and early 18th
The nave was refloored in 1870 and oak benches were supplied instead of the old pews. A thorough restoration in 1902
introduced the present wood-block floor and an oak and plaster ceiling.
The double-sided oak lectern dates from 1870. It rotates on a stand made in 1906. The oak pulpit was presented to the
church in 1873 in memory of the Revd J A Tillard, the Rector who had overseen the works of 1870, by members of his
The font, at the east end of the nave, replaced a far older font, now in the tower gallery, which had projected from the wall on
the north side, also in 1870.
Dingley Askham apparently frustrated an attempt by the then
Rector to reduce the mediaeval chancel to a mere 3.5m
square. But this chancel of three bays only survived into
Victorian times, being rebuilt on a slightly wider base by the
Rector, the Revd J A Tillard, in 1870. An organ chamber was
added to the south of the chancel at this time.
The east window has three lights, representing the
crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of our Lord. It was re-
leaded and restored in 1998.
One of the windows on the north side is made up of scraps of
glass from the east window of the old chancel and dating
from the 14th century and later. Each light includes the words
Vitrum antiquum hujus ecclesiæ, 'ancient glass of this
church'. Fragments of a 12th-century piscina are also extant.
The chancel was re-roofed in 1969 and the organ chamber
rebuilt in 1976.
The reredos is of alabaster and was designed by W M
Fawcett, architect of the 1870 chancel.
Thomas Brown, Rector from 1789 to 1829 (and third son of the landscape gardener, Lancelot ('Capability') Brown, of
Fenstanton) gave a small organ to St Mary's Church. This instrument, built by Elliot & Hill of London, did service until 1905.
This was then replaced by an instrument built by Jones & Sons of Upper Holloway. This has two manuals, a pedal organ
and six stops: 308 pipes in all, of wood and aluminium.
There are four bells of which the 2nd is possibly the oldest in Cambridgeshire, dating perhaps to between 1350 and 1390. It
is inscribed assumpta : est : maria : in : celum : gaudent : angeli : landantes : benedicunt : do[minum] and may have been
cast by William Brasier of Norwich. The 1st (treble) and 4th (tenor) bells also date from pre-Reformation times (second half
of the 15th century) and seem to have been cast at Bury St Edmunds. The treble inscription reads Sancta · Maria · Ora ·
Pro · Nobis and that on the tenor Virgo : Coronata : Duc : Nos : Ad : Regna : Beata. Both these bells were recast by Warmer
of London in 1911 when the oak bell frame was also renewed. The 3rd is inscribed: Milo Graye me fecit 1635.
Lych-gate and Churchyard
The church is surrounded by the churchyard which was last
enlarged in 1906 with the purchase of land from an adjoining field
belonging to the Trustees of the [Conington] Town Lands Charity.
A lych-gate, designed by Aston Webb, was erected in 1892 at the
entrance to the churchyard. From there an avenue of twelve yews
(representing the twelve apostles) leads to the west door. One of
the gravestones, part hidden behind one of the apostles, bears the
emblems of the Passion of our Lord, but is popularly believed to
mark the resting place of the mason who built the spire and who,
despairing of ever being able to point it straight to heaven, jumped
from the tower parapet, landing at this spot. Together with the
church itself and the lych-gate, this gravestone is the third item in
the churchyard to have listed-building status.
The ancient plate of the parish, comprising a silver chalice of 1696,
a silver chalice with lid (from 1570) and a silver paten, is all on
permanent loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
The parish of Conington has remained a rectory since mediaeval times, the right to appoint the parish priest (the advowson)
having been given to the Bishop of Ely in 1283. The advowson passed to the Crown by exchange in 1903, the adjoining
parish of Knapwell having been added to the benefice in 1902. This arrangement continued until 1933/4 when the parish of
Knapwell was transferred to Elsworth and a new united benefice formed of Fen Drayton with Conington. The Rectory house
was subsequently sold into private use and later demolished.
Today, the parish forms part of the united benefice of Fen Drayton with Conington and Lolworth and Swavesey and is in the
cure of the Revd Dr John-David Yule who resides at The Vicarage in Fen Drayton. A service of worship is held in St Mary's
Church each Sunday at a time which varies on a monthly cycle. The parish is administered by its Churchwardens and
Parochial Church Council whose aim is to keep the parish church at the centre of village life - to the glory of God and the
salvation of his people.
This compilation ©1997-2000 by John-David Yule
References: The Parish of Conington in the Diocese of Ely by the Revd M Steinman Kemmis, Rector 1911 (MSS)
Victoria History of the Counties of England: Cambridgeshire Volume ix 1989
Royal Commission on the historic Monuments of England, West Cambridgeshire 1968
The choir, looking west
The emblems of the Passion
St Mary’s, Conington
The nave, looking east