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 centuries earlier.
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 with Conington.
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.
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 north.
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 centuries.
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 family.
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. 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