The Parish Church of St Mary in Fen Drayton is a living church with an active congregation which meets for worship every Sunday and engages in the life of the parish community. The mission of the church is to offer a place where God may be found and worshipped within the parish of Fen Drayton and to promote faith in Jesus Christ among the parishioners.
The church of St Mary in Fen Drayton is a grade 2* listed building with a long and interesting history. The present church is mainly of 14th- and 15th- century pebble rubble construction, but stands on the site of earlier church buildings perhaps dating back to before the Norman Conquest. An interesting outline of the history of St Mary’s is revealed in the List of Rectors which hangs in the south aisle. These records date from 1232 but there must have been other priests before then whose names are unknown.
In 1232 the patron (the person who appointed the Rector of the parish) was the King, though by 1272 patronage rested with the Abbot and Convent of Bon Repos in Brittany. In 1343 the crown had recovered the rights of patronage on account of The Hundred Years’ War in France and for reasons of state this arrangement was made permanent by Act of Parliament in 1415.
In 1447 the advowson (the right to nominate the parish priest) was transferred by letters patent to Godshouse (later to become Christ’s College), Cambridge; and to this was added the benefice (the right to receive the tithes of the parish) in 1520. The college was not required to endow a vicarage and for most of the time from then until the 1930s, the parish was served (if at all) by curates appointed by the college and only rarely licensed by the bishop of the diocese. Meanwhile, the college retained the whole of the rectorial tithes.
Today Christ’s College retains the patronage although from 1933 St Mary’s, Fen Drayton was in a united benefice with St Mary’s, Conington. The parish now forms part of the United Benefice of Fen Drayton with Coningon and Lolworth and Swavesey, although the vicar of this benefice still lives in Fen Drayton. Christ’s College takes turns with the patrons of the other parishes in appoint the parish priest.
The Chancel has an unusual double piscina and double sedilia dating from an earlier 13th-century building. On the north wall there is a singular splayed opening (now blocked). The purpose of such ‘squints’ is now unknown but they would seem to have formed a spyhole for those who were for some reason excluded from the church itself. Nicholas Pevsner asks ‘can it be Saxon?’
The dado of the 14th-century rood screen across the chancel arch survives and bears traces of the brilliant colours in which it must have been painted before the Reformation. A panel from the screen also survives and is hung in the south aisle.
The Nave has four 14th-century arches with octagonal piers and moulded caps. The windows on the north side are 15th-century in the perpendicular style. Those in the south aisle are earlier, in the decorated style. The 14th-century font would originally have been built onto one of the piers.
The organ was given in 1980 by the Friends of St Mary’s and was originally in the Methodist Church, Rickmansworth.
There is a single bell, though this hangs in an old wooden bell-frame with spaces for three. It was cast in Cambridge and hung here in 1828. Today this bell is only chimed and is never rung full circle.
The older registers of the parish are deposited in the County Record Office at the Shire Hall, Cambridge. Registers date from 1576 (Baptisms), 1580 (Marriages) and 1573 (Burials). These may now be inspected in a transcription undertaken by the Cambridgeshire Family History Society.
There are records of the Johnson family belonging to the church which trace the residence of that family in the village of Fen Drayton at least as long ago as 1598.
Many old Cambridgeshire names appear on tombstones in the churchyard, including Pasheller, Daintree, Inglett and Randall. The Cambridgeshire Family History Society has published a list of monumental inscriptions in St Mary’s Church and churchyard.
The Condition of the Building
Although it is believed that the fabric of St Mary’s, Fen Drayton is fundamentally sound, much of the building is in need of careful restoration.
The Parochial Church Council has planned a long-term programme of work to restore the building and bring its facilities up to a standard suitable for the needs of the parish in the twenty- first century. To this end, work to re-point the walls of the aisle and chancel and repair the parapets continues in 2008.