The Parish Church of St Andrew in Swavesey is situated at the north end of the village of Swavesey on a low gravel ‘island’. It is separated from the centre of the village of Swavesey by the ‘Navigation Drain’, which formerly allowed shipping to reach the mediaeval town of Swavesey from the River Ouse.
It is not known when a church was first established at Swavesey, but a list of the churches of the Diocese of Dorchester from the year 996 does refer to such a church. The existence of an earthen bank around the whole church and manor house site has led some to speculate that there may have been a religious community at Swavesey from at least the middle Saxon period. Others have suggested that a minster church was established at Swavesey in the years before 1066. A minster church would have a college of clergy offering ministry in a number of nearby villages.
Immediately before the conquest of 1066, the manor of Swavesey was in the possession of a noblewoman called Edith the Fair. After the conquest, William I granted the village to Alan of Brittany who in turn gave the Church of Swavesey and the tithe income of various other villages in the district to the Benedictine Abbey of St Sergius and St Bacchus in Angers, France. Swavesey thus became an “alien (i.e., foreign-held) priory”. This priory, which had been established before the ‘Domesday’ survey of 1086, changed hands a number of times in the turbulent years of the 14th century before the right to appoint the Prior was finally transferred to newly founded Carthusian Priory of St Anne in Coventry in 1393. The Priory of Swavesey remained with the religious community of St Anne until this was suppressed in 1539.
It is unlikely that there was ever a large monastic community in Swavesey and the priory buildings would consequently have been distinctly modest in scale. Indeed, it is possible that that from the late 13th century there were no longer any monks at Swavesey other than the Prior, who himself may not generally have been resident. The pastoral care of the parish had been entrusted to a Vicar by the mid 13th century. After 1701, the right to appoint the Vicar was exercised by Jesus College, Cambridge.
The church building
The church today is a roughly rectangular building comprising a nave with north and south aisles, a tower at the west end with north and south aisles, and at the east end a chancel with aisle and vestry on the north side and a lady chapel on its south side. There is also a south porch. The font is in the south aisle adjacent to the tower. A choir vestry occupies the north tower aisle. An organ occupies the north chancel aisle.
Little if anything recognisable remains of the church which probably stood on this site before the Norman conquest of 1066. The nave is markedly broader at the tower end than at the chancel arch, and this may reflect the lay-out of an earlier building. Two adze-cut stones which can be seen in the lady chapel at the south-west corner of the chancel may represent the work of Saxon masons.
The nave of the earlier church was rebuilt soon after 1200, originally with narrow lean-to aisles. These extended westward to embrace the tower which dates from about the same time. The chapel to the south of the chancel was probably built later in the first half of the 13th century, possibly to house the tombs of the Zouche family who acquired the manor of Swavesey in the 12th century. In the south wall of the chapel, just to the right of the much later sedilia, can be seen part of an arch which perhaps once spanned a recess containing one such tomb.
Some time about 1300, the south aisle was widened so that it became the same width as the chapel and the south porch was built. The vault beneath the porch, now occupied by tombs of the Dodson family, may originally have been the charnel house, or perhaps a further Zouche family vault. A little later, the chancel was extended east to align with the end of the chapel, the chancel piscina and sedilia dating from this time. A curiosity is that the central transoms of the windows in the south aisle are markedly more ornate than the upper and lower parts of the same windows and may represent a “stretching” of these windows at about the same period. Major rebuilding took place in the 15th century when the nave was rebuilt with the present clerestory. At about the same time the north chancel aisle (now occupied by the organ) and the vestry were added. Also, new windows were put in the north aisle, the tower, the chancel, the west end of the south aisle and the east end of the chapel. The present sedilia and piscina in the chapel also date from this period. The 15th-century nave arches are of very graceful and slender construction, the columns being based on an oval rather than a circular section.
The present nave and aisle roofs date from the 15th and 16th centuries, although repairs have been necessary at various times since. A tie beam at the extreme west end of the south aisle is dated 1629. A mason’s mark belonging to the Mitham family, still resident in the village, can be found on the tower buttresses rebuilt in 1747.
A major restoration of the church was necessary by the mid 19th century and this was undertaken in 1866-7 under the direction of G E Street. The east window of the lady chapel was modified at this time, perpendicular tracery being replaced by five simple lancet openings. A choir vestry was built in the north tower aisle in 1911 and the tower again restored in 1913.
One of the most striking features of the church is the “poppy-head” bench ends which are decorated with many kinds of real and fabulous beasts. There are over 120 designs. Those on the small benches now in the north aisle date perhaps from the 15th century; most of those in the body of the church and the south aisle are 19th-century copies of the originals. Similarly, the stalls and misericords in the choir date from the late 19th century, although some much older carving may have been incorporated into the 19th-century work. The re-use of old wood can be observed behind the curate’s stall in the north-west corner of the chancel.
Little if any of the glass in the church is pre-Reformation, though some mediaeval and Georgian glass may have been incorporated into the north aisle and clerestory lights. The east window in the chancel, partly obscured by the 19th century stone reredos of the crucifixion, was repaired in the mid 1930s at which time the central stained glass panel of the risen Christ in glory, to a design of Francis Skeat, was included. The east window of the lady chapel contains fine modern glass in a “Jesse window” design. This was dedicated in 1967 in memory of the Cole family, for many years farmers in the district.
On the south wall of the lady chapel is an elaborate monument to Anne Kempe, Lady Cutt (d.1631) thought to have been designed by Nicholas Stone, court mason to Charles I. Close by, in the south aisle proper, is a small window, the origin and purpose of which are unknown.
The turret clock and organ date from 1894, the latter having been extensively restored in the early 1980s. In modern times (and before 2003), six bells hung in the tower, five of which were last recast in 1753-5. They were rehung in a steel frame in 1932. In 2003 the ring was augmented with two further bells.
A wooden chest in the south aisle near the south porch was given in 1876 in remembrance of the help given to the inhabitants of Swavesey from the Mansion House Inundations Relief Fund during the “great floods” of 1875.
The registers of the parish dating back to 1576 are retained in the church in a specially constructed document cabinet.
Fragments of at least three stone coffins unearthed during works in Station Road, Swavesey, can be seen in the churchyard adjacent to the tower. The “five acre” field to the north of the church contains the remains of earthworks associated with the mediaeval priory. The former vicarage, to the west of the church and built in 1865, is now in private hands.
Revd John-David Yule