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The Church of St Mary the Virgin in Marholm

The Church of St Mary the Virgin in Marholm


Chapter 17


Marholm Church sits in a field on the southern fringes of the village, and is shaded by massive Cedars of Lebanon that date from the 18th Century. Around the churchyard is a most attractive Ha-Ha, to keep out intrusive cattle. The Church may be reached on foot from Church Walk or by car from Castor Road, across the cattle grid and along the track leading to Home Farm.


**********************PIC 17a.****Marholm church exterior ***********************


It is a small cellular linear church with a massive squat Norman tower capped by a small pyramid spire. The short Early English nave has an early perpendicular clerestory and Victorian North and South aisles. The whole Church is dominated, however, by the grand late perpendicular chancel built by Sir William Fitzwilliam in 1534. The tower and chancel are faced with ashlar, whilst the nave and clerestory are built of rubble masonry with ashlar dressings. The flat nave and chancel roofs are leaded with stone parapets, and those of the tower and chancel are embattled. The aisle roofs are covered with Colleyweston slates. [1]


Early History

The Church was founded in 1140, and dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. [2]  A chantry in the church founded in 1367 by the Lord of the Manor, Sir William of Thorpe, was dedicated to St Guthlac. This has sometimes led to confusion over the name, perpetuated in a Church inventory even as late as the 20th century. A list of Rectors exists from 1217. (See Appendix Three). The advowson has always been with the Lord of the Manor and has consequently passed through the families of Waterville, Thorpe, Wittlebury and, from 1503, Fitzwilliam.


The history of the church describes a cycle of decay and renewal, with major rebuilding or refurbishment in the late 13th century, after a serious fire, in 1534, when Sir William Fitzwilliam built the beautiful chancel, and  in 1868, with the extensive restoration by the Fitzwilliam family in memory of the fifth Earl.


The Tower

The West tower is reputed to be the oldest part of the church, built between 1180-90. It is low, with clasping buttresses on each side and arched slit windows, deeply splayed, which reveal the thickness of the walls. [3] The beams of the belfry have been well restored, with one 34 inch bell set in oak frame. It is inscribed:


An inventory of the goods taken 23rd September 1552 states that at that time there were ‘ij bells and a sctus bell yn ye steple’. [4].

********************* PIC17b.*** West tower*************************************


The tower arch into the nave is a mixture of old and modern masonry. The arch itself was restored in 1868 and consists of two square cut rows of masonry. The half round pillars with crocket capitals supporting the arch are from about the 13th Century. [5]Above the curtains screening the tower arch is a length of medieval wood carved with roses that is Tudor, or possibly earlier, and probably all that remains of the medieval Rood Screen.


Further up the West wall in the nave is a curious stone figure carved as the top half of a man with his right hand raised, and a book in his left hand. The Victorian County History of Northampton of 1906 suggests that this may be a roof corbel asthe top of the figure is on the same plane as the top of the chancel arch, and both could have supported the timbers of the pre-clerestory pitched roof. On the south side of the nave at both ends and level with the tops of the arches is part of a ledge which marks the top of the old nave walls, and on which the roof would have rested. [6]


*******************************PIC 17c. The Font********************************


The Font

The 14th Century octagnol stone font is based on the style of a Norman table font, on a short central stem with four smaller shafts. In the 17th Century the bowl was decorated on each side with a rosette and leaf design. [7]


The Nave

During the 13th Century the nave was built with arcades of three bays. At the end of the century the whole church, except for the tower, was destroyed by fire, and subsequently rebuilt with a chancel, nave and two aisles. The pillars in the nave, resembling clusters of four columns with relatively simple moulded capitals on which the pointed arches are set, date from that time. [8]Most of the nave masonry is ancient, but part of the chancel arch was restored in 1868.At the side of the chancel arch against the half-pillars are the marks showing where a screen was at one time attached.


********************************PIC 17d. The Nave and Clesterory***********************


The clerestory dates from the 15th Century and provides a window over each arch of the nave arcade. The windows on the South side are considerably longer than those on the North, reaching down almost to the points of the arches. Each window consists of three cinquefoiled lights fewer than four centred heads. [9]The roof is quite modern, probably from the late Victorian refurbishment.


The Aisles

The North and South aisles we see today, together with the South porch, are Victorian, and were built during the restoration of 1868. The original aisles were burnt and the outer walls pulled down sometime in the 16th Century. This probably followed the dissolution of the chantries in 1545. The nave arches were then blocked up and windows from the destroyed aisles were built into the blocking. The old South porch removed in 1868 was said to be Elizabethan, but poor. An Episcopal Visitation of 1570 recorded the sorry state of the church :

Marham. The glasse windows is in decay. The churchyard in ruyn. The last quarter sermon not discharged’.

The only surviving window from the original 13th Century aisles is in the East wall of the South aisle and is reputed to have been used as the pattern for all the other aisle windows. [10] It is a small window of two narrow pointed arched lights with a quatrefoil in the top between the points of the lights. The middle window in the North aisle is stained glass, which a small plaque identifies as dating from 1894.


***********************PIC 17e. Window in Lady Chapel**********************



The Organ

In 1895, by public subscription, the organ was built by Binns of Leeds. It comprises one manual and a straight pedal board. Although relatively small with only six ranks of pipes it has a very good tone and suits the building well. Set into the West wall of the North aisle, by the organ, is a 13th Century piscina. [11]


The Chancel

*****************************PIC 17f. The Chancel & East Window*********************


The chancel is built on a much larger scale than the rest of the church. It was started in 1534, in the grand perpendicular style, by the first Sir William Fitzwilliam and contains his family vault under the raised floor on which the altar stands. [12] It is believed that the other members of the family also occupy the vault. The chancel has been described as a magnificent light, airy structure, and disproportionately large, perhaps because it was built to serve as the pantheon of his posterity. [13] Sir William died in 1534, one year before the Reformation began, after which church building in England virtually ceased for one hundred years. It seems quite possible that, but for the uncertainties of the times, he intended to rebuild the entire church in a similar grand style.


The chancel has a large East window of five cinque-foiled lights with tracery under a four centred head, and a wealth of Fitzwilliam heraldic glass. Two four-light windows on the North wall and two on the South are of similar design and detail, with fragments in their borders of old painted glass, possibly from the 16th Century. [14] One of the windows on the South side displays the rebus of Abbot Robert Kirkton ( a church standing on a yellow tun, or barrel, embellished with a capital R). [15] He was Abbot of  Peterborough, 1496-1528.


Between the windows on the South side is a small, modern doorway with a four centred head. The buttresses to the chancel are placed diagonally against the corners where the North and South walls meet the East wall. One buttress bears graffiti dated from 1717 to 1785. The drain pipes on the East wall are dated 1713.


The 1868 restoration, costing £2000, is recorded on a plaque on the North wall, above the choir stalls in the chancel, and reads: ‘In remembrance of Charles William, 5th Earl Fitzwilliam born May 4th 1786, died Oct 4th 1857 and this church was restored in 1868 by the surviving members of his family.’



************************PIC 17g. Tomb of  Sir John  Wittlebury***************************


In the East end of the South aisle is the effigy of a knight in full armour with his head resting on a tilting helmet and his feet on a lion. It is believed to be the effigy of Sir John Wittlebury, Lord of the Manor during the reign of Henry IV, and the Knight who fought at Agincourt. The effigy is thought to date from 1410. The tomb was restored in 1868, and the effigy mounted on an altar tomb with an attractive carved frieze of little animals. Prior to that, the effigy rested in an arched recess, with the early 18th Century coat of arms of  Sir William Fitzwilliam, the first Earl of Southampton, above it, but the style and armour of the effigy is clearly three hundred years earlier. [16]


***********************PIC 17h. Eng. of effigy in recessed arch******************


John Bridges recorded in 1791 that around the edge of an old stone in the church-yard, moved out of the chancel, was the following inscription:-

Hic jacet Johannes Wiyttylbyri qui obit viii die Maii, Ao. Dni Millmo. CCCC cujus aie ppicietur Deus. Amen’

From Bridges’ comment it seems likely that the effigy and memorial stone were removed from the old chancel when it was rebuilt as the mausoleum of the Fitzwilliam family. [17]


As the chancel was built towards the end of the pre-Reformation period, there are few medieval remains. The earliest monument, in the North-East corner, is to the builder, Sir William Fitzwilliam, and his wife, dated 1534. Sir William was an Alderman of London and Treasurer to Cardinal Wolsey. The canopied marble altar tomb is typical of its kind in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries, and may also have served as an Easter Sepulchre. At the back, below the canopy, are the kneeling brass figures of Sir William and his wife. The inscription on the tomb reads:

‘Syr Wylliam Fitzwyllyams knight decessed the ix day of August in the xxvi yere of Or SoveraynLorde Kyng Henry the VIII in Amo Dni M cccccxxxiiii, and lyeth beuried under thys tombe’.

It was damaged, possibly during the Civil War, and bears a brass plate recording its repair in 1674.


****************************PIC 17i. Tomb of Sir Wm. Fitz>****************************


In the South-East corner of the chancel is a fine monument to commemorate his grandson, also Sir William, who died in 1599, and his wife Anne, the daughter of Sir William Sydney. Sir William is represented in armour, and holds his wife’s hand.


***********PIC 17j. Tomb of Couple hand in hand Sir Wm & Lady Anne Ftz.************


Next to them is a monument to Edward Hunter, alias Perry, a son of Lady Fitzwilliam, who died in 1646. The white marble portrait bust is surmounted by a tall black obelisk, with the inscription:

Grassante bello civili.

To the courteous souldier.

Noe Crucifix you see, noe Frighjtful Brand

Of sup’tition’s here. Pray let me stand’.


*************************PIC17k. Black Obelisk*********************************


Between the two windows on the North wall is a magnificent  memorial to William, Third Earl Fitzwilliam and his wife, dated 1719.The sculptor was James Fisher of Camberwell, for the sum of £900. As the tomb stands today, only the central portion with the main figures survives. It is clear, however, not only from Bridges’ text description in 1791, but also from a description in 1810 by Britton and Brayley, and again in a reference by the Reverend Sweeting published in 1868, that the tomb was originally much larger, with two side panels, as in the engraving. Most probably the side sections were removed in the restoration in 1868.


*********************PIC Fisher sculpture 17l.           ************************

******************ditto early ENGRAVING 17m.  *****************************


The panels of the reredos are covered by a decorative green cloth. Jim Baldwin – former churchwarden and organist, and devoted member of  the church for many years – recounts that this is to protect the cracking wood and some very old inscriptions of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, dating possibly from Elizabethan times. The pews and pulpit are all modern, and there is no trace of the medieval arrangements. [18]


Sweeting records that in 1860 there was a decaying fresco on the West wall of the nave which extended over the ancient blocking of the tower arch. This depicted St Catherine, St Andrew and one other unknown woman, and also showed clearly the line of the old pre-clerestory pitched roof. Unfortunately this did not survive the 1868 restoration. [19]


The Church and the Village

Marholm has always been a small village set in a rural parish – there were only 15 houses in 1791. The parishioners did not have the wealth to emulate many nearby parishes and raise a spire on the tower. The effort expended to raise the funds needed to improve the lighting by building the clerestory must have been considerable, and over a lengthy period. The medieval peasant was illiterate. His knowledge of doctrine was often gained from images in the church and the somewhat lurid wall pictures that stressed the horrors and anguish of Purgatory and Hell. This was set against the mediation and compassion of the Virgin and the Saints. This type of learning as opposed to intellectual understanding meant that much of their faith, which was very real to them, was based on their emotions. These emotions were important in persuading many villagers to be generous to their village church. [20]


Was it only fear that encouraged so many parishioners to give to their church? There was certainly considerable anxiety regarding the fate of their souls, but also a measure of communal identity which encouraged them to present their community in the best possible light before their near neighbours. Purgatory, the place and state of souls between death and final judgement, was a very real and fearful place to them. Thomas Aquinas expounded that the guilt of venial sin is expiated immediately after death by an act of perfect charity. Suffering must still be undergone, but would be eased by the prayers of the faithful. [21] The concept of Purgatory was responsible for considerable excesses and abuses of doctrine in the Middle Ages, but it was also an incentive for the beautifying and equipping of parish churches such as Marholm.


Church building counted as a charitable work. The wealthy built chantries and endowed them with income plus the commitment to say prayers for their soul. Marholm had two chantries – one, as mentioned, to St Guthlac, founded by Sir William Thorpe and Dame Anne in 1367, and the other by the Sir William Fitzwilliam who rebuilt the chancel. [22]


From the poorer people, considerable income was probably raised by parish celebrations such as plays, and collections or gifts in kind. [23]Unfortunately, Marholm churchwarden records have not survived from the medieval period.


Bequests were especially important. A gift to the church in which you had been baptised was customary. [24]  Some of the bequests to Marholm in the early 16th Century  include:-


Robert Wyttylbury 1506 – ‘ I will that incontynente after the deth of my wif the church of

                  Marholm have vj bokes, that is to saye a masse boke, an antyfoner, a manuell, a

                 processionary, an ordinall & a Legenda Sanctorum to remayne in the

                 said church of Marham.’


Alyes Bucchere 1513 ‘ I bequeth to saynt Gutlace a tawell” I bequeth my best coverlet  to

                Marham chyrch and a flaxon schette.’


Richard Wildbor 1522 – ‘ To ye rode light & sepulchre light a sem (of) barley”

             “ To ye torchys a sem ( of) barley.’ [25]                  


Recent Times



The Church in Marholm today continues to play a vibrant role in the community, and not only through the inevitable cycle of birth, marriage and death There is a continuous need for preservation and refurbishment to which the parishioners have responded. In the spring of 1996, at an Ecumenical Festal Evensong, the renovated Lady Chapel was dedicated by the Archdeacon of Oakham, Bernard Fernyhough, assisted by the Rector William Burke and Father Peter Rollings, the Roman Catholic priest at The Church of the Holy Spirit, Bretton. The altar was presented by Noel Darby of Manor Farm in memory of his mother Eleanor Darby, who was Church Warden for some fifty years. The Gift Book and Stand were given by his wife Joan in memory of infant Noelle. The Votive Tray for candles was given by Fay Jarvis of Home Farm. The blue hanging lamp was a gift from Father Rollings and the Roman Catholic congregation of the Holy Spirit parish at Bretton. Sir Stephen Hastings, husband of the Hon. Lady Hastings, presented a 17th Century Italian picture of Our Lady and Child, which had for some years belonged to his family.


Following the untimely death in 1997 of  Lady Hastings, the daughter of the last Countess Fitzwilliam, her husband placed a plaque in her memory on the South wall of the chancel, and above the High Altar, an 18th century Venetian silver sanctuary light. Although Lady Hastings was Roman Catholic, she regularly worshipped in Marholm Church.


********************PIC 17n. Lady Hastings Plaque***************************


The kneelers in the Church have been given by many of the parishioners in memory of friends and family. The nine wrought-iron candelabra were given by John and Gina Hill in celebration of their Ruby wedding anniversary. The green brocade curtains screening the tower arch were given by his family in memory of Leonard Brown. The Processional Cross carved by Glyn Mould was presented by Mary Jarvis in memory of her husband Toby.


The Church continues to inspire the community. The ladies’ sewing circle made beautiful silk banners and pulpit cloths. An appeal for the reroofing of the church raised £15,000 from all kinds of sources,  small and large – coffee mornings and tombola were held in private homes and the village hall, and bring and buy sales swelled the coffers. In September 2001 there was huge support for a wonderful Flower Festival, when professional and amateur enthusiasts gave their services to decorate the church. Over the centuries, the church must have witnessed many celebrations, but it is difficult to imagine that it could ever have looked more glorious than on that day. The  work on the roof was completed in 2002.


************************PIC 17o. Church Laity *****************************


**********************PIC 17 p.   Plan of Church*************

Hazel Yates and Andrea Bone


We have drawn heavily in this chapter on a detailed history of our church written in 1995 by Mr. RS Edwards, of Bretton We are most grateful to him for allowing us to use his work  



The Victorian County History of Northampton  Vol 2 1906  p 500

Colin Platt   The Parish Churches of Medieval England 1981 p 8

3  Leaflet prepared by Robert Walker forthe visit of the Cambridgeshire Historic Churches Trust in 1990

4  Rev. WD Sweeting Parish Churches in and around Peterborough 1860 pp 3 and 8

The Victorian County History of Northampton  Vol 2  1906 p 501

6   ibid.

7   ibid.

8   Rev WD Sweeting Parish Churches in and around Peterborough 1860 p 5

9   Leaflet prepared by Robert Walker for the visit of the Cambridgeshire Historic Churches Trust in 1990

10   ibid.

11  The Victorian County History of Northampton Vol 2 1906 p 500

12   ibid.

13   The Correspondence of Lord Fitzwilliam and Francis Guybon his Steward 1697-1709 1990 p 18

14    The Victorian County History of Northampton Vol 2  1906 p501

15    John Bridges The History of Northamptonshire 1791 Vol 2 p 518mbgh

16    The Victorian County History of Northampton Vol 2 1906 p 501

17    John Bridges The History of Northamptonshire 1791 Vol 2 p 516

18    The Victorian County History of Northampton Vol 2  1906 p501

19    Rev. WD Sweeting  Parish Churches in and around Peterborough 1860 p 7

20    Hughes & Hatcher Medieval England – Rural Society and Economic Change 1086-1348 1978 pp 108-9

21    Richard Morris Churches in the Landscape 1989 pp 360-1

22    Rev. WD Sweeting Parish Churches in and around Peterborough 1860 p 1

23    RN Swanson  The Church and Society in Late Medieval England  1993 p 28

24    Richard Morris Churches in the Landscape 1989 p 356

25    The Parish Churches and Religious Houses of Northampton  pp 145-6






We are most grateful to Tracy Blackmore for taking the photographs.


Fig 17a.  Marholm Church with the Cedars of Lebanon

Fig 17b. The West Tower

Fig 17c. The Font and Rood Screen Carving

Fig 17d. The Nave and Clesterory

Fig 17e. The Lady Chapel, showing the original 13th Century window

Fig 17f. The Chancel and East Window

Fig 17g. Tomb of Sir John Wittlebury  

Fig 17h. Engraving of Effigy of Sir John Wittlebury in recessed arch

Fig 17i. Tomb of Sir William Fitzwilliam

Fig 17j. Tomb of Sir William Fitzwilliam and Lady Anne

Fig 17k. Tomb of Edward Hunter

Fig 17l. Tomb of 3rd Earl Fitzwilliam by Fisher

Fig 17m. Engraving of original Fisher Sculpture

Fig 17n. The Hon. Lady Hastings’ Memorial Plaque

Fig 17o. Church Laity. L toR : Fay Jarvis (cross), Dora Hooper (server), William Craven (churchwarden), Roy Armitage (former churchwarden) , Sir Stephen Hastings(former patron),  Rodney Yates (former churchwarden), Enid Johnston (churchwarden), Gina Hill (verger).

Fig 17p. The Plan of the Church