Monday, 12 September 2011

Litlington, Cambridgeshire

St Catherine is charming and contains one of the most interesting pieces of graffiti to be seen round these parts.

The inscription, measuring about 11 x 6 inches, is in the Lady Chapel on the left jamb of the window to the east of the south door. Although it records the impending departure of Sir Francis Drake on what was to be his final voyage, no local connection can be established; translated from the original Latin it reads:

Francis Drake, Knight, about to set sail in the thirty seventh year of the reign of the most august and serene prince, Elizabeth, Queen, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, Defender of The Faith 1595.

An addition reads:

The same always, Always the same, John Sherman, April the tenth.

During the 16th century the Sherman family were living at Huntingfields Manor, opposite the present Crown public house, and the Bolnest (or Bownest) family at Dovedales Manor, which is now Bury Farm, on the road to Abington Piggotts. Both families, which were related, bought up all the saleable land in the village.

John Sherman, the Steward of the Manor, the son of a prosperous yeoman, was also a very successful farmer, but was said to be a grasping man and much feared by his neighbours for his obstinate behaviour and that, as Lord of the Manor, he manipulated the Court proceedings through the jurors. He rented the Rectory lands and took the tithes but enjoyed his own lands free, until he gave up the lease on favourable terms in 1592.

George Bolnest acquired land in 1595 at Huntingfields from his impecunious cousin Robert, but in 1597 John Sherman blocked the sale of further land by his then bankrupt son-in-law. He no doubt blamed his son-in-law’s financial position on him spending too long at sea - or he could have given money to help finance Drake’s voyages.

Robert Bownest (or Bolnest) may have been one of the crew of the 27 ships that sailed in August 1595. The intention was to harry the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean, but due to interminable delays and wrangling as to whether Drake or Hawkins was in command, there was ample time for the news to reach Madrid, and the West Indies were made impregnable to the English.  As a result  not only did the expedition fail but both Drake and Hawkins died of dysentery in the following January, along with many of the members of their crews.

John Sherman died in 1599, having transferred his manor to his son, William, in 1597, so even if Robert was on that fateful voyage in late 1595, it is possible that his father-in-law was too old or ill to record his fate or his safe return by the time it was known in the village.

ST CATHERINE. W tower with lancet windows below and Dec bell-openings. Chancel with a lancet window on the S side and several later windows. Blocked Norman N doorway into the chancel. On the S side traces of a former S chapel. The clerestory of the church is clearly Dec, and that prepares for the much greater interest of the interior. Several Perp windows, including the five-light E window (renewed). The interior is Dec. The S arcade is of five bays with the characteristic quatrefoil piers with thin intermediate shafts and arches consisting of chamfers and a quarter-circle. Hood-moulds with head-stops. But the N arcade runs like this only for three bays, then there is a strip of wall, and then two bays with octagonal piers and arches with two quarter-circles.* The difference between the two designs can be seen most clearly in the two head-stops meeting at close quarters on the strip of wall. The later W head is bearded and dignified, the earlier younger head is decidedly perky, a young woman wearing a wimple. She is bridled, and the tight chin-strap and nose-strap break at sharp angles accentuating the angles of the face. The quatrefoil arcades are repeated in the design of the chancel arch. - FONT. Octagonal with angels at the foot, angels carrying shields on the underside of the bowl. The bowl is shallow and has a fleuron frieze - quite an individual design. - PULPIT. Perp on trumpet-stem. Tall panels with leaf spandrels, and buttresses between. - ROOD SCREEN. With one-light divisions. Ogee arches and bits of tracery above. - PLATE. Chalice and Cover of 1677.

* The s doorway also has two quarter-circle mouldings.

Corbel (3)

Francis Drake (2)


LITLINGTON. Here is a thrilling piece of news of 400 years ago, scratched in Latin on the stonework of a window in the church.  These few faintly seen words tell us that Francis Drake was about to set sail on the voyage which took him round the world and marked the start of England’s greatest adventures on the sea. In 1580 he returned, to be knighted by Elizabeth at Deptford, having circled the world in three years.

A thousand years before that many adventurers from overseas had settled at Litlington. Under Limlow Hill they lie, buried with invaders of still earlier days, and many more were laid to rest near the church, the bones of one unknown soldier being found beneath a little heap of Roman coins. One of these Romans had a handsome residence here, and we have seen fragments of his tesserae floor in the Cambridge Geological Museum.

The lower part of the church tower recalls invaders of a later day, for it is Norman. The upper part was finished in the 13th century, when the nave arcades were built with clustered pillars and heads of women in quaint square headdresses. More heads look out from the ancient south doorway, and angels and lions are round the medieval font. In the roof are left some of the old bosses carved with flowers and heads, and one with a brass Crucifixion showing Mary and John. The chief interest of the oak screen spanning the noble chancel arch is its age, for it is earlier than most of our ancient screens, coming from about 1400. A broken stone coffin with its lid is outside by the tower.

Many a prisoner must have looked through the iron grille of the old lock-up, a red brick cell. Here during the Commonwealth came a Puritan priest who preached himself into prison over and over again. He was Francis Holcroft, who started his ministry as a voluntary priest here. He was ejected from Bassingbourn, but in spite of constant imprisonments he had preached in nearly every village in Cambridgeshire before he died worn out at an early age, having done more than any other man in this county to promote independent religious thought.


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