All Saints Church stands on a hill formed from a dome of chalk rising up
through the surrounding clay. It can be seen for miles around and, because
of its visibility, it is likely that some sort of structure has been on the
site from very early times, possibly some sort of fortified structure or
Its very prominence makes it almost inevitable that a church would have been built here even, as is thought, a pagan temple may have been on the site. At the time a church would not normally have been built on pagan ground.
The church is built of coursed ironstone, an iron rich sandstone with a mineral giving a greenish colour which darkens to brown on exposure to light. Known as greensand, it comes from the Greensand Ridge, to the north of the village, which extends across Bedfordshire.
Although there are some references to a church dedicated by St Birinus (who died on 3 December 649) no verifiable records exist. The church was probably founded by Bishop ETHERIC (Aethelric) (see the 'Village and its past' page for more information) who developed it under the rule of Ramsey Abbey to become the largest and most influential in the area. The church remained in Ramsey’s possession until 1536 (the Dissolution of the Monasteries) when it passed to Trinity College Cambridge until 1927. It then passed to the Bishopric of St Albans.
Ramsey Abbey built a large church on the hill. It was far larger than the village merited and by its size and location became a landmark and a 'prestige' edifice for Ramsey Abbey. By 1400 it had become a Collegiate church with 6-8 priests who served the surrounding parishes. They lived in a brotherhood house (possibly the house below the church to the east). It was used for worship and had a crypt possibly to house a holy relic. No records exist to say what the relic could have been. It was the largest church in the area and would have been an imposing site surmounting the hill.
This original Saxon church was replaced during the 13th century by large Norman church. The actual shape and size of earlier Saxon church is not known - no pictures or descriptions exist but there is still some evidence cited on an architects drawing of 1896 of the original Saxon stonework at the west end and in the core of some of the chancel arches. It has a crypt but there is a mystery as to when it was built and for what purpose. It may have been to house the relic but the dating is doubtful. It may have been dug when the Norman church was built for structural reasons - but no-one is really sure.
Almost immediately, the newly built Norman church became unusable and needed extensive rebuilding. Possibly the structure had become unstable or some sort of collapse occurred. Some say that the crypt caused some weakness. Whatever the reason, at the end of the 1290s the building of the present structure was started. Although outbreaks of the Black Death would have disrupted building, it was finished in about 1370. Other problems seem to have arisen. Work on the chancel proceeded normally; the clergy were responsible for that area; but it was necessary in 1333 for the Bishop of Lincoln to order the parishioners to pay for the completion of the repair of the nave roof.
Because there is no significant architectural reference to the original church, we now have a unique edifice, built in the Decorated style, which has changed very little from the original.
However, there was yet another major problem with the structure towards the end of building. The east wall collapsed in 1360.
The church you see now is little altered from the rebuilt C14 building - mainly repairs rather than modification. Over the years the stone has been damaged and eroded by the weather, a relatively small amount of graffiti, and masonry bees!. The Victorian repairs, while sometimes controversial, have at least enabled the building to survive.
The porch is part of the 1370 structure and originally had two stories. The upper storey was a 'muniment' room where the documents proving title to the Church were kept. Inside the porch one can still see the door and the remains of the steps which went up to the second story.
The tower was originally much taller but it was blown down in a major storm in 1701 and rebuilt in its present form in 1750. There is a stone plaque in the tower commemorating the rebuilding. The clock in the tower dates from 1839 and it cost £60 to build and install.
Apart from the names of the rectors (in an almost unbroken line from 1220 to the present) very little is known about the early history of the church but some knowledge of the religious practices of the time give an insight of how the church was used.
Inside the church there is immediately a sense of space and light. The nave is 90 feet long and 52 feet wide, and, at 70 feet, is very high for its period. It has two broad aisles and its two principal areas, the chancel and the nave are separated by a rood screen. There was probably a rood loft or beam holding an image of the crucifixion over the screen. An entrance to the loft can be seen in the wall at the north end of the screen.
The screen in All Saints' dates from the 13th century. At the time, the chancel and the nave would have been kept as separate domains, with the clergy entering through their own door (which can still be seen in the south wall) and the laity occupying the nave. The religious ceremonies would be in the chancel. The nave would have had no pews and the people would have been carrying on with their own activities as the services were being held.
It is unlikely they would have understood the services as they were in Latin. In any case it was common for there to be noise and bustle as the nave was an area for social interaction as well. The floors were stone with rushes and straw scattered to give some warmth. It would have been muddy and probably very cold in winter. There were possibly some ledges or benches around the sides of the church where the old and infirm could rest if necessary. The phrase 'the weak to the wall' may have come from this practice. Some of the wooden benches on the north side of the church may be from this period. Everyone had to attend Mass every day and High Mass on Sundays even though they had little idea of what was going on.
The building would have been very ornate. It is likely that the walls would have been painted and there are records showing that there were many lights and tabernacles (small altars) where lamps would have been lit for the Saints (candles would have been too expensive). In 1500 there were at least thirteen recorded. They include lights to St George, the patron saint of (amongst other things) agricultural workers and sheep, St Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth and falsely accused people and St Roch, patron saint of the plague stricken, dogs, bachelors and knee problems. A later record in 1504 is of an alter to St Erasmus. His patronage includes appendicitis, seasickness, ammunition workers, sailors and intestinal disorders.
The wonderful Nave roof was probably painted
in the middle ages and may have formed a canopy for a later altar in front
of the screen. Its last major renovation was in 1746. The coats of Arms are
difficult to decipher but the six gold rings of the Musgrave family can be
From 1500 the record shows a succession of rectors and the influence of the church dominated people's lives. A full account of the people and events can be seen in Paul Langham's book, 'The Ringing Grooves of Change' (see 'Further Reading)
As in many parishes, a brotherhood or society was formed. The 'Fraternity of Jesus' existed to venerate the Holy Name of Jesus. Membership fees were paid and donations were made to deserving members. The Brotherhood may have met in the brotherhood or fraternity house. This is thought to be the house at the east end of the church although there is doubt about this. It could also be that the priests lived there. No one knows! And, despite rumours, there is no evidence that a tunnel exists from the house to the church!
In 1540, Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries. Ramsey was destroyed and Shillington was for a short time in the patronage of the Crown. It then went to Trinity College, Cambridge. All Saints became part of the Church of England and Catholicism, which had reigned for so many years, was rejected.
Rectors came and went with some remembered and some forgotten. In 1575, a curious throwback to the pagan influences may have caused the dismissal of the Rev John Key. The speculation is that he authorised a Mayday 'event' in the church at great expense but in contravention of the 1571 law banning pre-Christian or pagan festivals!
From 1571 to 1666 the churchwardens accounts give much detail about the life and affairs of the church. There are records of the incumbents, the expenses, donations and purchases from which one can infer much about the life of the church.
he reference to the Ten Commandments is interesting. In 1559 a new law was enacted ordering that all churches should have a Bible and a Prayer book. Images and shrines should be destroyed and a movable wooden holy table should replace the stone altar. A font should be placed near the main door and the Lord's prayer, Ten Commandments and the Apostles' Creed inscribed on boards and fixed to the walls.
The All Saints' 'Decalogue Boards', made in the early 19th century out of metal, can be seen in the church.
All Saints has gone through turbulent times. During the dissolution of the monasteries carvings and decorations were removed or destroyed. In Cromwell's time soldiers rampaged through the church on horseback causing much damage to the structure and the surrounding land.
More about this to come!
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|The church has
5 bells, a Bedfordshire tradition from the 16th century. It is a very heavy
set, probably among the heaviest 5 bell ring in the world.
They date from 1575 and had a final recasting in1637. They were re-erected in 1750 after the tower collapse and rehung in1882.
They were rung to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.
There is a sixth small bell above the main peal, a ‘Priests Bell’ or sanctus or ‘stinte’ or ‘saunce’ bell. It is sounded 3 times. (This bell has a habit of keeping on swinging - and needs skill to operate!) It is of unknown origin but a rope was bought for it in 1599 and it was recast in 1626. It is used to summon ratepayers and to announce the curfew. Recast again in 1828.
The forces on the tower when the bells are rung is considerable. The forces when a bell is rung is 4.5 times weight of bell. The vertical force is absorbed by the bell frame and transmitted by beams and tower masonry to the foundations. Horizontal force is 2.5 times weight.
This force travels laterally to the tower fabric and can be problematic as the resonant frequency could coincide with that of the tower structure.
Change ringing started in 1632 and there is some speculation that this may have weakened the tower and contributed to its collapse during the 1701 storm.