It was William the Conqueror’s tax gatherers who put Isleham – along with every other village and hamlet - squarely on the map. The “Domesday Book” shows Isleham, in Cambridgeshire, as ‘King’s Land’ and – more importantly for William – just what he might expect from it as rent :
Gisleham: King's land; Bishop of Rochester from Archbishop Lanfranc; Geoffrey from Count Alan; Hugh de Port. 4 mills. 1550 eels, honey, corn, malt.
There was a wooden Saxon church here, which William gave to the Bishop of Rochester down in Kent. Isleham became what is known, in ecclesiastical terms, as a ‘peculiar’. There were many such churches and monasteries across England – and there are still several ‘Old Peculiar’ beers, brewed by the monks, named after them !
But this decision by William started a dispute which lasted for seven hundred years, between two bishops – Rochester who said they owned the place and Norwich, much nearer, who said they did – and claimed that all the deeds and documents amassed by successive bishops of Rochester were a bunch of forgeries.
Why the dispute ? Money ! It had little or nothing to do with things spiritual or ecclesiastical – certainly nothing to do with the care of the souls in the little parish – it was rents which counted in the bishop’s books. There was much money to be made, from ‘tithes’ (a payment to the Church of a tenth part of the rent) from land given by pious benefactors to churches and priories. Count Alan of Brittany, commander of William’s left wing at Hastings was given land at Isleham and between 1080 and 1090 he ordered the building of a Priory in the village. He granted a portion of the rent from this land to the Abbey of Saint Jacut, in Normandy. Bit by bit as more fen land was drained and more corn grown, the rent became more attractive. By the 19th Century tithes were rated at five shillings per acre. In 1837 the parish of Isleham became a part of the diocese of Ely – not Norwich ! – and ten years later they were converted to a ‘one-off’ cash payment. The Bishop received £620 as his share – worth well over £40,000 today.
The little priory was dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch, one of the more ‘dubious’ saints. Declared apocryphal by the Pope in 494, she continued to be venerated as the patron saint of pregnant women and childbirth. Joan of Arc said at her trial that Saint Margaret was one of the saints who appeared to and spoke with her. The Priory was suppressed by the Statute of Leicester in 1414. – did Isleham harbour heretics ? - and since 1450 has belonged to Pembroke College. Some time in the 18th Century a large door was cut into the south wall and the rood screen destroyed, to make it serviceable as an agricultural barn. It is now an English Heritage property. In the 19th & early 20th Centuries, a service was sometimes held on July 20th - her saint’s day . The Priory, lit by candles & night lights, was open for prayer & reflection for three hours on the night of December 31st 1999 to January 1st 2000. Many - of all faiths or none – came to reflect and meditate.
In the late 1280s a new church began to rise, a few hundred yards east of Alan of Brittany’s priory. Built of flint and pebble rubble it was faced with Barnack stone. This Cambridge quarry had been exploited since Roman times and Ely and Peterborough cathedrals are built with it. Like ‘tithes’ the rights to quarry this excellent limestone was often a cause of dispute between local monasteries. Ely had to pay Peterborough 8,000 eels a year for the stone they wanted.
Blocks were transported on sleds to the Welland and Nene rivers and loaded on to barges, travelling down to the many building sites. By around 1500, however, all the useful stone had been removed. The heaps of limestone rubble gradually became covered by the rich carpet of wild flowers and the area is now a nature reserve – known locally as “The Hills & Holes”
This new church – probably only the chancel was completed - was dedicated – by Bishop Hethe of Rochester on Saint Luke’s Day, 1331. Its plan remains much the same today – a nave with five bays and side aisles with a high roof.
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, in his 1954 “Buildings of England” book on Cambridgeshire was very disparaging about the tower with its “crude and insensitive tiled pyramid roof”. He was, however, much more impressed with the “splendidly remodelled 15 Century interior”. The original tower had been declared unsafe in 1860, scaffolding had been erected to restore it, but it collapsed in 1863. Fortunately the scaffolding held the bells and bell frame in place as the whole tower subsided spectacularly, the workers below running for their lives.
Saint Andrew’s today has a fine peal of six bells, the oldest being the passing bell “Gabriel”, given by Thomas Peyton in 1484. It was the custom – recorded as still being observed in 1934 - to toll this bell to mark the death of a parishioner – two rings of three for a woman, three rings of three for a man.
Until around 1910, one bell was rung at 9.00 a.m. to indicate that parishioners could begin 'gleaning' – collecting any ears or loose corn remaining on the fields after harvest. These days any corn left is most likely to be gobbled up by the Canada geese from the nearby Marina. The bell was rung again at 6.00 p.m. to signal the end of gleaning. If anyone disobeyed the 6.00 p.m. bell their corn was seized and scattered !
Two bells were added in 1516, one in 1680 and a fifth in 1819. The peal was increased to six bells when the Peyton families donated the treble bell in 1968. Cast the previous year it was hung with the other bells in a new steel bell frame, also given by the Peytons. The bell bears the inscription : A.M.D.G. Donum Fam. Peytoniæ ex terris antiquis atque novis MDCCCCLXVII. “A gift from Peyton families in the Old World and the New – 1967”
Lych gates at the entrance to churchyards - Lych – from the Saxon ‘lic’ – corpse - are few and far between today. Some had seats where the bearers were able to rest, the coffin being placed on the ‘coffin table’ in the centre and often the funeral service began at the lych gate. Our Isleham lych gate, reputed to be the oldest in eastern England, is a good five hundred years and still has its original Tudor tile roof. To the left of the gate is where the parish stocks used to be.
As you move towards the south porch, main entrance to the church today, look up. Above the entrance is a sundial which has attracted the attention of the British Sundial Society. Its elliptical form, possibly early 15th Century, is virtually unknown elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The inscribed motto is “Lux Umbra Dei” (Light is the Shadow of God).
The porch itself is high, and lit on either side by big Perpendicular windows, in which there remain the only fragments of medieval glass remaining in the church. The door is made of silvery oak, and dates from 1670, though the big brass door-handle is probably even older. Was it perhaps a ‘sanctuary handle’ ? In the days when there were church courts as well as ‘King’s Courts’ a criminal being chased by the King’s men could claim ‘sanctuary’ if he could get to a church door and grab the handle.
He might have escaped immediate death, but he only had 37 days grace, after which time – on bread & water and having to attend six or more services every day ! – he would have to go into exile.
Once inside, there are traces of an earlier stone building at the junction of chancel and north transept but the church dates mainly from the early 14th & late 15th Centuries. The manor of Isleham was acquired in the reign of King John (1199-1216) by the Bernard family.
Their coat of arms was a play on their name – a black bear with a gold muzzle and collar on a silver ground. (argent a bear rampant sable, muzzled and collared or). It appears in many places in the church, often quartered with those of the Peyton family who succeeded them in around 1430. The Bernard family are recorded as benefactors to the church over some 250 years and it was s they who financed the building of nave, aisles, a priest’s chamber, transepts and tower, to complete the church.
In around 1430, Margaret Bernard, daughter and heiress of Sir John Bernard and the last of the Bernard line married Sir Thomas Peyton, bringing as part of her dowry, the Isleham estates. Isleham became the principal Peyton residence. The Peyton family coat of arms appears in many places in the church – on a black shield a gold cross with scalloped edge with a silver star in the top left quarter. (Sable a cross engrailed or, in the first quarter a mullet argent).
Thomas Peyton was born at Dry Drayton on February 14th 1416 and served twice (1443 & 1453) as High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. The church in Isleham has no surviving medieval stained glass but there are likenesses of Thomas and his first wife in the church at Long Melford, Suffolk, another Peyton manor.
When Margaret Bernard, first wife of Sir Thomas Peyton, died he married another Margaret, widow of Thomas Garney but – more importantly for the Peyton family fortunes – the daughter and heiress of Sir Hugh Francis of Gifford Hall, Suffolk. This second Margaret also died before him, on 12th December, 1458. Set into the north wall of the sanctuary is the table tomb of Thomas Peyton, who died in 1484. It is topped with a fine brass of Thomas himself, in plate armour, with his two wives, Margaret Bernard and Margaret Francis. Like many brasses in this and other churches this one has been much defaced over the years but a framed full size ‘rubbing-cum-reconstruction’ is on display at the west end of the nave. Both wives, however, appear alongside their husband. One wears a very ornate gown, the other a plainer affair – but both show off the magnificent Peyton jewelled necklace !
We have Christopher Peyton to thank for the church as it is today. He was the second son of his father, Sir Thomas, by the second Lady Margaret. There was a son born of the first marriage, also named Thomas, but he died before both his father and step brother Christopher and is buried in Saint Giles, Cripplegate.
Sir Thomas began work on Isleham church, and after his death in 1484, this task was taken on by Christopher Peyton, using designs which some attribute to John Wastell, one of the architects of Kings College Chapel in Cambridge. The chancel, which was probably all that existed of the future church and which Bishop Hethe consecrated in 1331, has a high pitched tiled roof with a plastered ceiling beneath.
Before the Reformation chancel and sanctuary – the ‘church’ part of the building - were separated from the nave - a more public meeting place - by a rood screen. The holes into which this screen were fixed can still be seen on the pillars either side of the chancel arch. Once the rood screen had gone, however, it was found that some barrier was still required “to keep out ye dogges”. and in around 1640 the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered all churches to install communion rails. These in Isleham are very obviously locally made with alternating turned balusters, stalactite and stalagmite forms nearly - but not quite - meeting and little pyramid finials on the top rail.
The choir stalls were replaced in 1910, but one original bench, dating from around 1350, is still in use on the north side. Contemporary with this choir bench are the return stalls, facing east, their backs to the nave. These have misericords, small wooden shelves underneath folding seats, installed to provide some level of comfort for monks who were required to remain standing during long periods of prayer.
Medieval woodcarvers often expressed a mischievous sense of humour in the carvings, which were seldom seen, with which they decorated the undersides of misericords. Search beneath choir stalls in English churches and cathedrals and you will very often find secular and pagan images, strange beasts and sometimes naughty scenes entirely at odds with Christian iconography. Ours in Isleham are blameless! On the south side they represent “Church.” – a Bishop, a Priest and possibly the Lord of the Manor. On the north side we have “State – a King and a Queen, and what would seem to be a commoner and a young man.
The nave floor was paved with red and white bricks in about 1800, at which time many of the early monuments were moved about the church. The nave is long and wide, with tall, early 14th Century piers, above which is the magnificent late 15th Century roof. Constructed from local timber each beam carries small angel figures facing east & west with outstretched hands and projecting wings. The supports to the beams bear shields with the arms of the Bernard or Peyton families.
Ten years ago the angel head guarding the shield with Peyton and Bernard arms, way up in the south west corner of the roof fell to the floor. Damp and woodworm had finally overcome it. It was so finely carved, with details of eyebrows and lips which could never be seen from the nave floor, that it was decided that a mould would be taken and copies made, to be sold as a fund raising project for repairs to the church roof. We named it the “Isleham Angel”
In between the tie beams, the hammerbeams support ten great almost life-sized angels which gaze serenely down upon the nave, each one carrying an emblem of our Lord's Passion - a cross, pincers, a scourge, a dice, a sponge on a reed, a spear, a pillar, a crown of thorns, three nails and a mallet. Of these the nails, crown, pillar and scourge are original; and the rest are replacements. The pincers are especially incongruous replacements – they might have been taken from any tool box, or even borrowed from the garage just down the road.
All around the high windows, running level with the feet of the ‘great’ angels is a crisply carved prayer for the souls of members of the Peyton family. It begins in the south east corner alongside the angel carrying the Cross and continues along the north wall, ending above the pulpit. (Spelling was not of great concern to the men who carved Christopher’s name !)
Pray for the good prosperitie of Crystofor Peyton and Elizabeth hys wyf
and for the sowle of Thomas Peyton sqwyer and Margarete hys wyf
fader and moder of the seyd Crsytofer Peyton and for the sowles of al
the awncestre of the seyd Cristofer Peyton qwych dyd mak this rofe in the
yere of owr Lord M CCCC LXXXX V beynge the X yere of King Herry VII
In the north aisle, usually placed on the piano, is a Hanukkah candlestick made from scrap metal by the boys of the Jews Free School in Bell Lane, London. They were evacuated here during the 1939-1945 war and the ‘blitz’ on London and used the south aisle for their worship. They gave the candlestick in gratitude for the hospitality they enjoyed here, a pleasing early example of religious tolerance.
In a niche in the north wall of the north transept is a Bernard effigy, which like many of the early memorials has fared rather badly. It is of Sir Godfrey Bernard, who died in 1265. His lower legs are gone but they were once crossed at the knees,- often said to be the sign of “Crusader”. This is no longer accepted – the crossing of legs on a tomb was more likely to have been an architectural / sculptor ‘convention’ during this period.
A monument on the east wall of the north transept commemorates the short life of Barbarie Themilthorpe, step daughter of Sir Edward Peyton. She died, aged seven years, on July 25th 1619. The poem below (indecipherable today) was inscribed above her recumbent figure, bible in hand.
Whoso ere chance for to behould ye tombe shal see a flower blasted in hir bloom
For all are like to flowers grasse or haye that 1 houre springs next dies & fades awaye
Even so ye maid whos tender youth might have lived longer heare & not possesst hir grave so soone
But God that knoweth best what is for us did take hir soule to rest.
And whilst her corps intierd awhil doth sleep this marble tombe obsequius tears shal weepe.
Then let this tombe to all be as a merror to tel us life is a but breth to trust it error.
Barbarie was step daughter to Sir Edward Peyton by his second marriage to Jane, daughter of Sir James Calthorp (Calthopp) of Cockthorp, Norfolk , widow of Sir Edmond. Themilthorpe (Thymelthorpe) of Norfolk.
One of the finest English illuminated manuscripts – the “VITA CHRISTI” – was made in York around 1190-1200. It is known to have been owned by an East Anglian family in the 1480s, when some fifty more pages were added. On two pages of the manuscript, now in the Getty Museum, there is the signature of Robert Themilthorpe, who signs himself as “aged 42 in 1594”. Could this beautiful psalter have once been here in Isleham ?
Sir Edward Peyton was the son of Sir John Peyton, whose magnificent tomb is in the south transept of Isleham church, now usually called the “Peyton Chapel”. Born in 1578 he was knighted in 1611 and served as a Member of Parliament from 1621 to 1628, during the reigns of James I and Charles I. He married firstly in 1604, but his wife Martha died soon after. Sir Edward took a second wife, on June 6th 1614 and Jane Thymelthorpe brought with her to Isleham, her little daughter, Barbarie, who was to die here five years later.
Did Jane also bring the VITA CHRISTI ? Probably not, for it was still in the possession of the The Milthorpe family in 1594, when Robert Themilthorpe wrote his name in the margin of two of the manuscript’s pages - an act of vandalism which at least, today, helps to trace the manuscript’s ‘provenance’ !
Sir Edward Peyton was deprived of office as ‘custos rotulorum’ –Keeper of the Rolls and principal Justice of the Peace – by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, unpopular court favourite of James I. Villiers, surprisingly, retained much influence in the more heterosexual atmosphere of the court of Charles I. Peyton became “so much disgusted that he first drew his pen against the court and then writ several pamphlets with great acrimony against Charles I and the royalists”. He sided with the Presbyterians during ‘the great rebellion’ and had so impoverished himself even before the first battle of the Civil War at Edgehill in October, 1642, that he had been forced to sell his Isleham estates.
Impoverished or not, Sir Edward married again, at St James, Clerkenwell, on December 14th 1638. He a widower of sixty, his new wife, Dorothy Minshawe being described as ‘a spinster of 21’. He died at Wicken in 1656.
The south transept is known today as the Peyton Chapel. It was built in 1321 by one Robert Walkfare and his wife Margaret as a chantry chapel dedicated to St Catherine, who is still remembered with a cedar wood statue carved in 1868 by a local schoolmaster.
The two most immediately visible and impressive monuments in the church are the Peyton tombs against the south wall of the south transept. Both tombs were restored and repainted thanks to funding provided by the Peyton Society of Virginia. Both are of the same form: a marble slab, supported on six little pillars, itself supporting a high canopy covered in decoration.
To the east is the tomb of Robert Peyton, who died in London on 19th October, 1590 and was “solemnly buried” – a Herald attending - on November 12th and of his wife, Elizabeth Rich. Robert Peyton himself is dressed soberly in black armour and a ruff, and the ceiling is tastefully decorated in muted black, grey and gold. Sir Robert’s feet rest on a fine gilt griffin – the public house opposite the church is still called “The Griffin”.
Robert Peyton was a man of politics. Born in Isleham in 1523 he served two terms as High Sheriff and was a Member of Parliament for Cambridgeshire during the last Parliament of William & Mary. He was never knighted. His wife, Elizabeth was the seventh daughter of Sir Richard Rich: one time Lord Chancellor of England, and the man vilified in the play “A Man For All Seasons” as the man who, through perjury, ensured the death of Sir Thomas More.
The inscription on Robert’s tomb reads : ‘Years of sixty-seven did pass in governing both just and wise he was, By ancient stock but more by merit, His body the earth his soule doth Heaven inherit.’. Marrying into wealth and influence also helps !
To the west is the tomb of Robert’s son, Sir John Peyton, who died in 1616 and of his wife, Alice Osborne. As plain “John Payton of Islam, Gent.” he married “Miss Alice Osborne, of this parish, St Dionis, Backchurch London, June 29th 1580”. He was High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire in 1592, was knighted by Elizabeth on 1st November, 1596 and a Member of Parliament under King James, 1604-1611. His wife Alice was the eldest daughter of Sir Edward Osborne, Lord Mayor of London,1583.
The restored paint of the figures and architecture on both tombs works well. Rich reds and greys picked out with gold, black armour and grey, pillars with golden capitals - it all gives an impression of how a medieval church must have once have looked like to its congregation coming from their modest thatched homes into the brilliantly decorated House of God.
But long before the Peytons there had been Bernards in Isleham ! Their effigies have suffered much in being moved around, the oldest being the effigy of Sir William Bernard, who died in 1293. He lies almost hidden behind the two big Peyton memorials, and is so weathered that only the dog at his feet really has any detail left. His descendant Sir Gilbert Bernard has survived rather better – he died in 1340, and his effigy in the north-east corner of the chapel is mostly undamaged, aside from the loss of one arm and his sword. He has a short beard and curly hair, very much in the style favoured by Edward III and his court, and lies on a formidable cask helmet with decorated eye-slits and a high crest.
The last male in the Bernard line was Sir John, who died in 1451. He and his wife Ellen Malory are depicted on a brass set into the lid of another chest tomb against the west wall. The figures are about two feet tall, he in armour, she wearing an elegant cloak. .It was Sir John’s heir, his daughter Margaret and last of the Bernard line, who married Thomas Peyton, father of Christopher and brought the manor of Isleham into the Peyton family, as part of her dowry.
There was certainly an ‘eagle’ lectern in the church, according to an inventory made in 1552, The elaborately moulded brass eagle was made in Flanders in the 15th Century. It was found in the fen, during drainage work in 1831, possibly thrown there for safe keeping during some period of religious bigotry. It has been so enthusiastically polished by generations of ‘holy dusters’ cleaning the church that any trace of an inscription is now indecipherable. It is of a type of which there are several examples around East Anglia, notably Christ’s College, Cambridge and Peterborough Cathedral. There is a similar one in Saint Marks, Venice.
All the windows in Saint Andrew’s are modern. Nearly seventy years of the history of the Robins family in the mid 19th & early 20th Century can be traced through these windows. The earliest – in the East Window – is in memory of Alice Maud Robins, who died aged 11 years, in 1866. The most recent is the commemorative roundel placed in the east window of the North Transept in memory of Lieutenant Donald Flory RNVR, son of the Vicar, killed in action at Walcheren, 7th November 1944.
Two large painted boards at the west end list various benefactors. They both exhort the reader to remember Acts 20 , v. 35. On the board near the south wall is recorded the founding, by Lady Frances Peyton of the almshouses – “an Hospital” – in about 1575. Nearly a century later there appears to have been a bit of rivalry between the gentlemen of the parish!
A succession of benefactors gave ‘the perpetual interest’ of gradually increasing sums of money – Richard Bacon in 1635, Four Pounds – John Brown in 1640, Five Pounds and in 1645 Stephen Dauson gave Ten Pounds, which appears to have been the going rate until Roger Peachy, the retired Vicar gave Ten Pounds 1683. By 1691, however, the rate had increased with Lady Mary Cullen’s gift, to Sixty Pounds.
Remember that in the 17th Century the Pound was comprised of 240 pennies and an agricultural labourer would earn between ten and fifteen pence a day, a craftsman probably two to three pence more. So the sums given were substantial, especially when compared to an agricultural labourer’s annual wage which might be as low as £18.00. A fortunate parish priest might have an annual income of £100.00
The board near the north wall records that in 1693 John Hall gave three pounds annually – payable out of the rental of fifteen acres of fen ground given to Lady Catherine Maynard - to provide “Seven penny loaves every Sunday throughout the year and the residue to be laid out Yearly in waistcoats and stockings towards clothing ye Poor of ye said Parish”. Lady Catherine, on her death, gave this money to the use of the Poor, adding the interest of a further twenty pounds of her own to the charity. This ‘charity’ is still (2009) invested and administered and today provides not “waistcoats & stockings” but a voucher for pensioners in the congregation to spend at Christmas in the Co Operative store or Post Office shop. Current value is £7.00.
Repairs to the roof have been completed but there is still much work to be done on the building, so that we, temporary trustees of a glorious medieval masterpiece, can hand it on to our successors in as good – if not better – state as that in which we inherited it.
The “Isleham Angel” mentioned above has now become our “Guardian Angel” and copies are still available. You can have one for yourself. Those who have bought their own “Guardian Angel” all say they get pleasure from the feeling of serenity and peace which seems to radiate from this little carving. Share that feeling with them.
Thanks to Ian Powys for this article