Harlton has traditionally been regarded as a single-build church dating from the last quarter of the fourteenth century; it is so described in Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire and in the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments inventory of West Cambridgeshire.

Recent examination of the church suggests a more complex history, with the building falling into five stages.

The tower has always been seen as the earliest part of the church, probably dating from the third quarter of the fourteenth century.

The chancel dates to the last quarter of the fourteenth century: the tracery of the East window is so very nearly identical to the East window of Ashwell church, some ten miles away over the Hertfordshire border, as to make it extremely probable that they are the work of the same mason.

The chancel arch and the east walls of the aisles seem to be a little later and again closely resemble those at Ashwell, suggesting that the same atelier was again used.



The nave seems to date from the mid-fifteenth century, and has stylistic affinities with other work being carried out in the area at this period, notably King’s College, Cambridge, where the Chapel was being constructed from 1446 under the direction of the master mason Reginald Ely.

The latest part of the church seems to be the stone screen, which probably dates from the first quarter of the sixteenth century.

Scars on the stonework indicate the presence of statuary, but the fragments visible set into the north chancel wall and in the (inaccessible) north porch are too early to have belonged to this screen.

The church is constructed of local clunch ashlar*, clunch and glacial erratics*, probably collected from the fields in the area; some hand-made seventeenth-century bricks have been used to repair the buttresses at the end of the chancel, and there are large portions of nineteenth-century brick repairs visible on the wall of the north aisle, as well as more modern repairs.

The tower is probably the earliest part of the church. It is crowned with a low pyramidal roof. Its lancet windows have been renewed, but Pevsner suggests that they imply a thirteenth-century date.


There is the outline of a large blocked window on the west face of the tower and a small niche — possibly for a statue — on the south.

The south porch has a memorial plaque to the artist Gwen Raverat (a granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and author of the highly entertaining memoir, Period Piece, who lived in the Old Rectory), whose family made generous benefactions to the Church.

The lower tablet (on the right below), commemorating the restoration of the church between 1993 and 2000, is by Kevin Cribb.

porchinscription1 porchinscription2

At the east end there are three fantastic reptilian creatures, much weathered, carved on the gable.

The outline of the chantry which once stood on the site of the Victorian vestry is visible in the north chancel wall.


The east vestry wall is very thick and could be an ancient clunch wall encased in brick. This brickwork and the vestry buttresses are later additions. The trace of a much wider window can be seen in the brickwork.

The north porch, at present unused, contains evidences of the church’s original glory – the mutilated remains of a stoup, vaulting, and a figure (possibly the Virgin) – which seems to be fourteenth-century in date.

In the churchyard, notice at the west end of the church close to the tower the beautiful decorative tombstone of Henry Page, d. 1717, and about ten yards to the right of the path leading to the south door a Virgin and Child


carved by, and now forming a memorial to, Henry Jan Ellison (1902–84), sculptor of the figures which fill the niches of the reredos, and son of a rector. The Virgin and Child was initially carved for the Oratory of the Good Shepherd in Lady Margaret Road, Cambridge, a religious House which passed first into the possession of the Franciscans, and later became part of Lucy Cavendish College. Lucy Cavendish decided that it did not want the statue, and in about 1968 it was sited in the churchyard through the intermediary of David Isitt (Rector 1961–69).


A tombstone to the right of the gate commemorates Jakob Heinrich Helweg, a Danish inhabitant of the parish.
The inscription may be roughly translated as:

Oh do not weep, oh do not weep
Each woe will soon be passed
Those who still freely tread this earth
Have no such easy path.

At the east end of the church is the monument, consisting of an urn standing on a cylindrical pillar, of James Fendall, rector 1839–67, who was the incumbent during the 1843 restoration and who also built the Old Rectory in 1843, at a cost of £1907.1s.3d.

Fendall Monument

A pre-1843 enclosure map shows that the previous rectory stood where the drive to the Old Rectory meets the High Street, at the east side of the glebe. At this time the land to the west of the church belonged to Christ’s Hospital, and was used as a swine yard.

The visitor enters the church through the south door.

The interior is at present much as it was in the mid nineteenth century when it was re-ordered with the aid of a grant from the Incorporated Society for Church Buildings, as recorded on the Benefactors’ Tablet.

The work was treated with some reservation by the Cambridge Camden Society in their 1844 report, and it seems unlikely that they were involved in the restoration.


At this time it appears from internal evidence the aisle roofs were re newed, their pitch being reduced so that they were dropped directly onto the corbels which had originally supported the wall-posts (although it is possible that this was done in the seventeenth century, when the nave roof was renewed). This resulted in some insult to the tops of the arches of the arcade, particularly noticeable in the south aisle. The whole of the building was covered in Roman cement in 1843, but its removal in recent years has left the rather botched nature of the works apparent. The Camden Society report makes it clear that they felt that the repairs had been done rather on the cheap.

The piers of the arcades are diagonal square in plan, with semi-polygonal shafts on bell bases.

The font is Victorian, gothic in style, replacing something that was de scribed in 1844 as an ‘absurd pagan vase’.

The tracery of the east window in the south aisle forms what is known as a ‘butterfly design’: the butterfly is a symbol of the soul, and this shape in tracery is common at this date.

The shape of the arches of the four-bay arcades and the chancel and east windows of the north and south aisles, which are pointed, together with the four-centred arches of the aisle windows, help to date the church to the point at which the Gothic [Late Decorated] style (pointed arches) was giving way to the Perpendicular (four-centred arches).


A plan of the Church of the Assumption

The flowing tracery of the top sections of the east windows of the chancel and the south aisle, characteristic of the Decorated style, combined with the more rectilinear Perpendicular tracery of the lower portions of these windows and of the other windows of the church again indicate the stages of construction.

The east window of the north aisle has label stops carved as half-angels carrying blank shields (these may originally have been painted), that of the south aisle the heads of a king and queen, and the splays of both windows are carried down below the glass to provide space for the reredoses* of subsidiary altars.

Further angels form most of the stone corbels which carry the wall-posts of the seventeenth-century wooden roof, which has the date 1633 carved into a beam.


Most of these are conventional, but two of the angels are bearded — an unusual feature as angels are almost invariably clean-shaven.

The survival of these angels, even in somewhat inaccessible positions, is evidence that the seventeenth-century iconoclast William Dowsing did not visit Harlton — he was particularly incensed by angels and demanded in the churches he visited that they should be destroyed.

The labels in the nave and aisles have head-stops carved as grotesque faces: some of these have been restored or re-cut, possibly in the seventeenth century when the roof was renewed, but probably in the Victorian restoration. It will be seen that three of the heads are repeated both inside the church and on the exterior of the north aisle.

The interior of the church is remarkably light, a result of the activities of the sixteenth-century Reformation iconoclasts. Some fragments of early glass survive in the east windows to the aisles.


In the north aisle is the door to the octagonal staircase turret to the nave roof: the door itself is original, and the stair has a beautiful continuously moulded and recessed rail, and is lit by three trefoiled lancet windows.

There is evidence that a door to the rood loft was inserted sometime after the original construction, but it is now blocked.

The stair-turret is embattled and has a string-course and a small gargoyle.

The stair itself has more of the graffiti which are so evident in the chancel and nave.


The pulpit is probably seventeenth century; an engraving of 1844 shows it with a canopy, which has since disappeared.

pulpit Pulpitold

The pews date from the mid-nineteenth-century restoration, but the report of the Cambridge Camden Society says that they are close (albeit in deal) to the original oak pews which they replaced — a comment borne out by the 1844 engraving of the church before restoration.

There is a War Memorial on the south wall of the south aisle,and a Roll of Honour, containing the names of those men from the village who served in theFirst World War but survived. This was restored in 2000 by Professor Tony Legge. A history of Frederick Prime, whose name appears first among those killed has been written by Steve Anderson.


A Benefactors’ Table at the west end of the North Aisle records the nineteenth-century restoration of the church.

The interior of the tower, with its high arch, now occupied by the organ, was originally open to the nave, but had been blocked by 1844. When the organ-loft was being built a burial was found under the arch, probably dating from the late-medieval period.

West end before

At the west end of the north arcade, on the tower side, is a recess which once had a door or grille and seems to have had some carving above it. This is probably an aumbry, the equivalent of the church’s safe, where the altar vessels, books, linen, etc., and also sometimes the reserved sacrament, were stored. Aumbries are usually in the chancel, however, and it is possible that the recess may have been a dole cupboard, where loaves of bread were stored for distribution to the poor. The central niche in the reredos behind the altar, which would usually serve as an aumbry, is so small that it could only accommodate the reserved sacrament, so it is most likely that the recess does represent additional storage space for church property.


Evidence of repair in the angle of the easternmost pillar of the south aisle and the chancel arch may indicate the position of the original pulpit, which would probably not have been on the north because of the rood doorway.

The chancel is divided from the nave by a stone rood screen, a comparatively rare feature — most surviving screens are wood, except in cathedrals and collegiate or monastic churches.

On the north side there is a squint, giving a view of the altar to a person kneeling in the nave.

The screen would originally have had doors shutting off the chancel from the nave — the fitting for one of the hinges may be seen on the south side of the doorway — and there are surviving metal dowels and a groove scored in the soffit of the chancel arch, which suggests that the screen was originally surmounted by a wooden tympanum.

Harlton Church Screen

There is evidence on the rood screen, in the form of later patches in the stone and dowel holes, of the presence of statues.

The screen must have had an elaborate decorative scheme. ‘Rood’ is Anglo-Saxon for the Cross and one element of the scheme must have been a Crucifixion. This may have been painted on the wooden tympanum.

There is no surviving pre-Reformation rood group from anywhere in England, but some screens do retain some of their decorative features, usually either paintings or carvings of saints.

In view of the dedication of the church, it is possible that one of the elements of the decorative scheme was the Assumption of the Virgin.

On the east side of the screen, above the doorway, is a mutilated base for a figure, and to left and right of it, plinths for further statues.

These figures would have been visible through the screen openings, and might have represented the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John standing on either side of the Cross.

The screen contains a slanting hole, a squint, through which kneeling worshippers in the nave could see the altar.

Besides the stone screen, the glory of the chancel is the stone reredos, with its flanking niches with high crocketed canopies.

The cult statues which went in the niches have gone, but the originals in the reredos have been replaced by a series of early twentieth-century figures by Henry Jan Ellison (other memorials to members of the Ellison family may be seen on the north wall of the chancel, reminding us how cosmopolitan was the experience of clergy families who served Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and of the dreadful toll they paid, particularly in the First World War).


These statuettes of the Twelve Apostles are undoubtedly the correct replacement for the original figures.


The central curtained niche would have held the reserved sacrament, which represented Christ. A framed explanatory panel identifying the figures may be found in the chancel. The bases of the flanking niches have been restored in painted wood, probably at the same time as the insertion of the figures of the Apostles.

The choir stalls, with plain poppy-head decorations, are sixteenth-century in origin, but have been substantially restored. Most of the front portion of the north side seems to be original, together with some of the lower parts of the stalls to the south.

In the south wall are a piscina, contemporary with the church, but with stops from the nineteenth-century restoration,


and a sedile formed by continuing the splay of the window down below the glass, producing a recess — a type common in East Anglia and described by one authority as a ‘mean expedient’ and a ‘cheap sedilia bench’.

The window on the south nearest the screen has a blocked ‘low-side’ window of three lights below a transom. (The odd ‘double transom’ is a result of an intervention by English Heritage during a recent restoration.)


Low-side windows, separated from the upper window proper, often had wooden shutters, which suggests that they may have either been unglazed or could be opened: there is some dispute about their function, but one theory is that they enabled the celebrants to ring a bell from them during Mass at the Sanctus and the Consecration of the Elements to alert those outside to the solemn proceedings in the church.

There is evidence that the western light had a shutter as the mouldings are quite different from those of the other lights, and there is an iron catch.

In the east window there is a fourteenth-century stained glass shield of the Trinity, reset.


The stained glass window on the north by Wallington of London, the date of which is unfortunately imperfect, is in memory of James Fendall, the rector responsible for the nineteenth-century restoration of the church.

There seems to be a coherent decorative scheme in the chancel, connected with the vice of gossip, particularly associated with women. The supporters of the left-hand niche of the altar-piece are the devil Tuttivulus, the demon of gossip, recognisable by his protruding tongue, and a female demi-figure — probably a nineteenth-century restoration of the original.

Churchboss1 churchboss2 Boss

The three roofbosses, probably earlier than the roof itself, which may, like that of the nave, be sixteenth- or seventeenth-century, are a caricatured female head, foliage and Tuttivulus.

Tuttivulus again appears on the south-east side of the chancel screen, this time accompanied on the north-east not by a woman, but by another devil who gestures toward his right ear, presumably as a caution against listening to gossip, just as Tuttivulus warns against spreading it.

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