Why are there two churches?
Swaffham Prior is by no means the only place where two churches were built in what is now one churchyard. There are several instances in East Anglia, among them Reepham, Whitwell and the remains of Hackford churches, which all share the same Norfolk churchyard. The question for us is why two churches were built in the small parish of Swaffham Prior and why both have survived, albeit much changed.
Between 970 and 975 Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, bought about 500 acres of land in what is now Swaffham Prior and gave it to Byrthnoth, Abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Ely. The religious house was being put back on its feet after plunder by the Danes in 869 and the tithes and produce from the Swaffham Prior estate would have been a source of income for the monks, who probably built a church for those resident on the Abbey's lands here. By the time of the Norman conquest in 1066 Ely's holding in the village had increased to some 1500-2000 acres.
Twenty years later, at Doomsday, this had shrunk to about 700 acres, while two other manors had come into existence, of which one belonged to three of Count Alan of Brittany's knights. Possibly some of the Abbey lands had been forfeited and handed over to the knights because the monks had sheltered and aided the English rebels under Hereward the Wake.
The Norman knights may have built their own church, to serve their manor, using the same elevated site and dedicating the building to St Cyriac (and his mother St Julitta) who were more popular on the other side of the channel than here. (The saint is known as St Cyr in France and a 16th century silver communion cup presented to the church here is inscribed "Soffame Prire othr wyse called Sant Serres".) But this is all conjecture. One alternative theory (Warner) is that second churches were sometimes built next to existing ones by groups of freemen to honour the virgin Mary (as her cult grew) or to accommodate a growing population. Another (Groves) tentatively suggests links with early Irish monastic influences - at least in Norfolk.
The two churches served separate parishes within the township of Swaffham Prior, of which the total population in 1086 was about 150. In 1109 the diocese of Ely was formed and the Abbot became a Bishop, who then inherited the rectory of St Mary's parish and therefore the right to collect the major tithes. A rectory was a source of wealth and, in the 13th century, the then Bishop gave St. Mary's rectory to Anglesey Abbey. Also in the 13th century the rectory of St Cyriac's was given by its secular landlords to the Bishop, who passed it on to the Prior at Ely. Thus all village tithes were paid to one or other of the great Abbeys, which had an interest in perpetuating the two parish system. When the Abbeys were dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530s St Mary's reverted to the Bishop while St Cyriac's went to the Dean and Chapter of Ely Cathedral, who had inherited the mantle of the former Prior. This outcome meant the continued existence of two separate rectories and parishes.
Two churches, one vicar
This situation continued for over a century. Two Anglican parsons lived next door to each other, each serving a separate parish, each keeping records of baptisms, marriages and deaths in a village where families and properties became increasingly intertwined.
On at least one occasion a single priest acted as vicar in both parishes and the villagers may have preferred this. They certainly seem to have been unhappy with the administrative chaos that accompanied the Civil War because the year before the execution of Charles I (1645) they petitioned Parliament to sort out the muddle. But it was not until 1667 that an Act was passed, which noted that during the "late ungratious times ... the perticular limitts and bounds of the said parishes and rectories [had become] quite obscured and confounded". No one knew exactly what belonged to which parish, let alone which manor.
Yet Parliament did not ordain immediate unification of the parishes. The Act simply laid down new parish boundaries, taking account as well as possible of the remembered configuration. Each parish was to continue "distinct as to all rates and taxes parochiall", each must still elect churchwardens and sidesmen, and both churches must be upheld and maintained. In the mid-1700s churchwardens were still being nominated for the two separate churches and as late as 1800 the Archdeacon of Ely paid a separate visit to the Parish of Swaffham Prior St Cyriac.
Under the 1667 Act of Parliament, however, both "vicaridges" (that is the two appointments) were to be united under one priest. Martin Hill, graduate of St John's, was to be the first vicar of Swaffham St Cyriac cum St Mary. He was to receive all tithes due to the vicar from both parishes plus £10 annually from each payable "at the fower usuall feasts" of St Michael (September 30), St Thomas (December 21st), the Annunciation (March 25) and St John the Baptist (June 24th). The two parsons' houses were to be "appleyed and converted into one dwelling house", the Bishop and the Dean and Chapter were to take it in turns to appoint Martin Hill's successors and the Bishop would say which church building was to be used. (The Bishop of Ely at the time was Matthew Wren, uncle of Christopher Wren.)
Martin Hill entered with enormous enthusiasm on amalgamating the two "vicaridge houses" which were "both mean cottages" and on increasing the tithes payable to the Church. "The first improvement I made" he wrote in 1693 "was by gaining the tithes of 600 acres of adventure grounds taken out of the intercommon fen belonging to the town of Swaffham Prior and Swaffham Bulbeck which said tithes none of my predecessors had the courage to sue for". This was land drained during the 17th century at the expense of private shareholders called Adventurers. Hill had to do battle with the vicar of Swaffham Bulbeck, who claimed the said land was within his parish. During his incumbency, Dr Hill probably took services in St Cyriac's church since that was his original appointment and he was buried there in 1712. His tombstone is now in the north aisle of St Mary's.
Hill's successor, John Peter Allix, was a new man for the new century. He was born in France, the son of a prominent French protestant who fled to England in 1685. He may have continued to officiate in St Cyriac's church which, according to William Cole, "was a very good one" and had been "lately fitted up" (in 1743), although St Mary's too was still being maintained. The new vicar in any case would not have been much concerned, for services were probably led mainly by a curate. It was usual in the 18th century for successful clerics to hold several livings (that is to be vicar, and to receive the small tithes, of several parishes at the same time). John Peter Allix was one such. He was Dean of Ely and Rector of Castle Camps and, according to Cole, had amassed thirteen livings in all. Despite having eschewed the newly-converted (but old-fashioned) vicarage of Martin Hill and built himself "a very neat house at the west of the church" (today's Old Vicarage), he lived chiefly at Ely or at Castle Camps, where he and his son are buried.
Be all that as it may, the congregation was worshipping in St Mary's again by 1779 under the next vicar, William Collier, who had married Dean Allix's daughter. One July Sunday "during divine service the lightning fell upon the spire ... a ball of fire descended into the body of the church and burst in the middle aile with a most violent explosion". This was taken as a bad omen and the congregation wanted to demolish the spire. A decision was not lightly made. After some years, building experts were publicly invited to submit advice and tenders. Letters of response included one from the future architect of the present church of St Cyriac.
There was lively correspondence between the next vicar (George Jenyns), who continued to live at his family seat, Bottisham Hall, and the squire (John Peter Allix), who seems to have been burdened with taking the decisions. The squire and his neighbour, Sir Charles Watson, offered "in addition to other cogent arguments" against demolition "a liberal subscription towards repairing and preserving the spire, but in vain" (Gomme). In 1802 it was decided to demolish at a cost of £25. This was a disaster because the roof of the nave and the porch appear to have been damaged in the process. Instead of having to tackle the mess they had made, however, the parishioners were able simply to turn to their other church, even though by now this was also in disrepair.
With one medieval building unusable they decided to pull down the other and rebuild. A contemporary engraving (see page 38) shows the scene: St Mary's badly battered, the tower decapitated, and St Cyriac's a tower without a church. A parochial rent of twenty-two shillings in the pound was then imposed for the erection of the new building. A later commentary in the Church Monthly of 1901 records that "many of the parishioners were so exasperated at this heavy tax upon their purses that they left the worship of the Church".
What happened at Reach?
It was not only the residents of Swaffham Prior who were affected. By this time the two medieval settlements of East and West Reach, which had been in the parishes of Burwell and Swaffham Prior respectively, had been combined and their inhabitants were now all parishioners of Swaffham Prior.
In the mid 1400s they had been given the Bishop's permission to worship in the chapel of St Etheldreda at Reach but "without prejudice to their parish churches" (i.e. their tithes must continue to go to Swaffham Prior or Burwell). St Etheldreda's was a private chantry chapel built by Sir John Pecksbridge in 1378, drawing income from 45 acres of land given by him. All chantries were dissolved under Henry VIII and the land confiscated by the Crown. A chapel dedicated to St John also existed in Reach in the 1500s and, according to the RCHM, may be the one whose skeletal East window arch stands behind Reach church today. The present church (architect Charles Foster Hayward) was built in 1861 largely due to the efforts of Thomas Preston, vicar of Swaffham Prior. Although Reach became a separate civil parish in 1953, it remains in the ecclesiastical parish of Swaffham Prior, which means that the present church of St Etheldreda and the Holy Trinity is technically a chapel of ease.