The twin churches at Swaffham Prior

Any visitor to Swaffham Prior will be puzzled at to why there are 2 churches in the same churchyard there. The story something of  a puzzle but there are good online sources which cover the detail. In this post find a parallel time line and new aerial imagery.

A rough time line looks like this:

Ss Cyriac & Julitta

St Mary




Acquired by Bishop of Ely


Gifted to Prior of Ely

Gifted to Anglesey Abbey


Bequest for tower


Construction of tower


Granted to Dean & Chapter of Ely

Granted to Bishop of Ely



Unified parish church


Lightning strike


Spire demolished


Charles Humfrey rebuilds ‘gothic’ nave.





Chancel acquired by Allix family


Restoration under A Blomfield


Redundant, used as museum.

Reinstated as parish church


Spirelet added


In care of Churches Conservation Trust after major restoration of interior.

The very beginings of how post Norman land division and eclesiastic administration arrived at the twin chuches is not clear. Opinion seems to favour the version wherby the Lord of West Reach builds the Church of Ss Cyriac & Julitta in the 12th century on the extreme East edge of the parish so as to be in competition with the earlier church at Swaffham Prior.

The two churches served separate parishes. 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.


Both buildings have a had a hard time of it. How the parishioners of Swaffham Prior made the best of, and almost lost, one of 2 fine churches is explained by the Rev Ed Conybeare in Highways & Byways in Cambridge & Ely 1910:

Till 1660 there were two separate incumbencies; St Mary having been given to the Abbey of Ely by Brithnoth, the heroic Alderman of East Anglia under Ethelred the Unready.  The Norman tower of St. Mary’s (the lower of the two), square below and octagonal above, was copied by the fifteenth century builders of St. Cyriac’s, and is the only surviving portion of their work—the body of the church having been pulled down in 1667, at the union of the benefices.

St Mary’s with spire from an illustation in the ‘Cambridgeshire Itinerant’, March 1801, prior to it’s distastrous removal in 1802. At this point Ss Cyriac & Julitta is in ruins since the 1667 Act of Parliament unifying the parishes.

…. One July Sunday [in 1779 ]”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”.

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.

 St. Mary’s would have been entirely pulled down had not the ancient masonry proved so solid that the work of demolition did not pay the local builder who got the job. As it was, it remained a ruin for yet another century, and it was not till the end of the nineteenth that it was restored—still under Allix auspices.

The twin churches in 1898 prior to the reconstruction of St Mary’s (right), the 1802 demollition of the spire and associated damage is visible. From 1809 to 1902 Ss Cyriac & Julitta was the parish church.

The rebuilding of St Mary’s began as a mausoleum for the Allix family under the direction of Sr Arthur Blomfield expanding to a restored church in 1902. Despite keen efforts to replace the lost spire funds fell short and a stainless steel spirelet with a ‘Queen of Heaven’ crown was added to the capped tower by C J Horne in 1964.

The Georgian ‘carpenters gothic’ St. Cyriac’s yet stands, now in the care of the CCT.




St Mary’s Church contains memorial glass to some of the less well known combatants of the 1914- 1918 War.

Anti submarine measures:


“Though they be hid from my sight in the bottom of the sea thence will I command the serpent & he shall bite thee.”



Anti aircraft:


The site of the Benedictine priory, from which Swaffham Prior must take its name, lies halfway beween Swaffam Prior and Swaffham Bulbeck:

little remains other than humps and bumps:

The realm of powerful Prioresses the priory, once rich with goods shipped up the Lode from London, Newcastle, Amsterdam and beyond has vanished.



About billboyheritagesurvey

Heritage worker
This entry was posted in KAP, Significance, value and society. Bookmark the permalink.

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