Shillington Church, Bedfordshire

All Saints’ in Shillington is often called “The Cathedral of the Chilterns”. It stands on one of the most northerly outposts of the Chiltern Hills and has a fine and venerable history.

The history of the church dates back to its foundation by Bishop Aethelric of Dorchester around 1030, although there are rumours of an earlier church dating to around 650 AD. The Church was built under the aegis of Ramsey Abbey and was always far too large for the community it served, in many ways being built for prestige as much as for practical worship.

Rebuilding work was undertaken in the 13th Century and almost all trace of the original Saxon structure is now gone, although the Crypt is considered to date from before the rebuild.

The names of the Rectors of the Church are recorded from 1220 to the present, which is quite remarkable in itself.

Almost immediately the Norman rebuild became unusable. The ground became unstable and serious restructuring became necessary. This rebuilding commenced around 1290 but was interrupted by the Black Death and it was not completed until 1333 when the Bishop of Lincoln ordered the parishoners to pay for the completion of the nave roof. In 1360 the east wall collapsed and a further rebuild was necessary.

By 1400 it was a Collegiate Church with 8 priests and was by far the largest in the area.

Ramsey Abbey, of course, was one of the prime targets for Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and Shillington Church briefly became a Royal property. Shillington was lucky in that it was not taken apart to fill the Royal coffers but was sold instead to Trinity College, Cambridge who continued to run the Church for many years afterwards.

In 1575 the Reverend John Key was dismissed from his post having allowed a May Day Celebration at the Church. This was in direct contravention of a law in 1571 banning all pre-Christian festivals (of which May Day was considered one).

The Church remained in tact until 1701 when the tower was blown down and had to be rebuilt. It was completed around 1750 and explains the very definite style change between the tower and the body of the Church. All was, inevitably, renovated by the Victorians although with a reasonable degree of care. The interiors, particularly the roof, are considered particularly fine.

Shillington was deeply involved in the Civil War and during the Commonwealth Cromwell’s soldiers rode through the Church on horseback and caused a massive amount of damage. A local legend that grew up during this period was that of the Shillington Goblins who, during the Puritan ban on all celebrations, would periodically arrive in Shillington from all around the countryside and hold a big celebration in a field near the Church in defiance of the ban. The villagers noted music, laughter and strange lights in the field – and then each morning after a faery ring (a ring of mushrooms) would appear in the field. This continued on until the Restoration when the Goblins left, never to return unless the Monarchy should fall again. A faery ring of mushrooms did, indeed, once grow in Shillington but today a house stands on the site.

Shillington Church dominates the surrounding countryside and is one of the most attractive in Bedfordshire.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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