The Diocese of Ely has owned land in Hardwick since 991 A.D. and the history of the village has always been closely linked with the Church. It is not surprising, therefore, that the village boasts a splendid old church which merits a page in itself.
The Parish Church of St. Mary is first mentioned in 1217. Since the thirteenth century, the benefice has been a rectory which has belonged to the Bishop of Ely throughout recorded history. This means that the Rector received financial support from the taxes, or tithes he received from the land, the 40 acres given to him some time before 1279 by the Bishop. The users of the land had to pay 10% of its value or of the value of its annual produce to support the Rector. In 1254, the twelve monks who worked on the land paid 10 marks to the Rector in taxes. This system of ‘payment by results’, however, meant that during the agricultural depression rents fell and the Rector suffered financial losses.
By 1279 there was also a Glebe House given to the Rector, built on the site of ‘Old Rectory Farm’. The house was intended to be the Rector’s home but owing to a series in absentee Rectors, it suffered periods of dilapidation and was eventually pulled down in 1881. In 1787 it was used as a hospital for poor families and in 1790 it was let in three tenements to paupers.
The new rectory was built near the village street in 1881. From the fourteenth to the mid nineteenth century, the Rectors were often absentees. John of Thriplow, for example, was absent for two years from 1348. Ralph Baynes was Rector until 1544 and he went on to be Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield despite his staunch support of the Catholic Monarch, Queen Mary. Nicholas Stennett was removed as Rector during her reign but was reinstated when Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne. William Middleton was an interesting character, and he was Rector from 1585 to 1613; he reportedly did not wear his surplice as Queen Elizabeth ordered, and killed himself. He is buried in the churchyard. The non-resident rector, Edmund Mapletoft, was removed in 1644 being accused of negligence and popish practices. A dozen superstitious pictures were ordered to be taken from the church. His successor, John Fido, was also dismissed, probably because he wrote a book praising parliament during the civil war.
Non-residence was common until the late nineteenth century. At that time a Sunday school was set up and a regular Sunday service was held for an average congregation of seven. By 1896 there was a resident rector and two services held each Sunday. Records show that about twenty-two villagers received communion each week and that four teachers helped at Sunday school. There was a choir and a parish magazine.
From 1966, the rector of Hardwick also served Toft and Caldecote.
History of the Church Building
The Church itself is built largely of field stones. Historians believe, using evidence from the shape, design and setting of the last window on the south side of the chancel, that there was an earlier church on the site. The vestry of St. Mary’s is modern, but the rest of the church dates from the early fourteenth century. The tower, nave and chancel were completed in the late fourteenth century, the south porch in the late fifteenth, and the unusual queen-post roofs are fifteenth century (queen-posts are vertical wooden posts on either side of the centre). During this period, the chancel arch was rebuilt to make it larger, and a stone stairway was constructed in the north east corner of the nave. The original rood screen, the carved screen which separates the nave and the choir, seems to have been removed at the time of the Reformation and replaced by another of Jacobean design in the early seventeenth century.
At one time a distinctive and richly-coloured medieval mural painting covered the whole south wall of the nave of the church. It was probably painted between 1460 and 1480. It was uncovered in 1858 during restoration work, examined and covered again until the restoration of 1986, when part of it was once more uncovered and restored, and is still visible. For more details see here.
The Diocesan records state that by 1783 the church was badly in need of repair and that the spire was out of line. Records in 1836 claim that the roof had so many holes that it gave good ventilation to the church and also admitted numbers of sparrows to the services. Restoration was begun in 1901 financed by members of Pembroke College, Cambridge. Parish registers date from 1569 and are virtually complete.
There were three bells and a sanctus bell in the tower in 1552. New bells are said to have been cast in 1797. All but one was sold and the remaining one was recast and rehung in the refurbished belfry around 2000. The font is on a modern base but it is believed to date from the thirteenth century although it has been reworked. The church has a cup and a communion plate, or paten, from 1569. On the chancel arch there is some scratching in Old English ‘MARMADUKE MESSYNDEN OFF HELYNGE YN THE CONTY OF LYNCOLNE’ that is ‘Marmaduke Messynden from Helynge in the County of Lincoln.’
Graffiti has been popular for much longer than we thought, ‘Helynge’ is probably the town of Hemmingby where the visitor came from. Rather more religious inscriptions are to be found on the western side of the south door where six lines in Latin are partly obliterated. The words ‘A SUBITA PESTE’ and ‘DIE DICTO’ can still be distinguished. This means ‘from sudden plague’ and ‘on the day spoken of’, which may be a reference to either the day of Judgement or to the Resurrection. On the second window of the south wall of the nave there is a medieval sundial. In the Churchyard, about fifteen feet south of the southern entrance, there is a tomb chest whose sides are now below ground level. It is said to contain the body of William Middleton who was rector until 1613. There are a number of eighteenth century headstones and footstones.
The church is a Grade II* listed building.