St Thomas a Becket, Ramsey, Huntingdonshire

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Feature Sets (3)


12thc. nave with aisles of seven bays, the W bay curtailed. The clerestorey dates from the 15thc. The one-bay square vaulted chancel originally had aisles, and remains of the S aisle are visible on the exterior. On the N there is a later vestry that continues the line of the nave aisle. The tower is set at the S of the nave's W end, and its erection dates from 1672. The building history is complex and is sketched in section VII, but here it must be noted that the building was originally the hospitium of Ramsey Abbey, and had no W tower. The nave arcades were shortened by just over one bay when the tower was added, and the tower arch appears to have been constructed of parts of the removed arcade including the W respond capitals. Meanwhile the original W doorway, of much the same date as the nave but stylistically unrelated, was presumably moved to its present position as W tower doorway. This is only one of several hypotheses that could be advanced to account for the present appearance of the W end. The tower and the lower parts of the aisle walls and the E façade are of ashlar, while what can be seen of the rest of the chancel is of cobbles. There was an extensive restoration in 1843-44. 12thc work described here comprises the chancel vault and arch, its E windows and the remains of the S chapel; the nave arcades, the W tower arch and the W tower doorway.


The town of Ramsey is situated on what was originally an island surrounded by Bury Fen on the south and Stocking Fen on the north, and was approached by a causeway on one side only. The abbey stood on the highest part of the island. The foundation of the abbey is attributed to Ailwine in 969, and the first mention of its leugata or banlieu (the privileged area around the abbey itself) is in a charter of Henry I of c. 1100-02. Until the end of the 12thc., the town was quite unimportant; it is not mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086. By the end of the 12thc. it had grown enough for the Abbot of Ramsey to obtain the grant of a weekly market. There is no precise foundation date for the church described above, but the hospitium which became St Thomas a Becket's must have been founded c.1180 and seems to have been dissolved before 1291, when the first reference to a parish church occurs. Before this date the parishioners had the right of worship in the abbey church. The dedication at this time (or possibly in 1237, when many churches in the diocese were consecrated under papal pressure) was not to Becket, but (according to Cole) to SS Mary and Benedict.

The nave originally had eight bays. In 1537 the last Abbot of Ramsey, John Lawrence, ordered the executors of his will to make a payment towards the building of 'a Stepule in the Parish Church of Ramsey', but the result of his generosity seems only to have been the construction of a wooden belfry. This fell down in 1672, and the churchwardens then built a new tower with stone from the abbey. It has been suggested that one of the abbey towers was used for the purpose. The present tower arch was presumably constructed at that time, re-using responds from the curtailed nave arcade. Whether the W tower doorway is the original W doorway of the hospitium or an import from the abbey or elsewhere is a matter of conjecture. Stylistically it has no connection with other sculpture in St Thomas's.


Exterior Features


W tower doorway

Four orders, round-headed.1st order, plain jambs and arch with no capitals but hollow chamfered imposts with an angle rollbetween face and chamfer. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th orders have en-delit nook shafts with triple roll bases and shaft-rings linked in a frieze. Their arches have angle rolls and hollows on face and soffit, except the 4th, which just has an angle roll. The label is hollow chamfered. The capitals all have chamfered neckings and imposts as the 1st order, but their designs vary:

2nd order N: On each main face a spiral beaded stem terminating in a furled fluted leaf with a scalloped edge. On the angle is a volute.

2nd order S: A flat leaf terminating in a volute on each face.

3rd order N: Waterleaf. 3rd order S. A flat double leaf terminating in a volute on each face.

4th order N: A palmette at the foot of each face has a pair of symmetrical beaded stems rising to L and R. These meet in a strap, then turn outwards to terminate in a pair of furled leaves. At the angle this forms a volute.

4th order S. Each face has a flat, square leaf rising from the necking and curling over at the top in a multi-lobed, fluted, scallop-edges terminal.

h of opening 3.39 m
w of opening 1.74 m


Chancel, E wall

There is a triplet of round-headed windows with a mandorla-shaped oculus above. On the exterior these all have a continuous inner order with a nook roll, and an outer plain step. From within they are deeply splayed and repeat the two-order design of the exterior.

Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Chancel arch

The pointed arch has two orders to the W and one to the E, all plain and square. It rests on a single, curved multi-scallop capital on each side, which also carries the diagonal ribs of the chancel vault. The capitals have plain, heavy scallops with rolls between them, plain square neckings and chamfered imposts with a groove at the bottom of the face. Each capital is carried on a cluster of shafts: from the W, a roll, a fatter keeled roll, a roll, and at the E a square respond corresponding to the vault rib and wall arch above. The bases are water-holding.

Tower/Transept arches

Tower arch

E arch

Pointed and of four orders in the arch, curtailed in a vertical line at N and S so that only the 1st order forms a complete arch. The 1st order arch is chamfered, the others square. The responds are half-columns with a pair of keeled shafts on each. The N capital is made up of a double-scallop to E and W, corresponding to the keeled shafts, linked by a frieze of two scallops (the W a replacement). All scallops are sheathed, and those at the angles have conical wedges running up their lengths. The necking is square and the impost block moulded with a hollow chamfer below a roll, then a hollow and a vertical face with a groove. On the S, the angles of the capital are treated as flat-leaf capitals, and the frieze between them is of three sheathed scallops. The necking and impost block are the same as the N side.


S chancel arcade

Surviving on the exterior of the chancel are the worn responds with capitals and imposts of a two-bay S arcade. Only the S parts of each respond is visible, as follows: W respond. A square respond bearing a plain triple-scallop capital with plain necking and impost as on the W tower arch. Pier 1. A cluster of three shafts, the central one fatter and keeled, carrying a triple capital of which the central element may once have been a double scallop, and the flanking elements flat leaves or single scallops. Roll necking survives above the E capital. The impost is hollow chamfered with a face groove. E respond. A nook shaft with a flat-leaf capital with pellets above the leaf tips. Roll necking and hollow-chamfered impost with worn face.


N arcade

E respond: clustered shafts alternately broad and narrow, the broad shafts keeled. The capital is convex in plan with flattened ends, and carved with multi-scallop decoration with sheathed scallops.

Pier N1: quatrefoil section pier with keels on all shafts. The capital is a cross-shaped triple waterleaf with volutes on the tips of the angle leaves.

Pier N2: clustered pier with eight shafts, alternately thick and thin. The capital is circular in plan, and the minor shafts have projecting flat leaves above them, with volutes at the tips on the two aisle side leaves. Above each major shaft is a flat design in low relief - alternately a recessed pointed leaf with a central leaf in relief; and a pair of symmetrical stems meeting in the centre with a round leaf suspended from the junction.

Pier N3: circular pier with a cross-shaped capital. The capital is a sheathed multi-scallop with a nebuly row of beading where shields are expected. At each external angle is a pointed flat leaf in low relief bearing a central pointed flat leaf.

Pier N4: compound quatrefoil pier with keeled shafts and capital of circular plan. Above each shaft is a 2-lobed flat leaf with scalloped edge and little volutes on the inner side of each lobe. Between these, above the square angles of the pier, are projecting double volutes.

Pier N5: octagonal pier with cross-shaped capital. The capital is a multi-scallop with dished shields and sheathed scallops, carved in flat relief. At each external angle is a ball-like volute.

Pier N6: clustered octofoil pier with keeled shafts and circular capital. Above each shaft, the capital has a plain bell with a pair of projecting volutes.

S arcade

The pier profiles are the same as their counterparts on the N, except for pier S1, which has a quatrefoil section with keels on the E and W shafts only. Capital plans also correspond to those on the N, but there are differences of decoration as described below.

E respond: multi-scallop (no sheaths).

Pier S1: each face has a trilobed leaf in low relief in the centre, flanked by broad leaves with heavy, projecting angle volutes.

Pier S2: multiple flat-leaf design, with broad, rounded leaves above the shafts alternating with narrower pointed leaves, the whole forming a continuous frieze in low relief.

Pier S3: in the centre of each face, an ogee-pointed flat leaf with central vein. To either side is a stem curving out towards the angle, where it terminates in a volute.

Pier S4: multiple waterleaf capital with grooves instead of notches and small lilies at the leaf tips, resting on the abacus.

Pier S5: multi-scallop with sheathed scallops.

Pier S6: multiple waterleaf capital with broad notches carrying tongue-shaped leaves.

Vaulting/Roof Supports


Quadripartite rib vault

A one-bay quadripartite rib vault covers the chancel. The diagonal ribs are broad and square in section, and there are square-section wall arches to N and S. At the W the vault ribs and wall arches are carried on the chancel arch capitals (see IV.1.a). At the E they are carried on coursed, attached nook shafts in the NE and SE angles of the chancel. The shafts have no bases. The NE capital is a cushion with roll necking and hollow-chamfered impost with a face groove. The SE has a single scallop on the W face and a double scallop on the N with a wedge between the scallops. Necking and impost is the same as on the NE.


A point of interest is the range of pier forms in the nave arcades, which Pevsner describes as 'a most instructive assortment of late C12 possibilities'. He also notes that the W doorway is more conservative in both its round-headed form and its sculptural motifs than work in the nave, which is certainly true and would point to it having come from elsewhere, although presumably not the tower in which it is set, which belongs substantially to the 13thc. The font is not included in this report since (and in spite of Black's assertion that it is earlier than any of the fabric) it is an early- to mid-13thc. piece, but this is of interest since it suggests that the church was in parochial use at that time.


  • Ramsey Church Guide (Anon, The Parish Church of St Thomas a Becket, Ramsey, und.)
  • Victoria County History: Huntingdonshire. II (1932)
  • Black, Notes on Ramsey, 1904
  • J. Wise and W. M. Noble, Ramsey Abbey, its rise and fall, London 1881.
  • N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Bedfordshire and the County of Huntingdon and Peterborough, Harmondsworth 1968, 332-34.
  • RCHM(E), An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Huntingdonshire. London 1926, 204-07.
Exterior from S.


Site Location
National Grid Reference
TL 291 851 
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Huntingdonshire
now: Cambridgeshire
medieval: Lincoln (Dorchester to 1085)
now: Ely
now: St Thomas a Becket
medieval: St Mary and St Benedict
Type of building/monument
Parish church, formerly Hospitium of Ramsey Abbey  
Report authors
Ron Baxter