The parish church is the oldest building in Sawston and for most of the second millennium was the focal point of the parish witnessing to God, during times of sorrow as well as during times of celebration and happiness.
There was probably a church here in Saxon times before the year 1000 but, as in most villages, the coming of the Normans in 1066 led to a new church being built by the Norman Lord of the Manor. Ralph Pyratt lived on the site of Sawston Hall and wanted his church nearby.
The Norman church ended at the current chancel arch and had a high pitched roof and small narrow windows, possibly with leaded diamond panes which helped the water run off more easily. The west end of the nave is what remains of the Norman work with its four pillars; two round and two octagonal with typical scallop decorations and the semi-circular arches. The pillars are very solid; the round ones have a circumference of 2.16 metres (85 inches) which may help to explain why the building has virtually no foundations. There may also have been a central tower which would help account for the tremendous size of the central pillars.
In about 1220 the chancel of the Norman church was pulled down or perhaps, if there was a central tower, it fell down. This necessitated repairs and at the same time provided the required materials. Two more bays were added, with pointed arches in the Early English style, with pillars made from larger stones which therefore used less mortar than in earlier times. Building skills had advanced and if you stand in the middle of the church the contrast is clear. At the same time the aisle extensions and a new chancel were added giving the outline of the building as it is today.
In the centre of the church lies the memorial slab to William de Sawston which was probably put in place between 1325 and 1340. Around the edge it reads ‘Here lies Sir William de Sawston for whom whoever passes by may say a Paternoster (Our Father)’.
The Black Death came to Sawston in the middle of the fourteenth century and killed at least twenty eight peasants and no doubt many others in their families. However work on the church building continued, with a new east window and new south aisle windows, neither of which remain. The thatched roof needed repair so was taken off and a new roof put in its place. Whilst this work was being done the fashionable and very costly clerestory windows (the upper range of windows in the nave) were installed, paid for, remarkably, by the parishioners.
The tower of the church has Norman foundations but probably collapsed at some point, as towers were prone to do. A new bell tower was certainly in place, as it now stands, by 1400. It contains eight bells cast between 1678 and 1885. The six oldest bells have inscriptions, five of which include the names of the churchwardens of the time.
The last major structural changes to the church came in the fifteenth century when large perpendicular windows on the south side of the chancel were added. These would have been very expensive and were probably paid for by the de la Pole family, the Lords of the Manor at the time.
After 1500, the main alterations came with the Reformation and the visit of Puritan William Dowsing, who destroyed inscriptions, stained glass and crucifixes in 1643. In 1685 the church door was ‘so broken that the Hoggs may creep under it’ and outside ‘the Hoggs have rooted up the graves’ while by 1799 the churchwardens had to pay ‘for powder, shot and time in destroying ye sparrows at church – four shilling.’
After 1842 the state of the church improved gradually and from 1880 to 1902 a thorough Victorian restoration took place. The Victorians filled the church with pitch pine pews, a new font, a richly carved pulpit, a wooden eagle lectern and somewhat overpowering choir stalls in memory of a late Victorian vicar, Charles Crump, who bought the Oxford Movement to Sawston.
In the twentieth century, the pews were replaced with chairs and the wooden platforms on which they stood were removed and the floor paved. The font was moved from a place by the south door to its present position. In 1963 the organ was moved from the north east corner of the church to its elevated position and a priest’s vestry made in the space cleared. When this work was done, two memorials to Jesuit priests who had served at Sawston Hall were rediscovered.
After prolonged discussion the choirstalls were finally removed in the early 1980s, after being in place for 100 years. At the same time the pulpit was removed and the reredos moved to the west end. This has given the church a feeling of light and spaciousness in the chancel and small services, discussion groups and even meetings can be held there.
During 1995 the belfry area was turned into a kitchen and toilet facilities provided. The ringing chamber is now at a first floor level and the former choir vestry has been made into a comfortable space for children’s activities and for coffee after services, whilst a children’s area has also been provided in the south aisle.
Most of the church has been re-roofed from the chancel to the aisles, with stainless steel being used for the aisles. In 2006 the Victorian nave roof was replaced and the parapets repaired. The tower has also needed regular repair and no longer boasts the flag pole which, sadly, was struck by lightning.