There are three graves in Oakington, which are on land next to the parish church cemetery, but are outside the church boundary. The men who are buried there were 17th century pioneers of nonconformity and their names are Francis Holcroft, Joseph Oddy and Henry Osland.
Francis Holcroft 1633-1692
He was a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, who had lion-like courage and was the first founder of churches on congregational principles. The words 'Apostle of Cambridgeshire' are on his tombstone. In 1655 he accepted the 'living' at Bassingbourn and conducted the church on congregational lines, holding to the doctrine of the gathered church.
In 1660 he lost the 'living' at Bassingbourn. Oliver Cromwell had been against the Established church, and whilst he was Lord Protector of England the nonconformists gained precedence in the University. Shortly after Cromwell died, Charles II was restored to the throne, who was a Catholic and he restored 'the Rights of the Established Churches' in 1660. (Holcroft lost his position within Cambridge University, which was linked with being the Vicar at Bassingbourn).
In 1662 he was officially silenced under the 'Act of Uniformity' and in 1663 he was imprisoned in Cambridge Castle for preaching at Great Eversden. He was sentenced to leave the country by exile or suffer death as a felon. A friendly gaoler let him out to preach in Eversden Woods and in Barns at Willingham, Cottenham, Haddenham, Orwell, Histon, Quy and Milton. He established thirty churches in South Cambs alone, even though most of the time he and Joseph Oddy were imprisoned in Cambridge Castle. There is a plaque to Holcroft in Eversden Village Hall, but all reference to him has been deleted from the church records at Bassingbourn - a solemn covenant was made with right hands raised.
Joseph Oddy 1629-1687
Joseph Oddy became a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. He also lost his 'living' as Vicar of Meldreth at the time of the Restoration in 1660. He moved to Willingham, where the vicar, Nathaniel Bradshaw, had been ejected, but formed a church in his own house and was able to preach and pastor the flock for some of the time, when he wasn't in Cambridge Castle. Oddy and Holcroft preached all over the fens, and whilst imprisoned in the Castle, they were let out by the friendly gaoler to preach at night. On the 'Declaration of Indulgence', in 1682, he moved to Cottenham until his death in 1687.
Henry Osland supported Oddy and Holcroft in their ministry. The Cottenham and Willingham Congregational Church was formed by him in 1694 and he died in 1711.
Francis Holcroft purchased the land which was used for a nonconformist cemetery, where they are all buried, and other remains were also found in the 1970's, when they were re-digging the sewers in Oakington. As time went by, the land changed in ownership and the public were asked to pay 1 shilling to view the graves, but no-one could afford the price, and as a result the graves were in disrepair. The Chivers family, being nonconformist, purchased the land and put up railings and they are now looked after by the Congregational church in Cambridge and everyone is free to visit them.
These three men established thirty churches in South Cambs alone. The church was called 'The Church of Christ in Cambridgeshire', and all those involved made a covenant, which was a declaration of faith and unity. At that time, nonconformists were ridiculed, scorned, imprisoned, fined for not carrying out their 'Ecciesiastical' duties and not buried in consecrated ground, they were threatening the whole establishment.
The land in Oakington was owned by Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire, which was Catholic. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the land was purchased by Queens College, Cambridge. The Vicar of the church is always a Queens graduate of theology, because of the link between the College and the Village.
An extract taken from: Two Centuries of Grace: Being a brief history of the Baptist Church, Waterbeach (1903) - Ebenezer Smith (Deacon) - Note: this was a spoken piece.
The History of the Church is of thrilling interest and vital importance to all who study the stirring romance of Non-comformity; for it is a record of unbroken loyalty to Christ, of unflinching heroism under severe persecution, and of unrivalled progress in spiritual power and usefulness. A Free Church testimony that extends over two centuries must command the sincerest respect of Nonconformist Christendom, and hence it is no wonder that we claim to be justly proud of the noble service rendered by this Church in that conflict which has given to the people of this Empire their glorious religious liberties. It is in perfect harmony with this occasion that a brief summary of the History of this Church be given, and in recalling the days of old, filled with the inspiring memories of godly and devoted lives, every member of this church and congregation should realise the greatness of our common heritage, and resolve by the Grace of God to prove worth of so solemn a trust.
The earliest record we have of the existence of this Church belongs to the year 1662 - a fact which is significant in itself, when it is remembered that Charles II., a profligate in life, and a Romanist at heart, was then seated upon our Protestant throne.
It was the ever memorable year of the Act of Uniformity - an Act, which in causing two thousand incumbents to resign their livings, brought about the first fruits of Cromwell's sturdy sowing, and laid the foundation of that great fabric - the Evangelical Free Churches of Great Britain. Among those who were thus ejected were two men, already known for their piety and scholarship, by name Joseph Oddy and Francis Holcroft, who became the founders of most of the Nonconformist Churches in this county, of which this Church is one. Like Whitfield and Wesley, these men were governed by a mighty passion to preach the Gospel, and so in the face of bitter persecution they went about fulfilling their great noble mission.
It is related that on one occasion Holcroft was preaching in a wood between Willingham and Cottenham. As usual he was seated upon his horse ready for flight should any informers arrive - but ere he or his audience were aware, a party of rough men broke into the little company, and the good man was flung from his horse and stunned. In that condition he was strapped across his own steed and carried off to Cambridge Castle where he became a prisoner for the sake of Christ. Did that put out the lamp of truth? No! Many more such persecutions were to do their worst, but having done all, the light of God's good word was only fanned to further the flame in the hearts of men, and learnt from the Master the dignity if the danger, the reward if the difficulty of being lights set upon the hill that cannot be hid. And to-day when you pass by Oakington Church, pause to do honour at the graves lying side by side of Holcroft and Oddy. United in life, they are joined in death, and under the quiet trees amid the beautiful fields they await that great awakening in which the God shall give them their reward.
It is difficult in our day to realise the sacrifice men made less than 200 years ago to do what we are privileged to do without let or hinderance. I will give two instances in proof, taken from the early history of this Church.
The village hour is nine in the evening. Darkness is wrapping her welcom mantle about the busy world, and a hush is stealing over men and things. In the village of Willingham, the tiny flickering lights stand in the cottage windows, and the villagers are almost ready for bed. Presently a light is snuffed out and a door cautiously opened - then a closely cloaked figure steals out into the shadows and hurries to the Cottenham road. This repeated in many houses by many people, until a number of men and women have gathered and together move noiselessly on to Cottenham. There they are met by others, waiting in the darkness, and the growing company walk on to Landbeach. Again they are added to, and on they come to Waterbeach where the first few members of this Church join the throng. they have only a flickering, guttering light in a rough old lantern to light them - but music is in their soul, and often the whisper on to the other some sweet scripture, or plaintively chant some soft melody. At length they reach the river Cam; in an old boat they cross the water, and there in a lonely wood near the old Abbey that once stood at Bottisham Lode, they kneel in worship of the great Saviour of men. They had no roads to guide them - only rough zigzag paths. They had no attractive popular service or great preacher, but they were drawn by their own deep sense of love to Christ, by their desire to gain spiritual strength, and neither principalities nor powers could hinder the. Let us not forget that, when a little shower, or cold, or tiredness, keeps us at home from the services of God's house - that testimony will rise up in a judgment to shame us.
From Athur Mee's King's England Series - Cambridgeshire pp. 179-180
OAKINGTON. It has a little garden which has become a shrine. In it are no gilded canopies, no sculptured arches over marble tombs, but three brick graves with iron railings round.
They are the graves of three Puritan ministers, spiritual fathers of Cambridge Nonconformity, Francis Holcroft, Joseph Oddy, and Henry Osland. All three lost their livings for their preaching, and one of them his liberty; and here all three were laid within 25 years from 1687, three men who, in their own words, bowed not down.
Francis Holcroft was one of the victims of that intolerant era when our ancestors were certain that with their little plummets they had sounded the depths of the universe, and each religious party per-secuted another as power and opportunity arrived. Cambridge sent Francis Holcroft forth an MA, fellow of his college, a clergyman but a Puritan. A profound scholar, he had no secular ambition, but laboured modestly first at Litlington and then at Bassingbourn, until in 1662 he was ejected, and fronted an almost friendless world, implacably hostile to the Church which had shattered his life and ruined his fruitful ministry. Preaching stealthily up and down the county to those who held steadfast to Puritanism, he was seized, lied for unlawful preaching, and actually banished the realm. The intercession of Lord Anglesey, who approached Charles the Second on the matter, prevented the fulfillment of this terrible punishment, but Holcroft was thrown into prison as an insolvent debtor.
Compelled thus to suffer as criminally responsible for the poverty persecution had brought upon him, he was kept in gaol until his debts were paid, being generously assisted by Archbishop Tillotson, who had been with him at Cambridge. After the Revolution he was able to return to his work, taking general charge of a chain of congregations in his native county and over the border. His earlier sufferings, however, told upon his health, which broke down, and he died a victim of melancholia, to be buried here in 1692. He is still remembered with honour throughout Cambridgeshire, where in every village he preached the gospel as he understood it.
From Athur Mee's King's England Series - Cambridgeshire pp. 165-166
News in a Window - LITLINGTON.
Many a prisoner must have looked through the iron grille of the old lock-up, a red brick cell. Here during the Commonwealth came a Puritan priest who preached himself into prison over and over again. He was Francis Holcroft, who started his ministry as a voluntary priest here. He was ejected from Bassingbourn, but in spite of constant imprisonments he had preached in nearly every village in Cambridgeshire before he died worn out at an early age, having done more than any other man in this county to promote independent religious thought.
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[Last updated 20 August 1999 Martin Edwards]