St Cyriac is one of two churches in Swaffham Prior – it shares a lovely steep churchyard with St Mary. St Cyriac is now redundant, and St Mary is the parish church, though the history of the relationship between the two churches is rather long and complicated. Most of the history is on the other page, so I suggest that you read that first, if you have not already done so.
St Cyriac was established by a group of French knights, and this is probably the reason for the unusual dedication, since Cyriac and his mother Julitta were slightly better known on the continent. Under the Diocletian persecutions, Julitta was hauled in front of her local provincial governor to be interrogated prior to crucifixion. The governor took Cyriac – who was three years old at the time – onto his knee during the examination, during which time Cyriac insisted throughout on telling the governor that he too was a Christian, in between boxing the governor’s ears. Infuriated, the governor cast him to the ground with such force that the child died instantly (a just punishment for being a little brat, I suspect). Julitta went on to be crucified, and the two are accounted martyrs together.
There was a Norman church here, but in the 15 th century it was rebuilt in grand style. Nothing of that church survives save for the lovely 15 th century tower, but that is a lovely enough survival. The lower half is square, with a chequered stone and brick base course. Brace buttresses then support an octagonal lantern which is elaborately decorated with flintwork and a parapet, and accessed by a polygonal stair turret rising the entire height of the tower in the north-east corner. It’s very fine, and makes one wonder what the 15 th century church must have looked like.
Sadly, after the two congregations were united, they took to worshiping in St Mary, and St Cyriac was allowed to fall into decay. In the late 18 th century, though, St Mary was struck by lightning and seriously damaged; and, after some botched attempts at restoration, the congregation decided to move over here.
The last ruined remains of the old church were removed, and in 1806 a new body was built in the revived gothic style. The architect was Charles Humphrey, a student of James Wyatt, and the building bears the mark of the slightly whimsical Strawberry Hill style. I really rather liked it.
Entry is through the west tower, and one steps out from under a gallery into an elegant, nearly square space. Four tall, slender pillars mark out the aisles from the nave, though the distinction doesn’t really mean very much: there is a slight pitch to the ceiling running along the centre of the church, but the nave is the same width and height as the aisles. Three shallow bays serve as sanctuary and transepts, and tall windows fill the space with light and air; it has one of the best echoes of any Cambridgeshire church I’ve been in, and it makes singing very enjoyable.
The space is now almost entirely empty, although a pile of stacking chairs hint at occasional community use. Unbelievably, St Cyriac was nearly abandoned to ruin a second time after St Mary was restored, and even as recently as the sixties the structure was allowed to be covered in ivy in the expectation of a slow collapse. Thankfully, the Churches Conservation Trust has rescued it, and keeps it safe for posterity.
SS Cyriac and Julitta is often kept open by the Churches Conservation Trust.