In Oakington, close to the churchyard, is a private burial ground containing the graves of three vicars who later became known as the Oakington Martyrs. The site is preserved today as a memorial to non-conformist Protestantism.
In the 17th century various non-conformist sects, including Baptist, Methodists, Congregationalists, started to become established in England. Their practices failed to conform to the Church of England’s doctrine and hence these groups became labelled ‘non-conformist’. In order to suppress Non-conformism an Act of Uniformity was passed in 1662 whereby vicars had to swear allegiance to the Church of England and only preach in the latter’s churches. If vicars did not take the oath and thus dissented they were ejected from their livings and had to preach in the open, relying on hand-outs from their supporters for their survival. They were constantly persecuted and often imprisoned by the establishment.
In Cambridgeshire the village of Oakington was an early hot-bed of dissent, to the extent that the bishop considered it to be the most scandalous and vile parish in his diocese in 1685. In 1672 two houses had been licensed for dissenting worship there, probably by Quakers and Independents. In addition these two sects had each established a distinct burial ground in the village around that time. The one nearer the churchyard had been purchased by the Reverend Francis Holcroft for the Independents. Followers of this sect often chose to be buried there as it was considered to be ‘more sanctified ground’, even if they lived elsewhere.
The Reverends Francis Holcroft and Joseph Oddy were 17th century pioneers of the non-conformist movement, and known as the ‘Apostles of Cambridgeshire’. It was by their heroic zeal that various non-conformist churches were established in Cambridgeshire. Although originating from other villages, they were active in Oakington and buried in the Independent burial ground there along with their colleague from the next generation, the Reverend Henry Osland. Ejected from their livings, persecuted and imprisoned for propagating their faith during their lives they became known as the ‘Oakington Martyrs’ in death.
The Independent burial ground in Oakington was in the hands of trustees in the 1830s. Later accessed by a public footpath it is preserved today as a memorial to the three martyrs and to Non-conformity. (The Quakers’ burial ground was little used in the 18th century, and sold off in 1811.)
Some more details about the vicars known as the three martyrs follow:
Rev Francis Holcroft
An MA and Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University. Made a dissenter by the Act of Uniformity in 1662 and ejected from the vicarage of Bassingbourn for non-conformist activities. Imprisoned from 1663 for many years in Cambridge Castle and later in London. Let out to preach on parole (or by unofficial means) from the former in Eversden woods and elsewhere. Died at Thriplow on 6 January 1692 and buried at Oakington.
Rev Joseph Oddy
Born Leeds, Yorkshire. Scholar, then MA and Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge University. Ejected from the living at Meldreth in 1662 and later lost his Fellowship. Persecuted and imprisoned (on one occasion for at about 4 years) in Cambridge and the Fleet prison, London. Preached as an itinerant in the woods between Cottenham and Willingham, establishing a church at the latter. He returned to Cottenham in 1672. He died on 3 May 1687 and was buried at Oakington.
Rev Henry Osland
Probably the son of his namesake, and born at Bewdley in Worcestershire. Preached at Willingham and Cottenham. In 1694 formed a Congregational church at Cottenham and was its Pastor. Died on 19 November 1711 at the age of 43, and buried at Oakington.
Victoria History of the County of Cambridgeshire, vol IX, on Oakington village, Cambridgeshire Collection, Cambridgeshire Public Libraries
‘The Oakington Graves’ – Pamphlet by C S Kenny, 1928 Ref: 231/Z59, Cambridgeshire County Record Office, Cambridge
‘The Three Graves’: Commemoration Festival at Oakington, 1867, Ref C.82.05, Cambridgeshire Collection
Memorandum of sale of Oakington Burial Ground (the Quakers), 15/1/1811. Ref: R59/25/16/2, Cambridgeshire County Record Office, Cambridge
‘The Oakington Martyrs’ by S Williamson, Cambridgeshire Local History Society Bulletin 27 (1972) 23 – 30, Cambridgeshire Collection
‘The Three Witnesses’ by W R Brown, Ref C.80.03, Cambridgeshire Collection
‘Oakington Graves’ (appeal re constructing a footpath to graves) by J N Keynes 1928, Ref: C.82.05, Cambridgeshire Collection
Compiled by HAE Stroude, 2011