So why, even at a period when the power and influence of the Church was at its height immediately before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, would the house for a priest in a small village on the edge of the fenland be built with such a glorious but worldly display of moulded brickwork? To an extent the same puzzle applies to the moulded beams inside and even more so to the wall paintings (although these may reflect the taste of later, non-ecclesiastical inhabitants).
The interconnecting rooms and large downstairs chamber suggest multiple uses as well as lodging for a priest. The building of church houses was a common feature of the late 15th century, buildings used much as village halls are today as a meeting room or space for the villagers to congregate for Church Ales. Perhaps there were links between the living and nearby Castle Acre Priory; a church house could also double as a lodging block for visitors to a priory. Equally, the manor of Methwold had been part of the Duchy of Lancaster and therefore Crown property since 1347; perhaps accommodation was required for the Crown representative. Perhaps simply the house was built for a lay owner and passed into church ownership later. Certainly church houses were built to a high standard: the Priest’s House in Halcombe Rogus was also a church house from a similar date and is a far more typical expression of the form, with fine but essentially sober detailing. But all this is speculation in trying to resolve why Methwold Old Vicarage presents such an essentially secular form – the documents have yet to provide an answer.
With all the debate that surrounds the divestment of vicarages by the Church, it is somehow reassuring to discover that Methwold Old Vicarage has been an ‘old’ (in the sense of former) vicarage since the mid 18th century, and possibly long before that. Through all this time, it was an impropriate vicarage, or one whose upkeep had been handed to the lay patron of the living. But Methwold parish had been impropriate since long before that. As early as 1533, ‘a fine was levied between the King and Thomas, Prior of Castle-Acre, of this [Methwold] Rectory, and the Advowson of the Vicarage, and soon after, on 22 Dec in the said Year, the King granted them to Thomas, Duke of Norfolk’ (assuming this does indeed refer to this house rather than a different one since lost). It must be from these next years that the wall paintings date. In 1614, the rectory and the advowson of the vicarage were alienated to Sir Henry Hobart. While some vicars of Methwold listed in St George’s opposite must have lived in the vicarage, by the 1670s the house had lay tenants and possibly long before that.
By 1800, the house was in a state of some disrepair, was being lived in by two families and considered unsuitable for the hospitality deemed appropriate for a vicar to offer. This was used by the patron, John Partridge, as justification for the uniting of the livings of Methwold and Cranwich at this date. By the mid 19th century the great Victorian revival in the Church of England had shifted the emphasis from hospitality to care of souls in the duties of their vicars. Cranwich and Methwold were therefore disunited in 1853 and in 1854 a ‘neat new vicarage house’ was erected at the other end of the parish in Southery.
This was lamented by Rev. John Denny Gedge in his history of the village in 1893: ‘Oh! If my predecessor, instead of erecting my vicarage house out of contact with the village, at one end of this enormous parish of nearly 14,000 acres, had but accepted … the New Hall adjoining, and secured the old Vicarage for parish rooms, for clubs, for mothers’ meetings… and other such uses, restoring the two long apartments of which it consists to their old dimensions … Oh! if some charitable millionaire even now would buy it, and its price would be very small, and present it to the parish.’ By the Rev. Gedge’s day, the Old Vicarage was still divided into two cottages and was still showing signs of neglect – ‘now, alas! The tenant of one of the two cottages …has been allowed to smother it with ivy. Oh! If some nightly visitant would but sever the stems of that accursed plant. Why should a community have no power against private vandalism?’
The building’s decline continued into the 20th century. By the 1930s, its poor condition brought it to the attention of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Despite their efforts on behalf of the building, the absentee landlord seemed to be hoping to demolish it and rebuild. It had become tenements for four families, each with a living room and larder and two bedrooms and a communal tap outside. By the early 1960s, it was scheduled for demolition as unfit for human habitation. Its saviour then appeared in the form of Monica Dance (Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings from 1939 to 1978), who bought the Old Vicarage with her husband Harry in 1964 and restored it with characteristic sensitivity. In 1979 the Dances handed their former home, Manor Farm, to Landmark’s care and moved to Methwold. Over the years the Dances hosted many gatherings of the SPAB scholars at the Old Vicarage, young craftsmen being trained in traditional skills under the aegis of the SPAB.