The known origins of St. Nicolas Church go back to the 12th Century. By 1118 Nuneaton, or Etone as it was then called, had fallen to one of Henry I’s warrior-knights, Robert Beaumont. We know that his son, Earl Robert ‘le Bossu’, (the hunchback) made a gift of the living of St. Nicolas’ to the monastery of Lyre in Normandy. Lyre collected the church’s revenues and appointed vicars to minister to the townsfolk. Lyre lay in the diocese of Evreux where the nearby town of Beaumont le Roger was founded and named after the father of Robert Beaumont. It has a 12th Century parish church of St. Nicolas which may well explain our French spelling of the Saint without the letter h.
The earliest visual evidence of the medieval church is to be found in the chapel on the south-east side where there is a stone seat or sedile (pictured left) and a priests’ wash basin or piscina (pictured above right). This chapel, originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary, became a Chantry chapel soon after 1500 when John Leeke left money for a priest to say masses for the souls of himself and his family. The chapel roof was raised and two additional windows inserted. However the Chantry did not last long. Around 1540 it was dissolved by townsfolk, correctly anticipating the Reformation closure of Chantries which took place in 1548. But the chapel has, since this time, been known as the Leeke Chapel.
On the north-east side of the 15th century church was another chapel, that of St Katherine. This was referred to in the Will of Richard Astell who died in the same year as John Leeke, 1508. Its space is now filled by the organ.
By this time the main body of the church had recently undergone considerable renovation. The old steeply pitched roof had been replaced by one of a late 15th Century style with magnificent beams, (pictured right) finely carved roof bosses and the popular medieval emblem of the Five Wounds of Christ, all of which have survived to the present day. Use of the Tudor Rose would mean this construction was after 1485. At the same time sixteen clerestory windows have given the Church a light and airy appearance. Clearly much money was spent on the church around 1500 but whether this was by Leeke or Astell, the local Priory, or persons unknown, remains uncertain.
In the fifteenth century King Henry V had appropriated the St. Nicolas living to the Crown, where it still remains. In 1521 and 1558 respectively this resulted in two distinguished academics with Court connections, Robert Whittington and Nicholas Cartwright, both being appointed vicar, though they appear to have spent only a limited time in the parish. The Elizabethan Protestant settlement meant the obliteration of two large medieval wall paintings (re-discovered but then lost again in the 19th Century) and the replacement of the stone altar by a beautifully carved communion table which still survives. Also, the Priory lands had been confiscated and for a short time they were in the possession of Sir Marmaduke Constable whose large tomb is in the Chancel (pictured above left).
With its links to the Crown, appointments often reflected the religious and political preferences of those in power. So in 1655 Royalist William Cradock was replaced by Cromwellian Richard Pyke. Pyke, however, compromised his principles in 1660 and accepted the authority of the newly restored Charles II. But he maintained a not so cordial dislike of drunken Royalist Nuneaton schoolmaster William Trevis and aided the Grammar School boys in 1665 in their violent protest against their Master’s sadistic cruelty. Pyke also re-built the adjacent vicarage in a grander style which it still bears today, though the property was sold in 1973.
At this time Nuneaton was not a place noted for its size or wealth. The most powerful families around 1700 were probably the Stratfords and the Trotmans. The memorials in the Chancel to Anthony Trotman and his wife Abigail, and to Mary Stratford, are certainly the most elaborate in the Church. But much of the area was poor and agricultural. There was no dominating family such as the Newdigates in neighbouring Chilvers Coton, the Priory lands having been divided and sold on numerous occasions.
As Nuneaton’s population grew in the 18th Century and it became a centre for ribbon weaving, galleries were constructed on the north and south sides in 1768 and 1790 respectively to accommodate additional worshippers. The parish was a large one and included present day Attleborough, Stockingford and Galley Common (though not Weddington and Chilvers Coton). The very different physical appearance of the interior of the church at this time, dominated by a three- decker pulpit, can be seen in a contemporary picture still hanging in the church. Vicars were generally absent and parish work done by curates, the longest serving by far being Hugh Hughes from 1779 -1830 who has a memorial tablet in the Leeke Chapel (pictured above left) and is depicted in local novelist’s George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life.
The Church was transformed in many ways in the 19th Century. Canon Robert Savage, (pictured right) vicar 1845-1871 was the first resident incumbent for many years. He took an active part in the life of the town, concerning himself with public health reforms and the poor condition of the ribbon weavers. He built four Church of England schools in different parts of the town in his first five years in post and encouraged Libraries and Reading Rooms for adult education. He even looked after and helped to educate two South African chiefs for five years. Canon Savage also oversaw the transformation of the church building – the east wall of the church was taken down and the chancel lengthened. The three-decker pulpit was removed and the church now looked more like a place of worship than a preaching shop.
After Savage’s death the town grew rapidly but Nuneaton parish had already been divided with the creation of Holy Trinity, Attleborough, in 1842 and St Paul’s, Stockingford (formerly a chapel-of- ease) in 1854. In 1877 St Mary’s church was built on the site of the Old Priory and would cater for the growing Manor Court area of town. Under Savage’s successor, Henry Bellairs, a robed choir began to lead the worship, a tradition still maintained. The next vicar, Canon Deed, sold some vicarage land at a low price just after 1900 to enable the Grammar School to expand. In return the church acquired the Old Grammar School, still used as a parish office and now integrated into new buildings (pictured above left).
In the 1920s the Leeke Chapel, neglected for many years was thoroughly restored to play a fuller role in the life of St. Nicolas being used both for smaller communion services, and, latterly for the ministry of healing. The panelling and reredos (altar backing) (Victorian) glass, blown out. Just one window, depicting Simeon receiving the Christ child, (pictured right) remains from a set inserted in the late 19th/early 20th Century.
By the mid 20th Century the ageing church was requiring a good deal of attention. The galleries were removed in the mid 1960s and there was further major restoration work in the mid 1980s.
The centre of gravity of the parish was changing as well as the building, beginning with the wartime bombing of the community immediately around St. Nicolas and continuing with the construction of the St Nicolas Park housing estate in the late 1960s. When the new Horeston Grange estate was erected in the 1980s, a local ecumenical church was built of which St. Nicolas remains a major partner.
In 2010, after at least twenty years of vision and planning a new St. Nicolas Community Centre was built between the Old Grammar School and the Church (picture left). It now hosts a multitude of community activities. This was closely followed by the re-ordering of the Church building with the replacement of pews by chairs and a raised dais to enable the Elizabethan communion table once again to take a prominent role in worship. St. Nicolas has evolved in many different ways over the centuries, and will doubtless continue to do so.