History of St Nicolas Church, Nuneaton
History of St Nicolas
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 and a priests’ wash basin or piscina. 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 The old steeply pitched roof had been replaced by one of a late 15th Century style with magnificent beams, (pictured right) finely carved roof bosses and the popular medieval emblem of the Five Wounds of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 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, 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. 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.
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, 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. 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.
Summary of our History
Origins and Medieval Growth
- While there may well have been a Church in Nuneaton in Anglo-Saxon times, the Viking invasion of Mercia in 1016 would have almost certainly destroyed it.
- The first evidence of a building on this site comes from 1155 when Earl Robert le Bossu, made a gift of the Church to the Monastery of Lyre in Normandy, ensuring the French spelling of Nicolas would continue.
- There is little more evidence of activity at St Nicolas until the 14th Century when vicars began to be recorded. The oldest part of the Church, the Leeke Chapel to the north-east, shows decorative work from that period and includes a carved head reputed to be that of Edward III (1327-77) the first royal patron of the Church, suggesting a temporary seizure from Lyre Monastery in the 14th Century during wars with France.
- In 1414 during another phase of the wars against France, Henry V seized the possessions of both Nuneaton Priory and St Nicolas. Control of the church was transferred to the Carthusian Priory of Sheen, Surrey.
15th and 16th Centuries
- Much of the nave of the church, including the magnificent roof, dates from the late 15th Century. Clearly visible is a Tudor Rose and at the apex of the Nave and Chancel a fine medieval emblem, the Five Wounds of Christ. Many elaborate carved bosses can be seen.
- The Leeke Chapel was originally financed as a Chantry by John Leeke, died 1507, to pray for the souls of himself and his relatives. Just before the Reformation abolished Chantries, Leeke’s money was diverted to found Nuneaton Grammar School, around 1540.
- Sheen Priory held possession of the church until its priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Local lands were given to Sir Marmaduke Constable whose tomb can be found in the Chancel.
- However, St Nicolas remained under the control of the King and is still a Crown living today, witness the late 20th Century Royal Coat of Arms high up on the west wall.
- The finely carved post-reformation Elizabethan communion table is still used at services today.
17th and 18th Centuries
- The St. Nicolas living was a well-paid one and much sought after. Appointed by the Crown, its clergy often reflected the beliefs of the day such as strong Royalist William Cradock and Cromwell supporter Richard Pyke who was forced after1660 to take an oath to the restored Charles II.
- In the early 18th Century monuments were erected to prominent local families such as Trotman and Stratford. These are now collected together in the Chancel.
- John Ryder, Vicar 1721-42, came from a Nuneaton and Bedworth family and went on to become an Archbishop in the Church of Ireland. But only his son has a memorial here.
- The 18th Century Church was dominated by a three-decker pulpit and boards showing the Lord’s Prayer and 10 Commandments. There is a picture of all this at the back of the church.
- Galleries were constructed on either side of the nave in 1768 and 1790
- A number of vicars in this period, right up to 1844, were absentee and left their work to an underpaid curate.
19th Century – today
- The large parish of Nuneaton was carved up into four parts with new parishes Holy Trinity Attleborough 1842, St. Pauls’ Stockingford 1854 and St Mary’s Abbey 1877 as well as St. Nicolas
- Canon Savage, Vicar 1846-71, organised the building of four new Church schools and transformed elementary education in the town in the late 1840s and also helped to improve public health.
- In 1853 the Chancel was extended and the three-decker pulpit swept away
- Choral singing at St. Nicolas developed on a large scale in the 1870s
- The reredos, the high altar and the beautification of the Leeke Chapel all date from 1928
- The Church was bombed in 1941 with some damage including the loss of the Victorian coloured glass in the Chancel window.
- The galleries were pulled down in 1965 and the vicarage next to the Church was sold in 1973
- In 2009 chairs replaced pews in the nave, part of an ongoing re-ordering of the church. A new, adjacent, Community Centre was completed in 2010.
George Eliot & St Nicolas Church
St. Nicolas, Nuneaton is immortalised in fiction. In George Eliot’s first book Scenes of Clerical Life (published 1857) it is depicted as ‘Milby’ Church and plays a major role in the third of the Scenes, Janet’s Repentance. The story centres around the stormy and violent relationship of the prominent Milby lawyer Robert Dempster and his wife Nancy and depicts an actual event in the religious history of the town. In 1828 the evangelical curate of Stockingford chapel, the Reverend John Edmund Jones, was invited to give a series of Sunday evening lectures in St. Nicolas, an event that caused great controversy. The lawyer James Buchanan –the Dempster of George Eliot’s fiction – led the strong opposition to the lectures being permitted.
James’ wife Nancy was born Nancy Wallington and her Mother, also Nancy, ran the school at the Elms, where George Eliot attended and where she was first influenced by Evangelicalism. The Elms, near the church, did not survive the Second World War bombing in 1941. The Buchanan family tomb can be seen in St. Nicolas churchyard at the far end from the Church, near King Edward Road.
Eliot depicts in fiction many of the other Nuneaton figures she would have remembered as a girl at school in the town – people such as the St Nicolas curate, Hugh Hughes, who served the parish for 50 years and is ‘old Mr. Crewe’ in the story. Hughes is at the end of his career and struggling to cope.
The vicar of the parish is non-resident and Nuneaton a parish spiritually neglected, hence the invitation to Jones. Eliot describes the bad behaviour of the young people in the large church galleries during the services.
In Scenes, other events in the life of the Church, such as the Bishop arriving for a confirmation service are portrayed in affectionate detail. George Eliot’s clergyman, Reverend Edgar Tryan is based on the real clergyman, Jones. Tryan – a sympathetically drawn portrait – gives valuable support to Janet after she is ill-treated by her husband and this is a moving part of Janet’s Repentance. However, the wonderful descriptions of the townsmen and women of Milby is arguably the best written piece of the story, giving us a shrewd insight into the parishioners of the time.
Thomas Wele, Vicar 1505-21
Wele was a Benedictine friar who became vicar in 1505. His will reveals his desire to be buried ‘in the chauncell of the parish church of Nuneaton’ (pictured right). This was an unusual request suggesting a real affection for parish and people. We don’t know if it was carried out.
Robert Whittington 1521-1553
Whittington was probably born in Lichfield and studied there. He became a distinguished teacher of Latin Grammar writing a standard textbook for use in Grammar schools and tutoring some members of the royal family. But he was then involved in scandal. He was rarely seen in the parish but admitted to living at the St. Nicolas vicarage (and elsewhere) with one Margery Wade. For this he was fined.
Nicholas Cartwright 1553-58
Cartwright was a distinguished Oxford Scholar who took part in national debates in 1549 over the future religious direction of the country, taking the Protestant side. However, after the restoration of Roman Catholicism under Queen Mary in 1553, Cartwright renounced his Protestant beliefs and seems to have remained vicar of St. Nicolas until 1558.
John Inett 1678-87
Another distinguished scholar, Inett so impressed Sir Roger Newdigate of Arbury Hall when he heard him preach in London that Newdigate wrote out the sermon on ten pieces of foolscap paper and made him Chaplain at the Hall. Inett’s A Guide to the devout Christian (published 1688) may well have been written while he was vicar of St. Nicolas.
John Foxcroft 1700-1721
Thomas Foxcroft 1700-1721 was the subject of a complaint made in an anonymous letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury alleging that Foxcroft did little work himself in the parish and underpaid his curate.
Bruce Stopford 1803-1845
Stopford was notorious for being an absentee vicar, that is one who took the income from the living and left an over-worked curate to look after the parish. For almost the same period of time he was Rector of Barton Seagrave in Northamptonshire where there is a plaque in his honour. He was also a Royal Chaplain. But St. Nicolas only received the benefit of his presence intermittently, for example when he preached the occasional charity sermon.
Robert Savage 1845-1871
Savage transformed the parish with his building of church schools, campaigns for better public health, support of the poor ribbon weavers, interest in foreign missionary work and major alterations to the church building.