The History of St Nicholas Church
We do not know when the first Church was built on this site but in 1291 the Church was described as being in the patronage of the Prior of Kenilworth Priory.
The Priory was founded in 1122 and raised to Abbey status around 1450 and stood to the south of the Church until its dissolution in 1538 by King Henry VIII.
The Church has had several Royal worshippers over the centuries most notably Queen Elizabeth I who, in July 1575, is said to have heard a ‘most fruitful sermon’ during her stay at Kenilworth Castle then held by Robert Dudley, the Queen’s favourite.
In common with many others the Church suffered during the Civil War. There are bullet marks on the north wall and, in 1646, the interior had to be cleaned and repaired after Cromwell’s troops had used it as a billet. The Church had to be cleaned again in 1649 after similar abuse by Scottish troops. Parish records indicate the work cost 5/- (25p) on each occasion – a considerable sum at the time.
The building has been altered and expanded over the years. The tower was added between 1320 and 1400 and the main structure of the nave dates from this period. In 1580 the Earl of Leicester carried out repairs and altered the roof of the chancel.
The columns you can see mark the original positions of the North and South walls.
The Church took it present appearance, both inside and out, during the 19th century when the transepts were added, the chancel enlarged, and the interior refitted. The Lady Chapel was completed in 1932.
A short tour of the interior
The Font, which dates from 1664, has a Norman base. The cover was given to the Church in 1914 as a memorial to William Ledbrook.
Move down the aisle and note the fine Elizabethan window. The clear glazing replaced stained glass destroyed when a bomb fell on Kenilworth during World War II. The South transept contains memorial tablets to many members of the Butler family and a window showing the heraldic arms of the various owners or holders of Kenilworth Castle. The window, which was originally in the East end of the Church, was a gift from Bishop Samuel Butler who had served as Vicar in 1802.
Next to the entrance to the Lady Chapel is the lectern, a gift in 1921. On the wall above the lectern is a memorial tablet to William Bickmore, Vicar from 1856 to 1875, who was responsible for many of the alterations and improvements in the 19th century. The tablet mentions Bishop Charles Sumner.
Charles Sumner, who became Bishop of Winchester was descended from Robert Sumner, Vicar from 1773 to 1802. Another of Robert’s descendants, John, was Bishop of Chester before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1848. Robert’s grandson, George, also a clergyman, was married to Mary Sumner, the founder of the Mothers Union. The West window, above the door, commemorates this remarkable family.
In the chancel wall, behind the lectern, there is an opening called a Hagioscope (for seeing holy things). This was to allow a view of the altar, particularly during the celebration of Holy Communion, from an area of the Church without a direct line of sight. We can conclude that the floor of the Church was lower than it is now when the hagioscope was in use. It may have been linked with the ringing of a Sanctus bell before the Church was enlarged.
On the right of the altar there are three linked stone seats (a sedilia) and a carved stone piscina (water bowl). As you return note the sealed door on the north side which used to lead to the top of the old rood screen.
Near to the base of the pulpit is a ‘pig’ of lead. It weighs 10 cwts (500 kg) and was formed when lead stripped from the roof of the Abbey was melted down and put into earth moulds. It bears the seal of King Henry VIII’s Commissioner and was found in 1881 during excavation of the Abbey ruins.
On the North aisle wall there is a memorial to Mrs Caroline Gresley by the sculptor Richard Westmacott RA which is recognised as one of his notable works. Further down is a board showing the many ministers who have served the Parish. Note the name of William Maddock who was ejected when the Crown was restored after the Cromwellian period. On the floor near this spot you can see the former position of the font.
Some points of interest on the outside
As you leave the church pause again to admire the fine 16th century west doorway. Built in the Renaissance style the stonework includes Norman, Romanesque and Moorish features and was probably constructed between 1550 and 1620. There is a similar example at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff. The doors were made in 1618-19. Then turn left and note the blocked windows, which suggest what is now the servery, may have been living accommodation in the past.
Round the corner, on the south side, there is a pinnacle which features a well worn sundial. If you walk to the car park and then look back you will see between the two gables the ‘Bear and Ragged Staff’ carved in stone. This was the badge of the Earl of Leicester and was erected by him in 1580 to commemorate the work done at the time.
The church today
Over the years there have been many changes as the church responded to the needs of its parishioners. There is an engraving showing the church with balconies and a central pulpit, dated some time in the nineteenth century, whilst the remains of the Victorian modifications can be seen to this day, both in St Nicholas Church and in its mission church in Albion Street.
Recently more modest changes have taken place in St. Nicholas Church allowing greater access for the less physically able, and creating a useful kitchen area for coffee making after service, whilst St. Barnabas’ has received a welcome facelift. Nevertheless, despite all these changes, the main church has remained virtually intact since ancient times and still remains open daily for prayer and contemplation. The walls are ‘washed with prayer’ and the visitors’ book gives eloquent testimony to the calm and uplifting atmosphere the church bestows on all who pass through its Norman archway.