St Nicholas' Church, Kenilworth
St Nicholas' Church is situated a short distance south of High Street in the Warwickshire town of Kenilworth, England, and is a fine example of an English parish church in Perpendicular style with Tudor alterations, in the handsome red sandstone of the region. It sits right beside the Norman and medieval ruins of St Mary's Abbey, over which a large part of its graveyard now lies.
The land on which the church stands is part of a swathe of what, in the 12th century, was the tiny settlement of Chinewerde, given by King Henry I to his chamberlain and treasurer Geoffrey de Clinton. By around 1119 this swathe had been cleared of woodland under de Clinton's order so that an Augustinian priory housing 16-20 canons could be built, dedicated to Mary the Virgin and meant for the saying of masses for its founder's eternal soul. At around the same time, and a short walk to the west at the neck of the shallow valley of Finham Brook, de Clinton built Kenilworth Castle. The twin foundations were to be closely linked throughout their history: the priory (which had been raised to abbey status in 1458) was dissolved in 1538 and survives today as just a few sections of ruined masonry close by St Nicholas' Church. It was unusual for an Augustinian priory in that it came under royal patronage by the early 13th century, with the result that many of England's medieval monarchs were to visit it during its heyday (see below).
It is conjectured that there was a Norman parish church on the site during the 12th century, and there is reference to a parson in the 1285 Registers of Godfrey Giffard, the Bishop of Worcester. The earliest reference to a parish church on the site, though, as distinct from the church of St Mary's priory, is from Pope Nicholas' taxation records of 1291. The substantial tower and the north and south aisles were added in the 14th century. The original nave roof, lowered in 1580, was at a higher pitch than that which can be seen today; the line of the earlier roof can still be seen as a scar on the eastern face of the tower. The chancel roof was taken down and relaid in 1692 under the auspices of the then vicar, William Best, at a cost of £80. Raised galleries were erected in both of the nave aisles in the middle of the 18th century to accommodate the large congregations of the time.
As with so many English parish churches, the reign of Queen Victoria saw many changes: in 1865, under Reverend Bickmore, St Nicholas' was thoroughly restored. The nave galleries (along with the contemporary singers' gallery at the west end of the nave) were taken down in 1876, the same year that the roof timbers were exposed by the removal of the church's flat ceilings. It was also in the 19th century that the north and south transepts were built, the clergy vestry was added, and the south wall of the chancel was pierced to create a chancel aisle (refurnished in 1932 as the Lady Chapel). The sandstone spire was entirely rebuilt after a lightning strike in 1858.
Four bells were mentioned in the parish inventory of 1552, but these were melted down in 1657 when cracks were discovered. They were recast as a set of five, weighing between 6cwt 16 lb and 15cwt 13 lb.
Following Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, the neighbouring priory church of St Mary was by 1547 all but a ruin. At some point in the late 16th or early 17th century, 12th-century Norman masonry from the priory church was incorporated into the west door of St Nicholas' in what is now an important example of Romanesque composition. Only in 1876 did this impressive Renaissance gateway become the regular entrance to the church - up until that time worshippers had used the doorways in the northwest corner of the north aisle, with the west door reserved for important persons such as visiting monarchs.
In 1888, a 'pig' of lead in the shape of a ship was unearthed nearby in the ruins of the abbey. During the Dissolution, when the lead from the abbey roof was being stripped away, it seems that this valuable piece of royal property was hidden from the king's superintendents but subsequently forgotten. It now sits in the chancel beside the altar rail, where Henry VIII's seal can be seen.
As we saw above, royal ownership of Kenilworth Castle and royal patronage of St Mary's priory (later abbey) brought a number of England's monarchs to the town. As patrons, their financial benefaction allowed them to add their names to the list of founders for whose eternal souls masses would be said by the canons. Some monarchs are known to have stayed for longer periods in lodgings in St Mary's, which was considerably more comfortable than the fortified castle.
In 1266, during the siege of Kenilworth Castle, King Henry III was in Kenilworth for almost five months. It is highly likely that he lodged in the comfort of his royal priory. In 1327, King Edward II was imprisoned in Kenilworth Castle before being removed to Berkeley Castle where he was killed. His son Edward III was, like his father, a frequent visitor to the priory.
Prince Henry was only 16 years old when he was hit in the face by an arrow at the Battle of Shrewsbury of 1403. He was brought for treatment to Kenilworth Castle, where an arrowhead embedded in the back of his skull was removed and where herbs from the priory physic garden were used in his recovery. In 1414 Henry, by then King Henry V, kept Lent at Kenilworth and likely visited the priory. King Henry VI spent Christmas of 1437 at the castle, escaped Jack Cade's rebellion there with his queen, Margaret of Anjou, and the royal couple again visited in 1457. King Richard III visited in 1483, and King Henry VII heard mass at the abbey in 1487 while spending Whitsun at the castle.
King Henry VIII stayed in the lodgings named after him at the castle, but the best-documented and most famous visitor to Kenilworth was undoubtedly Queen Elizabeth I, who came to the town in 1566, 1568 and 1572, and who attended divine communion at St Nicholas' Church three times in 1575 during an extended stay at the castle. The church still owns and uses a silver chalice from which Elizabeth was given communion on these occasions.
King James I visited Kenilworth in 1617, and there are records in the parish archives of the great west doorway of St Nicholas' being unsealed for his ceremonial entry. Finally, to round off this impressive list of royal visitors, King Charles I came twice to Kenilworth, first in 1642 and again in 1644.
List of Incumbents
- CWGC Cemetery Report, details from casualty record.
- Kenilworth Church and Abbey, JA Thomson, 1964.
- John Strecche Canon of Kenilworth, Geoffrey Hilton, 2004.
- Kenilworth - the story of the abbey, Sunley/Stevens, 1995.
- Queen Elizabeth's Visit to Kenilworth, Kenilworth History and Archaeology Society, 1975.