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Church of St Mary the Virgin, Astley


The Coventry Telegraph published the following story entitled ‘Riddle of the Astley ghostly monk’ on 21 April 2008. 'TURN right at the first crossroads you come to as you follow the B4102 southwest out of Nuneaton towards Meriden and you will find the small hamlet of Astley.

This sleepy place is where you'll find our first spirit and an abundance of history to boot.

The Church of St Mary the Virgin that you'll find there today is now only a shadow of its former self. It is here in the graveyard as the sunsets that you may catch a glimpse of 'Willie' Astley's first recorded apparition. The reason for his naming has so far eluded me, perhaps it comes from the old English expression of being frightened.

'Willie' is an enigmatic character, described to me as a hooded monk who has been seen dancing purposely through the gravestones towards the kissing gate in the last shadows of the day.

As the light fades into evening people have found themselves suddenly confronted by him, yet in that same split second he's gone again. He is always silent with his head bowed beneath a cowl, the colour of which cannot be verified as his appearances are so fleeting.

The tales told have always ended with uncertainty as there seemed little evidence that he really is, or was, a monk. More likely he would have been a vicar or even a secular local who wore a hooded cloak?

It is true there never was a monastery at Astley so I under-stand all the puzzled endings to the tales.

But what seems to have been overlooked by these sources is that during the reign of Edward III, Sir Thomas Astley had obtained permission to change the seven serving priests of the time into a dean and two secular canons supported by lay members and novices.

Whereas monastic priests of the time lived together, often away from the outside world, the dean and his assembly would have had their own separate houses close to the church but within the neighbourhood among their attendants, maintained and supported by funds left for the purpose.

It is also suggested by archaeologists that Astley as a settlement was once situated to the North of the church, back towards Nuneaton, beyond the Castle and its lake.

One theory is that this occur-rence is simply a recording of an everyday event that has enough residual energy to replay itself over and over again through time.

It must be said that Willie causes nobody any harm and has more right to be there than any of us.


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Ian Topham
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Re: Church of St Mary the Virgin, Astley

'Parishes: Astley', A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 6: Knightlow hundred (1951)

The parish church of ST. MARY THE VIRGIN was completely rebuilt by Sir Thomas Astley in 1343 as a collegiate establishment. This was a cruciform building with a central tower crowned with a tall spire, which was a conspicuous landmark and was known as the 'lanthorn of Arden'. It had a chapel on each side of the chancel. But of this church only the chancel remains, for Adrian Stokes, who held the estate after his wife's death in 1558, pulled down the spire and stripped the roofs of their lead, so that the tower fell down about 1600. Richard Chamberlaine in 1607 demolished the remains of the tower, the transepts, and the nave. He then converted the old chancel into the nave of his church, building a tower at the west end and a new chancel, for which he is said to have used the material of the northern chapel. His work is remarkable for its adherence to the Gothic tradition.

The present chancel was completed in 1608, that date being recorded on a stone high up on the south side. The walls are of grey sandstone, with a plinth which stops against the east wall of the nave. There are diagonal buttresses at the east end and a central buttress on the north and south, that on the north having been enlarged in recent times to accommodate a flue for a fire-place. The side walls have a pierced arcaded parapet and a cornice enriched with bosses, largely consisting of plain shields. Other shields of grey stone, carved with heraldic devices, adorn the outside of the walls. On the east wall are three, of which Chamberlaine and Grevill, Lord Brooke, are identifiable; and four on each of the side walls, of which, in the absence of tinctures, only Ferrers of Groby can be recognized. The east window and the two at the east ends of the side walls are each of three lights with four-centred heads; the two at the west ends of the side walls are each of two lights and have two-centred heads. The tracery is rectilinear in design and the external jambs of all these windows are similarly moulded in the form of a wide casement between small rolls and chamfers; they have plain external and internal hood-moulds, slightly shaped internally at each apex to meet the surface of the ceiling; several of the stops to the external hood-moulds on the north side are left boasted for carving. The two-light windows have been blocked by masonry in their lower portions as a backing for the modern oak choir-stalls, and the tracery above is filled with plaster. There is a blocked doorway in the north wall immediately to the east of the centre buttress; it is concealed internally by the oak panelling, but externally the filling is recessed, exposing the ovolo-mould which runs unbroken round the jambs and the four-centred head. It was evidently designed to admit the Chamberlaines direct to their pew.

Little of the masonry of this chancel is identifiable with earlier remains, except the stone string-course running along the sills of the windows on the north.

The chancel is roofed with tiles and contains internally a four-centred barrel-vault with traceried panels, all of plaster. Above the modern oak panelling the walls of the interior are plastered.

The chancel arch of 1608 is four-centred and moulded without capitals or imposts. It was cut through the east wall and window of the former chancel and above its apex is visible from the west side the two centred moulded head of the 15th-century window.

This was of seven ogee-headed lights and typical rectilinear tracery, subdivided by small embattled transoms and additional vertical bars. The two centre mullions diverge to form pointed arches against the sides of the main arch, each containing three lights with their tracery, and the centre light between these sub-arches is spanned by the largest of the transoms; the whole has been plastered between the bars. On the nave side it has a hood-mould with three grotesque heads, one at the apex and the other two stopping the mould well above the springing in order to accommodate a canopied image-niche on either side. These have slender gabled canopies with crockets and the bases below are corbelled out on more grotesques.

From the east side the space above the chancel arch is limited by the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the chancel; it is covered by stone tracery forming ogee-headed panels in the plaster. As the line of these panels slopes up to meet the barrel-vault, they may well have been formed out of tracery from the lower part of the window. Further signs suggest the main transom level and below that the position of the sill, 6 ft. above the floor of the nave. Externally there is an ogee-hood and an arch-mould of two moulded orders.

The nave, built in 1343, is divided into three bays, each 21 ft. wide, marked externally by two slender buttresses to north and south which are carried up to the eaves with its corbel-table. The similar diagonal buttresses at the east end are carried up above the eaves as pinnacles, but the pinnacles have been removed from the side buttresses. Supporting the pinnacles are gabled tops and the offset below each is also gabled. The upper gables contain a variety of carved figures, those below contain shields, each with the cinquefoil of the Astleys, and the slopes of each gable stop on to carved heads.

In each bay is a three-light window in a two-centred head with ogee-headed hood-moulds, the point of the ogee, externally, being carried up to the corbel-table, where the foliated finial spreads out into the hollowed chamfer in the form of a central boss. Internally the finial reaches the timber roof, 45 ft. above the nave floor. The lights are trefoiled and the tracery is of varied curvilinear, almost flamboyant, design, of which there are two variations which occur alternately down each side. The interior jambs are plain and slightly splayed; the exterior splays are moulded. There is a moulded string-course externally at sill level passing round the buttresses and stepping down just west of the angle buttress from 10 ft. 9 in. to 4 ft. 4 in., which was the sill level of the original east window. Below the middle window on the south is a small porch of timber framing on a wall of brick, 3 ft. high, with diaper patterns, probably added in 1608, or later in that century; its roof is tiled.

In the central bay on the north the masonry, for a height of approximately 7 ft. from the ground, is cut back 6 in., indicating the former existence of the chapel referred to in 1493 as 'the new chapel of Our Lady'; the doorway to this from the nave has been blocked up with masonry, but the ogee head and crocketed hood-mould remain internally. A second doorway pierced the base of the buttress to the west, and although now blocked, the shape of its two-centred segmental head can be seen on both sides, on the west—originally the external—face, the head is chamfered, with a drip-mould and relieving arch over. A single corbelled head, heavy and crude in workmanship, projects at a level of 2 ft. below the sill of the north-west window. The external plinth is formed of a steep splay and drip with a round fillet above.

The hollow of the corbel-table contains a series of enrichments spaced out on each side of each hoodmould finial. The different motifs are frequently repeated and include, beside ball-flower and similar motifs, shields with the arms of Astley, Beauchamp, and Clinton.

The tile roof is of about 50° pitch and the east gable has a crocketed parapet leading up to an apex-stone with its finial now broken; and above the blocked east window is a rose window, also blocked with plaster except for small vent-holes. This contains eight radiating lights, slightly pointed, with trefoiled heads around the circumference; the centre is a plain intersection of the eight tracery bars. The surround is chamfered, with the addition of a continuous hood-mould.

The chapel on the south side seems to have been that of the Holy Trinity, the building, or enlargement, of which was ordered in the will of the first Marquess of Dorset (1501) but was only performed after the death of his son in 1530. It appears to have been gabled, with its roof running at right angles to the nave walls, and the double slope of the intersection can be traced, with the position of the apex shown by a groove cut into the front face of the buttress immediately to the east of the porch. Grooves indicating the two sloping lines can also be traced down to where they crossed the window jambs and where purlins have evidently been supported at the level of the sills.

There are no signs of any doorway on the south side other than that within the south porch. This has no drip-mould externally and may have opened into the annex. Internally the jambs are splayed, whilst the external jambs, running into the two-centred head without imposts, consist of one order with a hollow mould.

The panelled oak roof, probably of the 17th century, has twenty-one bosses painted with coats of arms; these were originally of the Astley family and their connexions, but in 1676 they were largely replaced by others connected with the Newdigates, though the easternmost shield still bears the arms of Astley.

The walls of the nave interior are plastered, and as in the chancel retain their early-17th-century decorations of nine panels, framed with strap-work patterns in various colours, containing edifying quotations. Seven of these are passages from the Bible; one of the Lord's Prayer; and one the Creed. Oak panelling, mostly plain, of the same period skirts the nave walls.

The western tower of red sandstone, built in 1607–8, is of four stories, of which only the lowest is distinguished externally by a string-course, which continues the line of that on the nave but is not carried round the buttresses. The upper stories are divided by two plain chamfered offsets, which line up with moulded offsets on the face of the buttresses. The latter rise to the sill level of the belfry windows, those to the west being diagonal and the eastern square. They consist of wide flat abutments extended by deeper and narrower projections. There are three offsets. The lowest stage is pierced only by the west door, contained by moulded jambs which carry up without imposts to the twocentred head. The mouldings are somewhat debased and appear to date from the reconstruction (1607), the external hood has carved stops and supports a carved apex-stone—all much defaced. The second story has in the north and south faces a small window of two lights, each two-centred and trefoiled, contained in a square head of three chamfered orders and no hood. In the west it has a larger window of three plain two-centred lights contained within a square head of three chamfered orders; the jambs have two chamfers only—an irregularity pointing to the re-use of windows from the former church and college buildings. It has a horizontal drip-mould extended to protect inset shields at either hand (described below). In each face of the third story is a tall transomed window of three trefoiled lights and tracery of 15th-century type in a two-centred head; the jambs have two chamfered orders and, like the windows below, appear to have been re-used. The fourth stage is pierced on all four faces by a belfry window of two trefoiled lights with a square head; it has a transom and the jambs are moulded similarly to the three of the west door. These windows appear to contain little re-used masonry. The ovolo-moulded cornice which embraces the tower immediately above the window dates from the early 17th century. The embattled parapet above is crowned with pinnacles on the angles and central merlons, the latter on the west side bearing a carved stone shield with detail not discernible. Some of the pinnacles may well have been re-used after removal from four of the nave buttresses. On the west face there are a number of additional shields, two pairs being set on either side of the third-story window with larger single ones below. Also one on each side of the window head below, that on the south much worn. Four carved grey-stone blocks are bonded into the wall above the west door, grouped on either side in pairs; each block depicts four vine-leaves and is probably 14th-century work. A set of three plain gargoyles project from the cornice on the north side; the only shield is placed in a central position towards the base, and is charged with a cheveron between two roses in chief and (?) fleur-de-lis in base. On both north and south the western angles of the tower project beyond the buttresses, and are carried by 14th-century corbel-blocks a little below the nave corbel-table; the two corbels are carved as grotesques with bat-like wings. On the south face there are shields, two being over the centre window and one over the window at the base, the latter bearing the Astley cinquefoil; one of those above is similar and the other bears two bars and a chief indented. There is a modern clock dial immediately below the belfry, and on the face of the south-east buttress a stone block, bearing a scratch dial, has been inset; no stile remains, but the dial face, inclined slightly to the east, is grooved in the form of an inverted semicircle with small circular marks about the perimeter, the whole being indistinct.

The interior of the tower has been much altered by the provision of a modern vestry, approached by a stone stair, and an additional loft over, used as a ringing chamber. The latter is screened from the nave, a portion of the timber screen being glazed to admit borrowed light, and this is supported by the modern wall and two-centred arch built immediately to the west of the main tower arch. The vestry below it is lesser in extent, occupying the space to the west of an inner wall, although timber brackets allow it to project a little to the east of this supporting another glazed screen. At ground-floor level there are two store-rooms, one to the north under the staircase and one to the south of the vestibule. An ancient tower staircase commences in the north-west angle and is approached by a passage set in the thickness of the north wall.

The 14th- or 15thcentury tower arch is built up with jambs of three chamfered orders which rise without imposts to the two-centred head at the full height of the nave. Beneath this arch, and on the north side, stands the 14th-century octagonal font; the base is moulded and the font-stone has a moulded projection with the top embattled.

The east end of the nave is occupied by 15th-century oak stalls, comprising nine seats on each side. Each seat supports a tall canopy, 11 ft. 6 in. in height, by means of slender posts; the back of each is formed by a painted panel depicting a Prophet or Apostle. Each row is subdivided into two ranges of four seats by means of a thicker post, and the odd seat backs upon the east return wall. The posts carry cinquefoiled arches corresponding to the seats below; the spandrils between them are pierced in the form of trefoils. The frieze above these arches is painted with a flowing vine and grapes on a red ground, and the cornice above is embattled and has carved rosettes in the hollow. The seats themselves are of the traditional type with misericords, carved on the under sides with representations of the wild boar, birds, human heads, &c.

George Eliot has referred to the figures in the panels as: 'Apostles, with their heads very much on one side, holding didactic ribbons.' The 'ribbons' refer to the curved scrolls, inscribed with texts, which are held in the hands of Prophet or Apostle; one of these inscriptions bears the date 1624: they are in Old English and beneath can be discerned the original inscriptions in Latin. The scrolls are arranged on alternate sides of the figures. The painting generally has lost much of its colour through decay and repeated 'touching up'.

Behind these stalls in the south wall three sedilia and a piscina have been found. They are completely concealed behind them and all the original projections had been hacked off when the stalls were fitted. The sedilia are each 1 ft. 4 in. wide and spaced out 2 ft. apart; the piscina is to the east at approximately the same spacing. The internal angles of the recesses are shafted and the heads carved with ribs. There are three breaks in the string-course 12 ft. 6 in. above the present floor level, these line up with the positions of the sedilia, suggesting that the latter once had tall canopies. The seats are 18 in. above the original floor level, which can be seen below the floor-boards. Here, and on the north side also, 14th-century tiles have been discovered in situ bearing similar shields to those enriching the corbeltable.

The communion table is of heavy oak with turned legs, probably of the early 17th century. The reredos is panelled with a cresting of scrolls and foliage. Both this and a portion of the communion rail appear to date from the later part of the same century, although the return ends of the rail are constructed in modern wrought iron and oak to match the older part in front. There is a triptych, apparently Flemish, of the 17th century, of which the central subject is the Deposition from the Cross, used as an altar-piece. At each side of the east window there are painted inscriptions giving the Ten Commandments.

Other furnishings and memorials in the chancel are of recent date and include brasses and marble panels commemorating members of the Newdigate family, also a pair of wrought-brass lamp stands each bearing a pennant depicting the lion of St. Mark.
Fragments of 14th- and 15th-century glass have been collected in the chancel, both in the east window and the one to the north. In the former there are parts of canopies in the heads of the three lights, and in both there is a tangle of diaper, drapery, and foliage in the form of oak- and vine-leaves; in the latter there are fragments of inscriptions, three yellow crosses on a red field, and above, a shield with the yellow figure of a boar. The glazing on the south side is modern.

Similar portions of ancient stained glass remain in the upper portions of the nave windows, most being on the north side, of which the centre consists of animal and human figures which have survived undisturbed except for a few broken pieces; the windows on either side contain animals' heads and portions of canopies, though one of these indicates the resetting of fragments. On the south side there are small heads remaining in the small tracery lights. A number of loose fragments have been discovered recently beneath floor boards.

On the south wall close by the tower are two wroughtiron brackets. One holds a painted cartouche of the Chamberlaine arms and the other an ancient steel helmet surmounted by the Chamberlaine crest, of an ass's head and coronet, together 2 ft. 6 in. high. Both crest and cartouche are of carved oak.

The pulpit and reading-desk are of carved oak and of late-17th- or early-18th-century workmanship; they are square-panelled, enriched by baskets of fruit, garlands, and acanthus on the former and braided feathers on the latter.

At the time of its rebuilding in 1608 the church was rich in the monuments of the Greys, of which family Dugdale mentions four tombs comprising nine alabaster effigies. Of these only three have survived, and are now preserved in the south-east corner of the tower. The earliest is that of Sir Edward Grey, Lord Ferrers of Groby, who died in 1457. He is shown in armour of the period, with a collar of S.S., his bare head resting on a helm and his feet against a lion; both sword and dagger are broken away. The other two are women. One, now the centre of the group, is probably Elizabeth Talbot, wife of Edward Grey, Lord Lisle, who died c. 1483. She lies with her head on two cushions, with an angel on either side, her long hair down her back, and a rich chaplet round her head. She wears a kirtle cut low at the neck and with tight sleeves; a cote-hardi over it, and a mantle hanging from the shoulders. The third is probably Cecily Bonville, wife of Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset. It has been badly damaged, apparently by the fall of the tower. She is shown wearing a pedimental head-dress, high-cut kirtle, cote-hardi, and mantle, at the corners of which were two little dogs.

Fixed to the north wall of the nave is the headless brass of a woman, with a fragment of an inscription in French giving the date of her death as 1 April 14-. The inscription was imperfect when the brass was crudely figured in Dugdale's Antiquities, with three others of which only indents now remain. These were (1) a member of the Astley family, probably Sir Thomas who founded the college; (2) Elizabeth his wife, daughter of Guy, Earl of Warwick; and (3) Guy, their younger son, who died at Dunstable on the day of St. Nicholas (6 December) 1427. There was another brass, of which only the inscription remained, to Sir William, eldest son of Sir Thomas, who died in 1420. On the west wall of the nave is a small inscribed brass to William Beck, 1623. Small slabs in the pavement against the east wall commemorate William Wyat (formerly precentor of Lincoln), 1685, and John (infant son of Richard Newdigate, 1666, whose monuments have disappeared.

There are five bells: the tenor by Joshua Smith of Edgbaston, 1722; the others by Newcombe of Leicester, 1670.

The registers begin in 1670

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