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St Mary the Virgin Parish Church, Astley

Original Article by Kate Keens ©2010
Updated by Ian Shuter Oct 2016

The church we see at Astley today is small compared to an earlier church on the site yet is displays many clues to its former glory.

The village of Astley was a Saxon settlement and was mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086.  It is known that a church existed from at least 1285 since there is a record of Stephen Astley being appointed incumbent by Edith Astley in that year.  In 1338 Thomas de Astley was given permission to found a chantry in the Lady Chapel of the Church and by 1340 there were seven secular priests at Astley. 

Gallery for Exterior of the Church

In 1343 the old church was taken down and a collegiate church built.  This was a large cruciform building with a central tower crowned with a tall spire.  To the west the nave extended for about 90 feet, (running from the present church door as far as the present gate).  The nave of the present church was the chancel of the collegiate church extending to the east of the tower.  The church terminated at its eastern extremity where the present chancel arch is today and here the old east window of the original church can still be seen, albeit now blocked up with plaster.

There were chapels on the north and south sides of the cancel.  Blocked up doorways to these former chapels can still be seen on the inside and outside of the present church.  To the north and south of the tower would have been the transepts, running out some 30 to 40 feet.   The very high ceiling of the nave of the present church is perhaps another indicator of its former size.

After dark a light was always shown from the spire and was known as the 'Lanthorn (or Lantern) of Arden'.  The light guided travellers through the thick forest which surrounded Astley at that time.

Tragedy hit the church at the end of the 16th century.  Living at Astley Castle, just a stones throw from the church, was Frances Brandon, the widow of the Duke of Suffolk and mother of Lady Jane Grey.  She married Adrian Stokes, a member of the household, and it was he who, in about 1555, stripped the lead from the roof of the tower.  Having been left open to the elements the tower fell in about 1600.

In 1607 Sir Richard Chamberlaine, the then owner of the castle, demolished the remains of the tower, the transepts, and the nave.  He then converted the old chancel into the nave of the church we see today, building a tower at the west end and a new chancel, using the material from the old northern chapel.  Two sets of high oak stalls, which may have been in the collegiate church, were fitted to either side of the chancel.  The seats have their original carved misereres and the back of each is painted with a figure; those on the north depicting the apostles and those on the south the prophets.

The east window of the new church contains fragments of glass from the collegiate church.

At this time the walls of the new smaller church were embellished with painted texts. Unfortunately these deteriorated over the next 400 years until they had almost disappeared.  Having received donations and a grant from English Heritage, these wall paintings have been restored this year and we can now see them as our ancestors would have done.

Gallery for Interior of the Church

Parish records are available for Astley starting in 1670 so none of our ancestors traceable in that source would remember the collegiate church.  However St Mary the Virgin at Astley today would be instantly recognisable to those baptised or married since 1670.  Included in those married at Astley were Robert Evans and Christiana Pearson on 8th February 1813.  Robert and Christiana were the parents of Mary Ann Evans who became famous as the novelist George Eliot.

Other links to information about the church.  

Astley Parish Websites
Warwickshire Churchs.org.uk
Astley Wikipedia Page
Google Maps/Images Pages

Astley Parish Facebook Page
You Tube Video of Church

Bibliography:
The Kings England, Warwickshire. Arthur Mee (1936)
A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 6: Knightlow hundred, Astley (1951)
Notes taken at Astley Church (2010)

 

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