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Stoneleigh-in-Arden

Dedication : St Mary the Virgin    Simon Jenkins: Excluded                        Principal Features : Norman Church with Tympanum and Apostles Font

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Nowadays the “in-Arden” part of this village’s moniker is rarely used. When I was a naughty little snipe on a Birmingham council estate, though, what my teacher used to call “leafy Warwickshire, was another – better – world. Stratford-on-Avon, Wootton Wawen, Henley-in-Arden, with their ancient rural names these were the places of dreams. There was something curiously evocative about “In Arden”. To this day I few words stir me more. So, Stoneleigh-in-Arden it is.

“Arden”, for those who are unfamiliar with it was the Forest of Arden. Like most forests it is now recognised more in concept than in reality, most having been lost. Like most ancient forests – Rockingham, Sherwood and the New Forest -  however, it was a royal chase where a man could be hanged for killing a deer as the legend of Robin Hood records. They were about hunting, not just trees. It thrills my soul that the world’s greatest literary genius was a fellow Warwickshire man and that he set some of his plays in the Forest of Arden.                                                                                                                      

Stoneleigh is an ancient place; a royal manor even before the Norman Conquest. Henry I gave the church to the monastery at Kenilworth, another place that is an indelible part of our island history. The Domesday Survey in 1086 reveals that Stoneleigh had two priests. Of the church they served, however, nothing remains and it was almost certainly of wood and thatch

The transfer to Kenilworth, however, signalled the rebuilding of the church in stone at a time when the monastic orders were inclined to invest in the parish churches they acquired. Later the monasteries would treat them as milch cows to be stripped of most of their tithes to support their extravagant and ruinous ambitions.

The church we see today is largely the church that Kenilworth’s commissioned in the first half of the twelfth century. It was a conventional plan for its time with a nave, chancel and west tower. It was though, as Pevsner remarked, “ambitious for its date”.  The chancel, in particular, is extensive. Yet externally it is of rather unprepossessing appearance. The north side is disfigured by the four-square carbuncle that is the nineteenth century Leigh Chapel. The south side has to contend with the south east chapel that would originally have been a perfectly harmonious addition to the church before someone decided inexplicably to raise its roof so that it dominates the whole southern vista. Just for good measure, a drastic lowering of the nave roofline makes the church look some great creature has descended from on high and devoured a great chunk of the church. Sometimes you really do wonder what post-mediaeval builders “were on”.

Having demolished the church’s exterior (metaphorically, I hasten to add) it is time to talk of the many good things it has to offer. The first of these is the surviving Norman north doorway complete with decorative tympanum. This type of Midlands sandstone does not weather well so the doorway is in parlous state (are such things really impossible to protect with all of the technology available to us today?) but still of great interest. Pevsner with rather wearisome predictability calls the design “barbaric”. I’ve a feeling he means it as an insult but I like barbaric. Two dragons have their necks intertwined and are biting each others’ tails. Above this main motif two snakes do the same thing. I suppose evil is devouring itself? The capitals are slightly better preserved such that you can see the rather crude and utilitarian geometric decorations. Despite the depredations of the weather it remains a fine composition and worthy of going out of you way for.

This doorway, of course, prepares you for the fact that the fašade conceals an interior of much more interest. The jewel in the crown is the chancel. A Norman chancel arch with several interesting features leads through to a chancel that is surrounded by a course of blind arcading with pointed arches and dogtooth moulding. This has been heavily restored but undoubtedly of original design and reminiscent of the fine chancel at Devizes in Wiltshire. It was not, sadly, vaulted as at Devizes or Tickencote in Rutland, but springers for vaulting are in evidence so it is generally believed that vaulting was originally intended but not executed. It is pure speculation on my part but I wonder if there was once vaulting but that it was replaced at the time when the east window was inserted? It does seem to me that the roof was raised substantially at some stage because it now is in line with the original roofline – visible on the west tower - of the nave itself . The window is in “Decorated” style although the Church Guide (which is remarkably well-written, if brief) says it was altered “beyond recognition” in the nineteenth century.

The chancel arch is a beauty. It lacks the extravagant flamboyance of some, but it does have some small carvings subtly concealed within its decoration. Unusual are the geometric designs “clasping” the upright columns rather in the way that beakheads – absent here – traditionally do on Norman. arches.

The church has a south aisle that was added in the fourteenth century in Decorated style. That leaves the west tower. It also was part of the Norman fabric as blocked Norman windows attest. The west wall, however, was rebuilt between 1300 and 1350 having been, it is believed, in danger of collapse. Buttresses were added at the corners. The wall was also moved slightly eastwards, no doubt out of architectural necessity, and so the tower is now slightly rectangular than square in plan. It is possible that, as in so many places, builders during the Gothic era placed too much strain on foundations designed for the original Norman church and not for additional aisles, clerestories and heightened towers. Undaunted, the masons added a belfry stage in the fifteenth century.

Finally, perhaps leaving the best to last, Stoneleigh has a fine Norman font. It is believed to have come from Maxstoke Priory after laying amongst its ruins for 250 years before replacing Stoneleigh’s original font sometime after 1803. If so, then it survived the weather remarkably well! The font has arcading containing images of each of the twelve apostles, complete with writing. It is worth comparing with similar fonts at Wansford in Northants and at Coleshill, also in Warwickshire. If Norman fonts are your “thing” (they are certainly one of mine) then Stoneleigh-in-Arden Church is well worth a visit for this alone.

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Left: The blocked north doorway. It is rather unsophisticated in its execution and it has suffered grievously over the centuries. Right: The tympanum reveals - just about - two dragons with intertwined necks biting each others’ tails. This is presumably some sort of allegory showing that evil wil destroy itself. Above it, are two intertwined snakes. That this piece of art, over one thousand years old, has been denied any kind of protection to the point of near-obliteration is a disgrace. I’m not blaming the local people who probably have their work cut out keeping the church weatherproof for this but surely our country can afford to protect its history better? I write this the day after some lunatic paid over óG300 million for what is probably but not definitely a Da Vinci painting. God certainly “moves in mysterious ways”.

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Left and Right: The north doorway capitals show valiant attempts at decorative creativity on the part of the Norman masons but these were clearly not men of artistic talent! Look at the irregularity of the interlaced work.

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Left: Looking towards the east, the chancel arch and the blind arcading beyond it tell you immediately that the church is a Norman foundation. Everything you see apart from the south aisle is essentially Norman. The nave is wide for its date. Note the nice box pews. Right: The chancel arch is simply decorated with zig zag moulding.

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Left and Right: There has been a considerable amount of restoration work on the chancel’s blind arcading but, nevertheless, it is essentially original and, as always, very evocative of the Norman era. It is always interesting to see these blind pointed arches some fifty years before pointed Gothic windows and doorway would take Europe by storm. The idea had always been there but nobody in the west, it seems, understood its potential.

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Left: The pillars of the chancel arch have these unusual and delightful “clasps”. Centre: The pillars also have crude decoration at their feet. Right: This vertical zig zag moulding on the arch responds is rather splendid. Note the bird carving halfway down - see below.

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The chancel arch responds have these two carvings hidden away and easily overlooked : a snake and a bird with very odd looking claws. The Church Guide believes this to be a dove carrying a leaf (from the story of Noah) that was my own intial impression. I imagine the same mason decorated the north doorway.

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Left: The view towards the west end is dominated by a rather overpowering combination of minstrels gallery and church organ. The organ dates from the eighteenth century. To the left is the south aisle which dates from around the fourteenth century and cut into the original Norman nave wall. Right: The doorway is from the chancel into the nineteenth century Leigh Chapel on the north side. It is, of course, in faux Norman style and matches the restored arcading in the chancel, presumably by the same mason? To its left is the memorial to Chandos Baron Leigh who died at Bonn (what was he doing there?) in 1859. The recess is rather magnificent in Gothic style, the tomb of alabaster.

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Left: The north side of the chancel is dominated by this tasteless lump of self aggrandisement commemorating Alice Duchess Dudley and her daughter. You might well wonder what became of her hubby? Duchess Dudley, according to the scanty but informative Church Guide, was the wife of Sir Robert Dudley, who was the bastard son of the Earl of Leicester. Leicester was the favourite of Elizabeth I and the title was created for him. The title promptly lapsed as he had no legitimate heir. Unabashed, Sir Robert upped sticks and left for Italy without poor old Alice and was made a Duke of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Ferdinand II. Alice, also unabashed it seems, was created a Duchess in her own right by Charles I before dying an very rich woman in 1668, at the ripe old age of ninety! I can’t forgive this tomb, though. Right: A wall monument to George Jones. Now that’s what I call an interesting man. 

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Carved feet of the chancel arch. On the right you can see an elaborate and distinctly botched snake carving. They seemed to like snakes at Stoneleigh!

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I’ve left the best until last. Here are two views of the splendid Norman font. This is an elaborate piece. It is reckoned to have come from Maxstoke Priory and its quality which is way out of kilter with the rest of the building gives this theory strong credence. The weathering and damage suggests it may have spent some time in the open. The arcading is regular. The pillars of the arcading have decorated columns. Above the apostle figures there is neat wording which shows that the mason was either literate or - far more likely - had guidance from a monk who was so .Above all of that is another series of heads,

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I reproduce nine of the apostle figures here (I have the others, as well I’m sure but I’ve lost track of them all. You expect me to identify then all? Well (left) we have the ever-identifiable St Peter clutching his key to the gates of heaven. That’s the easy one done. The writing, unfortunately, is fragmentary on most of the figures and the iconography is rather obscure. If you want more detail then I suggest you go to the splendid site of the “Corpus of Romanesque Architecture in Britain and Ireland” website at http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/site/1257/.

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A couple of examples of the writing inscribed above the apostles.

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Poor old Stoneleigh has not been treated with much respect externally. This particular flavour of Midlands sandstone lacks the attractive orange glow of some others and is more akin to a dirty brown. What’s more it is horribly vulnerable to the weather. Most of its problems, however, are man made. Left: The church ftom the south east is marred by the extraordinary tallness of the vestry. If you follow the lighter coloured string course you can see it was originally a perfectly well-proportioned chapel. Less obvious in this picture - but very visible in the headline picture at the top of this page - is the way the nave roofline has been drastically lowered and it looks like some giant has taken a big chunk out of the top pf the church. Note the east window which is in the Decorated style but which was heavily altered in the Victorian era. Right: The church from the south west.

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Far Left: The tower from the west. In fact this is the only wall of the tower that is not part of the original Norman church. The Church Guide believes this wall to be from between 1300-1350 and to have been caused by collapse or danger of collapse. Left: The tower from the north showing a blocked Norman window. Right: Another view of the church from the north east showing very clearly the old roofline and the strange “something’s missing” appearance the church now has. The Leigh Chapel to the left with its severe rectangular look and its huge buttresses does no more favours to the church than the vestry does to the south.

 

 

 

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