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.