Putting the 'nun' into Nuneaton
The history of the Abbey Church
Below you will find a brief but fascinating history of the Abbey Church based largely on the work of acclaimed archivist and historian E.A. (Ted) Veasey. Ted was, prior to his death, a faithful member of St Mary’s congregation and there is a wonderful little book of his, From Eaton to Nuneaton, which tells the story of the Parish Church and is available to buy at St Mary the Virgin.
Abbey Green is a relatively modern name for a part of Nuneaton that for several hundred years prior to 1900 was known as Abbey End. As the name suggests, the local Abbey stood at this end of town.
Two hundred years ago Nuneaton was divided into three “ends”; Bond End, Church End, and Abbey End. The town was laid out with one main street – Abbey Street – where two thirds of the population lived. Abbey Street petered out into the countryside at Abbey End.
The Abbey, or more correctly, the Priory of Nuneaton was founded in the mid 12th century (c. 1155-9) as a daughter house of the great Abbey of Fontevraudnear Saumur in western France. The owner of the manor and founder of the Abbey was Robert de Beaumont, the second Earl of Leicester. The priory, originally, a nunnery, gave the town its name Nun-eaton; 'eaton' meaning “Water Town” due to its propensity to flooding.
The Priory was instrumental in laying out the “Abbey Street” terminating at the “Abbey End”. Finally dissolved by edict of Henry VIII in 1539, The Priory fell into dereliction before being carried away as a ready source of building stone by local people.
Through generous benefactor, Thomas Botterill and other additional fund raising the Abbey church of St Mary the Virgin was fashioned out of the ruins. Mr Clapton Rolfe of Reading and Birmingham, prepared designs for the first stage of a new Abbey Church and on 26th April 1876 the Bishop of Worcester, the Right Reverend Dr Henry Philpott laid the foundation stone and work started on the Eastern bays of the new nave. The style mirrored the Norman work of the earlier church, though the blind arcades of interlacing arches were copied from other West Midlands examples and the ruined crossing piers were then encased within a brick shell to form a temporary chancel. On 8th October 1877, the Bishop returned to consecrate the new church.
The worship of God had returned to this ancient site after a gap of over three centuries.
A striking description of the new church is given in the Art Journal of 1888:
“Lately an attempt has been made to unearth the buried walls and to restore the
old chapel of the monastery to its former state. The four great ruined columns,
partly faced with stone, partly rough and broken, have been enclosed with a
temporary chancel of brickwork to protect them from further dilapidation, and
their jagged outlines give to the interior of the otherwise trim little church a most
unique picturesqueness. On the day of the opening ceremony, and for many
weeks after, grass and ivy, stone-crop and wall flowers were still growing within, in
every cranny, and hanging in tangled festoons over these rugged pillars; and as
the early twilight of a winter’s afternoon closed in, lighted candles were fixed here
and there on projecting stones, and flung such fantastic shadows below that one
might have thought the monks and nuns, whose stone coffins had been more than
once dislodged in work of excavation, were flitting hither and thither.”
The thirty years after the church was opened saw new streets of houses east of Manor Court Road and north of Abbey Green. The hugely increased population brought the need for more accommodation and at a meeting in 1904, it was decided to restore the chancel. Mr Harold Brakspear’s designs reproduced the thirteenth century chancel, giving a marvellous contrast of light and delicacy compared with the dark, solid structure of the nave. The new chancel, built at a cost of £3,500 was consecrated by the then Bishop of Worcester, the Right Reverend Huyshe Yeatman-Biggs (who would later become the first Bishop of Coventry) on 30th November 1906.
A simple rood screen divided the new chancel from the crossing and nave. In 1921 this was replaced by the present screen, designed by Harold Brakspear and the East window glass, by Powell & Son of Whitefriars, was installed in memory of those who died in the 1914-18 war.
Further fund-raising during the incumbency of the Reverend F. Bedale made it possible to add a major part of the north transept, again to Mr Brakspear’s plan and the two bays of the transept were completed, together with a fine North doorway. The foundation stone of the new transept was laid on 26th October 1929 and the extension consecrated by the Bishop of Coventry, the Right Reverend Charles Lisle Carr, on 18th October 1930.
The outbreak of war in 1939 put an end to further rebuilding plans and the
Abbey Church survived the air raids of 17th May 1941 and 25th June 1942
with only superficial damage. The Reverend Canon J. B. Sinker recalled that
the blast from a land mine lifted the nave roof and dropped it several inches
out of line. During the Incumbency of the Reverend Andrew Welsby, the
church benefited from a generous legacy left by Ann Mayo. This was used
for a number of restoration projects and the installation of the Resurrection
Window in the South Transept. The Resurrection Window
Over many years the Abbey has developed a strong Anglo-Catholic tradition of worship. While retaining this heritage which reflects the ancient past, the church is forward looking with an eye on being a focus for the local community.
For a more detailed history of the church from 1850-1897, please click here.
For the period 1883-1903 please click here.
For more information on the Abbey please click here.
The Vicars of the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin
The Reverend Dunne Parker
The Reverend Charles de Havilland
Staffed by the curates of Nuneaton, St Nicholas
The Reverend Canon Frederick Bedale
The Reverend Frank Taylor
The Reverend Howard James
The Reverend Canon John B. Sinker
The Reverend David Moore
The Reverend Canon John Graty
The Reverend Nigel Adams
The Reverend Andrew Welsby
The Reverend Mark Liddell SSC
2018 - Present
The Reverend Thomas Wintle SSC