History of St Nicholas Stretton
and the heritage of the Stretton area – Coming soon!
The History of St Nicholas Church – Stretton, Rutland
This information comes from the Guide book available in the church. Like the history of the village, it was written by Sue Howlett in 1998 and revised in 2001. It is published here with her permission, for which we are very grateful. As there was no electronic copy available it has been re-typed. Wherever possible the illustrations have been copied, but inevitably lose clarity. For this reason we have taken the liberty of re-photographing church features on a digital camera and added some additional photographs to supplement some illustrations. The retyped document is available as a download at the end of the page. The cost of the guide in the church is £1.00. So if you have found this interesting or useful and you visit the church, a small donation is always appreciated!
Named by the Saxons for its position beside the Roman Ermine Street, Stretton has quietly observed the passing of the centuries. Kings stayed here in 1299, 1306 and 1316, taking days to reach Scotland; now thundering lorries do the same journey in hours.
St Nicholas’ Church has stood here for 900 years, guarding its secrets. Do the carved stones, discovered in 1881, date from the Anglo-Saxon settlement? Is the incised cross, outside the porch, part of a tomb-stone, standing cross or consecration symbol? How was the ridged tympanum over the south door used before being placed here? Why was the ancient sundial carved high above the south door? Was the arched recess in the chancel a Founder’s tomb or Sedilia (seating for priests)? With authorities such as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner and Edward Bradley at odds, modern research and inquiry produces few unequivocal answers. Further suggestions and theories are always welcome!
I am grateful for the detailed advice of Dr David Parsons, Archaeological Advisor to the Diocese of Leicester; H Mansell Duckett, Architect, and Mrs M Nicholson, Librarian, of Peterborough Cathedral; Walter Wells, ‘Leicestershire sundial guru’; T P Hall and Rev Christopher Hall, great-grandsons of a former rector. Acknowledgements are due to A R Traylen for permission to reproduce the plan drawn by his late cousin, the Diocesan Architect for Rutland, and to Leicester City museum Services for the 18th century sketch of Stretton Church. Members of the parish who care for the church in a variety of ways have also contributed helpful information and observations. Other sources are acknowledged in the text and Bibliography.
This brief history and guide is offered as an introduction to some interesting features of this unassuming village church. With so many of England’s smaller rural churches at risk from shrinking congregations and growing repair bills, we hope that Stretton Church will continue to offer a haven of peace and spiritual tranquillity to villagers and visitors alike.
The Parish of Stretton
The Domesday Book of 1086 shows that Stretton, attached to the manor of Market Overton, was held by Judith, niece of William the Conquerer. The combined population of 35 villagers and 8 smallholders worked the open fields with 9 oxen-drawn ploughs. The value of the estate, with its arable strips, meadow and woodland, had increased since 1066 from £12 to £40. No church is mentioned, but the fine Saxon tower arch is evidence that Market Overton’s church must have been built before the Conquest.
The building of Stretton Church began in the decades following 1066. It was acquired through marriage by Robert de Brus, ancestor of the King of Scotland. By 1185 he had granted it to the Knights Templar, whose Preceptory was nearby at Witham. During the 13th century Manor of Stretton reverted to the king, but the Templars’ claim to the church was confirmed. In 1250 the Master of the Temple appointed as vicar Nicholas de Roulston, since the church had been deserted by its previous incumbent, Robert, ‘not having the mind to return’. Fields in the parish once known as Temple Barns bear testimony to Stretton’s link with the Knights Templar.
The suppression of the Knights Templar in 1312 left the church and certain tenements of Stretton in the hands of the Knights Hospitallers, who appointed vicars to the church until the reformation. The advowson (right to appoint parish priest) then passed from the king to the Lord of the Manor. In 1570 Stretton was held by Sir James Harington of Exton but was sold in 1616 to the Horsman family, who retained the manor until 1743, A signed ‘Glebe Terrier’ (document listing church property) of 1631 records the exchange of the rector’s ‘right of commons’, grazing for four cows and twenty sheep, for 4½ acres of glebe land ‘in ?e Eastfields’.
Through local connections with William Browne, some Stretton tenements, detailed in medieval charters, were granted to Browne’s Hospital in Stamford. In 1836 most of the parish was held jointly by ‘Sir Gilbert Heathcote Baronet and the Warden Confraters and Twelve Poor of Browne’s Hospital in Stamford’. The Heathcotes, however, consolidated their ownership of Stretton by exchange for properties elsewhere. In 1907 the whole manor of Stretton and Stocken was sold to the Fleetwood-Hesketh family, who retained their right to appoint rectors of Stretton until 1971.
The Church Interior
From the top of Church Lane, the visitor can see across the uneven fields to the Rectory, built in 1810 but now a hotel (This building has changed again and is now a school for severely disabled teenagers). (The earlier parsonage was north of the church, where Ty Mawr (a private house) now stands.) Earthworks indicate where cottages once stood, before the 17th century enclosures which reputedly destroyed twelve ancient farms. It is a landscape which continues to change as the life of the community changes. Following in the footsteps of generations across the last 900 years, visitors enter the church through the Norman south doorway and its 13th century porch.
The shafted door jambs, dating from the Romanesque period of architecture (c1000-c1150), have plain shafts topped with ‘cushion capitals’,(see picture right) with the lower angles of the stone block rounded off. On the right side, the capital has typically Norman double ‘billet moulding’ of short raised rectangles. It is possible that the arch was added some years later as its prominent roll mouldings and plain chamfer (angular surface) suggest the period of transition between Romanesque and Gothic styles. (see picture right)
The semi-circular stone tympanum, above the door (inside the church), is surprisingly undecorated. The raised ridge on the inside of this stone offers evidence of its earlier use as a tomb cover, probably at the time the church was first built. This therefore appears to indicate a later extension to the original doorway. (see picture right) Before the addition of the 13th century porch a sundial, or ‘mass-dial’ was scratched on the outside face of the tympanum. The lines do not measure precise hours but served to indicate service times. When the newly-built porch cut of the sun, a second dial was incised, with added Roman numerals, high above the entrance.
The Church Interior (cont . . .)
During the 1881 restoration of the church, other sections of carved stone (now outside the porch) were found to have been used in rebuilding the Norman south doorway. The roughly square slab carved with a cross, (see picture right) probably once marked an early tomb, or perhaps the spot where the bishop anointed the newly consecrated building. The longer stone beside it is a 13th century tomb cover, decorated with a relief pattern of double omega and cross, on a stepped mound. There are many examples in this region of similar tomb-covers from the stone workshops of Barnack.
Stretton Church was greatly extended in the 13th century, as were many others at a time of increasing population. In addition to the porch, a double ‘Rutland bellcote’ was erected similar to those at Whitwell, Essendine and Little Casterton. The cancel wad doubled in size, as can be seen by the change in masonry of its external north wall. A north aisle was also built, with the original north wall replaced by fine Early English arcading, described by Nikolaus Pevsner as follows:
The piers consist of a cruciform core with shallow hollows between the arms of the cross. The fronts of the arms are flat, but each has a shallow convex curve between two ridges. Set into the diagonal hollows, free-standing shafts with stiff-leaf capitals. Moulded round arches. (Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Leicestershire and Rutland, 1st edition, 1960, page 325)
The west wall is over five feet thick. Before the church restoration it had sunk so that the bell turret leaned nine or ten inches out of the perpendicular, and had to be supported by an additional wall. In 1881, the whole of the west end, including gable and bell turret, had to be carefully dismantled and rebuilt using the same stones. Two new lancet windows were inserted, bringing much needed light to the nave.
The font (see picture right) still stands near the original entrance from the village, the north doorway which was blocked up in 1881 . Late 12th century, although with a modern base and cover, the font is unusually rectangular in shape and large enough to immerse a baby. It has slightly curved sides and round mouldings at each angle.
The round arch which leads into the south transept may once have spanned the smaller chancel of the original church. The present 13th century chancel arch (see picture right) is of two orders (series of concentric steps receding towards the opening). The inner order rests on two half octagonal moulded corbels (supportive blocks of stone) with nail head decoration and attractive carved heads.
The Church Interior (cont 2 . . .)
The great east window is 15th century, with three cinquefoil lights and Perpendicular tracery. (see picture right) The chancel also has a 14th century square-headed window on the south wall and two lancets: slender, widely splayed, pointed arch windows of the 13th century. (see picture right) That on the south wall is a ‘low-window’, once shuttered, but with the lower section now blocked up.
To the right of the alter is a six –foot wide recess, of early 14th century design, with carved head-stops at each end of the richly moulded arch. This cuts into an interesting 13th century double-arched piscine (single drained basin, with probable ‘credence’ shelf for washing Communion vessels). If intended as sedilia (seating for priests), as Pevsner suggests, the architectural overlap looks surprisingly clumsy. Although the shape of the arch seems to suggest a tomb recess, this would normally be found on the north wall of the chancel and its placing here, while directly under the south window and close to the alter, appears cramped and intrusive. One possible explanation is that a ‘Founder’s Tomb’ may have originated elsewhere in the church, being moved to its more prominent position after the Reformation, when the piscine would have been less important.
To the left of the chancel arch is another fascinating survival from the 13th century church. Until the Reformation, the chancel was separated from the nave by a rood screen, supporting a cross and rood-loft, reached by the rood stairs. Of these, the two lower steps still exist to the left of the chancel arch, leading up to a now-blocked doorway. A north chapel was created here when the north aisle was extended to form a transept in the last years of the 13th century, at a time when the cult of Mary required additional alters. Near the steps, serving the altar of the north chapel, is a second piscine recess; above is an image bracket, similar to two by the main altar. Both chancel and north chapel also have an aumbry (recess for the communion host and sacred vessels). The smaller south transept, however, is very different, having been built around 1610.
The vestry was inserted when the north aisle was widened in 1881, and contains relics of the earlier church. Parts of the 17th century pulpit were re-used in the lower part of the screen. The parish chest, dated 1662, once held the parish registers, although these are now at the Leicestershire Record Office. A board in the vestry is the only evidence of the establishment of the Horsman Charity, although payments are recorded in the 17th century parish registers. Also in the vestry is a framed copy, by Edward Bradley, of some coloured wall painting found when the church was restored and the interior walls white-washed.
Most of the interior woodwork, such as the pulpit and alter rails, dates from 1881. However, some of the earlier oak pews were preserved in the two transepts. One, the Stocken Hall pew, is carved with the Heathcote coat of arms, while the bench ends are decorated with ‘poppy heads’ (ornament of leaf and flower type) (see picture right). At the restoration, the roof had to be completely replaced, although the original Collyweston slates were used outside as far as possible. Even the old oak door was too decayed to be preserved, but its iron hinges were re-used.
No early stained glass survives. However, generous family donors gave the East window, representing the Ascension, in memory of William Hirst Simpson, Rector until 1871. Among others commemorated in stained glass are Reverend Edward Bailey and his family, including a son of twelve. Earlier memorials in the church of marble, stone or slate remember members of the Horsman and Brown families, as well as Reverend John Lamb who was rector for 32 years. The two bells date from 1663 and 1710, while the organ was given in 1906 in memory of the musical daughter of Reverend Thomas Hall. The Victoria County History also records Stretton’s ownership of late 17th century chalice and paten (shallow dish used in communion), which have unfortunately now been lost.
Patrons and Parsons
Stretton was fortunate to have as its Lord of the Manor Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, brother of Henry V. This powerful patron secured for his tenants a reduction in tax, so that men of Stretton had to pay ‘fifteenths’, rather than the expected ‘tenths’. Sadly, Stretton’s privileged position was not to last for long. Gloucester became Protector of the young king, Henry V1, but political rivalries resulted in an accusation of witchcraft against his second wife, Eleanor, followed by Gloucester’s indictment of treason and mysterious death in 1447.
Little is known of Stretton’s earliest priests. However, during the religious conflicts of the 17th century Stretton was noted for its opposition to the rituals of the Anglican church. Henry Hargreaves, minister for thirty years, was complained of for Puritan activities throughout Rutland, while women of Stretton and Clipsham: ‘snatched their children out of the priest’s arms at baptism before they could be signed with the cross’. (Victoria History of Rutland, Vol 1 p.153) The priests made efforts to educate the children of Stretton, with schools being recorded within the church in the years 1619 and 1640.
In 1627 Jeremiah Whitiker, schoolmaster of Oakham, become Rector of Stretton and began to keep the parish registers which still survive. The earliest entry is the christening of his son, Jeremy, in April 1631; in August 1632 we read of the burial of the same child. In 1641Whitiker led the signing by over forty parishioners of the ‘Protestation’ to Parliament, opposing royal moves towards Catholicism. The following year he was preaching before the House of Commons in London, and was promoted to the parish of Bermondsey. Increasingly influential in national affairs, Whitaker was appointed Moderator of the Westminster Assembly, set up to reform the Church of England. His death in 1654 was widely lamented.
The puritan Horsman family, many of whose members are commemorated within the church, held Stretton for over 100 years. When Edward Horsman died at the age of 77 in 1693, he left a charity of £20 to the poor of the parish (unwisely failing to invest in land!). The charity accounts show its practical concerns, paying £1 in 1699: ‘towards the putting out of the three children of Widow Hastings Apprentices’ and in 1705, 37 shillings: ‘for 2 dozen & 1/2 of hemp … for spinning of the same … for weaving washing & winding … whereof was made 32 yards & half of cloth’. The family name died out with the six daughters of Edward Horsman’s son, also Edward, who died in 1720. By 1785 the estate had passed to Sir Gilbert Heathcote of Normanton, whose grandson became Lord Aveland.
The second Lord Aveland was a generous patron and benefactor of Stretton, contributing much to the restoration of the church and, according to the Vestry Minutes of 1873: ‘building, at his own expense, a commodious schoolroom and fitting it with needful requirements, and also providing a house for the schoolmistress’. Becoming the Earl of Ancaster in 1892, he sold the estate of Stretton and Stocken to Charles Hesketh Fleetwood-Hesketh in 1907. Major Hesketh was a regular attendee at Stretton Church, reading the lessons while his wife played the organ. His appreciation of sermons is described in the Recollections of his son Peter:
Our pew was immediately below the pulpit, and if the sermon reached a length of ten minutes, which my father considered quite long enough, he would ostentatiously pull out his gold watch and place it prominently on the bookrest in front of him, plainly visible to the preacher.
Stretton’s most famous rector was appointed by Lord Aveland in 1871. Edward Bradley, better known to the public as Cuthbert Bede, was the author of a highly popular novel, The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green, an Oxford Freshman. This was published in 1853 as a ‘shilling book’ for railway passengers and by 1870 had sold 100,000 copies, a figure which was doubled when the novel was reissued for sixpence. Bradley’s share of the royalties for this novel was £350. His other miscellaneous publications ran into twenty volumes. An indefatigable contributer to journals such as Punch, and an entertaining lecturer, Bradley raised funds and supporters for the restoration of Stretton Church, which in 1877 was described in a Handbook to Rutland as being ‘in utter disrepair’. Although in 1883 Bradley move on to the parish of Hanby, near Grantham, his love for Stretton was such that, six years later, he was buried here with other members of his family.
The major restoration of Stretton Church, over a century ago, cost £1646. (Reverend Bradley was left with many additional boils including ‘treats to workmen’ and ‘luncheon at the school’!) Having already provided the school which was used for service during the restoration, Lord Aveland donated additional land for the extension of the churchyard. The ecclesiastical architect was James Fowler of Louth, and the builder was Thomas Halliday, whose workshop in Greetham still retains structural souvenirs of the many churches he restored. Other contributors to the restoration included Lord and Lady Francis Cecil, aristocratic tenants of Stocken Hall.
John Palin, rector from 1977 to 1983 helped to raise funds for church repairs and extended our knowledge of Stretton’s history through correspondence with American citizens about their Rutland ancestors. In his Fourfold newsletter of September 1981 he records the following:
A number of Stretton people re known to have been among the early settlers in New England.. After the death of Richard Warde in 1635, his widow Joyce and her family left Stretton and settled in Wethersfield, Connecticut, where she died in 1640. Her son John Warde was one of the original settlers in Newark in 1666. His sister Mary married another Stretton man John Fletcher and they joined the church at Milford, Conn. In 1641 . . . . The Bacons were another family of early Stretton emigrants . . . . Nathaniel Bacon become a representative of Plymouth County in 1655 and was made an assistant of the General Court of the Colony in 1667 . . . Samuel who was baptized at Stretton in 1636 and who died at Salem Couynty N. J. in 1685 was a member of the Provisional Assembly of West Jersey in 1685 and was a Justice of the Court for Salem County in 1688. He was the founder member of a substantial Quaker family.
In other corners of the world, families can trace their origins to Stretton. A splendid memorial north of the church marks the tomb of George Wilson, who died in 1876 aged 44. The Vestry Minutes of 1865 onwards record his election as Guardian of the Poor. This involved efficient distribution of the 10 (old) pence in the pound parish rate. His wife, Ellen Chapman, came from a long-established local family. Their son Walter, a 21 year old steam engineer, emigrated to New Zealand from where is grandson visited the village on Fete Day, 1988. He donated to the parish an illustrated testimonial given to Ellen Wilson in 1876, to ‘beg your acceptance of a drawing—room timepiece in acknowledgement of your kind and valuable services during the past five years in playing the harmonium and training the school children in singing’.
History and Heritage
St Nicholas Church has a long and fascinating Hisory. This section of our website is being developed, but in the meantime we have a Statement of Significance which has a brief summery of the history of the church. Please click below to read/download the document.
History and Heritage
Our intention is to use St Nicholas as a focal point in the village for information about the heritage of the area as well as the history of the church. The local area is steeped in history and we would like St Nicholas to become a place where visitors to Rutland can learn about our heritage.
History and Heritage
Much more info coming soon!