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St Mary the Virgin



I am indebted to Dr Digi for permission to use some of his photographs on this page. I forgot to take a film with me on my visit. The Doctor has embarked on a colossal undertaking, to photograph every building mentioned in the Buildings of England series ("Pevsners") and I wish him every success. His web-site will explain more at


The village of Stoneleigh, south of Coventry and a few miles east of Kenilworth, is probably best known around the world for the Royal Show, a large agricultural and trade event in the grounds of Stoneleigh Abbey. This former Cistercian abbey's church was demolished and a fine mansion erected on the site of the cloisters incorporating several medieval remains.

It is a delightful stone-built village south of the River Sowe. Two handsome bridges, one early C19 and the other medieval cross it some three-quarters of a mile apart. The former carries the main road and it is easy to miss the church coming from Kenilworth as it is at the end of another street which doubles back away from this road.

The Church

Outside the church presents a very strange outline indeed. The day was overcast and damp, very much like that of Dr Digi's visit it seems. The tower is rectangular, its large diagonal buttresses making the later Perpendicular top stage look all the meaner and a mismatch. It has a plain parapet and tiny angle pinnacles and a recessed hipped roof. An explanation for the odd appearance, big buttresses and cautious top-stage could be that the original Norman tower collapsed in around 1350: the east, south and north walls are of Norman masonry and a blocked window is now off-centre in the N wall, the west wall is of this later date, the belfry a little later still..

The core of the whole church is Norman, with a wide three bayed nave and two bayed slightly narrower and lower chancel. The South Aisle was added soon afterwards but has been rebuilt. Later windows have been inserted and a clerestory added to the nave. This still appears lower than the chancel outside, although this was not always the case - see the former roofline on the east face of the tower. The vestry on the south side was added in the later C17 and has odd obelisk pinnacles. The larger north chapel was added in c1820 and now serves as a parish room.

Evidence outside of the Norman period is confined to the blocked north doorway of the nave with two orders of decoration and a tympanum depicting two dragons entwined and biting their own tails. This was presumably blocked when it was decided to use the tower doorway as the principle entrance.
This interior view looks from the west end towards the altar, and the principle Norman features that survive in the chancel. The box pews and tall elegant pulpit date from 1821. Much of the work has been retooled by the Victorian restorers but the arch is still impressively rich. This view of the south respond and arch detail shows different patterns employed by the builders 800 years ago.
The South Aisle now has octagonal piers and double chamfered arches of the C14 Decorated style. Of the same time the easternmost window on the North side of the nave, the other two are C19 copies. A number of hatchments hang in the spandrels of the arcade. There is also a pretty west gallery standing on eight iron columns, and embellished by a Royal Coat of Arms. The panelled fronts now carry various inscriptions about the local benefactors of the village and makes interesting reading, a reflection on the society of times long past. The organ sits atop the gallery, a sizable instrument and all dates from 1821.
At the east end of the south aisle is a fine but worn Norman font, decorated with statues under arches. There is no east window to the aisle but here is a modern reredos of c1966 with a dove of peace.
From the chancel arch more evidence of Norman work can be seen. The chancel is much taller than originally and there was an intention to vault - see the two large wall shafts and capitals dividing the bays. The arcading has heavy pointed zig-zag and is now almost entirely C19. Behind the stalls on the left a red sandstone effigy to a cleric, C14. On the wall above a C19 Gothic memorial to Margarette Leigh d1860 with a relief depicting a family gathering around a deathbed.
The sanctuary is closed off by very pretty C18 altar rails with thin balusters, older than most of the woodwork in the church. To the left are stone stairs up into the Leigh Chapel. This has a pretty plaster vault and several monuments to family members, none especially good. One, to Henry Chandos Leigh d1884 in the USA with elaborate inscription and a praying angel in a medallion, is by Orlandini of Firenze (Florence). Another by A.Polloni to Frances wife of the 2nd Baron Leigh d1909 has a shallow relief of a woman and an angel.
The two best monuments are in the chancel. On the north side of the sanctuary is an elaborate black and white marble standing monument to Alice, Duchess Dudley d1668 and her daughter. Large heavy superstructure carried on eight columns, four each end. Two trumpeting cherubs hold back curtains. The white marble effigies are of high quality. Both the women lie in shrouds, the daughter below and to the front of her mother.
On the south side of the chancel is the architectural monument to Chandos Baron Leigh d1860, erected 1850. It is a splendid C13 style arch with rich foliage carving. It opens into a five-sided vaulted recess with an alabaster tomb chest.

Final Thoughts

This church seems to have a little to please everyone, from social history and the grand memorials to the gentry, to the humble near pagan Norman tympanum and the puzzling tower. Inside the tower is a well worn female effigy originally in the churchyard for hundreds of years. She is supposed to be carrying a child. The then Vicar of Stoneleigh in 1637 said that local tradition of his time had it that this lady was the wife of a local knight who left her "great with child and that upon the news that he was slayne she ript up her own belly and was buried therefore upon the north side of the church, in ye churchyard under a stone whereupon is portraied the figure of a woman and child wh remaynes to this day." She was not brought inside until very much later.

page updated 21st August 2004