St Mary’s Abbey has a rich and lavish history stretching back as far as the Middle Ages.
This page gives a brief history 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.
A much more detailed history of St. Marys is being established with an Archive recording both the events and people linked to the Abbey Church and parish from 1850 onwards.
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 Fontevraud near Saumur in western France. The owner of the manor and founder of the Abbey was Robert le Bossu, Earl of Leicester. A detailed history of the Priory has been published by British History Online (with a list of Prioresses and Priors) and can be found HERE. Also Wedington Castle – An Online history has a page on the Priory with some aditional pictures.
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 was fashioned out of the ruins. Mr. Clapton Rolfe of Reading and Birmingham, prepared designs for the first stage of a new Abbey Church.
On 26th April 1876 the Bishop of Worcester 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. 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 Bishop of Worcester 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. The East window glass, by Powell &. Son of Whitefriars, is in memory of those who died in the 1914-18 war.
Further fund-raising during the incumbency of Rev. F. Bedale made it possible to add a major part of the north transept, again to Mr. Brakspear’s plan. 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 on 18th October 1930.
The outbreak of war in 1939 put an end to further rebuilding plans. The Abbey Church survived the air raids of 17th May 1941 and 25th June 1942 with only superficial damage.
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 Fr Welsby, St Mary’s benefitted 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.
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.
|1877 – 1883||Rev’d Dunne Parker|
|1883 – 1897||Rev’d Charles de Havilland|
|1898 – 1902||Staffed by Curates of St Nicolas, Nuneaton|
|1903 – 1924||Canon Frederick Bedale|
|1925 – 1937||Rev’d Frank Taylor|
|1938||Rev’d Howard James|
|1939 – 1974||Canon John B. Sinker|
|1975 – 1983||Rev’d David Moore|
|1984 – 1996||Canon John Graty|
|1997 – 2001||Rev’d Nigel Adams|
|2002 – 2007||Rev’d George Andrew Welsby|
|2008 – Present||Rev’d Mark Liddell SSC|