St Mary the Virgin Astley

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One of the most remarkable churches in our Diocese is St Mary the Virgin Astley. This grade I listed building is now much smaller than the original, cross shaped church that graced this site. What remains was once just the chancel and choir of the collegiate church that had two chapels containing monuments and memorials to the great and the good. The original length of the church would have reached the gateway at the edge of what is now the churchyard. The tower, boasting a lead covered spire until 1600, was lit from within by a large lantern that could be seen from miles around.

The church, whose first origins are recorded in 1285, would have been quite isolated sitting deep in the forest surrounded by dense woodland. In 1343 Sir Thomas Astley built a grand, cathedral- like church calling it “my fair and beautiful Collegiate church”

Close to the church, on the north side, you’ll find the recently restored Astley Castle – now a Landmark Trust property. This was once the home of Thomas Astley and priests would have sung a daily Mass for him and his family to aid their souls through purgatory.

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Above: ASTLEY CASTLE
In time the church passed through other grand and wealthy families, particularly the Chamberlaynes and the Newdegates, many of whom are interred here.

The church would once have been smothered in brightly coloured wall paintings, all of which were covered over with lime wash during the Reformation. Recent extensive restoration reveals some of them – faded but still magnificent. The interior would have shone with colour at one time, bright blues, reds and golds complimenting the stained glass in the windows. Fragments of the glass have been gathered and reinstalled in some of the Nave windows creating contemporary looking collages. The Warwickshire and Coventry Historic Churches Trust were vey glad to give a small grant towards the wall painting restoration here.

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Above: PAINTINGS OF PROPHETS AND APOSTLES ON THE STALLS AND REMAINS OF COLOURED GLASS IN THE WINDOWS

There is so much to see in this place - it’s a casket of jewels. Fascinating effigies, carved oak choir stalls; quirky, unexpected details like the fireplace close to the altar and the strange date on the memorial to Lettice Bolton on the North Wall – an Example of the times when the legal year ran from 25th March - Lady Day- rather than the New Year we know and love nowadays.

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Above CARVED 14 CENTURY MISERICORDS
There are some pretty important, historical and literary figures associated with this church too. If you are a George Eliot fan you might have read ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’. She describes the interior of this church in her book and bases the Rev Gilfil on Rev Bernard Gilpin who was the Vicar of Astley when she lived her. She was born just a mile away from this church and her parents were married here.

The other startling association is Lady Jane Grey who was a member of the Grey family who owned Astley Castle in the 1500s. Her father, the Duke of Suffolk, fled to Astley during a rebellion and is said to have hidden in the hollows of an oak tree in the park for three days and nights. He was finally betrayed and was executed on Tower Hill in 1554.

Do try and visit this special place. You won’t regret it! There are interpretation boards around the site explaining the context of church and castle and on the recent visit we made to church we stumbled across the Astley Book Farm – the largest second hand book shop in the Midlands. Awesome!
http://www.astleybookfarm.com/


Church is open to visitors on the first Saturday of the month from 10.30am to 2pm from March to November and Bank Holiday Mondays 11am to 1pm. Also after Sunday service at 4.30pm. Other times are by arrangement through the churchwardens.
http://www.divine-inspiration.org.uk/churches/nuneaton/st-mary-the-virgin-astley


Astley Church always takes an active part in the Heritage Open Days events in September.