No. VIIL NUNEATON CHURCH (St. Nic(h)olas)
By ALFRED L. SCRIVENER (1845-1886)
(transcribed by Heather Lee)
“Once on the flight of ages past,
There lived a man, and who was he?
Mortal however thy lot be cast
That man resembled thee.”
Sweet and solemn memories stand sentinel upon the threshold of the church where we first worshipped. We should shake off from our feet the dust gathered on the rough ways of the world for this is holy ground. Echoes of far off voices, sad and tender, reach us from beyond the grave. Strange childlike fancies return again, as when with fearful wonder we first looked upon the mystery of the Eternal, and our hearts trembled and were still. In great Cathedrals, where the many tinted flames of storied windows fling the splendour of colour among forests of pillars, wide springing arches, and fretted walls, or lie in “lanes of light,” athwart the tombs where kings and mighty ones “sleep in dull cold marble,” the spirit is oppressed by the awful grandeur. The more simple beauty of the Parish Church touches the heart. Here they were christened, wedded, buried. They sleep in God’s acre without its doors. We feel yet the fitness and pathos of those solemn prayers which our childish lips first murmured within these walls. What melody can move us like those grand old hymns which have lingered in our memory all our lives? What voice can speak with the power and eloquence of the good pastor whom we first heard reasoning with pleading earnestness of “Righteousness, temperance, and judgement to come.”
So as I pace the sounding aisles of our own parish Church, the restless curiosity of the antiquarian is mingled with deeper and holier feelings, and historic interest is quickened by the thought that these vulnerable walls have heard the prayers and witnessed the vows of those who were bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh in the perished ages.
The Parish Church of Nuneaton is dedicated to St. Nicholas,  who was born at Patara, a city of Lycia, and though a layman, was for his piety made Bishop of Myra, in the fourth century. An ancient legend tells how two lads on their way to school at Athens, were murdered in their sleep by the host of an inn at Myra, and their bodies cut up and put into a pickling tub. The murder was revealed to the Bishop in a vision. He taxed the host with the crime; the murderer confessed and repented; and in answer to the Bishop’s prayers the mangled bodies were re-united, and the scholars sent on their way to Athens with the bishop’s blessing.
For this fabled miracle the bishop has ever been regarded as the patron saint of schoolboys. Parish Clerks and sailors were also among his clients and even robbers are called by Shakespeare “St. Nicholas’ Clerks”.
In the time of Henry 1st, Robert Bossu Earl of Leicester gave the Parish Church to the Monastery of Lira in Normandy. When the third Edward entered on that great struggle with France which for a hundred years covered the arms of England with glory and her rulers with shame, the King seized the revenues of this and other alien priories. The Table of Patrons and Incumbents given by Dugdale shows that with an interval of a few years the patronage continued in the hands of the crown from 1341 until the year 1413 when Henry V granted it to the Carthusian monks of Shene in Surrey. The Nuns of Nuneaton obtained it in the 38th of Henry VI. Since the dissolution of the monasteries the patronage has continued in the Crown. Dugdale’s Table of patrons and saints comes down to the incumbency of William Cradok. Art. Mag. 1627, but these dry lists are mournful in their meagreness. Of the part these years bore in the passions and purposes and sufferings of their times, no record remains but a bold name and a date. Here is Simon de Thorp who held the living from 1341 to 1357. During his incumbency the terrible plague called the Black Death swept over England. The cities and towns were filled with dead and dying. Townsmen fled into the fields carrying contagion with them. The pestilence attacked even brute beasts and their putrid carcases poisoned the air by the way-sides. The country folk fled into the towns. The gentry shut themselves up in their mansions turning their servants adrift to live by plunder. Mothers shrank with loathing from their tainted children. Men’s hearts failed them for fear, and they looked for the coming of the Judgement Day. One wonders how this Vicar saved himself in these awful days. There is a gap for a few months in 1354 during his incumbency when one Walter de Heyworth was in charge. Can it be that de Thorp fled before the Terror? From 1373 to 1390 Henry Hunt held the living. Of him we know nothing but the name, yet it is not unlikely that he knew and was known by John Wycliffe then parson of Lutterworth, who gave the first articulate voice to the protest of the English Church against the spiritual tyranny of Rome. As when Whitely and Wesley at a later day startled the church from its lethargy. Parson Hunt may have heard at Nuneaton Market Cross one of those “Simple Priests,” whom Wycliffe taught and organised, who accepted no benefice, but wandered from town to town in homely russet dress, preaching in coarse vigorous language “understanded of the people,” against the corruptions of the friars; laughing at the pardoners wallet “filled with pardons hot from Rome,” and proclaiming to sleepy pastors that “God gave his sheep to be pastured, not to be shaven and shorn.”
The long incumbency of Robert Whittington from 1521 to 1558 covers that momentous period when the seeds which Wycliffe had sown, buried for a time, broke the crust of custom, and though sometimes nipped by frost, or parched by drought, at last bore goodly fruit. Whittington held the living from the time when Wolsey was all powerful, and Henry hailed by the Pope as defender of faith, to the year when the fires of Smithfield died out and the joy bells clanged from the grey church tower to hail the accession of Elizabeth. I should trespass beyond my limits if I to follow all the scenes and changes he must have witnessed. One passage in the history of that time has a close connection with the story of Nuneaton Church. Wolsey had died disgraced and broken-hearted. Henry had broken with the Pope. The Bible in the English tongue lay open for the first time in the chancel of Nuneaton Church. Thomas Cromwell had gathered all power into his own hands and almost alone was battling against priestly factions, popular discontent, and the jealousy of the great nobles. Two commissions were issued by the crown: the one to effect the suppression of the smaller monasteries; the other a commission empowered to summon before it every parish priest, to examine into his habits, character, and qualifications and eject summarily all inefficient persons. One gets some notion that Whittington must have been a timid, moderate, inoffensive man, but an errant trimmer. Found blameless by Cromwell’s commission, swallowing, perhaps welcoming, the six articles which embodied the popedom of the King, shifting his ground to accept the reformed articles and prayer book of Edward VI, returning to the old ways and the old faith under Mary, he was only saved by death from “turning another cat in pan” on the accession of Elizabeth. The commissions of Cromwell’s, and a rumour that his wise proposal to establish parish registers meant a tax on very wedding, funeral, and christening, stirred into flame the smouldering fires of revolt. In Lincolnshire and Yorkshire the parsons and the vicars at the head of mobs of unwashed artisans swarmed in the Market Places, with bills and staves “the stir and the noise arising hideous.” The chancellor of Lincoln was murdered, the mobs surrounded the houses of the gentry shouting for Captains, and willingly or unwillingly squires and knights and nobles were dragged into the rebellion. Among others Robert Aske, a valiant private gentleman, the Lord Darcy of Pomfret Castle, and Sir Robert Constable of Flamborough, were most conspicuous. For a time the kingdom was in danger of Revolution. The King was forced to temporise, and in part to yield and the army dispersed with fair promises. But the king’s promises were either misunderstood or imperfectly fulfilled. The troubles broke out afresh, the old leaders held aloof, and the rebels were crushed in detail. But this renewal of the rebellion gave the king a pretext for punishing the former Captains. Lord Darcy was executed on Tower Hill, Aske at York, and Sir Robert Constable at Hull. In the early days of the first rebellion young Sir Marmaduke Constable, so of this Sir Robert, and who had married a daughter of Lord Darcy’s, was sent up to London to lay before the King the grievances of the malcontents. The King retained him about the court, and three years later, when the great monasteries were dissolved in their turn, Henry purchased Sir Marmaduke’s loyalty and oblivion for his father’s death, out of the spoils of Nuneaton Abbey. Sir Marmaduke must have had a residence here from the fact of his burial, and this was probably an ancient mansion which was standing a hundred years ago in Nuneaton Market Place and was traditionally assigned to him. He was also one of the first governors of the Grammar School founded here by Edward VI. Horeston and a part of the Manor of Nuneaton were sold by Sir Marmaduke to Jasper Fisher, Esq., and in the time of Elizabeth, his son Robert Constable alienated the rest of their lands in this lordship. Where Flamborough Head breasts the storms of the German Ocean the descendants of the old race of the Constables dwell yet in their ancient keep, but this is all I can learn of the history of the Knight whose marble effigy lies on the altar tomb in the chancel of Nuneaton Church. The inscription on the tomb is as follows:-
“Here lyeth Sr. Marmaduke Constable Knyht
“woh dyed the xx day of Aprile i ye yere
“of or lord v & threescore, Sone and hyre
“to Sr. Robert Constable Knyht Lord or
“&the sey Sir Marmaduke hadde too Wiffe
“Elezabethe daughter to the Lord Darsse, by
“hur he hadde too Sons, Robart and Marma-
“duke & viii Daughters. ye second wyff
“Margarett Boothe dawhtr of Willm Boothe
After Dugdale’s time the only clue towards the history of Nuneaton Church is to be found in the Parish Registers, which date from the year 1578. The entries of marriages in Puritan days will interest some of our fair readers. Here is a specimen.
“The extent and purpose of marriage betwixt George Palmer of Priors Hardwick in the County of Warwick Gent and Joane Sanders of Bedworth in ye said County of Warr. spinster was with ye consent of ye said George and Joane at request of Anne Sanders Mother of ye said Joane pubblyshed three market days in ye open market at Nuneaton.”
The endorsement to this entry is illegible but that to the next will show its form
“and were joined together in marriage at Caldecote before Wm Purefoy Esq one of ye justices of Peace for this Co ye first day of June 1654
This signature in a large angular hand is that of Colonel Purefoy whose house was attacked in 1642 by Prince Rupert; the veritable sign manual, bold and clear of a notable man. How would our modern ladies like the Puritan Custom of publishing the banns of “in open Market,” and solemnising marriages before a justice of the peace? Here and there in the eighteenth century we find entries with some details added. In 1745, Dec. 31, is this –
“Elizabeth Sutton, daughter of Samuel Sutton buried, but had no burial service supposed to be poisoned, but allowed to be buried in the parish churchyard by the Cronor.”
Another entry records the burial of a man “accidentally killed by a bucjet falling upon him as they were drawing him up from a pit in Mr. Fletcher’s sough.” The entry signed “John Ryder, Vicar,” and dated 1738, is interesting. “Collected for the use of the poor sufferers at the great fire of Willingbrough.” [Wellingborough] Some old families still extant in the parish can be traced back among the simple entries. The name of Slingsby occurs in 1681, Sidwell in 1685, Hood in 1690, Petty in 1698, Clay in 1708. In 1698 is the entry of the burial of Dudley Ryder, who was ejected from the living of Bedworth by the act of Uniformity in 1662, and established the first dissenting meeting house there. He was disinherited for his nonconformity and his younger brother became Earl of Harrowby.
The communion plate is chiefly of the eighteenth century, but the chalice is of the Elizabethan character, and is probably one of the earliest after the Reformation. Among the usual monuments is one in Latin, dated 1662, the year of the ejection of Nonconformists from the church, to the memory of Anthony Trotman, who married Abigail, a daughter of the knightly house of Stratford. This is surmounted by two busts; a man’s with placid open countenance, portly double chin, smooth shaven face, loose cravat and wig falling in long curls on to his shoulders; the lady’s exhibits a Greek contour, the hair is cut in short curls over the forehead, the neck quite bare, and the bust largely exposed. A Tablet in Latin, dated 1668, records the death of Maria, the wife of Richard Combes, Armiger, another daughter of the house of Stratford. The Trotmans were a family of importance here in the 17th century, one, Anthony, being receiver of the Grammar school when the present building was erected in 1696. The Stratfords lived at Horeston Grange, of which a ruined wall and the moat remain in the fields up Oddoway’s Lane. The family is now merged in the Stratford Dugdale’s of Merevale.
The Rev. John Ryder, who died in 1791, held the living for many years and his tablet records that at the time of his death he was Dean of Lismore, in Ireland. Tradition credits the vicar with having no less than twenty-three children, seven of whom were born in one year, three at one birth, and four at another. Old folks among us will remember the Rev. Hugh Hughes who died in 1830. His monument records that he was “Rector of the Hardwick, Northamptonshire; Vicar or Wolvey, Warwickshire; thirty years head master of the grammar school, and fifty two years curate of the parish of Nuneaton, having discharged the duties of his scared office during that long period with diligence and integrity.” The living was held during his curacy by a gentleman named Stopford, another pluralist who only visited the parish once a year.
It is not so long ago, yet how wide a gulf divides them from now. Before we can believe this church to be the same the chancel must be returned to its dingy decay and the head shivered on Sir Marmaduke’s tomb. The worshippers must be hidden in the drowsy depths of dark panelled pews, and the singers stowed away in a gallery at the west end, where Bassoon and Fiddle, Bass and Tenor follow the lead of that “disciplinarian in Psalmody” Samuel Rayner, by the light of dim wax candles. The evangelical awakening in the Church of England, which disturbed the calm of Mr. Hughes’ old age has furnished the theme, as his flock suggested the characters for one of George Eliot’s stories in “Scenes of Clerical Life.”
The name of the Rev. Robert Chapman Savage, the latest vicar whose monument is on these walls, can only be written with regret. He who writes, recalls with grateful reverence the preacher whose faithful earnestness moved all hearts, the friend whose kindly help and counsel were never withheld. None dare repeats the shibboleths of faction over his grave, for our hearts, our hopes, our prayers are with the widowed Lady, herself a “mother in Israel,” who mourns his loss in honoured seclusion.
 This poignant opening paragraph reflects Alfred Scrivener’s sad loss of his mother Mary Ann (Lester) Scrivener in 1848 aged 29; and his father, Joseph Scrivener aged 44 in 1860. P.L.
 I make no apology for preferring to use St. Nicholas as the correct spelling in antiquity for our parish church. Why the h was dropped in the last forty years I cannot contemplate. I always use the historic spelling P.L.