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!
St. Nicholas’ Church – Stretton Rutland – Visitor’s Guide
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 ?? 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
(see plan on back cover)
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’, 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.
The semi-circular stone tympanum, above the door, 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. 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.
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, 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)
MORE TO BE ADDED!