The above quotation is from ‘Scenes of Clerical Life : Mr Gilfil’s Love Story’ by George Eliot who based her fictional village of Knebley on the real life village of Astley. I wrote about my first visit to Astley here and this what I wrote there about the George Eliot connection :
“I first visited Astley in the mid-1990s when studying for a Masters degree in Victorian Studies. A ‘field trip’ to the places associated with George Eliot was planned and we spent the day visiting Coventry, Nuneaton, Arbury Hall and other places mentioned in her life and works including Astley church where we took in a view of the ruined castle. Astley Castle appeared in George Eliot’s story ‘Mr Gilfil’s Love Story’ as Knebley Abbey. The whole site is also part of the Arbury Estate, where George Eliot’s father, Robert Evans, was a farmer, surveyor and land agent and where the young Mary Ann Evans (GE’s real name) grew up.”
George Eliot’s parents were married in St Mary the Virgin, Astley parish church. “Robert Evans and Christina Pearson, were married in Astley Church in February 1813.” [Parish website]
Tile from the floor or “chequered pavement”
The church is open regularly to visitors on the first Saturday of the month from 10.30am until 2pm and also from 11am until 2pm on every Bank Holiday. (Always check the website if you do intend to visit though)
Staying at the Castle you are invited to call one of the churchwardens (numbers are given in the Information File) in order to arrange a personal tour. I decided to do this and at 10.30 the other Thursday met Judith who was able to show me changes that had taken place since my last visit and to explain lots of the features of the church. Here is how the Welcome Leaflet briefly describes the church and its ‘treasures’.
“We know that a church existed at Astley as early as 1285 because a priest was appointed in that year. However, what remains today contains part of the church that was built in 1343 together with some additions that were built in 1607/8.
The 1343 church was built in the form of a cross, with a central tower which had a lead covered spire. After dark a light was always shown from the spire which was known as “The Lantern of Arden”. The light was to guide travellers through the thick forest which surrounded the area in those days.
A Lantern in the Church
The Modern Lantern of Arden
“When artist Johnny White created Astley’s heritage feature, the new Lantern of Arden, he took his inspiration from the church. It is made of similar red sandstone. In the lantern’s windows, stainless steel panels mirror the ancient themes and history of the parish. Three queens and the castle are represented. Sir Henry Grey hiding in an oak tree and the Victorian author, George Eliot, can all be found on the lantern, made from the same red sandstone as the church.”[Source]
The church’s purpose was a chantry for Thomas Astley. here priests sang mass daily for both him and his family to aid their souls in purgatory. Over the years the church has passed ownership through Sir Richard Chamberlayne to the Newdegate family.
The main body of the church was about 30 m. long but by 1600 the tower had fallen down and the church was in a state of disrepair.
In 1607/8 the present tower and chancel were built, using some of the materials from the old church, at each end of the chancel of the earlier building.”
Stained Glass Windows
The east and north windows contain some 14th century stained glass whereas the south window is modern.
This dates from the 17th century and depicts the taking down of Our Lord from the cross. It was given to the church in 1905 by Sir Francis Newdegate.
A stone circular staircase leads up to the bells of which there are five. Four of these have an inscription showing that they were made in Leicester in 1607.
“With Coats of Arms in clusters on the painted roof” [‘Scenes of Clerical Life : Mr Gilfil’s Love Story’ by George Eliot]
This is made of oak and has twenty one shields connected with the church. It was extensively restored in 1876.
17th Century Wall Paintings
[“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; and he that believeth not shall be damned.” Mark Ch. 16 v. 16]
There are six on the south wall showing seven Bible passages, the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed.
14th Century Choir Stalls
There are two sets of nine and behind each stall is a painted panel. There are nine apostles on the north side and nine prophets on the south side.
The Original East Window
Now blocked, this window would have been at the end of the original church. It sits above the 17th century chancel arch. Some of the stained glass from this once magnificent window was moved and placed in the windows of the north side of the chancel and also in the tracery in some windows in the nave.
Interior view towards the Chancel
Interior view towards the rear and access to the church tower and bells