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A medieval gem hidden in the trees; The magnificent church at Astley in north Warwickshire has a few magical surprises, writes Chris Upton.

Byline: Chris Upton

ACOUPLE of weeks back I was extolling the delights of Astley Castle in north Warwickshire, lately brought back to sophisticated, 21st-century life by the Landmark Trust. One of the charms of staying there - which you now can do - will undoubtedly be the view from the windows in this green and pleasant land.

Personally, I would be grabbing the ensuite which looks serenely out onto the parish church next door.

It's a mystery to me why, in 15 years of writing about the West Midlands, I have not been to see this marvellous church before, though in my defence I'd add that the place does crouch down amid the trees, and its opening hours are restricted. It's easy to overlook it.

There are usually two good reasons to recommend a detour to any medieval church. Firstly, if it is close to a castle or stately pile (as Astley is), you can be pretty sure that the local gentry will have lavished much wealth upon it. Secondly, if it is a collegiate church (as Astley also is, or was), then that too will have attracted status and adornment.

But if you're still to be convinced, pop your head inside the church of St Mary the Virgin at Astley, and be very amazed.

There was probably a church here by the 1200s, but it was in 1343 that Sir Thomas Astley saw fit to create a building that matched his ennobled status. (He was probably doing up his castle next door as well.) Sir Thomas's new foundation was to be a college of dean and secular priests, no doubt with living quarters nearby.

Two-thirds of the stalls in which those priests sat (with carved, load-bearing misericords beneath) still survive today, one set painted with the figures of prophets, one set with apostles. Today they are in the nave of the church, but for reasons shortly to be explained would once have occupied the chancel.

Sir Thomas's church would not have been a modest affair. There was a central tower and spire - normally a feature of only the grandest of abbeys or cathedrals - side aisles, and a nave and chancel of almost 200 feet, extending to what is now the edge of the churchyard. And on top of the spire shone a lamp - known as "the Lanthern of Arden" - which helped to guide travellers through this dark and secluded spot.

The Reformation put paid to the church's collegiate ambitions, and, shorn of its priestly college, the building was far too grand and expensive to serve such a modest parish as Astley.

Yet it was the owner of the neighbouring castle who did the most damage, stripping the lead from the roof and allowing the fabric to decay, and the tower to collapse. What the lord giveth, a later lord taketh away.

What we have today, then, is only the chancel of the original church (a similar solution was found at Pershore Abbey), with an additional east end added, according to the date on the wall, in 1608. William Dugdale, who popped down the road to see the church in the 17th century, commented that all the effigies and tombs, commemorating the owners of the castle next door, were to be found dumped in a shed. How the mighty had fallen.

But, as we have seen, the fate of the parish church was always closely connected with the fortunes of the house next door, and by the early 17th century these were looking up. Sir Richard Chamberlayne took on the house and built a new church tower to replace the one that had collapsed, recycling stone which had been lying around for years. Then he added the new chancel in a style that can only be described as "Jaco-gothic".

Finally he set about painting the walls.

Since images of saints were no longer permitted, Sir Richard covered the walls at Astley - north and south - with texts from the Bible, the Creed and the Lord's Prayer. There are nine panels in all, and there may once have been more, each surrounded by a decorative frame.

It's an illuminating (and illuminated) insight into the way the English church developed in the years after the Reformation. By then the theological spotlight had shifted away from saints and images and onto the text, reinforcing those biblical messages spelt out from the pulpit every Sunday. It's Sir Richard's very own Twitter account in paint and plaster.

And having done all that, Sir Richard felt perfectly entitled to a burial under the chancel floor in 1654. And there he lies to this day.

The wall paintings Sir Richard Chamberlayne commissioned are truly striking, and probably unique in the Midlands. Certainly they were rare enough to attract a grant of almost PS50,000 from English Heritage, backed up by parish collections and charitable funds, to bring them back to life. From 2008 a programme of painstaking restoration - by Tobit Curteis Associates of Cambridge - has retrieved the pictures from centuries of over-painting and mould and water damage.

So if you have never been to Astley, or not been for many years, it's worth directing yourself thither. But it's no longer possible, I'm afraid, to be guided through the woods by the Lanthern of Arden. This has been replaced by sat-nav.

Sir Richard covered the walls at Astley - north and ' south - with texts from the Bible, the Creed and the Lord's Prayer.

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St Mary the Virgin Church in Astley

The inside of St Mary the Virgin Church at Astley, north Warwickshire, including (top left) some of the texts which cover the walls
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 29, 2013
Words:933
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