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St Mary's Church, Atherstone

By Celia Parton

In 1985 Atherstone celebrated the 600th anniversary of its church. In the early 1980s a great deal of restoration was done as part of a Youth Opportunities Training Scheme and the Lounge area at the back was built. The highlight of the celebrations was the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales on the 27th of June. Atherstone church overlooks the Market Square and I had never seen so many people crowded into the square on that day waiting to see the Prince and Princess. They were not disappointed as the Prince and Princess went on an informal walkabout before entering the Church and opening the new lounge. They then went on a tour of a special exhibition in the church put on by local schools and industries. They spent the morning in Atherstone having lunch at Chapel House, which is right next to St Mary`s Church, before moving on to Bosworth where they were celebrating the 500th anniversary of the famous battle. Later a plaque was erected to commemorate the visit and last year following the tragic death of the Princess many floral tributes were laid by local people around this plaque.
Exterior of the Church


By 1155 there was a chapel on the site of the church. The Abbey of Bec was granted the Manor and an agreement was made for the parson at Mancetter to take services. In 1375 Ralph, Lord Basset of Drayton, founded an Austin Friary on this site. The friars took services themselves rather than the parson at Mancetter. By 1385 they had built another chapel, which is the present day chancel, on the foundations of the old one and added a small nave and octagonal bell tower. King Henry VII received communion here before the battle of Bosworth field. The original doorway, now bricked up, is still visible outside.

In 1536 came the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. The friary was suppressed. The old nave was kept as a church but the chancel was used for a school. Aymas Hill, William Devereux and Thomas Fulner founded a free Grammar School. A charter was granted by Queen Elizabeth in 1573 and the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School remained on this site until 1864 when it moved to new premises in Long Street. The school is still there but it is no longer a Grammar School. In 1975 Atherstone went comprehensive and the Grammar School was merged with Atherstone High school.

In 1849 virtually the whole of the church was rebuilt including the present nave. The chancel remained and if you look at Atherstone Church today the oldest part i.e. the chancel can easily be distinguished. The octagonal bell tower which had been restored in 1782 also remained. It now contains a peal of bells hung in 1961. At the same time a new church was being built at Baddesley Ensor and the old one had fallen into disrepair. The Norman archway from the old church was acquired and placed over the back entrance to St Mary`s which was used as the private entrance of the Bracebridge Family of Atherstone Hall. Atherstone Hall was demolished in 1963 and a housing estate built on the site (which is where I now live). The church was re-consecrated on the 14th March 1850.

In Mediaeval times Mancetter was larger than Atherstone which is why St Peter`s Church was the mother church and Atherstone part of the parish of Mancetter. However, by the 19th century Atherstone had grown and developed in a way that Mancetter had not. Mancetter remained a small, mainly rural community , whereas Atherstone was a market town and had developed industries. Atherstone therefore required its independence. In 1841 Atherstone was formally separated from Mancetter and the first vicar was Frederick H Richings, son of the vicar of Mancetter, who continued to serve Atherstone until his death in 1888. Members researching ancestors in Atherstone should therefore note that for dates prior to 1841 they will need to consult the Mancetter parish registers.

In 1884 the chancel was restored, joined to the nave and re-dedicated in 1888. The church must then have looked much as it does today. However, until the 1960s part of the view of the church was obscured by some 18th century buildings. There was also a Market Hall on the site of the market square. During the slum clearances of the early 1960s these buildings were demolished, the road in front of the church widened and the area landscaped as it is today.

A project was begun in 2000 to divide the building and use it as a community space which should benefit both the church and the town. An appeal to raise £1 million pounds has recently been launched to pay for the development.

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