26 May 2024

Saint Mary de Castro,
a 900-year-old church
within the precincts
of Leicester Castle

Saint Mary de Castro Church in Leicester is a 900-year-old parish church within the precincts of Leicester Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary de Castro is a 900-year-old parish church in a beautiful quiet location within the precinct of Leicester Castle, and I managed to visit it twice during my visits to Leicester within the past two weeks. At the far end of the churchyard, a section of the mediaeval wall separates the castle from the Newarke. It stands on the course of the old Roman city wall of Leicester.

The name Saint Mary de Castro means Saint Mary of the Castle, and the name differentiates the church from the nearby Saint Mary de Pratis or Saint Mary of the Meadows, also known as the monastic church of Leicester Abbey. The unusual church name in Leicester also reminded me of the name of Castro Petre Church, the Church of Ireland parish church on a hill at the west end in Edenderry, Co Offaly, in the Diocese of Kildare.

Saint Mary de Castro was closed for some time after the spire was found to be unsafe and was taken down about 10 years. But the church is open to the public again, and there are regular Sunday and mid-week services.

Saint Mary de Castro dates from 1107, when it was founded as a chapel for the castle after King Henry I granted the lands and castle to Robert de Beaumont, 1st Earl of Leicester.

Saint Mary de Castro dates from 1107, but may stand on the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The chronicler Henry Knighton implies that an Anglo-Saxon college of Saint Mary had existed and that Robert merely refurbished it. Local tradition suggests the earlier church on the site long was founded by Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great.

Æthelflæd, also known as ‘Lady of the Mercians’, ruled the kingdom of Mercia and helped free the East Midlands from Danish occupation. Today she may be ‘England’s forgotten Queen,’ but she was a formidable leader in a shadowy history of the dark ages, and in Tamworth she is celebrated in sculptures, statues and stained-glass windows.

Robert de Beaumont established the church within the castle bailey as a collegiate church served by a dean and a college of 12 canons. The church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and All Souls and he provided a chantry chapel for prayers for the souls of William the Conqueror, his queen Matilda, William II, Henry II and his wife and children, and Beaumont’s own family and relatives. To support the college, he granted the revenues of All Saints’ Church, Saint Peter’s, and other nearby churches and land in the Leicester area.

Robet’s son, Robert le Bossu, 2nd Earl of Leicester, transferred all these endowments to the new Augustinian foundation of Leicester Abbey in 1143. The collegiate church retained its dean, six clerks or priests and a chaplain, along with Robert’s grant of 20 shillings for lamps in the church, as well as parish offerings and most of the tithes.

Saint Mary de Castro Church was closed for a time ten years ago as the spire was carefully removed and put into storage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The church has been much altered over the centuries, but some early features survive, including Norman doorways, a 13th century font, a sedilia and a piscina. The tower was built in the 13th century and a spire was added in the 15th century.

The richly carved 13th century font has small heads and winged figures decorating the bowl. There are some exceptional mediaeval carvings on the chancel arcade, and a Roman carved stone is set into the west wall of the church. The timber roof is 16th century and was restored in the Victorian period.

The church exterior has a number of grotesquely carved heads that look out over the large churchyard, said to be the oldest continuously used open space in Leicester city centre.

The richly carved 13th century font has small heads and winged figures decorating the bowl (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The early 12th century church had no aisles, and parts of its walls survive. It had a major expansion in the 1160, with a north aisle, doorways to the north and west, and an extension to the chancel. The two doorways on the north side and at the west end of the north aisle provide striking external Norman zig-zag decoration. The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner describes the sedilia and piscina in the chancel extension as ‘the finest piece of Norman decoration in the county.’

The 13th century alterations culminated in a major reworking of the transepts and the south aisle to create an aisle wider than the nave, providing more space for local parishioners. The mediaeval Saint Mary’s was two churches at once, side by side: one served the castle, the other served the people of the town. This dual-purpose arrangement did not last, though, and eventually the two congregations were combined.

The legacy of the dual-church means the south aisle is extraordinarily wide, because it originally served as a nave. The large east window in the south aisle, with intricate tracery, was created around 1300. The tower was built inside the south aisle, apparently as an afterthought, rising to a quatrefoil frieze, four decorated pinnacles, and with a needle-like spire rising from the battlements.

The chancel at the east end of the north side of the church … note the sedilia and the piscina to the the right, reagrded by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the finest piece of Norman decoration in the county’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales, is said to have married his second wife Philippa Roet in the church in 1366. She was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III’s queen, Philippa of Hainault, and a sister of Katherine Swynford, later the third wife of Chaucer’s friend and patron, Prince John of Gaunt, who kept Leicester Castle as one of his residences.

The infant king Henry VI, when he was a five-year old, was knighted in the church on the Day of Pentecost 1426 by his uncle, John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford and the Regent of France. The child king then proceeded to dub a further 44 knights that same day, the first being 15-year-old Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, father of Richard III.

At the time, the Parliament of Bats was meeting at the castle. Tensions were high at the time and members of parliament were banned from bringing swords with them, and so brought bats instead.

The east end of the south aisle … some historians suggest Richard III prayed in the church the day before setting off for the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

It is suggested by some historians that Richard III may have prayed in the church the day before setting off for the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The collegiate status of the church lasted until the college was abolished in 1548 under the Chantry Act of Edward VI during the Tudor Reformation.

The meeting in which the Town Council of Leicester resolved to hold the town against the forces of Prince Rupert in 1645 was held in Saint Mary’s. Both Crown and Parliament forces stabled their horses in the church during the Civil War.

William Bickerstaffe (1728-1789), a charitable local schoolmaster and antiquarian, was baptised, buried and held a seven-year curacy at the church.

The doorways on the north side (above) and at the west end of the north aisle (below) are striking examples of Norman zig-zag decoration (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The church spire was completely rebuilt in 1783, but retained its crockets and three tiers of lucarnes.

The architect Sir Gilbert Scott designed three Victorian arches in 1852 to replace the unstable large brick arch built in 1800 allowing for a better view of the preacher in the pulpit. The south aisle roof was extensively repaired in the 1930s and is the widest single span timber roof of its kind in England.

The church had to close for a time about 10 years ago when the spire was found to be unsafe. The 14th century octagonal spire, which was rebuilt in 1783, had developed cracks six-metres long in four of its faces in September 2013. Structural engineers who inspected the spire agreed it was at risk of collapse.

While the church was closed in 2014, the spire was carefully removed and put into storage. But current funds are insufficient to rebuild the spire and to repair the tower.

The church has a three manual pipe organ that was originally installed in 1860 by Forster and Andrews in 1860. It was modified and restored by Joshua Porritt in 1880 and by RJ Winn in 1960.

Castle House, a landmark building beside Saint Mary de Castro Church, was sold in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Castle House, a landmark building beside Saint Mary de Castro Church and the site of Leicester Castle, was sold in recent weeks with an asking price of £800,000. It is made up of two principal buildings – a 15th century timber-framed gatehouse and an 18th century two-storey Georgian house.

Both houses are inter-connected, and until recently they were used as a residence for visiting High Court judges. Castle House was described as having a series of reception and dining rooms, 12 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and seven WCs, as well as a converted coach house with two bedrooms and bathroom.

Local reports say Castle House is expected to be converted into a restaurant or boutique hotel.

• Sung Mass is on Sundays Saint Mary de Castro at 11 am, with a Said Mass (BCP) at 11 on Wednesdays. The church is open on Sundays, 10 am to 1 pm, and Wednesdays, 10:30 to 12 noon; the church is also open on Monday, 11 am to 12:30; Tuesday and Thursday, 12 noon to 2 pm; Friday and Saturday, 12 noon to 4 pm.

Thee east end of Saint Mary de Castro … the church is open during Mass on Sundays and Wednesdays and at other times during the week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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