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)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
18, 26 May 2024, Trinity Sunday

An icon of the Trinity in Saint Nektarios Church in Tsesmes, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The 50-day season of Easter came to an end last Sunday with the Day of Pentecost (19 May 2024), and today is Trinity Sunday (26 May 2024). Today is being celebrated as the Patronal Festival in many churches I know, including Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton, where there is a psecial celebration of the Eucharist at 11 am.

Later this morning, I hope to be part of the Trinity Sunday celebrations at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford, singing with the choir. This is a bank holiday weekend in England too. But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

A modern copy of Andrei Rublev’s icon, the Hospitality of Abraham or the ‘Old Testament Trinity’, by Eileen McGuckin

John 3: 1-17 (NRSVUE):

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[c] must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The Visitation of Abraham or the ‘Old Testament Trinity’ … a fresco in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Sunday 26 May 2024, Trinity Sunday):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Renewal and Reconciliation.’ This theme is introduced today with a Programme Update by Rachael Anderson, Senior Communications and Engagement Manager, USPG:

“If we claim to have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1: 6-7).

Last year, USPG and the Codrington Trust announced Renewal and Reconciliation: The Codrington Reparations Project. Our commitment to this 10–15-year project is the result of USPG’s continuous work to seek to engage critically with and take reparative action in response to its shameful links to slavery through its ownership of the Codrington Estates in Barbados.

In 1710, the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG – USPG’s former name) received a bequest from Sir Christopher Codrington for two estates in Barbados. The estates totalled 700 acres and included a population of enslaved African men, women and children. From then until 1838, SPG owned and ran the estates through local managers.

Though USPG has long been engaging critically with its past including a substantial amount of research into Codrington, we are aware that it is not enough to just offer an unreserved apology. It must be more than mere thoughts and words. As an organisation that is committed to championing justice, we seek to honour the command in 1 John 1: 6-7 and now move towards honest reparative action.

The project will include four areas of work in collaboration with the descendants of the enslaved: community development and engagement; historical research and education; burial places and memorialisation; and family research.

Renewal and Reconciliation: The Codrington Reparations Project will begin this spring 2024.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (26 May 2024, Trinity Sunday) invites us to pray:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity, we beseech thee, that thou wouldest keep us steadfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities, who livest and reignest, one God, world without end. Amen.

The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you have given us your servants grace,
by the confession of a true faith,
to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity
and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the Unity:
keep us steadfast in this faith,
that we may evermore be defended from all adversities;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Almighty and eternal God,
you have revealed yourself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
and live and reign in the perfect unity of love:
hold us firm in this faith,
that we may know you in all your ways
and evermore rejoice in your eternal glory,
who are three Persons yet one God,
now and for ever.

Additional Collect:

Holy God,
faithful and unchanging:
enlarge our minds with the knowledge of your truth,
and draw us more deeply into the mystery of your love,
that we may truly worship you,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Trinity in an icon of the Heavenly Divine Liturgy by Michael Damaskinos, ca 1585-1591, in the Museum of Christian Art in Iraklion, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

‘Nicodemus … came to Jesus by night’ (John 3: 1-2) … an image in a window in Saint Mary de Castro Church, Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)