St Nicholas, Kenilworth, Warwickshire

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Feature Sets (3)


The church, of local red sandstone, comprises W tower, nave with N and S aisles and chancel and is essentially Perpendicular, with Tudor additions. It was restored in 1864, and two transepts and a S chapel were added. The reset W doorway, set in the tower, comprises mainly 12thc. carved stones and mouldings.


The first mention of the church is in Pope Nicholas' taxation of 1291 (Victoria Country History), although there is an earlier reference to a parson in 1285 (Registers of Godfrey Giffard, Bishop of Worcester). The church is included among the appropriated churches of Kenilworth Priory (VCH Vol II, p.142). The present church, however, is not earlier than the mid-fourteenth century.

The Abbey was dissolved in 1538, and the site, after passing through various hands, came into the possession of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. An entry in the Kenilworth Churchwardens Accounts states that in 1619/20, 40 shillings and 8 pence were paid for 'unsealing ye Church Dore when ye Kinge was heare'. Further, from the same source, at about this time, wooden planks were bought for the door, and the belfry floor above.


Exterior Features


W doorway, tower

Round-headed, of three orders, the doorway is set in a rectangular carved frame, with roundels in its spandrels. It is set slightly to the S of centre in the W face of the tower. Like the adjacent ashlar, the stone-work is lightly peppered with shot marks, traditionally said to be from the Civil War. The doorway is of local red sandstone, except for two stones of a paler colour.

max h. of frame 3.80 m
max w. of frame 4.10 m
rectangular panels (17) ?h. 0.20 m
rectangular panels (17) ?w. 0.28 m
rectangular panels (4-11) ?h. 0.22 m
rectangular panels (4-11)?w. 0.18 m
square panels h. 0.20 m
square panels w. 0.20 m
W doorway
h. of opening 2.59 m
w. of opening 1.77 m
d. of shaft 0.15 m
h. including necking 0.15 m
h. without necking 0.12 m
max. w. N/S face 0.20 m
max. w. W face 0.20 m
First order

No bases, angle roll on the jambs followed by two small rolls on the face. No capitals, slightly chamfered imposts with a row of pellets along the chamfer and a fillet along the upright. The arch mouldings continue from the jambs, with a wedge following the two small rolls.


The rectangular frame surrounding the doorway consists of three elements: an inner border, chamfered on the inner edge with fluted "jelly mould" bosses on the chamfer, badly eroded and depleted locally, and an outer hollow face; an outer border of cable (anti-clockwise in ascension on all except the horizontal members of the upper L and R corners, where the rotation is reversed). There are two distinctive types of cable twist: five mouldings have a pitch of 0.13 m and twelve with 0.095 m. Between these, a band of rectangular and square panels, like tiles, carved on the same blocks as the inner order. There are four basic panel designs:

A. Squared octofoil with plain central boss.

B. Squared decafoil with plain central boss.

C. A lobed design with roundels in the center of each side joined to loops in each corner, with a boss in each roundel and each loop.

D. Irregular designs, detailed below.

This band comprises 25 blocks, each carved with up to four panels, as follows:

The four panels on block 10 contain:

(i) a large single loop to the L joined to three small loops containing beading on the R.

(ii) A four-armed star with beads in the four arms.

(iii)An octofoil with mouchette lobes.

(iv) A geometrical design, symmetrical on its vertical axis, with a fanned lower portion. Block 18 is of whiter material, probably a sandstone, badly eroded, and contains the remains of an octofoil, with hollow center.

In the spandrels are two similar symmetrically set paterae with three recessed orders of carving. The R patera is carved on a single square block: the L, on two blocks. The inner order is a plain ring, the second has lobed arcs (8 on L, 9 on R), the third is a ring of beads, (29 on L, 27 on R). The paterae are set in the spandrels by roughly cut blocks of sandstone, one of the white colour, noted above.

The frame is bisected horizontally by the continuation of the imposts of the doorway to the N and S, forming a string course which stops at the outer edge of the frame, but is missing between the inner and outer capitals, the space between being occupied by smoothed rubble-stone.

Second order

Detached nook shafts with bases hidden below pavement level carry multi-scallop capitals with plain necking,

L capital: with sheathing on the S face and plain wedges between the scallops on the W face.

R capital: as R capital

The imposts are as the first order.

In the arch there are 19 beakheads of varied animal designs. The angle rolls of the voussoirs are of two statistically different widths at the outer periphery (0.211 and 0.189 m) and similiarly at the inner periphery (182 and 0.169 m). Voussoir ten (from L) has been heavily cut back. There are three distinct types:

Type A: cat-mask with extended ears and projecting tongue.

Type B: beastlike, with furrows between pointed ears and a beak, the latter usually ridged.

Type C: similar to B, brow unfurrowed.

1. In fair condition, with hair, continuous ridged beak and expressed oval slanting eyes. Type B.

2. Slightly damaged, with hair, continuous beak and expressed oval eyes. Type B.

3. Badly damaged on R, with hair and continuous slim ridged beak. Type B.

4. Damaged on beak, with a continuous ridged beak and round pellet-like eyes. Type C.

5. In good condition with a continuous ridged anteater-like beak and round pellet-like eyes. Type C.

6. The upper part of the head is missing. It has the remains of extended ears and slim ridged discrete beak. Type C?

7. In good condition with snout, projecting tongue over a billet and oval lidded, slanting eyes. Type A.

8. Similar to 7., damaged , with projecting tongue over a billet and oval lidded eyes. Type A.

9. Damaged on the R, with continuous ridged beak and lidded round pellet-like eyes. Type C.

10. Damaged - R side cut away, continuous beak with flattened top and round pellet-like eye. Type C.

11. In good condition with discrete beak, slanted lidded oval eyes. Type C.

12. L side damaged, with oval expressed bulging eyes. Type C.

13. L side damaged, with continuous beak and lidded oval eyes. Type C.

14. Eroded on R side, with continuous beak and lidded oval eyes. Type C.

15. In good condition, with continuous beak and oval eyes. Type C.

16. Eroded and broken, with projecting tongue and slanted lidded eyes. Type A.

17. Eroded, with projecting tongue and round eyes. Type A.

18. Eroded, with hair, slanted eyes and discrete beak. Type B.

19. Very eroded. Type C?.

Between the shafts of the first and second orders, the jamb is chamfered and has a row of large nailhead along its length, one with a masons' mark (Davis' type N8). The moulding terminates at the level of the necking of the capitals, and the generous space between the capitals is filled on each side with an eroded rubble block.

Third order

Shafts and imposts as second order, but the L capital is of trefoil type, beaded in the angles and the mutilated R capital has one large bead on the N scallop face. In the arch, 23 voussoirs with fret of non-uniform pitch on the face and saw-tooth on the soffit, some with central half-quatrefoil decorations. Chamfered label with nailheads.



Houghton notes that the font in St Nicholas' church 'is generally stated to be 12thc., and to have been re-cut in the 17thc.'. The upper part has 1664 inscribed on it. The pedestal has eight half round shafts that fit into scallops in the base, the only part that might conceivably be Romanesque is the plinth.


Carey-Hill (1927) suggested that the doorway might have been the Norman W entrance to the Priory church nave, and was replaced in the 14thc. The VCH states that the W doorway is 'an elaborate one of the 12th century' and probably came from the adjacent St Mary's Abbey'. Pevsner refers to it as the most sumptuous Norman door in Warwickshire and held the view that it was the laymen's entrance to the Priory church. Clapham, referring to the beakheads, cites them as not being earlier thanc.1125, based on the foundation date of the Abbey. Beckwith suggested the architect had been to Spain as the framing of the arch and the decoration in the spandrels is Islamic. Barley and Waters compare with Kenilworth the worked stones found in the crypt of Newark Castle, including paterae and beaded mouldings, two of the latter forming right angles. Zarnecki (contributing to the same work) drew attention to the similarity of the paterae to those at Kenilworth, and considered that the angles beaded mouldings represented a rectangular frame as at Kenilworth. The author has noted similar paterae examples at Malmesbury Abbey (around the clerestory windows), Landaff Cathedral (around the chancel arch) and smaller versions at Portchester Priory (around the W door), all in Romanesque settings. Zarnecki also drew attention to the similarity between Newark and Kenilworth in that the beakhead mouldings also have frets. Stalley associated the distribution of medallion ornament with either Sarum Cathedral or the family of Bishop Roger of Salisbury. In the case of Kenilworth through the association of Geoffrey de Clinton, founder of the Priory, with Roger, both colleagues in the royal administration of Henry I. Stalley also refers to the similarity of the square frame around the doorway, as assumed by Zarnecki at Newark, above. Stalley dates the doorway between 1145 and 1150. Zarnecki pursues these points in relation to Lincoln. Thus the prevailing view was that the Kenilworth doorway was an archetype for an English Romanesque framed doorway. Notwithstanding, in 1988 the present author published the view that the doorway has the format of a Renaissance doorway (a round arch in a square frame, with roundels in the spandrels) assembled from miscellaneous, essentially Norman, sculptures from the remains of the nearby Abbey, between 1550 and 1620. The Renaissance style was prevalent at the time Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester who held and developed Kenilworth Castle (1563-88) and also held the site of the Abbey. Cooke, whilst finding the author's argument convincing, tended to date the composition to the early 17thc., rather than Dudley's period. There are a number of anomalies in the description above to support this view. Further, the voussoirs of the third order with saw-teeth on the soffit, some with half quatrefoil decoration, are regarded as being double sided, the other half being buried in the structure; the sawteeth would thus be lozenges, a design used on the rib vaulting of the chapter house. (A mortar pointing between the first and second order is very fragile, and when this falls it will be possible to establish whether thus is so). The evidence for a frame at Newark is now rather less plausible as more recent work by Barley and Dixon, illustrated by Marshall and Samuels, has shown the angled mouldings are the returns of a label. A recent study of the beak-head rolls by the author has proved that whereas some were originally voussoirs of a round arch, others were jamb mouldings; there was also the hint that they were used as double rows, all as at Iffley church, Oxfordshire. This vindicates the view that the doorway is a composite of mainly Norman material, almost certainly from the nearby Abbey, and erected in the late 16thc. or, more likely, the first half of the 17thc. The beak-heads are similar to those on the N doorway of Southwell Cathedral nave and the W doorway of Iffley church, although less elaborate. In the arguments that have developed on the topic of the square frame, the author's attention has been drawn to French examples of Romanesque frames, and English examples, as at Bockleton, Worcestershire. The latter example, like at least some of the French, have the portal assembly significantly proud of the adjacent walling, unlike Kenilworth, which is flush.


  • Victoria County History of Warwickshire 4:142.
  • Barley, M W and Dixon P., The Castle, Newark on Trent, privately circulated report, 1977. Illustration.
  • Barley, M W and Waters F. (with contribution by Zarnecki, G.), Newark Castle Excavations 1953-6. Transactions of the Thornton Society, Vol.60, 1966.
  • Beckwith, J, Apollo, Vol.CII, No 170, April 1996
  • Carey-Hill, E, 'Kenilworth Abbey', Trans. Of the Birmingham Archaeology Society, Vol LII, Oxford, 1930.
  • Clapham, A, English Romanesque Architecture, Vol.2, 131
  • Cocke, T, Private Communication, 1991.
  • Davies, R H C, A Catalogue of Masons' Marks as an Aid to Architectural History, Journal of the British Archeological Association, Vol. XVII, 1954
  • F T S Houghton, Warwickshire Fonts Part I, Birm. Arch. Soc. Trans, Vol. 43
  • Marshall P and Samuels J, Guardian of the Trent, The Story of Newark Castle, Newark Castle Trust, 1977:14
  • Samuels J, 'Reassembling Arch', Newark Advertiser, 09.08.85. With photo.
  • Pevsner N, Warwickshire, 1966:317
  • Stalley, R A , A Twelfth Century Patron of Architecture, Journal of the British Archeological Association, Vol XXXIV 3rd series, 1971:67 n.6.
  • Sunley, H , 'Recent Observations on the West Door of St Nicholas' Church, Kenilworth, Birmingham and Warwickshire Archaeology Society, Vol 95, 73-9.
  • Sunley, H , The Beakheads of the West Door of St Nicholas' Church, Kenilworth. Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland, Newsletter No 12, Spring 2001.
  • Zarnecki, G, Romanesque Lincoln, the Sculpture of the Cathedral, Lincoln 1988:99, note 42.
Church Plan
Tower, W doorway under.
View from SE.
Norman Chapter House, ruins.


Site Location
National Grid Reference
SP 285 725 
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Warwickshire
now: Warwickshire
medieval: Lichfield (to 1075); Chester (to c.1086); Coventry and Lichfield (to 1541)
now: Coventry
now: St Nicholas
medieval: St Nicholas
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Harry Sunley