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St Nicholas, Kenilworth, Warwickshire

(52°20′59″N, 1°34′58″W)
SP 285 725
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Warwickshire
now Warwickshire
  • Harry Sunley

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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





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.