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Fawsley, St Mary the Virgin

Medieval church in Fawsley

A romantic church that stands alone, shorn of it’s former medieval village, looking out across the Capability Brown landscape of 1760’s toward Fawsley Hall, the seat of the Knightly family and now a country hotel.

The church pre-dates the Tudor Hall by perhaps two centuries but owes it’s distinction to the Knightly family who improved it from the 16th to the 20th century.

Crossing the field you find the church separated from it’s landscape by a Ha-Ha crossed by the tiniest of bridges to the tiniest of doors.

Stepping in you enter a wonderfully light open space with a broad nave leading to a handsome chancel – the sort of view familiar to anyone who admires John Sell Cotman’s watercolours. The church contains one of the most spectacular and well preserved alabaster tomb chests in the County. On its lid lie the recumbent figures of Sir Richard Knightley (d. 1534) and his wife the heiress Jane Skenard of Old Aldington.

He is shown bareheaded, wearing an heraldic tabard with a great chain of Lancastrian Ss around his neck. She wears the close fitting cap of the period and an ermine lined gown – note the lowest edge adjacent to the chest top which is beautifully rendered with indications of fur and even showing a set of claws as it terminates by her ankles.

These figures are partly painted and partly gilded, the striations of the alabaster cleverly used to give further form. Equally fine are the figures to either side of the chest below. They stand under ornate ogee gothic arches. They are unusually characterised; sons who were merchants and soldiers, women who were wives and mothers. Their dress and their lively attitudes give them an immediacy not often seen in such works.

At the end of the tomb two more sober figures supporting the family’s armorial achievements. Today to see these in all their glory you need to visit the Burrell Museum outside Glasgow, where the armorial stained glass panels that formerly decorated the Great Hall at Fawsley, now hang.

This splendid tomb is attributed to Richard Parker of Burton on Trent who is known to have carried out similar work as the memorial to Thomas Manners, 1st Earl of Rutland (d.1543) at a cost of £20 and which still stands at Bottesford in Leicestershire.

Strangely, the next generation opted for the rather old fashioned floor brass albeit a rather large one to commemorate the principal builder of the Tudor house. In the centre of the nave lies the memorial to Sir Edmund Knightley (d.1542) and his wife.

The six daughters who appear on the engraved brass below are a reminder that he had no male heirs and the estate passed to his younger brother Valentine and thence to the latter’s son, Sir Richard. The tomb of his wife, Lady Elizabeth Seymour can be seen at Norton.

The “next” memorial, on the north wall is the composite recast tomb of Sir Valentine (d. 1566), Sir Richard (d.1615) and his son Sir Valentine (d. 1616). Here we think you are looking at a series of fragments which were drawn together and reassembled in a neo Jacobean splendour by their descendant Sir Charles Knightley in the 1930s. However, others think that it is largely intact and just repainted in the 1930s.

Similar work does emerge from the workshop of the Thorpes of Kingscliffe. Some elements are clearly original, if restored, others are left in slightly mutilated form such as the cherubs at the top, whilst the overall design owes more to Sir Charles’ taste than that of the early 17th century.

Its wholly successful and a fascinating amalgam. Either side of this hybrid stand the stunning architectural conceits that commemorate Devereux Knightley (d. 1681) and Elizabeth Knightley (d.1715). Baroque urns stand on tall pedestals, the latter beautifully garlanded with flowers. As part of the fine restoration of these memorials, the flames emanating from the tops of the urns have been particularly well gilded.

The first of these has been attributed to Abraham Storey who died circa 1696 (the second was made in his style.) It would not be surprising to learn that Storey did a considerable amount of decorative work, for instance he produced marble chimney pieces for Wrest Park in 1672.

These would be ornaments worthy of any baroque house but here deployed as memorials. In the chancel, surrounding the altar, are a series of five particularly well executed wall memorials whose coherent designs have been attributed to the architect of the new stable block at Fawsley, Francis Smith of Warwick. These were probably commissioned by Lucy Knightley (d. 1738). They commemorate four members of the Knightley family who died between 1661 and the late 1720s.

The fifth is to Lucy Knightley’s wife, Jane Grey, and this is easy to spot as it is topped by her bust. The other four are largely architectural in design but the anonymous sculptor’s skill is apparent particularly in the rendering of skulls and outstretched batwings. The reason for this cohesive group of memorials is that the chancel of the church was rebuilt at this time.

On the south wall are two neo-classical memorials from the 19th century, both in white marble. The first is to another Lucy Knightley, executed by Richard Westmacott in 1805. Westmacott, the son-in-law of the architect John Vardy, produced both monumental sculpture as well as ornamental work particularly chimney pieces. The latter are to be found at Cobham Hall in Kent, Korsham Court in Wiltshire and at Warwick Castle.

In 1796 he was appointed Royal Mason to Kensington Palace. His most famous memorial is that to James Dutton in Sherborne Church in Gloucestershire. Standing nearly 18 foot high it shows a life size angel with outspread wings trampling death in the form of a macabre skeleton. The Fawsley tomb appears to be the only one he executed in Northamptonshire.

The second memorial is to Selina Knightley and is by John Gibson, RA. (1790-1866). The sculptor lived mainly in Rome and this work was conceived there. It contains a large relief showing the deceased being received into Heaven by an angel. It would have been worked concurrently with Gibson’s most famous and most controversial work, his Tinted Venus. Here, to use his words he “tinted the flesh like warm ivory, scarcely red, the eyes blue, the hair blonde and the net which contains the hair, golden.” It was not to everyone’s taste, and indeed remained in his studio long after his death.

Please refer to the Glossary for any terms in the text that you are unfamiliar with.

Contact & Opening Times

Fawsley, Daventry, Northamptonshire, NN11 3BA


http://www.fawsleychurch.org.uk |
[email protected]|

Opening Times

The church is open daily from 10am until 4pm.

 

Contact Details

For details, contact churchwarden Vivienne Baker on 01327 361585 or [email protected]

or Graham White - [email protected]

Explore the area

Click the pins on the map to see other attractions nearby

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