St. Leonard’s History

Its parish neighbours include Bourton and Draycote, Leamington Hastings, Marton and Frankton. Birdingbury is a small village which has led a quiet life to date. Some forty generations have lived here whilst great events largely passed them by. The villagers, over many years, have just got on with their lives. For a thousand years, until about 1800, conditions changed only very slowly. The coming of the canals and railways, in the 19th century, brought new challenges and as the 20th century progressed traditional village life developed into a modern community living in the wider world.

As far as early history is concerned, by the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 (in which the village is named and recorded as Derbingerie), the village was already well cultivated with 400 acres under the plough and it may have had a population of as many as a hundred. Some of the land was owned by the Benedictine Monastery in Coventry founded by Leofric (husband of Lady Godiva). In 1400 ownership of the village was united under a John Olney. It continued to be sold and resold, until in 1687 it was sold to the Biddulph family. In 1894, in line with new local government organisation, the village held its first ‘Parish Meeting’ during which a Chair and Secretary were elected and one Thomas Bayes was elected to represent the village at the new Rugby Rural District Council. To this day the village continues to hold two parish meetings every year.

The Parish Church of St. Leonard

Who was St Leonard?

He was a French nobleman who, after his conversion, entered the monastery of Messimus in 508. Later he went to live as a hermit in the forest near Limoges, where his reputation for compassion towards prisoners and captives attracted a following which formed the basis of a new monastery. He died in 559. Some 500 years later a cult sprang up around his name which spread across Europe, perhaps carried by returning Crusaders. In addition to prisoners we believe he is the Patron Saint for pregnant women!

St Leonards Church

There has been a church in Birdingbury for over a thousand years but very little is known about the building until the 18th century, when a Faculty was issued by the Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry which gave permission for the complete demolition of the existing church which was described as ‘ruinous, wholly decayed and dilapidated’ and beyond repair.

A ’competent sum of money ‘ having been bequeathed resulted in an agreement to ‘set up and build a new church and chancel in the churchyard upon a foundation on or near to the place, or ground, where the said church or chancel now stands, in a more substantial, decent and uniform manner and form’

Although the faculty tells us quite a lot about the early church, the last sentence is particularly puzzling. What is implied by the phrase ‘in a more substantial, decent and uniform manner’? Does the phrase simply refer to the ruinous state of the early church or does it imply it had been poorly built in the first place? And do the words ‘decent and uniform’ refer to a change in taste from gothic to classical or does it imply that, like many parish churches, St Leonards had been added to or modified in a variety of different styles?

The new church design had medieval curves replaced with right angles and straight lines; it was presumably built on the foundations of the early church but some evidence suggests that the builders extended the building eastwards beyond the earlier foundations.

The present pulpit, font and box pews belong to the furnishings of this church. The two bells are no longer in use.

Later developments to St Leonards

Extensive alterations were made in 1876, due to the generosity of the Reverend Richard Hickman and his wife Emily. The low roof was raised, an apse added, the rectangular windows remodelled and the gallery redesigned. Sir Theophilus Biddulph gave the St Leonard window in the chancel. Mary, his wife, the East window and the chancel screen which was made out of the former roof beams. The Hickmans gave the window in the South wall of the chancel. A fund was started to build a spire to suggest the transcendence of God, but the money was later diverted to buy a new organ.

Until the 20th century, the partnership between the Lord of the Manor, and the incumbent was key to church activity, however in 1919 the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act resulted in a change in Church government to elected Parochial Church Councils whose function included ‘co-operating ‘with the Minister in promoting in the parish the whole mission of the church, pastoral, evangelistic and ecumenical’.

In 1929, the parish was joined with Marton, the Bishop of Coventry became the Patron of the United Benefice and TH Douglas Long the first priest to be both Vicar of Marton and Rector of Birdingbury.

In 1974, under a further pastoral re-organisation scheme, the two parishes went their separate ways and Birdingbury became linked with Leamington Hastings, a partnership which lasted many years.

In 1991, significant underpinning work was required where the apse had been built on the shallow foundations of the 18th century. Where, historically, this would have been the responsibility of the Lord of the Manor and the Rector, the PCC now took responsibility for fund raising and thanks to the efforts of many villagers the sum of £10,000 was raised within a year and the work completed.

We are now a part of the benefice ‘The Draycote group of Parishes’ . Details of the PCC members are in the section ‘Who’s who at St Leonard’s’

More recently improvements to the church have included the installation of a WC and fitted kitchen servery unit, replacement of carpets and the complete restoration of Victorian encaustic tiles in the nave, for which the PCC was extremely grateful to receive donations from the village Festival Committee and local villagers.

We remain grateful to those who give their time to take care of our building; those who care for graves in the churchyard and our regular contractors who keep the grass and hedges tidy.

With thanks to Birdingbury Parish Council for the use of information detailed in the Parish Plan
Also used in reference:
The continuing story of St Leonards Church Birdingbury, 2nd Edition 1994, Reverend John Stevenson
Birdingbury: A village of the Upper Leam Valley, Canon Idwal Jones