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St Leonards Parish Church

    Upton St Leonards

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A brief history of St Leonards Parish Church

The earliest reference to a church in Upton St Leonards is in a document from Gilbert Foliot, Abbot of Gloucester, requiring the three chapels of St. Mary de Lode at Upton, Barnwood and Maisemore to provide candles for the altar of the Abbey. Gilbert Foliot was Abbot from 1139 until 1147, so there was a church here at least as far back as 1147. “St. Leonards” was added during the 14 century.

Whether or not there was a Saxon church is unknown, there is no mention of a church in Upton in the Domesday Book (1068) but this does not necessarily mean there was no church.  Carolyn Heighway, formerly City Archaeologist, said in a talk she gave to us in 2001 that the church may have had a Saxon or a Norman foundation. She said that, looking at the 6" Ordnance Survey map, there appears to be the outline of an oval circuit around the church. The oval may have been the original precinct which included church, manor house or both. The area where the old school (the building which houses the present "Chipmunks" nursery) is has been scooped out of the oval. When originally founded the church may or may not have had burial rights; these might have been acquired later on. The graveyard may have been a rectangular area around the church, which expanded to fill the site. All this is, of course, speculation since there are no documentary sources.

The building of the church seems to have been in three phases; Norman, medieval, and Victorian. 
Of the Norman phase we have the large tub font, large enough for a baby to be baptised by total immersion. Of course, it may not have been the original font in the church, but bearing in mind it's weight it would have been difficult to move by the kinds of transport available in Norman times!

Sometime during the 19th century the font was removed, and found in a Barnwood garden and replaced in its present position in 1913. It is standing on a mill stone base.

On the exterior of the south aisle there is the arch of a typical Norman doorway, and this is the most controversial feature of the churches' architecture! If it is genuinely Norman, and not a replica, it cannot have been in its present position at the west end of the south aisle because this aisle was only built in 1835. There was a tradition that it was in the old south wall, but 1835 plans show no door in this wall. It has been suggested that it is a replica of a Norman doorway because  the sharpness of the zigzag moulding on the arch would not be consistent with an 800 year old arch which would be expected to show more weathering. Also the width of the arch is greater than normally found in Norman doorways. 
Another possibility, is that it is the original doorway on the north side i.e. where the present porch is. When the old north wall was demolished in the 1850's  and a new one built, the arch would have been dismantled, and perhaps rebuilt in its present position; at the same time stonemasons may have sharpened up the zig zag moulding, and the porch (not the present one, which is Victorian) would have to some extent protected it from the weather. 
David Verey, who wrote the Gloucestershire volume in Nicolas Pevner's "Buildings of England" series, when describing the architecture of Upton St Leonards church just refers to it as a Norman doorway, without commenting on whether or not the arch is original.

There is a possibility of some Norman work in the east and west walls of the nave, re-using some of the stones, in what I think are essentially medieval structures.  As well as building the south aisle, the builders also enlarged the chancel arch, which had been much narrower, perhaps similar to many chancel arches in Norman churches.

The north arcade is medieval, 13th - 14th centuries apart from the possibility that the central round pillar may, according to David Verey, be "Transitional Norman", i.e. the end of the Norman period.

Perhaps the most striking example of medieval work, apart from the tower, is the Snell Chapel on the north side of the chancel. The chapel is so named after Sir Thomas Snell, (d. 1754 )  of Whitley Court, whose enormous tomb is within the chapel. He and Sir Henry Guise paid for the maintenance of the chapel on condition that they could be buried therein. In fact, Sir Thomas Snell is the only one who was buried in the chapel. The chapel itself is 14th C and it may have been a Lady Chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

As previously mentioned, I think the east and west nave walls are essentially medieval.

Of the three windows in the south aisle, the central one shows more weathering than the other two and may be medieval (not the glass) but I think the other two are Victorian copies. In medieval times, the north aisle was smaller, the outer wall being aligned with the north wall of the Snell chapel. It was extended to its present position in the 1850's.  At the same time the medieval porch was demolished and the present porch was built. A picture of the church pre-1850 showing these features is at the back of the church behind the font.

A curious feature of the east wall of the nave may be seen in another picture showing the interior of the church pre-1850.  It shows the "wine glass" pulpit on the right hand side of the nave, and behind the pulpit there appears to be an opening in the wall, through which, presumably, the preacher emerged! In certain light conditions, its outline can just about be discerned (with a bit of imagination!). The lower part of the magnificent tower is believed to be 14th C, whereas the upper part is said to be 15th century. It contains a peal of six bells. The four pinnacles on the tower were lengthened to their present height in the 18th century, again paid for by Sir Thomas Snell. There is a double bell cote now mounted on the roof of the North Aisle, an unusual feature in Gloucestershire.  

The beautiful chancel was designed by the architect Henry Woodyer, in the Early English style and was built in 1849, together with the communion rail and choir stalls. Woodyer also designed the village school, and his masterpiece is Highnam church.

The final Victorian addition to the church was in 1889, when the south chapel of the chancel (where the organ is now located) and the Vestry were built.

Thank you to Ken Herbert who wrote the above article.