For more than eight hundred years the church at the centre of Wollaton has looked much like the photo above.
In the Domesday Book (1086) there is no mention of a church at the place it calls Olaveston, but the inhabitants of this little village needed to worship God somewhere. This doorway shows that by 1200 there was a stone building on the site. The list of rectors goes back at least to 1236. Since then St Leonard's has been added to and altered to meet the changing needs of each generation.
In the past only the local landowner had the means to build and maintain a church. The Mortein family were responsible in the early days and then the Willoughby family looked after the building as part of their wider estate for six centuries up to 1925. Their descendant, Lord Middleton, as patron of the parish, still has a role to play in the appointment of a new rector. Their Elizabethan mansion and its park are now the property of the City of Nottingham.
The mining of coal for hundreds of years ensured the prosperity of Wollaton and its owners. The church was extended at the end of the Middle Ages and again in 1880. From the 1920s Wollaton was drawn into the expanding suburbs of the City of Nottingham and the building was enlarged further in 1970. As the needs of the congregation expand another extension has taken place.
What to look out for
The see-through tower
You can see right through the glazed arches of the tower which projects into the road beyond. First of all there would have been an open passageway to allow processions to go round the church without leaving the consecrated churchyard. When processions went out of fashion at the Reformation the passage was blocked up. The Victorians then recreated the medieval appearance by opening up the arches - and in 1970 it was enclosed again to form a porch, but this time with glass walls.
The elaborately carved screen, which faces you on entry, looks like plaster. In fact it is timber painted white. It has been here since the seventeenth century, but its origin is a mystery. Until 1970 the altar stood against it, but was then brought forward to allow worshippers to sit round all four sides.
The Willoughby family, who owned Wollaton for so long, also had large estates elsewhere, but a number of them were buried here. The earliest memorial, to the left of the reredos, is to Sir Richard Willoughby. He put this up before his death in 1471. With its brasses and elaborate carving it shows that he was a wealthy and important figure of the time.
Facing him is an even grander monument to his nephew, Sir Henry, who died in 1528. He is shown life size lying on his tomb, surrounded by half-size sculptures of each of his four wives. Beneath both these two monuments are rotting corpses in stone, a reminder of how everyone ends up. This monument was conserved in 2009. Read more about it here.
Sir Francis Willoughby, who lived at the time of Queen Elizabeth I, was perhaps the most renowned member of his family. He spent so much of his great wealth on building the present Wollaton Hall that his only memorial is the Hall itself.
It is his mason, John Smythson, who has a monument in the church.
There is no old glass in the church, but a Victorian rector, Henry Russell, who was here for forty-six years, had a number of stained-glass windows put in. This one commemorates him, showing St Francis and St Nicholas.
The small, colourful baptistery window was commissioned in 1972 in memory and thanksgiving for the lives of David and Dorothy Chambers. David Chambers was Professor of Economic History at the University of Nottingham. Made by John Hardman Studios in Birmingham, the window is unusual in that the very thick glass was cut up on an anvil.
The various shapes were then arranged in the chosen design and set in resin. The window is seen at its best with the light behind it, when it creates an ever-changing brilliance of colours, particularly early in the morning.
More information about the Antiphonal can be found on this page.
Most of the thousands of Wollaton people who have worshipped here and been buried in the churchyard are nameless. There are memorials to a few of the wealthier ones in the church and in the graveyard are some attractive and interesting tombstones. One is to Lord Middleton's gamekeeper, William Banner, who died in 1842. It is made of slate and a verse recalls his occupation:
Charles Willoughby was a brother of Lord Middleton and became rector in the mid-nineteenth century. His diary survives in the church records and gives glimpses of him ministering to his congregation - and mowing the churchyard and painting the reredos! He also carried out a detailed census of all the inhabitants. The brass lectern was given in his memory.
Why St Leonard?
Leonard was a French noble who died in 559. He is recalled as an early example of a prison visitor and used much of his wealth to free those who were enslaved or imprisoned. He is the patron saint of prisoners. Seven centuries later his name was still being commemorated in English churches and Wollaton was one of these, perhaps because a member of the Mortein family, who owned the parish, died on the feast of St Leonard, 6 November 1284. He is usually pictured with a chain as his emblem.
Unseen but not unheard, there are six bells in the tower. The earliest mention is in 1552, but since then they have been recast or replaced at various times. They are rung twice every Sunday at service times and for weddings and other special occasions. There is more information about the bells here.
Earliest historical evidence for there being bells at Wollaton comes
from the inventory of church goods compiled during the reign of Edward
VI in 1552 where is recorded that there were
The present bells, however, are well
documented. We have six bells that can neatly be divided, historically
into two groups. The back three bells are descendants of the early
documented three bells. The oldest of these is the present fifth (see
picture, left), which was cast in 1606 at a local foundry in Nottingham
run by Henry Oldfield. This bell has a connection with the Willoughby
family in that it bears the inscription
The fourth bell is a relatively modern bell, being cast in 1817 by Thomas Mears of London. This bell is however a recasting of an earlier bell of 1703 by William Noone, bell founder and successor to the Nottingham founder George Oldfield. The original Noone bell is reported to have cracked and hence was recast into the present bell. This practice of recasting bells, which became damaged, is the basis of why we think that these back three bells are descendants of the first bells at Wollaton; it is likely that melting down the old bells and recasting into newer ones used the same metal.
A significant change to the ring of
bells occurred in 1737 when the front three bells were added,
augmenting the ring to six. These bells were cast by Abel Rudhall of
Gloucester. At that time the Oldfields and their descendants had left
Nottingham and the Long Row foundry no longer existed. However, there
is a Nottingham connection, in that it is reputed that Rudhall learned
his trade at the Nottingham foundry and would have cast bells in a
similar style to the Oldfields making this the foundry of choice for
the augmentation. The new three bells were given by Lord Middleton, as
testified by the inscription on the second bell that reads
In 1889 the bells were hung in a composite frame of wooden beams with cast iron side frames. At this time it is thought that the bells were tuned. These days the bells are tuned on a lathe like machine with metal shaved from the inside of the bell. In the early days bells were tuned by chipping lumps off the bottom of the bell until the correct note was achieved. In 1953 the bells were rehung on modern ball bearings.
In 2010 John Taylor & Co. of Loughborough were employed to carry out substantial work. The 1889 frame was reconfigured to allow for a ring of eight bells. The frame was mounted on a new steel grillage. The six bells were retuned, new fittings provided and the cracked sixth bell was recast.