The site has been used for Christian worship for over 700 years, with the earliest known church built in the 13th century. In 1313, William de Bourton was appointed to be Parish Priest of Priors Hardwick and Priors Marston. At that time, much of this area belonged to the Priors of Coventry, a gift to the Priors from Leofric, King of Mercia.
The names “Priors” refers to this, and the “Marston” refers to the mere or lake which formed a fish farm in those days. After the dissolution of the monastries under King Henry VIII, the land passed into the ownership of the Spencer family, and Earl Spencer is Patron of the livings to this day, maintaining a kindly interest in the affairs of the parishes.
The original family seat was at Wormleighton – ‘Baron Wormleighton’ is still part of the family title – before they moved to Althorp. In 1863 the church was largely rebuilt as it stands today. The architect was N.A.Joyce and the vicar Revd I.P. Prescott. The original 13th century north wall was retained with some modest repairs to the window tracery, and the pillars and arcade forming the north aisle were also repaired but largely unaltered. The rest of the church appears to have been completely redesigned with a new vestry added, as pictures of the building for this date show it with a high roofed chancel and a much lower nave.
Most of the tower dates from the 17th century, the present upper section being added in the 18th century. The heavy ‘y’ tracery in the window and the round-arch bell openings are typical of this later period. There are six bells in the tower and these are rung regularly by an enthusiastic team of ringers. Five bells date from 1721, the fourteen cwt tenor being added to complete the ring of six in 1845. The church is dedicated to St Leonard. Leonard was a Frankish nobleman, converted to Christianity by St Remigius, Bishop of Rheims, in the 6th century A.D. He is often honoured as the patron saint of prisoners, and he is depicted in the window beside the pulpit in our church. The chains he carries remind us of this association. He is also patron saint of pregnant women! In the adjacent light is St Remigius.
Many stained glass windows date from the period around 1870. The small windows in the south porch are of particularly good quality, the four lights portraying scenes from Old and New Testament stories. The east widow lights depict Jesus with the children, and on the shore of Tiberius, whilst those on the west side depict Jacob kneeling before Isaac, and the priests of Israel accompanying the Ark of the Lord. Inside the church, the great East Window is in memory of Admiral Sir Henry Prescott (of the same family as the vicar of that time). Hence the anchors portrayed in a church so far away from the sea!
The chancel screens of so many churches before Oliver Cromwell and his men cast them out: the crucified Christ hangs on his cross whilst the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist stand to right and left. Beneath are illustrations of bible stories, and also in the windows to the north and south of the altar. That to the south, over the credence table (where the bread and wine for the Holy Communion are prepared) shows the moment at the wedding in Cana when the steward says “Thou has kept the good wine until now”. Two further stained glass windows were introduced in 1993. The one by the north door depicts the Garden of Eden before and after the fall. This allows many garden flowers to be shown, the delight of the donor’s life.
The window in the middle of the south side of the Nave is an expression of “The Creed”, and is given in thanksgiving for the musical life of the village. Since 1863 the main changes to the interior have been the replacement of a stone pulpit by the present one of carved oak in 1905, replacement of oil lighting by electricity in the 1930s, and construction of the reredos in 1945 and 1965. More recently in 1987 the pews were removed from the north aisle, a screen built in the north-west corner, and five pews were removed from the nave to give more space around the pulpit and font. All electrical wiring was renewed and new lighting provided. In 1991 a new electronic organ was installed, the consul being sited in place of the previous pipe organ and the new bank of speakers on the west wall. In 2011/12 a new flexible use space with toilet and kitchen was created at the West end, and the original tower arch was re-opened and screened in glass, featuring crosses from many traditions and allowing light from the tower window to fill the West end. The wall monuments were relocated within the North aisle and the power systems were extended and upgraded.
On the window sill to the north of the altar is a 14th century cross head. On one side again are the “rood” figures of the Crucified Christ with Our Lady and St John, whilst on the reverse is the infant Christ in the arms of Our Lady – probably attended by the infant John the Baptist and Elizabeth, the Baptist’s mother. This was recovered from a garden in the village and kindly given to the church by Dr and Mrs McCrae.
There are several memorials in the church which speak for themselves, but do not miss the bronze tablet set in a stone in the floor of the church porch; it commemorates Richard West who died in 1691, and his wife Elizabeth who died three years earlier. In the ringing chamber of the tower there is a large board set high on the wall, giving details of the various charitable benefactions for the needy of the parish.
In this modern age you will not see the vicar distributing bread on St Thomas’ Day, but the benefactions are still for the most part active and applied as nearly as possible to the spirit in which they were made. In a parish of the age of Priors Marston there are of course many ancient records. Most of these valuable but often fragile registers are now kept in the archives at the County Record Office, Priory Park, Cape Road, Warwick. They can be viewed by prior arrangement, as can the more recent registers retained in the church safe. A fee will be charged for this.
We began by telling of the appointment of the first Parish Priest in 1313. He was shared with Priors Hardwick, and for many of the intervening years other Parish Priests have been shared in the same way. Nowadays Priors Marston is linked with both Priors Hardwick and Wormleighton and all the parishes in the Bridges Group. Many duties are undertaken by the lay people in this lively parish, and the care of church and churchyard reflect only part of the vigorous life of the parish. We take both pride and delight in our church, and hope that you have enjoyed learning about it.