The present church of St Leonard dates from 1766 probably built either by William Hiorn of Warwick or by his brother David. However, there is evidence of a medieval church here if you know where to look.
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See A Church near You - http://www.achurchnearyou.com/over-whitacre-st-leonard/.
The medieval church
St Leonard's, Over Whitacre is the parish church of a scattered rural community with only a small nucleated settlement at nearby Furnace End. The church, as seen, was built early in the reign of George III in an Italian classical style typical of the period. However, this was not the first church building on the site.
A priest at nearby Coleshill was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086. In the Anglo-Saxon period St Peter & St Paul at Coleshill was a minster church with a parish covering an extensive area with a daughter chapel at Over Whitacre , as well as chapels at Nether Whitacre and Lea Marston, and probably also Maxstoke, Shustoke, and Bentley.
Standing on a prominent rise on the ancient route along the East Warwickshire plateau from Coventry to Tamworth, Over Whitacre church certainly dates from Norman times and may be of earlier foundation.
Although no evidence of this early church building survives above ground, an item of the old church’s furniture is now to be found in Holy Trinity church at Sutton Coldfield. The 12th-century stone font from Over Whitacre was thrown out when the church was rebuilt in 1766. It was certainly thought of as crude and inappropriate in a neo-classical building. The font was taken to a local pub, either the nearby Owl Inn (now gone) or downhill to the Bull at Furnace End. There it was used as a mounting block for 90 years, but it was rediscovered in 1856 and presented to Holy Trinity. Made of local sandstone, the bowl of the font is decorated on the lower half with an arcade of intersecting Norman arches. The top half has four large heads which projecting prominently from each side of the bowl. Carved in the green man tradition these grotesque heads have large staring eyes and from the sides of their mouths straps curve downwards and then up to meet between the heads in pairs of leaves.
Documentary evidence of the church here is available from the early 13th century. The advowson of Over Whitacre was given in 1203 by Jordan de Witacre to Christine, prioress of Markyate, Bedfordshire. This gave the priory, amongst other things, the right to appoint a priest to Over Whitacre. Nether Whitacre and Lea Marston were also similarly subject to Markyate Priory.
In a document of 1280 confirming the agreement the church is referred to as the ‘chapel’ of Over Whitacre, suggesting that it was subsidiary to Coleshill at that time. Whitacre was still appropriated to Markyate at the time of Henry VIII's valuation, the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535, but no vicarage had been endowed and the chapel was probably served by a priest from Coleshill. Over Whitacre had probably become a parish church in its own right by the end of the 16th century.
The earliest evidence on the site is the stump of a medieval churchyard cross which dates from c1500. The octagonal shaft has at the base alternating winged demi-angels and quatrefoils. It stands on a plinth of three stone steps laid octagonally.
In 1766 the church was completely rebuilt. The architect builder/s are thought to have been either or both William and David Hiorn of Warwick. They were neo-classical architects of some local repute having worked in Warwick, on west midland country houses and on churches including Holy Trinity church in Sutton Coldfield in 1760.
It may be that the new church was built on the foundations of the old. It is possible too that between the internal plaster and the external sandstone ashlar remains of the medieval building survive. The church has a tall thin appearance accentuated by its elevated position on a fairly steep hill above the road. The tower seems rather sturdy in comparison to the rest of the building, suggesting perhaps that it may be built around an earlier tower.
Th church is certainly built of very local sandstone. There was a quarry on the other side of the road from the church.
The style is an Italian neo-classical design in a neat sandstone ashlar with typical classical features such as round-headed windows, pediments and pilasters. The layout is simple: a west tower, a nave and a small square chancel.
The tower is of three stages and has a square-headed west doorway flanked by voluted pilasters. Above it is a semi-circular window of three lights. On the first stage the south side of the tower has a bull's-eye window with a similar blank on the north side.
The third stage is ornate with round-headed windows with moulded architraves which have square block rustications and keystones. At the corners are shallow pilasters with moulded and bracketed capitals with moulded pediments above. A short attic stage has ball finials at the corners. In 1850 an octagonal spire, also in sandstone, was built to replace the original dome. With an increasing interest at that time in the gothick and the gothic it may have been felt that this rather severe classical building needed to look more like an ancient country church with the addition of a spire.
The tower has two bells, both pre-dating the 1766 rebuilding which were rehung in a new frame by Taylor's of Loughborough in 1993. The smaller bell is 15th-century and unmarked. The other bell was cast by Watts, the Leicester bellfounders and is inscribed, "CELOMUN CHRISTE PLATIAT TIBI REX SONUS ISTE 1616". This was a a common inscription on bells at this time and should read 'CELORUM CHRISTE PLACEAT TIBI REX SONUS ISTE' - O Christ, King of the Heavens, may this sound be pleasing to Thee.'
The nave is accessed via a porch and has a typically neo-classical interior. The marble font in the porch dates from the middle of the 19th century; it may be that there was no font in the rebuilt church and that a simple portable basin was used. A stair leads to the west gallery. The nave is lit by three plain round-headed south windows and two on the north side with a middle blank copy of them. The nave has bench pews. Churches of this period generally had box pews, and it may be that these have been cut down from the originals. This is certainly the case with the pulpit. The pulpit, which is made of oak, probably stood centrally in front of the chancel. It was cut down probably in the middle of the 19th century and resited south of the chancel arch. The reading desk is also original.
A number of monuments were replaced from the old church including those of Alice Brome 1698, Richard Sadler of Holt Hall 1734, Arthur Miller and Susanne. Miller Sadler and Frances, his wife, are commemorated by a white marble wall monument dating from after the rebuilding. A stained glass window on the north side of the chancel is by Hardman’s of Birmingham and commemorates John Foster Adams d.1902 of Whitacre House who provided a schoolhouse for local children after the 1870 education Act. Built in Tudor Gothic style the school house was much extended to the rear in 1929 to serve as the village hall.
The short chancel has a large Venetian window at the east end. The communion rail is original.
A notable incumbent here was Thomas Bray 1656-1730. Born in Shropshire and educated at All Souls’ College Oxford, this was his first appointment. He went on to be rector of Sheldon, later going to the America to organize the Anglican church in Maryland. It is thanks to Bray that the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge were set up. He returned to England as rector of St Botolph-Without in Aldgate, London.
Over Whitacre Gallery
Acknowledgement - See British History Online - Victoria County History of Warwick Volume 4 Hemlingford Hundred ed. L F Salzman 1947 - http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42692.
Nether Whitacre Bellringers - http://www.whitacrebells.co.uk - includes information about Over Whitacre and Lea Marston bells.
See also Warwickshire Museum Timetrail - http://timetrail.warwickshire.gov.uk/detail.aspx?monuid=WA79.
William Dargue 07.10.2011