The parish church of Saint Esprit, which is Grade II* listed, is situated in the village of Marton, Warwickshire, near the confluence of the rivers Itchen and Leam. Marton is a small village of 200 dwellings, with a population of about 400, 7 miles equidistant from Rugby, Coventry and Leamington Spa. It sits astride the A423, an old coaching route between Coventry and Banbury. Marton’s history has been documented from the time of the Domesday Book, in 1086, though historic artefacts from the Iron Age and Roman periods suggest a much longer history.
The earliest known reference to the church goes back to between 1155 and 1160, when the then Lord of the Manor, the Earl of Warwick, granted the church as a gift to the Nuns of the Fontevraud Order at the Priory of the Blessed Virgin in Eaton (now St Mary’s Abbey Church in Nuneaton). It is, however, likely that a church, probably built of wood, had existed on the site much earlier, and that it was a “hundredal” church; an early mission centre from which itinerant priests sallied forth serving a wide district. Its importance is exemplified in a decree issued by Bishop Richard of Coventry in about 1170 requiring “vills” from a wide surrounding area, including Rugby, Grandborough, Shuckborough, Napton, Ladbroke and Hunningham (amongst others), to pay “churchaumber” of corn to the church of Marton.
It is probable that the church was rebuilt, in stone, between 1160 and 1291, when a record shows the church as “appropriated to Nuneaton, and valued at £4 13s 4d”. A rectory seems to have been appropriated and a vicarage ordained in about 1277.
The dedication of the church to Saint Esprit, the French title for the Holy Spirit, is particularly interesting, and is believed to be unique in England. It seems probable that the church was dedicated to Saint Esprit following its rebuilding in the thirteenth century, although no evidence has been found to confirm this. However, the church was gifted to the Nuns of Nuneaton by the Earl of Warwick shortly after Robert Beaumont, Earl of Leicester had granted his manor of Eaton, in 1155, to the French Abbey of Fontevraud. The French Abbey had been founded in 1100 by Robert d’Arbrissel, near Chinon, in Anjou. In its early years, the Norman Kings and their descendents were great benefactors of the abbey. Around 1150 the abbess of Fontevraud was Matilda of Anjou, widow of William, the eldest son of Henry I of England. Henry II’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine became a nun there, and Richard I is buried there. With this royal patronage, it is perhaps not surprising that several “Fontevrist” abbeys were set up in England. Also, in the same era that the church in Marton was being rebuilt, Pope Innocent III confirmed, in 1195, the Order of the Holy Spirit, to care for the sick, and encouraged its spread throughout all the countries of Christendom. It is conceivable that the combined politics of church and state led to the unusual dedication of Marton church early in the life of St Mary’s Priory. At that time it would have been natural to use the French form of the Holy Spirit, Saint Esprit, as the hierarchy of the Priory would probably have been of French origin. Small bequests are documented in the 13th century to the lights of the Holy Spirit and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which seem to support this timing. As well as the church, the Nuneaton Priory had substantial holdings around Marton, and local tradition has it that these included a “convalescent” or respite home for the Nuns of Nuneaton. The discovery, in 1959, of some medieval female skeletons near the church, in North Street, has added to this speculation.
The high point for St Mary’s Priory seems to have been around 1234, when 93 nuns were in residence. After that, until its dissolution in 1539, it appears to have gone into a steady decline. The same is probably true of the church in Marton. Certainly, in the thirteenth century it had lost its status as the centre of a Hundred, being absorbed into the Hundred of Knightlow, of which it formed one of the Leets.
Following the dissolution of the Priory, the rectory and advowson (or patronage of the living) of Marton were granted to Thomas Marow of Rudfen, in 1545. In the following 374 years they were passed down by conveyance, inheritance or marriage through a series of prominent families, including the Knightley family of Offchurch, and the Earls of Aylesford, before finally being vested with the Bishop of Coventry, in 1929.
The ancient church, said to be one of the oldest in Warwickshire, survived and continued until 1870. In 1868 it was reported to be in a bad state of repair, and was substantially demolished in 1870. Local tradition maintains that it had been badly damaged by fire, but there is no evidence to support this. The vicar, Rev Bertram Brooke Hulbert, launched a restoration appeal in 1871, with remarkable results. The published list of subscribers reads like a “Who’s Who”, with benefactors from all over the country, and from all walks of life. A report, on the rebuilding of the church, in the Leamington Courier on 1 April 1871, referred to the discovery of several 13th century stone coffins, an embedded bullet believed to have come from a Civil War skirmish, two piscinas, together with some stained glass and an inscription of the Tudor period.
The old church was not, in fact, entirely demolished. The original lower stage of the tower, with its 14th and 15th century extensions, together with the 13th century south arcade and doorway, were incorporated into the new building, which is of Gothic Revival style. The architect was George Punshon, of Leamington Spa.
The present church, which appears to closely copy the footprint of the old church, consists of a chancel, nave, north and south aisles, west tower, organ-chamber, and south porch. It is built of squared and coursed limestone with sandstone dressings and all the roofs are tiled. Comparative photographs of the old and present-day church are shown below:
The chancel (18 ft. 6 in. by 14 ft.) has a tiled floor, a collar-beam roof, plastered walls, and two steps to the altar. The east window is of Victorian stained glass, dated 1873 and has a pointed moulded rear-arch supported on shafts with moulded capitals and bases and a hood-mould with foliated stops. The south window is two-light. The lower part of the east wall of the chancel still retains some of the earlier walling of roughly coursed rubble with red sandstone dressings. On the north side there is an arched opening into the organ chamber, which houses the two-manual organ, built in 1874 by J Porritt & Sons of Leicester. Some photographs of the chancel are shown below:
The nave (31 ft. 7 in. by 19 ft. 6 in.) has a hammer-beam roof and tiled aisles. The original south arcade has two bays of pointed arches of two splayed orders supported on octagonal pillars with moulded capitals and bases. The north arcade is a copy of the south but with more elaborately moulded capitals. Above the apex of each arch there is a pointed two-light clerestory window with widely splayed jambs and sills. The chancel arch is pointed, of three splayed orders supported on three attached shafts with foliated capitals and splayed bases. The pulpit and reading desk, which flank the chancel arch, are of stone and coloured marble with open traceried panels. These can be seen in one of the above photographs, which is a view looking east, from the nave into the chancel. A special feature of the west wall of the nave is a number of painted inscriptions, on metal panels. These are shown in the photograph below. Several such panels exist throughout the church.
The north and south aisles (31 ft. 10 in. by 8 ft. 6 in.) have lean-to roofs, tiled aisles, and windows with rear arches of three trefoils supported on shafts with moulded capitals and bases. At the eastern end of the south wall a badly mutilated 14th-century piscina has been built in
The photographs above show the baptistery, which is located at the west end of the south aisle, adjacent to the 13th century doorway, and the chapel in the north aisle. This houses a small war memorial. The font is of stone with an octagonal basin, sunk trefoil panels, and stands on an octagonal coloured marble stem moulded at the base.
Seating throughout the church is provided by substantial fixed wooden pews, on raised wooden plinths, believed to date from the Victorian re-building in the 1870’s.
The tower is in three stages without buttresses and it diminishes with a splayed offset to the second stage. From half way up the second stage it has been entirely rebuilt in a light-coloured sandstone ashlar. The original walls are built of coursed limestone rubble with red sandstone dressings and, except on the north side, bands of red sandstone in the middle of the first stage and again at the base of the second stage. The west face has a narrow trefoil window in the first stage, and in the second a narrow lancet to the ringing-chamber. The belfry has windows with pointed arches on each face, of two trefoil lights. The battlemented parapet seen on the photograph of the old church, was lowered and levelled in the 20th century. A small lobby has been built at the junction of the tower with the south aisle to give an external entrance to the tower. The upper stage of the tower houses a ring of three bells, of which the F# tenor bell is the largest. It is 381/2 inches in diameter, and weighs 91/2 cwt. It was cast in 1624 at the Leicester foundry of Hugh Watts, and has a latin inscription, which translates to “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews Have mercy on me”. The second bell, sounding G#, and weighing 71/2 cwt, has the same inscription, and was cast by Watts in 1623. The smallest A# bell weighs in at 6 cwt, and is the oldest, having been cast by Watts in 1613. It has a latin inscription which translates to “O Christ King of the heavens may this sound be pleasing to you”. Sadly, the sound of these bells swinging no longer pleases anyone, as deterioration of the bell frame and wheel mechanisms, believed to have been installed in 1831, would make this unsafe. However, on special occasions, the bells can be chimed using an Ellacombe chiming apparatus, located on the first floor of the tower, which operates chiming hammers.
The church of St Esprit is located in an idyllic position on the edge of the Warwickshire countryside, overlooking the timeless flow of the two rivers at whose confluence it sits. The memorials and gravestones date from Victorian times to the present day. But in its churchyard lie the remains of countless villagers, who, down the ages, have helped to transform and sustain this place as a peaceful and inspirational haven, often through troubled and changing times. Perhaps, with the threats of the present day, there has never been a greater need to preserve and develop God’s Spiritual Embassy in Marton, for future generations.