The Church Building
Willoughby parish is an ancient settlement mentioned in the Domesday Book and there is documentary evidence that a church has existed on the current site since at least 1215. However, there are no visible or readily identifiable remains from the pre-16th century church.
The church is Grade II* listed and the tower, north aisle, and nave are believed to date from the early 16th century. The south aisle dates from the 17th century and the chancel was rebuilt in 1622 and shortened in 1779.
It has recently been suggested by a historian that the bell tower was in fact built in 1636 not in the early 16th century and, if that should prove to be the case, it would be ‘a rare and fine example of Gothic survival’. Modern archaeological investigation may provide evidence that generally held beliefs about the history of the church are not sustainable. Such an investigation might also detect evidence of the earlier church in the masonry or in buried foundations.
Over the years there have been numerous restorations and repairs. The building was restored in 1848 and the floor was raised at the back because of damp issues. In 1963, the nave roof was completely retiled with concrete tiles rather than the original slate, presumably because of cost. In 1964, a special baptistry was constructed in the south aisle to commemorate the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962 and the Early English font dating from 1230AD was moved to its current position. The lychgate at the entrance to the churchyard was dedicated in 1979 after funds were raised for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. In April 2018, the chancel roof was completely replaced with a terne coated stainless steel roof after thieves stole the lead covering it.
In 1232, the patronage of the church was entrusted to the Hospital of St John the Baptist, the forerunner of Magdalen College, Oxford and there have been many vicars over the centuries. The best known locally are Reverend Dr Nathanial Bridges (incumbent 1791-1834) and Reverend Richard Tawney (1835-1848).
Apparently, Dr Bridges was so eloquent that people came from the surrounding area to hear him and money was raised to provide additional seating at the back of the church. You can still see evidence of the seating gallery in the walls of the bell tower above where the bell ringers now stand. Reverend Richard Tawney was the second son of a wealthy family in Dunchurch and he instigated the restorations to the church carried out in 1848. He also had the Old Vicarage constructed because he considered the existing vicarage to be unsuitable. After Reverend Tawney’s death in 1848 the contents of the house were sold at auction. The advertised lots show the house was furnished in some style! Memorials to both men can be seen on the walls of the chancel.
In the early 1950s, when selling off its estate in Willoughby parish, Magdalen College transferred the freehold of the church and churchyard to the Diocese. The right to appoint vicars for the church would have been transferred during the same period.
Acknowledgements for Our History and Our Heritage sections
Richard Jackson, researcher and archivist, Willoughby Society
Bert Ogle, for information about the chime barrel and turret clock
Chris Pickford, a writer and historian who has researched the church and bells
www.hantsfieldclub.org.uk, Vol. VII Part 1 ‘Pulpits:’: A. R. Green, F.S.A.
Malcolm Lewis, for photographs