In 822 Bishop Aethelwald of Lichfield created prebends at nearby communities that would furnish out of their resources enough income to maintain at Lichfield Cathedral a priest known as a prebendary. Alrewas with its flourishing settlement was a natural centre for such a prebend. The prebendary would have responsibility for the pastoral work of the church in his prebend, but would normally appoint a priest to do his work ‘vicariously’ (i.e. in his place). The pastoral oversight gradually became the sole responsibility of this ‘vicar’ and today the Vicars of Alrewas receive their ‘cure of souls’ directly from the Bishop himself.
So a church has stood on this site from at least 822AD (some suggest it was founded by St Chad himself in the 870s), the first building being probably of wood with a roof of thatched reeds from the nearby river, this, in due course, being replaced by a simple building in local stone. By 1085, when the Domesday Book was compiled, Alrewas had become an important community – there is mention of approximately 800 acres of arable land, a priest, a church and a fishery that yielded 1,500 eels.
By the late 12th century the church was Norman in style – the tower doorway, the north aisle doorway and a few heavy, rough-hewn pieces of stone in the north wall are all that remain of this Norman church. In area it probably comprised the space in the nave between the present arcades. To this church was added the fine early English 13th century chancel replete with lancet windows, a piscine, a sedilia and a priest’s door. The small window in its north wall once had a bell hanging from the lintel and at the moment of the consecration of the sacrament the shutter (now replaced by fine modern stained glass) would open and the bell rung to alert the villagers. It is possible that villagers with infectious illnesses would receive the sacrament through this window.
The octagonal font (reminding us our Lord was received into the church on the 8th day) has four grotesque lions at its base, and is a fine example of 15th century work. It is still in regular use today.
In the difficult and dangerous times of the Reformation our church was made lighter and loftier by the insertion of the clerestory windows. The beautiful carved timber roofs of the nave and south aisle were also constructed in this period.
It was in the 16th century that proper register of baptisms and burials were ordered to be kept and the original Alrewas register dating from 1547 contains many interesting references to national and local events as well as the formal entries.
The bench ends of the front choir stalls may also be from the 16th century.
THE CIVIL WAR
During another turbulent period of English history, namely the reign of Charles I and the Civil War, our church received valuable and beautiful gifts which are still in regular use – the pulpit splendidly carved and inscribed in 1639, an oak altar table inscribed with the initials of the then vicar (Richard Martin) and his churchwardens and dated 1638, and a lovely silver paten of 1642.
THE 18TH CENTURY
In the east end of the south aisle are some fine monuments, two of which are 18th century. This area, now the clergy vestry, was once the family chapel of the Turtons, sometime Lords of the Manor. The middle monument is by Thomas White and is to the memory of Sir John Turton, who died in 1707 and is buried in the family chapel.
THE 19TH CENTURY
The chancel was restored in 1877 by the Revd W Inge (one time Vicar of Alrewas) who was the father of the famous Dean Inge of St Paul ’s Cathedral. The Early English east window was altered at this time and filled with stained glass by Henry Holliday.
In 1891 the vicar, the Revd WA Webb paid for the construction of the north aisle thereby making the church symmetrical. By a feat of construction the original north wall was dismantled and rebuilt in its present position. The graceful arches and the fine tracery of the windows show Victorian architecture at its best: the architect was Basil Champneys who also designed the fine stone high altar reredos in the chancel. The stained glass east window of the Lady Chapel is by Charles Kempe and depicts the Annunciation with Archbishop Augustine on the left and Bishop Chad on the right.
The organ of 1882 is by Brindley and Foster of Sheffield and was rebuilt in 1977 by Hawkins of Walsall.
The tower clock by John Smith of Derby was given in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria ’s reign. It has both a quarter and hour strike and keeps perfect time.
It is impossible to say when bells were first installed in the tower but there are many early references to them in the first register. It is also recorded that on 6 July 1585 ‘two bells were cast for our church at Nottingham’: in 1618 mention is made of the ‘little bell in the stepell’ being recast: in 1711 all the bells were recast by Joseph Smith of Edgbaston: in 1922 the bells were again recast and with the addition of a new treble and 2nd bell Taylors of Loughborough produced our present final peal of eight bells.
St Chad ’s Chapel in the south aisle was created in 1980 incorporating the former chancel screen of 1892 (which itself incorporates earlier carving). The statue of St Chad was made and donated by Ken Taylor.
On the south wall are many old grooves and holes, and it is thought these were made by the men and youths of the middle ages when they sharpened their arrows during archery practice! A field beyond the canal – now developed – still bears the name Butts Croft. A graffito of two graceful deer, one standing over the other, is also on this wall and thought to be of the same period.
The west doors are probably of the 14th century (as is the top hinge) but were repaired as indicated by the carved inscription, in 1627.
Under a slab in the porch lies the remains of Matthias Langley, vicar from 1708-1728. Legend has it on his death he directed he should be buried in front of the south door because as parishioners had walked over him during his lifetime, so they should after his death – and so they do to this day!
The porch was built in 1866. On the buttress to the right of the porch is an old ‘scratch’ dial, once with a rod in its centre, which indicated the times of mass.
The churchyard was landscaped in 1975 but many grave stones are still in position, notably those from the 18th century.
The lych gate was built in 1891 and restored in 1974 and again in 2006 to help preserve this beautiful late Victorian entry into our churchyard.
In the 14th century the present nave and south aisle were constructed, retaining the original Norman doorway in the north wall. The unusual ‘horse shoe’ chancel arch is also of this period. During the late Victorian times this arch was covered in rather unsightly cement rendering which, in 2004, was carefully removed to uncover the pleasing view of the brick, tile and stone work which we are able to see today.
The majestic tower of the church was built in this period and the old Norman west doorway re-set at the base. From the top of the tower can be seen superb views of the Trent valley. The tower was restored and strengthened in 1886 but recently was found to be in an unstable condition and again major restoration work was successfully undertaken in 2009 to correct this by the insertion of steel ties and a solid infill of grout.
The two oak chests near the north door are thought to be from the 14th century and once contained the parish and manorial documents. The large one is secured by three locks (replaced in the 18th century by the present padlocks), the keys of which were held by the Vicar and Churchwardens so that the contents were accessible only when the three officers were present.
In the middle ages our church, like many others, was highly decorated with wall paintings. During the Reformation in the 16th century or possibly during the Puritan period of the 17th century, these were lime washed over. When the chancel was restored in 1877 it was discovered, almost too late, alas, that medieval paintings still existed beneath the lime wash. The remaining fragment seen on the chancel north wall is believed to depict a priest blessing a kneeling figure with a trumpeter behind and with a scroll descending as from Heaven and is almost certainly 14th century. It was restored by Perry Lithgow as part of the restoration work completed during 2004.
Commencing in 1996 a programme of major restoration work, both internal and external, has taken place and has ensured that our beautiful and ancient building will be preserved for future generations to enjoy. Care for a building such as this is ever ongoing and a rolling year by year plan is now in place enabling work to be phased in as needed.
We are grateful to all who have contributed financially to this work and in particular the generous people of Alrewas, and others who have given their time and talents to see the programme of work through its many protracted stages.
We hope that this brief sketch, imperfect though it may be, has shown each century, including our own, has contributed to the beauty of this ancient church.
For over a thousand years, God has been worshipped on this sacred site. Countless generations have expressed their worship and faith in the idiom and style of the times.
The vicissitudes of English history and the past life of an agricultural community have all found expression here at God’s altar, the sacred being inseparable from the secular because God was made Man in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.
We are indebted to:
‘Staffordshire’ by Nikolaus Pevsner
‘Alrewas Church and it’s History’ by Norman Stubbs
‘All Saints Parish Church’ by the Revd David Wells
‘A History of Alrewas Parish Church ’ by the Revd TH Brook
‘The History of All Saints Parish Church’ by the Revd John Colston
Information updated in 2009 by Brian Goodwin