Visit – St Giles Church, Calke, Derbyshire

img_2937My fiance and I visited this church as we returned to explore the gardens of Calke Abbey in Derbyshire and what seemed like a small plain parish church of apparently the 1800s disguises a long history that in fact dates back to 1129.

The church is set in the grounds of the abbey and is referred in literature  as a private manorial chapel  to the great house but in fact it originally served the parish of Calke from at least 1160, (Charter of Countess Matilda), to around 1834.

The building itself is a Grade II listed building and is largely the result of restoration in 1827-1929 by Sir George Crewe after the building had become very dilapidated.

img_2901The restoration of the building cost £1764 and included the cast iron Gothic Revival windows so fashionable at the time.  The tower was also built in brick and the entire exterior cased in stone.  In addition there was a hot air under-floor heating system added which sadly no longer works and also new wooden furnishings made possibly from estate wood and certainly crafted in the workshops. There are two organs – one being a barrel organ and another an American organ and both apparently still work.

So what is the history of this church?  the earliest reference goes back to 1129 when it belonged to Calke Abbey but was seized by the Abbott of Chester.  Understandably the Prior appealed to the Synod of London for its return along with other goods.

According to the National Trust leaflet, from which most of this information comes, both the church and the village of Calke were founded by one Harold de Leke before 1100 and was henceforth given to Calke Augustinian Priory which he had also founded.  Calke Abbey was one of the very first Augustinian houses in England and other founders are thought to be Hugh d’Avranche and his son Richard who were both Earls of Chester which may answer my question of why the Abbott of Chester later tried to seize the church.

In 1650 Parliamentary Commissioners tried to close the church and annex it to the neighbouring parish of Ticknall so combined with the Abbott of Chester it faced some challenges in its history.  The informative leaflet states the church became an ‘Ecclesiastical Donative Peculiar Jurisdiction of the Priory’ during the middle ages with the rights passed to the lay owners at the Reformation – from what I can understand out a ‘peculiar’ was a church or parish which was exempt from the jurisdiction of the Archbishop or Deacon in the diocese or Archdeaconry they were situated but the parish was still subject of the probate jurisdiction of say lord of the manor or another bishop, archbishop or dean or even chapter of a cathedral.  A ‘donative’ parish was one in which a parson could be appointed by say the founder or patron without being presented to the bishop.  The information states that the church was exempt from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of the Diocese and of the Archdeacon and also the right to prove wills and depending on what you read peculiar jurisdictions were mostly abolished in the late 1840’s or as late as 1898.

The original medieval church had a chancel, tower, spire and it is thought a south side but it was subject to its first restoration in the 1570s when the owners of Calke at the time Roger and Richard Wensley reduced its size.  The tower and chancel were  removed and a brick wall was built at the east end with a small bellcot (tower) on top of the nave at the west end and in addition small square headed west windows were apparently added – one of the 3 medieval bells which is mentioned in records in 1552 survives and is in the 19th century tower (originally made by Newcombe Bell-founders in the late 14th century).

My own opinions and notes on the church now feel different on understanding the history of the church – it had struck as somewhat plain and simple for a parish church and from the gravestones in the church yard we had deduced it dated from the 1800’s but now wonder if there is an original medieval church yard beneath these later graves.

img_2929As I entered the church the immediate reaction was one of a gasp as the only stained glass window is directly in front of you at the end of the nave immediately above and behind the altar and the rest of the church is so simple.

img_2916The window is in memory of Sir George Crewe who was the 8th Baronet and the restorer of the church in the 1800s.  The 3 scenes apparently relate to Solomon’s building of the Temple of Jerusalem with the diamond in the centre at the bottom a copy of the seal of the Peculiar of the church.

This window is striking in its setting and not diluted in its beauty by others surrounding it.  I found the colours extraordinary and the scene telling the biblical story fitting for the restoration of the church.  There is however no records which relate to the window so there is no information on either the maker or even the designer sadly.

Either side of the window in my photograph, taken as I entered the church, can be scene 2 of 3 hatchments which apparently are heraldic device which were painted on canvas and these would have been originally hung outside of the main house for a period of one month following the death of the owner before being brought into the church.  Frustratingly my photographs of these are too hazy to reproduce here but if we get chance to return to Calke Abbey before it is closed for the winter I will take new photographs and add them to this blog.

img_2933I particularly liked the carving that is behind the altar and apparently this dado includes 16th century linen fold panels which are thought to have originated at Ashby Castle which is situated just 5 miles south of Calke Abbey.

img_2934I do find these panels very reminiscent of the carved panels I have seen at The Friary (pub) in Derby which I now question date from around the same period – The Friary was founded in the 13th century and was in use until its dissolution in 1539.  The carving is beautifully done and clearly by a craftsman of considerable skill.

The font near the entrance to the church dates from the 1630s and is a total immersion font.  This font was replaced by a smaller alabaster font in 1827 which is now underneath the tower, (something I did not see but now know to look for on our next visit), but returned to its former place in 1870 – the older font was for that intervening period in the churchyard.

img_2918The American organ can be seen in my photograph at the front of the gallery – in such a small church the effect of the organ must have been be truly inspiring on the congregation of the time.




What can be clearly seen in this photograph too is the blue ceiling with simple carved decorative motifs which frustratingly there is no information on.  The blue I can reasonably assume pertains possibly to the colour associated with the Virgin Mary and this has a further argument as the church may have originally been dedicated to St. Mary.  The other possibility for the blue is possibly  a reference to the sky or the heavens.

The ‘new’ wooden furnishings from the restoration completed in 1827-1829 can clearly be seen in my photographs and from what I can deduce the two closed off areas of pews may be private pews for Sir George Crewe and his family.

img_2919There are two main monuments in the church with the earliest one being to Sir John Harpur and his wife Catherine Crew and erected in 1746.  This early monument was made by Henry Cheere of Derby.

img_2922The second monument is to Sir John who was the 9th Baronet and his son Sir Vauncey who was the 10th and last Baronet and this is made of local alabaster.

Reading the leaflet again the church was served originally by a parson in 1266 (Jon de Langeport) and then canons but from 1538 to 1834 curates without a parson’s freehold with the curates presumably coming under the Ecclesiastical Donative Peculiar Jurisdiction previously mentioned.

Overall this church was one of surprises because as I state at the beginning it appeared a very simple parish church on first glance which could be reached either from a path from the main house or through a set of gates which have no visible road or pathway on the other side but it can be reasonably assumed did originally to serve the parishioners of Calke.  I personally liked the simplicity of this building as I have stated above due to  the first thing that strikes you is the beautiful memorial window which speaks of the biblical story and emphasizes as soon as you enter the spirituality of the church. There is no need for ornate decoration such as is seen at St Mary’s Church in nearby Derby and which was built in 1837 by Augustus Pugin in the Gothic revival style but the style is still seen in the Gothic  revival windows, in St Giles, added during the restoration so the nod to the style of architecture at the time is still very much there.  The blue colour of the ceiling is also seen in St Mary’s so on further consideration I do feel my argument for the colour being a reference to the cloak or clothes of the Virgin Mary has some weight. I decided to question at this point why is the Virgin Mary associated with the colour blue and on one website ( a reference that refers to the dark blue mantel being from around 500 AD and of being of Byzantine origin and being the colour of an empress.  Going on from that idea there is the fact that blue is associated with peace, nature (sea and sky) and of course royalty so if Mary is portrayed as a queen of sea and sky then she would of course wear blue – bearing that in mind this also gives me further reasonable argument that the ceiling is a subtle but definitive reference to the Virgin Mary and one that draws the eye heavenwards as you enter the church.

As I type this there is no question of a second visit as I will look at this building from a different viewpoint and wonder at the people who have stepped the same steps before me.  There is no great art in this building but it is one steeped in history and the lives of the parish in which it stands not withstanding the lives of the people who have lived at the abbey either as aristocratic owners or the former inhabitants when it was a priory.


Arthur Lewis and contributors. 2016. Definitions. [Online]. [Date Accessed:  October 2016].  Available from:

British Listed (date unknown).  Church of St Giles, Calke. [Online]. [Date Accessed:  October 2016].  Available from:

Catholic Family Faith. 2016.  Why does the Virgin Mary wear blue? [Online].  [Date Accessed:  October 2016].  Available from:

National Trust. 2016.  St. Giles Church Calke [leaflet]. National Trust.




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