The Catesby family used to worship at this peaceful old church, in the manor of Ashby St Ledgers. The Catesbys were wealthy landowners in Warwickshire and Northamptonshire and, in 1375, the manor passed to them by marriage, from the Cranfords. Sir William Catesby was councillor to King Richard III, fought alongside him at the Battleof Bosworth in 1485 – and was beheaded for his trouble. For a short while, the Catesbys lost their estates; but these were returned in 1498. In 1508, the family sold a little property of theirs – Althorp – to the Spencers (who still live in it). Life went on. Then, over a very short period of 70 years or so, England transformed from a staunchly Roman Catholic society into a mainly Protestant one in which Catholics had become a persecuted minority. Catholics in later Tudor England could not legally hear Mass, be baptised or married according to Catholic rite, or receive the sacrament on their death-bed. Holding public office was subject to taking the Oath of Supremacy, swearing allegiance to the monarch as the supreme head of the Church of England. It was easy for 16th century English Catholics to be traitors, the penalty for which was death.
Nevertheless, die-hard Catholics throughout the land hung onto their beliefs. Recusancy – a label for Catholics originating from a refusal to attend Anglican services - was strong amongst some of the older families, particularly in the north, west and English midlands – including the Catesbys. And it was Robert Catesby, a charismatic fanatic, who planned the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Much of the planning for what we would today have considered a barbaric terrorist attack, followed by a coup d’état, took place in the manor’s gatehouse, just next door to the church. After Guy Fawkes was taken in the early hours of 5th November, six of the plotters, including Catesby, met that evening on the outskirts of Ashby St Ledgers, before galloping off in a vain attempt to gather sympathisers to their lost cause. So Ashby St Ledgers was where the gunpowder plotters plotted; they would have known this church.
By 1611, the Catesbys had gone from Ashby St Ledgers. After passing through various hands, in 1903 the manor was purchased by Ivor Guest, Viscount Wimborne. It was sold by his son, fell into disrepair, and the house was re-purchased by his grandson, another Ivor Guest and the 4th Viscount Wimborne. It is not open to the public; the wider estate is now owned by the Crown.
Back to the church. It dates from the 12th century, but is mostly 14th and 15th centuries. St Leodegarius, Leodegar – or Leger – was a 7th century Bishop of Autun, who had his eyes gouged and his tongue cut out, before later being murdered. It was tough being a bishop in those days. What he had to do with the small village of Ascebi (Ashby) is anyone’s guess.
The church has an astonishing number of medieval wall paintings, including a depiction of the flagellation of St Margaret dated at 1325, 14th and 15th century frescos illustrating the Passion above the chancel, a 15th century fresco of St Christopher and a 16th century cartoon, apparently representing the Black Death, posing as the sexton. Can you imagine what a cheerful place this must have been, once upon a time?
There is a beautiful carved rood screen from 1500, installed by George Catesby in thanks for the return of the estate in 1498. The pews at the front of the church are 14th century; the box pews and the triple pulpit are 17th century. There are brasses, including several commemorating members of the Catesby family, that have somehow survived the centuries.
Overall, the church at Ashby St Ledgers is a treasure-trove. I particularly liked the lovely 19th century east window, which depicts the nativity, the risen Christ and the three Marys at the tomb.
Despite the puritanical plainness of the church today, it has a huge amount of atmosphere. The surviving frescos hint at what it may have looked like when Robert Catesby’s parents were married there. I wonder what he would make of it all now? Standing in the peace of his old family church, visions of the carnage that would have ensued had the Gunpowder Plot succeeded seem particularly offensive to me. Yet Catholics, Protestants and others were cruelly treated all over Europe. Four hundred years on, a Catholic is still unable to be monarch in the United Kingdom – for the simple reason that the monarch is head of the Church of England. But Britain is now a largely secular society; like all civilised countries, it is justifiably proud of a religious tolerance that allows all faiths to worship and for everyone (in theory) to be equal under the Law. However, thousands have died along the way and bigotry, still present in some quarters, is easily inflamed. I like to think that the ghosts in Ashby St Ledgers would be profoundly sad, and worried, that there are yet those in the 21st century who exhibit a frighteningly medieval mindset of violence, cruelty and unreasoning fanaticism, often based on a warped religious doctrine.
For more about the church of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Leodegarius, visit Ashby St LedgersChurch website.