The first documented evidence for the existence of a church in Swithland is a charter of 1277, although architecturally the building is somewhat earlier. Local granite, slate and Northampton stone were used. The latter can be seen in the north and south aisles around the unglazed windows, of which, on the north side of the nave, only part remains The roof is constructed of Swithland slate.
The first church building that we can detect in Swithland dates back to the 11th century. It was a single rectangular cell, with three unglazed round windows near the roof on each side.
By 1219, the church had been enlarged. Aisles had been added, both to t he north and to the south sides of the church. There may also have been a chancel – although smaller than the present one. The tower was added in the 13th century, and was heightened in the 15th century. At some time, the north aisle was demolished and the north arcade blocked up.
The present ground-plan of the church was established in 1727, when the south aisle was enlarged to its present width – to improve the chapel for the Danvers family.
Changes to the interior of the building continued. During the 19th century, many windows were replaced with gothic style windows or blocked up; an east porch was added to the south aisle. Earlier in the 20th century, in a major re-ordering of the building, a new porch and entrance was built on the north side, a gallery across the west end of the nave was removed, and the organ re-positioned and enlarged.
Swithland was amongst the land which William The Conqueror gave to Hugh of Grentesmainel. He gave the right of presentation (advowson) to the Abbey of St. Ebrulf in Normandy. The Abbey this became responsible for providing a Priest for Swithland; this was in fact exercised in by a daughter house of the Benedictines at Ware, who appointed the rectors of Swithland from 1094 until 1344.
Swithland is not mentioned in the Domesday Book 1086. But it was among the lands granted to Hugo de Grentesmainel, Earl of Leiceser, by William the Conqueror. The Lordship of this part of Charnwood Forest passed in due course from the Earls of Leicester to the Ferrers family, to the Grey family, and to the Earls of Stamford & Warrington.
The size of the original parish was 1500 acres and the population has remained reasonably constant in size throughout the history of the parish. In 1856 it had a population of 255, on the 1st January 2000 the area known as Rothley Plain was added to the Parish of Swithland. On the same day Swithland became a Parish within the United Benefice of Woodhouse, Woodhouse Eaves and Swithland.
By 1255, Robert le Walleis (or Waleys) had acquired certain manorial rights. In 1363 the manor passed briefly by marriage to John de Walcote and his heirs, and in 1796 by marriage to Augustus Richard Butler and the Earls of Lansborough.
Members of the Danvers and Lanesborough families have endowed the church and are remembered here. The Lanesborough connection with Swithland is less strong than hitherto: most of the Swithland Hall estate was sold in 1954. The last Earl ceased to live in the village after 1981 and died in 1998.
From 1260 the village was held by the Walleis family and in 1365 was passed by marriage to the family of Walcote of Misterton. It was later acquired by the Danvers family of Culworth in Northampton in 1420. The first Earl of Lanesborough was created in 1756.
The Church is dedicated to St. Leonard of Limousin who lived at the time when Clovis was King of the Franks (466 - 511) whose conversion secured most of France to Orthodox rather than Arian faith. Leonard became a monk at Micy near Orleans; his Godfather was St. Remy of Rheims. He was given land for a Monastery at Noblac near Limoges. St. Leonard is particularly associated with prisoners, the deliverance of captives, women in labour and with people and cattle afflicted with disease. He is usually depicted with chains and an unlocked padlock.
The West tower dates back to the 13th century, and there is also arcading from the same period. There were also a number of 15th century additions. In 1760, Sir John Danvers, having succeeded Sir Joseph Danvers, gave the Church it's bells. There are presently 6 bells in the tower dating from 1762l these were rehung in 1961. The tower clock was also a gift of Sir John Danvers, and was made by Eayre of St. Neots over 200 years ago. The South aisle was added by Sir John Danvers in 1727.
There is a 15th century brass to Agnes Scott, who had an anchorite's cell in the churchyard, and an 18th century monument to the five children of Sir John Danvers.
The grave and monument of Sir Joseph Danvers, who died in 1753, is half and half out of the churchyard. This eccentric arrangement was in order that his dog could be buried with him.... although the PCC did prove that this was the proverbial “shaggy dog story..”
The tomb is located 2/3 inside the Churchyard and 1/3 outside churchyard and is a large table tomb of 1745. Constructed by John Hind, it is comprised of Swithland slate with brass inscriptions and wrought iron railings with alternating straight and spear head finials and urn corners. The design is a block-shaped sarcophagus of the finest quality with 2 reliefs illustrating accompanying texts:
'When young I sailed to India, east and west, But aged in this port must lye at rest'
'Be cheerful, O man, and labour to live, The merciful God a blessing will give'
There is also a fine collection of Swithland slate gravestones in the churchyard.
For many years the entrance to the church was through a doorway in the south wall, beneath the small semi-circular window. The aisle also housed the font, and a vestry – in the form of a large box pew.
The stained glass behind the organ was given in 1864 in memory of Sir William and Lady Isabella Heygate of Roecliffe and depicts Martha and Jesus.
The organ was made by John Snetzler of London and given by Sir John Danvers in 1765. Originally it had a single manual, and was situated in the balcony at the west end of the nave. It was enlarged and moved to its present position in 1928.
On the west wall is a monumental brass of 1455 to Agnes Scott. In 1727 it was removed from the nave floor below the chancel step to the floor of the south aisle and in 1928 was placed on the west wall.
The very oldest part of the church are the arcades (the range of arches supported by columns) on each side of the nave, which date from the 13th century. They indicate that, originally, there was an aisle on either side of the nave. These were probably some nine feet wide and covered by almost flat lead roofs. No trace of the north aisle remains. The arcades on the (blocked) north side were heightened later in the century, except for the western bay which now houses the entrance door.
Above the arches on the south side are 3 bulls-eye (vesica shaped) contemporary clerestory windows. Part of one such window remains in the first of the higher north arcade blocked arches. These windows were intended to give light from outside, and indicate that the roof of the two side aisles would have been below this height.
The nave roof would originally have been steeply pitched, with eaves at a lower level than today: the upper part of the nave is in 16th/17th century timber framing.
On the north wall is a fine monument [white marble table between two Ionic columns and pediment and surmounted by a vase, on blue marble] erected by and to Sir John Danvers (died 1796), a great benefactor of the church. In 1790 the writer John Throsby commented: “The most extraordinary thing here is a large monument, erected by and to the memory of the living Sir John Danvers Bart fearful that posterity, or perhaps his only daughter, should forget him …”
Throsby also notes Sir John Danvers’ liking of the colour red: To this colour it would seem, Sir John is wonderfully partial; the seats of the church, the window frames of the church, those of the parsonage house, his own, and door, all shew roddle, roddle, roddle, roddle …
An oak sill, built into the south arcade wall, may indicate that there might once have been a rood beam and gallery crossing the western face of the chancel arch.
The three lights which overhang the nave are 18th century brass candelabra which have been adapted for electric light: they are ornamented with the Danvers crest (a wyvern) in the centre.
The font – a bowl and pedestal by Haywood – was erected in 1760, and placed in its present position in 1928: it replaced a considerably larger mediaeval stone font, the basin of which was almost 3ft 6ins in diameter. The pulpit and sounding-board are of the 18th century style. The lectern was given in 1913.
The tower was constructed in the 13th century, and has 15th century additions. In 1760 Sir John Danvers, having succeeded Sir Joseph Danvers, gave the church its bells. There are 6 bells in the tower originally dating from 1762; these were rehung in 1962. The tower clock was also a gift from Sir John Danvers, and was made by Eayre of St. Neots, over 200 years ago.
In 1765, Sir John Danvers instructed John Snetzler, the favoured organ builder to King George III, to build an instrument for Swithland. This organ was placed in a gallery to the west end of the Church, and comprised one manual with 7 stops and no pedals.
In 1936, the organ was rebuilt with the addition of a second keyboard and pedals, and the fine Gothic case with its carved pinnacles was fortunately retained.
A more recent restoration in the 1980's was undertaken by Martin Renshaw, assisted by Karl Wieneke. The surviving Schnetzler pipework was collected together to form the Great Organ, which now sounds much as it did in the 18th century. The remaining pipes, made in 1926, together with a new trumpet stop, form a Swell Organ.
Great Organ: (Schnetzler); Sesquialtera, Flute, Stopped Diapason, Open Diapason, Cornet, Fifteenth, Principal.
Swell Organ: Fifteenth, Dulciana, Principal, Stopped Diapason, Trumpet.
Pedal: Dolce, Boudon.
Couplers: Swell to Great, Swell to Pedals, Great to Pedals.
John (Johannes_ Snetzler (Schnetzler) was born in Shauffhausen, Switzerland in 1710, and came to England around 1742. In the 1760's he built his major instruments, including those at Halifax, Beverley Minster, Kedleston Hall and Swithland. Of the 120 or so instruments which he built, only a very few are in restorable condition.
Diocesan Bishops have required parish record to be kept since 1200, but this was not obligatory until Thomas Cromwell ordered so by royal injunction in 1538 during the reign of King Henry VIII. For the next 100 years the continuation of such records was assured by various acts.
The earliest register of Swithland existing in our Parish records, consists of a single parchment of sheet containing 54 mixed entries of births, marriages and deaths for the years 1676 - 1681.
Transcripts of Swithland Registers, commencing as early as 1616, and continuing for the years 1624, 1633 and 1648 and thereafter are kept in the Leicestershire Records Office. These give the earliest evidence of births, marriages and burials in Swithland.