In the wake of the Norman Conquest in 1066 most of the land in and around Bawtry, as well as nearby Tickhill and Blyth, was given to Roger de Builli (Busli), a Norman baron highly favoured by King William. In 1088 Roger founded the Priory of Blyth, which was devoted to the Benedictine Order of monks.
One hundred years later, during the reign of Henry II, a descendant of the Builli family, John de Builli, confirmed that the priory was the patron of the chapels of Bawtry and Austerfield, the first mention of the church of St Nicholas in historical records (this is before 1213).
A priest was appointed to serve both Bawtry and Austerfield and was called the 'capellanus parochialis' of Bawtry in 1267-68. There was thus no vicar and the monks of Blyth received money and tithes for the arrangement.
Although much of the church has been rebuilt and restored the north doorway dates to c1200, around the time the church was given to Blyth Priory. It is likely the church was built shortly before being given over, its construction certainly sponsored by John de Builli.
The church was dedicated to St Nicholas who, amongst other things, was the patron saint of sailors and merchants. Bawtry was at this time a growing port on the river Idle. The church itself was built on higher ground above the docks themselves, from where wool and other items were shipped out to the Humber and then overseas. The choice of saint was clearly a deliberate attempt to bless the growing merchant trade and encourage it to prosper.
The priory’s patronage of the church dominated its medieval history. Relations between the monks and the locals of Bawtry were not always friendly. In 1278 a dispute occurred over liability for repairs that were needed by the church, with both monks and locals claiming the other should pay for them. The argument was eventually settled by an official of the Archdeacon of Nottingham. The locals were made liable for repairs, but the monks provided a one-time only gift of 2 marks to assist on this particular occasion.
It was not the only dispute regarding the church. The Priory of Blyth also had the parish church attached to it, and the priors were in frequent dispute with the vicars of Blyth over the tithes from their property. In 1281 the prior of the time agreed to pay £60 to the vicar in order to avoid losing the tithes of Bawtry and Austerfield. Clearly this did not end the matter however, as seven years later the two sides were brought together in the presence of the Archbishop of York, John Le Romayne. An agreement was made that Bawtry and Austerfield chapels would both be appropriated to the priory, with the vicars receiving all the tithes from the two, except for the tithes of grain and mortuaries, which went to the priory itself. In return the priory had to provide two chaplains to serve at both chapels.
In 1291 a religious taxation took place in England, called by the Pope. Bawtry was not mentioned in the tax surveys, almost certainly because it was a dependency of the priory as a chapelry rather than a full parish church.
In 1314 the archbishop gave permission to the priors to sell the tithes of Bawtry and Austerfield for three years. It would appear that the priory was in immediate need of additional money. No record remains of who the tithes were sold to.
A year later, in 1315, the archbishop placed Blyth Priory under interdict for not paying the fees of Thomas Bishop of Withern in Galloway. As a result burials were forbidden in Bawtry due to its status as a dependency of Blyth, thus depriving Blyth of burial dues and forcing the local inhabitants to go elsewhere for this important function. It was not until 1344 that the Archbishop gave permission for burials and all services to once again take place at Bawtry, 'because of the distance from the mother church', so an entire generation had been forced to suffer under the interdict.
During the reign of Edward III (1327 – 1377) the church was rebuilt or expanded greatly. piers, arches and the windows in the east nave.
In 1341 the Nonarum Inquisitiones, a comprehensive tax survey, took place. Bawtry was listed as part of the possessions of Blyth priory. Together with Austerfield, Stokewell and Bramcroft they were worth 18 marks (£12) per annum. Even for rural churches this wasn’t a great amount, an indication of the relative poverty of the chapel.
Meanwhile the dispute over the tithes had started up again despite their low value. The archbishop was called to resolve it in 1346 and reconfirmed the 1287 agreement dividing the tithes between Blyth’s vicars and priors.
During the archiepiscopate of Richard Scrope, a considerable number of ordinations were held at the chapel of St Nicholas Bawtry, for example on 18 December 1400 there were ordinations of 12 acolytes, 30 subdeacons, 21 deacons, and 25 priests. The reason for this location is entirely unclear, though it may have involved clergy from both Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire making Bawtry an ideal spot.
During the English Reformation, begun by Henry VIII, the monastic orders were heavily targeted by the king. Blyth was no exception; the priory was dissolved in 1536. However, the church itself continued as the parish church of St Mary and St Martin’s and Bawtry remained as a chapel attached to this church.
The Reformation also saw the suppression of chantries across the country. A chantry was somewhat akin to a trust fund, the money for which was usually given by a wealthy patron, and was to be used to pay for one or more priests to sing masses and say prayers for the souls of certain people, usually the patron and his family. In 1545 Henry VIII ordered a survey of chantries across England. From this survey we know that Bawtry had a shrine set aside for a chantry. It had been founded by one Nicholas Morton and was worth 60s 8d in the King’s Book. The Morton family were the residents of Bawtry Hall for several centuries and several members by the name of Nicholas lived there in the 15th and 16th centuries. Which one of these founded the chantry and sponsored the chantry chapel’s construction is not recorded however.
Another chantry survey in 1548 when Edward VI had become king also did not specify the founding date. It did mention that the chantry paid rents of 13s 4d and 27s per annum, leaving only 44s to the chantry priest, Alured Bingham. A year later the chantry, now suppressed, had its property sold or given away. Three roods of arable land in Bawtry went to Sir Michael Stanhope and John Bellowe, who had also acquired properties from many other chantries in the area.
Yet another survey, this time in 1559 by order of Elizabeth I, showed the impact that all these changes had had on the church at Bawtry. When the commissioners visited Nottinghamshire it was reported to them that Bawtry had not had a parson there for 12 months, a responsibility that should have been adopted by the priest at Blyth. No mention is made in the report of when the vacancy was filled.
In 1589 the churchwardens presented that 'our chancel is in decay in the default of the heirs of Sir Jervyse Clyfton'. By 1596 they were reporting that it was the windows of the chancel that were in decay, but it is not until 1618 that the wardens mention the fabric again, this time to say 'a quire upon the north side of the church, now in decay for want of repair; it has always been repaired by the owners of Bawterey Haule [Bawtry Hall], as is alleged by the neighbours'.
In the 17th century the church continued to serve the local community in an uneventful fashion and only snapshots of church and town life remain that only hint at details. In 1613 for example, two people living in West Stockwith and Bawtry were presented at the magistrate’s court ‘for not scouring the vicar’s ditch’. St Nicholas was served by a curate at the time but likely this still referred to a vicarage at Bawtry in which the curate resided on behalf of the vicar of Blyth.
In 1676 a religious census was taken which showed there were 220 persons in Bawtry of an age to receive Communion. Of these 17 were ‘papal dissenters’, in other words Roman Catholics – although the Reformation was over a century in the past the issue was still a serious concern – just twelve years later James II would be overthrown in the Glorious Revolution, primarily due to concerns over his own belief as a Roman Catholic. In the wake of the Revolution all clergymen were forced to swear an Oath of Allegiance to their new monarchs, William and Mary. Although there were many clergymen of all ranks who refused and were stripped of their office, Bawtry’s curate was not one of them.
In 1691 Barbara Lister, the widow of Thomas Lister, bequeathed £200 to set up a fund for the curate of Bawtry and Austerfield as long as he was appointed with the consent of her or her heirs, and if not it would go to the poor of Bawtry. By the 19th century the fund was paying out £9 per annum. Given that the curates were meant to be appointed by the vicars of Blyth this could have been viewed as stepping on their authority somewhat, but there is no indication they contested the matter, and it is possible they were quite happy to have someone else helping to financially support the curate at Bawtry, especially given the low value of the curacy itself and that there is some evidence the money was paid to the vicars of Blyth first. Thomas Lister, the son of a Hull merchant, was himself buried in the church in 1674.
By the start of the 18th century Bawtry church was in need of some repairs. In particular the church tower was in a bad shape, having mostly collapsed in 1670. From 1712 a new tower was constructed, using some of the older materials. The repairs took several years, as in 1714 Rempstone church records mention raising 3s 5d for the repair of the steeple at Bawtry, which was said to have fallen. Briefs had been issued to raise £350 for the repairs. Much of the money was raised by a Samuel Dawson, probably a local landowner.
In the visitation reports for Archbishop Herring in 1743 Bawtry was not mentioned. Its own curate, John Welsh, did not give a report and his superior, Matthew Tomlinson, vicar of Blyth, made no mention of the church in his report for Blyth. No explanation was given for the absence of a report and there is no mention that John Welsh was reprimanded for his laxness. It is possible that the curate and vicar each expected the other to present the report. When Archbishop Drummond required a visitation report in 1764 Bawtry is mentioned briefly under Blyth, the vicar of Blyth, Robert Pritchard, stating that Bawtry was served by him and that he performed divine service every Sunday regularly. The old churchwardens were given as Richard Hunt and James Gunthorpe, and the new churchwardens as John Morrison and William Palmer.
In 1784 a faculty was proposed for the building of a loft (gallery).
At the end of the century a small farm and two lowland closes at Scaftworth, totalling about 12 acres, were listed as belonging to Bawtry chapel, and at that time had been leased to the Duke of Newcastle, the owner of Clumber Hall as well as much other land across Nottinghamshire.
In 1813 John Rudd became the vicar of Blyth. However he was unaware that his predecessors had been receiving payments from the fund set up by Barbara Lister and remained unaware till 1823. He enquired about the payments and discovered that they were now the responsibility of the Earl of Rosslyn, who was also ignorant of the nature of the fund and who had no desire to continue paying it. Rudd attempted to prove the claim on behalf of the curate for Bawtry, the Reverend W Cuthbert. However their attempts proved a failure and the payments from the fund were lost to him and his successors.
Perhaps distracted by these efforts neither Cuthbert nor Rudd made any attempt to restore the church, which had fallen into disrepair. The church was seeing little use due to its dilapidation, with most of the population attending church at Harworth about three miles away. It was only under Rudd’s successor, the Rev. John Raine, that the church was restored to some of its former glory. In 1839 he had the old pews swept away and replaced, as well as restoring the worst of the damage, all at a cost of £900. In 1857 a new organ was added to the church, a common addition to churches in the Victorian era. It was the opinion of Raine, however, that a new church might be a better investment, as he considered the churchyard and cemetery to be too small, the church not very handsome and the soil it was built on worryingly saturated with water, undermining the foundations. Despite these opinions however, the church was not rebuilt.
In 1858 a different and rather important change took place instead. Both Bawtry and Austerfield were, after much debate, separated off from Blyth and a new parish was created called Bawtry-with-Austerfield, with St Nicholas as the primary parish church. Like Blyth, the parish was placed in the patronage of Trinity College, Cambridge, and its first parish vicar was the Rev Augustus Dobree Carey, a fellow of the college. The new church was endowed with rent charges of £300 per annum, and a grant from Trinity College of £200 per annum, minus property tax deduction. Although substantial, the Rev. John Raine of Blyth believed it to be insufficient and that it would have been better to keep Bawtry attached to Blyth rather than create another small parish which needed external support. However the decision to split the churches had been taken by the Archbishop and Trinity College.
Another wave of restorations took place at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as some modernisation and improvement efforts. The first repair works took place in 1900-01 and in 1906 the church hall was altered. The work book of George Walker Milburn, a York carver and sculptor, records the carving of 48 small patarae in 1900-01; these were probably for the oak screens in the chancel. In 1909 a new screen for the chancel arch as well as a stained glass window for the south aisle were given to the church by the family of the late Lazarus Threlfall Baines, esquire, who had resided at Bawtry Hall. The screen, given by his children in his memory, had been designed by Hodgson Fowler and then constructed by Messrs Bowmer of Stamford. The stained glass three-light window, which was given in memory of Mr Baines’ eldest daughter, was designed and made by Mr H Bryans of London and depicted Saint Hilda, flanked by Saint Gregory and Saint Paulinus. Then in 1914 the church was upgraded with new heating apparatus, making the place a lot more pleasant during the winter months.
Another administrative change took place at this time, when Bishop Hoskyn of Southwell (1904-1925) created the new rural deanery of Bawtry and Bassetlaw, with St Nicholas church as the centre of the deanery. Since then, the vicars of Bawtry-with-Austerfield have also been the rural deans of Bawtry as well.
A visitation report of 1912 gives some indication of why Bawtry’s status had increased. Bawtry itself was now a moderate sized market town of over 1,400 people, larger than the surrounding villages. The church however, which was valued at only £190 per annum, could only seat 300 people – Raine’s belief that the place was too small seems justified in this context. The church’s Sunday school had 110 students and there had been 16 baptisms and 3 confirmations in the previous year, so the church clearly remained an important part of the local community life.
This importance was demonstrated further when, in 1920, the patronage of the church was purchased from Trinity College by local residents Major Peake and Mrs Peake, who paid £2,000 for the patronage, which they then gifted to the Bishop of Southwell, who has remained the patron of the church since then.
In 1934 the church’s bells were renovated and re-hung in a dedication service led by the Bishop of Southwell. At the service donations were also received totalling £17 7s 6d which added to the repair fund.