St Leonard


The small village of Ragnall lies near the border of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire and, although only containing around a hundred inhabitants, it has a long history stretching back to the Scandinavian invasions of England in the 8th century. The village chapel however, which is dedicated to the 6th century French saint, St Leonard, is not quite as old. The original chapel was first constructed at some point in the 14th century and was probably little more than a single-celled building. At some point in the 15th century the nave was rebuilt and a chancel added on (or rebuilt as well – the details are unclear) and at some point a small tower was added on the west side.

Although the church is more usually described as dedicated to St Leonard there are several sources that instead give St Oswald as the patron saint of the chapel. This is likely to be either Oswald of Worcester, a 10th century Archbishop of York, or King Oswald, a 7th century king of Northumbria. Some churches do have two dedications but it appears more likely in this case that the references to St Oswald are in error, an error that can be explained by looking at the nearest neighbour to Ragnall.

Domesday Book has only a passing mention of Ragnall, where it is described as one of four ‘outliers’ to Dunham, lands of the king. There is no reference to either a church or a priest.

The chapel at Ragnall was from an early date, probably from when it was first built or soon thereafter, attached as a chapel-of-ease to the parish church at Dunham, only a mile or two away. The church at Dunham is dedicated to St Oswald and given its status over Ragnall it is likely that the latter chapel gained the dedication of St Oswald by association. The church of Dunham St Oswald used to have high status amongst Nottinghamshire churches, as it was one of the sixteen prebendal churches attached to the collegiate church of Southwell. These churches were associated with a prebendary, who had certain administrative and religious responsibilities at the minster and who was rewarded by the income of the prebend. As such it was common for the prebends to themselves have subordinate churches attached to them, as Ragnall was to Dunham. Sadly, however, this has frequently resulted in more attention being paid to Dunham than to Ragnall, which is frequently not even mentioned as a separate institution.

In 1427, Pope Martin V granted an indult to Robert Oliver, clerk, of Ragnall, who was in or about his seventieth year, and was an advocate of the court of York, to choose a confessor who may absolve him of all sentences of excommunication, suspension, and interdict.

The 15th century rebuild of the nave was sponsored by Sir John Crofts, who owned Ragnall estate during the reign of Henry V. Sir John is commemorated by a stained glass window in the east wall, which depicts a figure in armour, accompanied by a lady and a jester – undoubtedly his wife and an especially favoured servant. Another sponsor of the church, if not to the level of building it, was Robert Nevyll, who lived in the 15th or 16th century. In his will he left 10 marks (£6 13s 4d) to the chancel and £20 to the steeple, presumably for maintenance and repairs, while his son and heir, also called Robert, was to support a chantry priest at the church. Chantry priests were dedicated to saying prayers for the souls of the sponsors of the chantry and their family. The elder Robert was buried in the church itself, in front of the image of St Leonard, where his wife Joan was also buried. Their tomb was built so that the master sepulchre was directly on it.

The Reformation had little direct impact on a small chapel like Ragnall St Leonard. However, Dunham was certainly affected and this may have rebounded on Ragnall. The college of canons at Southwell was closed down in 1540 by Henry VIII and the prebends reverted to being normal parish churches. Unlike most English collegiate churches, however, Southwell was restored to its status three years later. Further concerns came in 1547 and 1548 as the commissioners appointed by Edward VI’s regency council surveyed the church and once again the college was closed. For a second time it was restored however, in 1557, by Queen Mary I. Although Southwell Minster and its prebendal system ultimately survived the Reformation the various closures and changes of status must have disrupted the pattern of life at Dunham and its subordinate chapels like Ragnall.

Religious divisions continued to plague England’s parishes for several centuries after the Reformation. The only record of this for Ragnall is from the reign of James I and Charles I in the early 17th century, when two women were presented as Papal Recusants. One was Isabella Metcalf, a spinster, while the other was the wife of Leonard Nix, a local gentleman.

Like many churches, Ragnall suffered from birds, which would nest in the high rafters of the structure, making a lot of noise and mess. It was the duty of the churchwardens to keep the church in good order and keeping out the birds was part of this. In 1620 they recorded that the church was still in possession of a crow net and bird net, presumably in response to checks been made by the senior clergy in the archdeaconry, who must have grown concerned that the equipment was going unused or being lost.

In the wake of the English Civil War in 1646 Ragnall chapel had its living augmented. Many noblemen and gentry who had supported the King during the war were forced to pay fines or other penalties by the victors. Robert Mellish, the owner of Ragnall Hall, was one of those forced to pay and in his case some of the money was added to the living for Ragnall to help support its priest.

The chapel is listed as having only two bells in 1552. In 1608 one of the bells was replaced and later in the century, in 1676, not only was the other bell was replaced, but a third bell was added. This last bell was named ‘Mellish’, probably after Reason Mellish, who in 1676 was the owner of Ragnall Hall and was probably the son of the aforementioned Robert Mellish. A relative of his named William, possibly a son or brother, who died in 1690 is also linked to the church, as he is commemorated by a tablet placed in it a couple of years after his death. William was originally buried at Holborn St Andrews but after his wife Dorothy died in 1702 her will instructed that his body be moved to be buried with her own at Ragnall. The tablet, which was designed by William Stanton, was adjusted to include Dorothy Mellish in its inscription.

In 1720 the chapel was given a set of silver by yet another member of the Mellish family, Elizabeth Mellish, the Lady of Dunham Manor. The set included a silver flagon, silver salver and a silver cover, and the gift of them was witnessed by the vicar, Joseph Etherington. Such gifts were important, especially given the small size of the chapel and its living.

In 1743 the chapel was reported as having no vicarage or other house at Ragnall itself. The vicar, Andrew Cave, was also the vicar of Dunham and resided there. There were 32 families and no Dissenters in the parish. Services were held every other Sunday only, although the sacraments were still held four times a year.

The well-known architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, was born either in Ragnall or in nearby East Drayton.

Grimm’s sketch of
the church in 1773
Courtesy of the
British Library

An ink sketch of the church was made by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm in 1773. The view of the church shows that the south windows of the nave were evidently of about 1300 and the chancel south-east window was of the 14th century. The south nave door looks to be 18th century. There were also high-level windows at the west end of the south wall, almost certainly intended to provide light to an interior western gallery.

At some point before 1832 the chapel received some extensive repairs, the cost of which (£150) was obtained by selling the poor’s land that had been allotted when Ragnall had been enclosed. It was a rather unusual source of funding and may have indicated that the vicar had been unable to convince any of the local gentry, such as the lord of the manor, John Angersteen, to sponsor the repair work.

The repair work was apparently not enough, however. The chancel was by the 19th century severely neglected and mutilated and was mostly not used by the parishioners. The rest of the chapel was likely not much better off. Heavy restoration work was needed and it was the Rev H Jubb who finally managed to organise the necessary work in 1863, and his sister who paid for the cost of the restorations, although some sponsorship was received from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.

The chancel aisle
built in 1864

The efforts made to restore Ragnall St Leonard were extensive. A new chancel was constructed to replace the old, badly damaged one. A new south chancel aisle was also constructed, paid for by the vicar himself, and which was intended for use by the children of the Sunday School. The new aisle opened up into both the new chancel and the existing nave through arches. The old chancel arch, previously covered by plaster, was also reopened. Reroofing work was done as well, the old plaster roof being replaced by an open timber roof. New pews, new pulpit, a new prayer desk and a new lectern were all made for the church, the windows were repaired and a new stained glass window showing the Crucifixion was installed in the east chancel window. The latter was dedicated to the memory of the vicar’s parents and made by William Wailes. Finally the paving in the nave was re-laid. Ewan Christian, who was also responsible for the ongoing restoration of Southwell Minster, may have been the architect of the restoration work. The church was reopened for divine service on 22 November 1864.

In December 1868 a meeting of the Retford Board of Guardians heard that a widow had applied for poor relief for her two illegitimate children 'in consequence of which it transpired that the clergyman at Ragnall had refused to bury the father between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on account of his immoral conduct. Several Guardians expressed themselves very strongly on the subject, one remarking that it was a piece of clerical intolerance.'

The rebuilt chapel remained attached to Dunham St Oswald, which by now was only an ordinary parish church. The prebendal system and the chapter of canons at Southwell were dismantled during the 19th century as part of larger administrative changes within the Anglican Church. Dunham was still a parish church however and Ragnall’s small size – there were only 167 inhabitants in the 1891 census – made it too small to turn the chapel into its own parish church, and so it remained attached. It did however continue to be heavily used by the villagers. For example in 1912 a report made to the Bishop of Southwell listed 5 baptisms for the previous year, as well as one confirmation, while the Sunday School had 13 pupils in it.

The chapel of Ragnall St Leonard’s continued in this manner through much of the 20th century. However it saw increasingly less use which, combined with the dwindling population of the village (down to only 102 people by 2001), meant the chapel was little used. Local people drove to Dunham, which had only ever been a moderate walk away anyway. Eventually the decision was made to close the chapel down. St Leonard’s was formally declared redundant in 1993 and the property was sold off soon after.