The Chapel of the Holy Trinity at Staunton Harold

Inside Staunton Harold Church, Leicester, managed by the National Trust

Built for Sir Robert Shirley between 1653 and 1655 in Gothic style, the Chapel of Holy Trinity is the estate church at Staunton Harold, where the Shirleys, their retainers and estate workers lived for generations. It is one of the few churches built between the outbreak of the English Civil War and the Restoration period, and the story of its creation shows faith in the face of oppression, particularly by its creator, Sir Robert Shirley.

The Commonwealth era

During the period when the church was built, England was a deeply divided place following a period of Civil War from 1642–1651.

In 1653, Oliver Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England. Cromwell was a Puritan, and his rule was marked by a steep decline in the building of churches and a move to make them plainer.

Puritans believed that the Church of England needed purifying of certain practices, including the removal of lavish decorations.

The Royalists rebel

The outcome of the Civil War saw the execution of Charles I. Many supporters of the Royalist cause rebelled against Cromwell, turning their support instead to Archbishop Laud, who wanted to restore the Church of England, and encouraged the building and beautification of churches.

Sir Robert Shirley was a Royalist conspirator during the Civil War, and believed that the Anglican Church and the monarchy were inseparable. Building the Chapel of the Holy Trinity at Staunton Harold was as much a statement of Shirley’s political beliefs, as it was a place of worship.

Following Archbishop Laud's ideas closely, Shirley started to build a church that was imposing and grand. Inside, you’ll see carved wood panelling, a mural on the ceiling depicting the creation of the world, and a communion table with an altar front.

This building was a symbol of rebellion, and is thought to be one of the reasons Shirley was imprisoned.

The price of faith

Upon hearing about the lavish church being erected by Sir Robert Shirley, Oliver Cromwell demanded that he contribute to the costs of a new ship for the Navy.

Shirley was determined to uphold his faith and refused Cromwell’s demand. He was later imprisoned in The Tower of London, where he died at the age of 27.

Although he died before his church was finished, Shirley left detailed instructions in his will for the furnishing of the interior, which was overseen by his wife. After the Restoration of the Monarchy, the church was completed in 1665 by Richard Shepard, for Robert's young heir.

A testament to faith

The church at Staunton Harold is barely altered since its completion, and as you experience an important period of history, you’ll notice this inscription above the west entrance to the tower, in recognition of Sir Robert:

" In the year 1653 when all things Sacred were throughout ye nation, Either demolisht or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, Founded this church; Whose singular praise it is, to have done the best things in ye worst times, and hoped them in the most callamitous. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance."
- An inscription above the west entrance to the tower