On 4 September, the Diocese of Leicester reported
“[f]ollowing a structural surveyor’s report the church of St Mary de Castro in Castle Gardens, one of the City of Leicester’s most well-known landmarks, has been forced to close its doors. The spire of the famous church has been found to be in an unsafe and dangerous condition. The diocese and congregation are working with the city council and other professionals to take immediate steps to make the building safe. This will involve removing all or part of the spire, until decisions can be made about its restoration.”
The Archdeacon of Leicester said that the funding for the repairs or restoration would not come from Leicester Cathedral, Leicester City Council or through chancel repair liability, and that a bid to English Heritage had been made. An initial estimate of the cost of removing the spire was £200,000.
Urgent action was required after a survey revealed six-metre long cracks in four of the spire’s eight sides and the danger of collapsing became apparent. Although emergency demolition of the whole or part of a church is a relatively rare event, the eventuality is addressed in section 18 of the Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1991, which provides a mechanism whereby a diocesan chancellor is empowered to take immediate action where he is satisfied that this is necessary in the interests of safety or health or for the preservation of the church and, there is insufficient time to obtain a faculty.
Where a church is a listed building or is in a conservation area, and “it is not practicable to secure safety or health or the preservation of the building by works of repair or works for affording temporary support or shelter, he may by an instrument under his hand authorise the carrying out of the demolition without a faculty”. However, such works are limited to the minimum measures that are immediately necessary, and a copy of the instrument must be sent to the Council for the Care of Churches and the local planning authority. Although the instrument may specify works to be carried out for the restoration of the church following its demolition or partial demolition, this is dependent upon the granting of an appropriate faculty.
A more detailed analysis of the authorisation of demolition by grant of faculty is available here which considers a legal consideration of the terms: “demolition”; “partial demolition”; “the whole or part of [a church]”, and the associated case law. The document also notes:
“37. However, more significantly, it is surprising that a chancellor may authorise the total demolition of a church under this provision, but not the carrying out of more minor works for alteration or repair, which would normally require a faculty. Thus, for example, in the increasingly common situation where lead is removed from the roof of a church, it may be appropriate for it to be replaced with a different material.
38. The present arrangement to obtain a confirmatory faculty does not work satisfactorily in practice in such cases, as realistically it is very unlikely that a parish will be forced to remove what has been done in an emergency; and the bureaucracy associated with obtaining such a faculty after the works have been completed is understandably seen as a time-wasting chore.
39. It would therefore make more sense for the provision to be extended to enable a chancellor to authorise in an emergency any works necessary for health, safety or the preservation of the building.”
However, a different conclusion might be reached from a reading of the judgment in the conjoined cases: Re St. Michael and All Angels Bexhill (and other churches)  Chichester Cons Ct Mark Hill Ch, which gave a detailed consideration of the issues involved in the replacement of traditional materials following the theft of lead roofing.
Provisions for the non-emergency demolition of a church are included in section 17 of the Measure, and a court may grant a faculty for the demolition of the whole or part of a church only if it is satisfied that “another church or part of a church will be erected on the site or curtilage of the church or part of a church in question or part thereof to take the place of that church or part of a church”.
However, when a church is no longer in use for regular public worship, it falls within the parallel controls of the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011 which requires the diocesan mission and pastoral committee of the diocese to seek an alternative use. If an appropriate use is not identifies and the Churches Conservation Trust is not willing to acquire the building, it may be demolished under the terms of a “pastoral (church buildings disposal) scheme”. An English Heritage report in 2010 reviewed the closure of CofE churches, the alternative uses that had been identified, and the churches that had been demolished.
Richard III’s association with the church of St Mary de Castro is only mentioned peripherally in the accounts of his final journey to Leicester, as reported by the Richard III Society and the University of Leicester, although the church’s Spire Appeal site suggests “perhaps the last reigning Monarch to worship in St Mary’s was King Richard III, and here his body may have rested briefly after the Battle of Bosworth.” With stronger links to Richard III it perhaps might also have been a stronger contender for the re-interment of his remains than the Grade II* former church down the road, and would then have been in a more favourable position to attract funds for its Spire Appeal.
However, on architectural grounds the church’s claim to fame is on a much stronger basis, the Grade I building being featured in Simon Jenkins’ 1000 Best Churches (Leicester’s Treasure”), and more importantly by Pevsner who describes it as “”a showpiece of late Norman sumptuousness”, and considers the famous triple sedilia as “the finest piece of Norman decoration in the county”. The spire is described briefly in the church’s English Heritage listing – “octagonal stone spire with crockets and alternating lucarnes” – although Betjeman’s Britain’s Best Churches ominously comments “ . . . good perpendicular, much repaired and rebuilt”.
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