St Helen’s Church is the Anglicanparish church of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, in the deanery of North West Leicestershire and the Diocese of Leicester. There was a church in the town in the 11th century, but the core of the present building mainly dates from work started in 1474, when the church was rebuilt by William Hastings at the same time that he converted his neighbouring manor house into a castle. The church was refurbished in about 1670 to create more space, but the large and increasing size of the congregation led to further work in 1829, and a major rebuild in 1878–80, including the widening of the nave by the addition of two outer aisles.
The sandstone church has a tower at the west end, and its nave is wider than it is long due to the extra Victorian aisles. St Helen’s Church has some ancient stained glass at the east end, and the Victorian windows on the nave and towers form a coherent narrative of the life of Jesus. Other fixtures include some important funereal monuments, and a font, pulpit and carved heads by Thomas Earp. The finger pillory is a rare item, once seen as a humane form of punishment. The church has a long association with the Hastings family, its patrons for four centuries, and became a centre for Puritanism under Henry Hastings, 3rd Earl of Huntingdon. The “Puritan Earl” brought a series of radical figures to the town, including Anthony Gilby and Arthur Hildersham. St Helen’s Church is a nationally important building, with a Grade I listing for its exceptional architectural interest.
There is little documented history of Ashby-de-la-Zouch before the Norman Conquest, although Roman coins were found in the area, and the town’s name has both Saxon and Danish elements. It has an entry in the Domesday Book that suggests that it had about 100 inhabitants in 1086, and subsequently grew in importance under its La Zouch and Hastings lords, notably William Hastings.
It is recorded in Domesday that a priest was resident in Ashby, and that the church dedicated to St Helen consisted only of a nave. In about 1144, Philip Beaumains, lord of the Manor of Ashby, granted the church, its lands and revenues to the Augustinian community of Lilleshall Abbey, which retained possession until 1538. A 2013 excavation found evidence of a two-storey vicarage dating from this period, but the building fell into disrepair following the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the site was cleared in the English Civil War of 1642–49.
Parts of the current nave and chancel date from the 14th century, but the church was rebuilt and enlarged by William Hastings in 1474, at the same time that he erected the tower of his nearby castle. The new, larger church included a nave with aisles and chapels adjoining the chancel. The tower, Hastings Chapel, and some buttresses and windows still remain from the 15th century.