EYAM : CHURCH OF ST LAWRENCE
Church Post Code S32 5QH
Open to visitors
Visited February 2020
It was February 2020, and a return visit to the church of St Lawrence, Eyam. The pandemic was in the news, but had not yet caused any problems in this country. It was another six weeks or so before we went in to the first national lockdown. We had a full day in Derbyshire and in hindsight, this was to be a poignant visit. Within a few weeks, films crews were back in Eyam, looking back at the plague of the 17th century, as the present day equivalent raged throughout the world.
Eyam, pronounced ‘eem’ by the locals, is known as the plague village. Most children in the United Kingdom will have been taught abut this village and their bravery, as they sealed themselves in to help prevent spreading the plague.
The village itself is in the Derbyshire Dales, and is part of the Peak District National Park. The population at the time of the 2011 census was a little less than 1,000. The population was roughly the same during the mid 19th century, with many involved in lead mining. Chesterfield is off to the east; Castleton and the Hope Valley are off to the north. Bakewell is off to the south. This is an area of great beauty, exquisite villages and friendly and welcoming people.
The story is as follows. A tailor, living in cottages adjacent to the church of St Lawrence at Eyam, took in a bundle of cloth from plague infected London in the summer of 1665. Within a week the tailor had died of the plague and over the next 14 months it is thought that 273 people died out of a population of around 350. However, both the figures of the dead and the estimates of the village population have been questioned over the years.
Much of England was struck by the plague in the mid 1660’s. However, what made Eyam stand out from a historical and humanitarian perspective was that, part way through the epidemic, the Rector the Reverend William Mompesson and former Puritan minister Thomas Stanley agreed that the village quarantine themselves in order that the plague not be passed to neighbouring villages and to larger nearby towns such as Sheffield and Chesterfield. Nobody was to be let out and no one to be allowed in.
Neighbouring villages left food and medicines at a nearby boundary stone which separated the village from Stoney Middleton, and at a well to the north of the village called Mompesson’s well. Money was left by the quarantined inhabitants, which was left in vinegar water to purify it before it was picked up.
Other measures were taken to try and minimise the risk of infection with the church being closed and worship being held outside in a local meadow. The dead were also to be buried by their own families, and buried at times in their own gardens. The village did have an unofficial gravedigger, one Marshall Howe, who was one of the few who had survived the plague; and who was thereafter thought to be immune. He survived the epidemic but his wife and son did not. One notable victim of the plague was the Revd Mompesson's wife Catherine, who was buried in the church grounds, a table tomb to the south of the church marking her final resting place.
The church of St Lawrence dates back to the 13th century in places, with much rebuilding taking place in 1619 and Victorian restoration coming about in the 1860's. The church is in the centre of the village and consists of west tower, nave with north and south aisles, clerestory to north and south, south porch, north vestry and chancel.
The tower is square, battlemented and pinnacled, with the church clock in the traditional blue and gold, entrance was from a gate in the south east corner, and anyone glancing to their right when making their way to the south porch will see a remarkable Saxon cross, which predates the present church by a few hundred years!
This February trip was a revisit, having previously visited here during 2013. On that first visit there was no photography allowed inside the church. I could understand this as during the tourist season, pre covid, there would be hundreds of visitors each week, with many of them having cameras. The danger is to turn the church in to a museum and I would suspect this was behind the decision to not allow photography. However, when re-visiting in February 2020, this rule had been relaxed and photography was allowed, as long as the flash was turned off.
The story of the plague here is obviously of great importance to the village, and a modern stained glass window in the north aisle tells the story. There are five sections, with details as follows.
Bottom left, the parcel of cloth, which was delivered from London, and which was infected with plague fleas, arrives at the tailor in Eyam. George Vicars, who opened the bundle and hung the clothes in front of the fire to dry, was the first victim of the plague. His death bed scene is pictured top left, the stricken man surrounded by grieving family members.
Top right, the rector, William Mompesson and the former non conformist minister Thomas Stanley sit down and formalise plans to quarantine the village to protect the surrounding villages from infection.
Bottom right, Rowland Torre and Emmott Sydall. Rowland and Emmott was a couple when the plague broke out in Eyam. Rowland was the son of a flour miller and lived in neighbouring Stoney Middleton and Emmott was a young girl who lived in a house called Bagshaw House. Emmott's family were one of the first to be hit by the plague. Emmott's father, brother and four sisters all died within a few days of each other in September and October 1665. The couple were separated when Eyam went in to quarantine and the stained glass image of them shows the couple looking at each other from either side of a stream. Unfortunately, Emmott caught the plague and died at the end of April 1666.
Central to the window is a depiction of Mompesson, who proposed that the village sealed themselves in; a decision that undoubtedly cost some villagers their lives but potentially saved many more in the surrounding area, helping to protect built up areas such as Sheffield by their actions.
There is a cent amount of stained glass to be seen here, but with nothing of any great age, but of high quality. With the history of the church here, most of the interest will be in the modern glass mentioned above, which tells the story of the 17th century plague. Other glass here includes an east window which has scenes from Holy Week, with Christ in majesty at the top. Elsewhere, St Michael can be seen holding the scales of which the souls of the dead will be judged on the final day. We can also see Jesus holding a baby, flanked by angel musicians, with children at prayer at his feet. We also have a depiction of St Helene, who is crowned and carrying a cross. She is usually depicted with cross as she is credited with finding the remains of the 'true cross' on which Jesus was crucified.
On another three light window we have St Anna teaching the Virgin Mary to read, flanked by St George and what I thin is St Stephen, who appears to be carrying stones; symbolising the manner of his martyrdom.
Over the tower arch is a 16th century wall painting of a skeleton; much damaged but still easily identifiable. These are often seen on gravestones, and there is one on a tomb in the church grounds here, along with crossed bones. The symbolism on gravestones is to remind the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die. Therefore live a good Christian life, trust in God so that you do not be caught short when your own time comes. I am assuming that the symbolism is the same for these wall paintings. This particular one would have stood here during the 17th century plague and the message is particularly applicable here with death all around and the mortality of Man very much to the forefront of every persons mind at that time.
Moving outside; to the south of the church is a Saxon cross, though to date from the early 9th century. This is substantially complete with just a section of the shaft missing. This cross is thought to have been found locally and brought back to the church at some point in the past. It features some fabulously carved depictions of the Virgin and Child with Angels blowing trumpets. This cross, not surprisingly, is a scheduled monument in its own right, having a Grade I listing.
Another table tomb is also scheduled. According to the British Listed Buildings entry for Eyam this dates from around the time of the plague, and could mark the resting place of another plague victim. This has the skull and crossed bones on one end and an hourglass on the other, both symbols of the Mortality of Man. One of the sides here features two plant pots with what appears to be tulips growing from them; life in the midst of death.
Elsewhere in the church grounds is a gravestone to one Abel Rowland who, according to the inscription, was buried in January 1665. He is listed as being a victim of the plague. Close by are two stones which are propped up against the south wall of the church. These have two very crudely carved crosses on them and are of great age.
Moving out of the village to the east there is an area called Riley. There were two cottages here, about half a mile from the rest of the village, and it was hoped that they were far enough away to be free from risk of infection. Sadly, in 1666 the plague hit here as well with all the residents dying of the plague with the exception of Elizabeth Hancock, who lost all six members of her family within the space of a week in August of that year. Elizabeth buried the members of her family herself and then broke the village quarantine, going to live with a surviving son who lived in Sheffield.
The Riley Graves as they are known are surrounded by a stone enclosure and at nine metres long it is the smallest National Trust property in the UK. It was bleak late winter, windy and a little drizzly. It was cold and there was not a sole about, with the exception of a couple of hardy joggers. The view over to the south was beautiful despite the conditions. What horrors happened here on a personal level, with such beauty surrounding them!
The church here is open to the public and is well used, with countless thousands of schoolchildren having visited here throughout the years as they learn about the plague and how it affected the people of this small lead mining village in the Peak District. I daresay that nearly every school child from the local and not so local area has visited here at one point in time.
During my first visit to Eyam, at the peak of the tourist season, an enthusiastic party of children were inside the church; they being given a talk by an equally enthusiastic speaker. Whilst in the church grounds I met up with a small party of middle aged men such as myself. We had an enjoyable time talking about gravestones symbolism. I am aware, having just typed this, how sad that sounds but it is what it is and we are all going to have to live with it!
It was a great joy to have seen this lovely church and village again. Sad to think that a few weeks after this visit, we would be in the midst of our own modern day equivalent of what they went through three hundred and fifty years before! When we are able to travel freely again, this is a must visit if you have not been here before.