The Parish Church of Eyam, Derbyshire
In all the guide books it is stated that the age of the church in unknown…parts of the church can be traced back to the 12th century but it is suspected that it stands on a place of Saxon worship maybe even on its foundations. The interior has obviously seen some changes over the centuries but traces of Norman and Saxon architecture can be discovered. The timber beams of the roof can be seen but I am told they are in a different location following 18th century restoration. With its solid pillars and wide Nave the interior is impressive…
Above and around the Nave walls close to the ceiling are a number of painted murals. Said to date to the 16th century and when completed represented the Twelve Tribes of Israel…..it is also claimed that only one other similar set is known to exist. So look up and decipher the images as best you can…the skeleton may represent St. Lawrence.
In the Church grounds you can also get hints as to the churches importance, its history and of course the life and deaths of the village.
Pride of place goes to a Celtic Cross, probably an 8th Century Preaching Post. Overlooking it is a Sundial dated to 1775. There is also a Table Top Tomb….this one is special as it is the Tomb of Catherine Mompesson (wife of the Rector Mompesson) but more on this aspect in a moment.
The Parish Church for any village has always been the hub round which it operated. But at Eyam (pronounced Eeeem) it became pivotal to its survival.
For Eyam became known as the Plague Village.
It was in the Cottages above, now known as the Plague Cottages, that in 1665 the Bubonic Plague first appeared and claimed its first victim. George Viccars died on the 7th September 1665 (George was employed by Alexander Hadfield the village Tailor and also lived in the same cottages)…it is said that George opened a newly arrived bundle of cloth from London, was bitten by fleas from the cloth and died of the Plague soon after. More deaths from Bubonic Plague followed across the village and many of these early victims are buried in the Church graveyard
It was then that the Rector of St, Lawrence the Reverend William Mompesson with the help of Minister Thomas Stanley realise that action had to be taken to avoid the spread of this very contagious disease.
Under their leadership the villagers entered into a voluntary commitment to place the whole village into Quarantine. Food and essentials were provided by nearby villages, placed in specified locations for collection without contact.
Mompesson insisted that no further burials were to take place in the Church Yard; to avoid passing on germs from the dead, each family had to bury their own dead in their own grounds or nearby fields.
Throughout the duration of the outbreak Mompesson still held regular Church Services…but not in the church but in the open air where the congregation had space and could avoid personal contact and hopefully prevent avoidable infection.
Quarantine lasted for over 14months…of the village population of about 800 souls, 273 died of the Plague. One of the early deaths was that of the Wife of Mompesson, Catherine whose tomb we mentioned earlier.
Did the isolation work….with no known treatment it was possibly the best if not only option, certainly it spread was restricted. Yet here are some strange facts. Mary Hadfield (nee Cooper) wife of the Tailor and the first victims at the very source of the infections survived but lost 13 relatives including here 3 sons and her husband. The Village Grave Digger also survived.
The Church contains records of the people of the Plague to which was added in 1985 a Stained Glass Window that pictorial tells the story of the events of 1665’7
The village also survived building upon its already established industries. Mining of course was key, but a reputation for Boot and Shoe making was also established along with gloves and engineering tools.
At the heart of the village, alongside St. Lawrence, is Eyam Hall and the village Stocks. Together they add to the Plague Story that is told everyday to visiting school parties and tourists…it is not a story of disaster but one of the courage of normal village people …”doing the right thing”
PS….the above is only a very brief recounting of the Plague at Eyam. There is so very much more…stories of hardship, suffering , courage and families being kept in isolation. Stories of the benefit of the purity of water in the village wells. How money was disinfected in vinegar to pay for goods from outside the community and much , much more…..and of course survival.
(C) David Oakes 2016