The Church of St Lawrence - Eyam

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper on 24th August 2009, reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.


The church of St Lawrence at Eyam is a beautiful building in its own right but also welcomes large numbers of visitors due to its associations with the story of Eyam plague.

The rector during that dreadful period of 1665/6 was William Mompesson who, supported by his predecessor, the nonconformist Thomas Stanley, led by example the voluntary isolation of Eyam. These men witnessed the death of some 270 of around 350 inhabitants.

Housed in the church is Mompesson's carved oak chair. An inscription ‘MOM 1662 EYAM’ led to its identification and rescue from a Liverpool junk shop over 100 years ago. The Jacobean pulpit was used by both Stanley and Mompesson, while a cupboard in the north aisle is said to have been made from the very chest which brought the plague-infected cloth from London.

In 1985, a memorial ‘plague story’ window was installed in the church. An illuminated manuscript listing the plague victims is also permanently on display - a roll of names far more moving than cold statistics. In its final weeks the plague claimed the rector's wife, Katherine, whose table tomb stands in the churchyard near to a stone commemorating Thomas Stanley, who lived out the rest of his life in Eyam.

Martyred by the Romans Whilst there was a 12th-century church on this site, and probably an even earlier edifice, much of the present building is founded upon the work of 1350, extended in later centuries and greatly restored in 1868 and 1882. No visible Saxon work, and little of the Norman, now exists in the fabric, although each of these periods is represented in two ancient fonts.

Other treasures include the late 16th and early 17th-century murals which originally depicted the emblems of the 12 Tribes of Israel; those of Asher and Naphtali on the north wall of the nave have been skilfully restored. The painting of a skeleton on the belfry arch may represent Saint Lawrence, so suggested by the iron grid upon which, by tradition, Lawrence was martyred by the Romans. However, since the church was formerly dedicated to Saint Helen, the figure may simply represent Death.

An ornate 13th-century coffin slab remnant, known as St Helen's Cross, is preserved in the wall of the aisle. Until 1603, the Stafford family maintained the lamp of St Helen in the church, a tradition they upheld throughout much of their 350-year association with Eyam.

Past Rectors For past rectors the living was a valuable one, especially during the early 18th-century heyday of Eyam's lead mining industry when the rector's annual share of the profits reached £1,800. When the Reverend Thomas Seward, father of the famed poet Anna Seward, left Eyam to become Canon of Lichfield Cathedral, he left a curate at St Lawrence's but continued to collect handsomely himself.

The list of rectors hides many an interesting tale and a fair share of tragedies, apart from the troubles endured by Mompesson and Stanley. The funeral of the Reverend Rigby in April 1740 cost the lives of two visiting Yorkshire clergymen who perished in the snow on their wild journey home.

An earlier rector, Joseph Hunt, is remembered for a tipsy mock marriage which he undertook with the daughter of the landlord of the Miners' Arms. Unfortunately, his bishop did not see the joke and ordered the couple to marry legally, whereupon Joseph's erstwhile fiancée sued him for breach of promise. The newlyweds took refuge in the church vestry where they spent all their married lives, where their two children were born and where they were finally buried. The couple are commemorated on a monument in the vestry.

Mexico and Mecca Out in the churchyard is an important archaeological relic - the 8th-century Saxon, or Celtic, cross. Smothered in symbolic carvings of both pagan and Christian origin, the cross is at least 1,000 years old, predating the church itself.

A remarkable sundial of 1775 can be seen, if barely understood, above the outer chancel door. Why the people of Eyam should ever have needed to know other than the local time is difficult to guess, for this inventive piece also displays the relative time in places as distant as Mexico and Mecca.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 24th August 2009.

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