The History and Antiquities of Eyam

By William Wood (1842)

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2012


The Antiquities of Eyam are not very numerous, but interesting. Those of nature are remarkable. About twenty years ago, Mr. Anthony Hancock, of Foolow, found in a limestone quarry, near Eyam, a petrified snake coiled up in a ring, very perfect. It went into the collection of some eminent antiquarian, where it will, probably, be treasured as a very singular curiosity. Of this once living animal, it may be observed, that, while the mortal part of hundreds of generations has returned to its pristine elements, this reptile has retained its identical form through the lapse of unnumbered ages. A little more than thirty years ago, Mr. James Wood, Eyam, was engaged in cutting a large sandstone on Eyam-moor, when, to his utter surprise and astonishment, he found imbedded in the stone a petrified fish about a foot in length. It was perfect in every part - gill and tail. This phenomenon tends to disturb some geological theories.

But it is the Druidical remains, a little north of Eyam, which excite the liveliest interest in antiquarians; which remains prove, to a certain degree, the high antiquity of Eyam. All that tract of land called Eyam-moor, was, until its inclosure, literally covered with these relics of ante-historic times. The Druidical temple, or circle, on that part of the moor called Wet-withins, is frequently visited. It consists of sixteen oblong sandstones, standing in an upright position, forming a circle about thirty yards in diameter. The stones are nearly equal in size, standing about a yard high, except on the north side, where two or three are enveloped in heath, and therefore appear, though clearly visible, not so large as the others. This circle is still further distinguished by a circular mound of earth, about three feet high, in which the stones are placed. In the centre, there stood, until some years back, a large stone, which was, undoubtedly, the altar on which human sacrifices were made.

It was also the Maen Gorsedd (or stone of Assembly). The ceremony used at the opening of the Gorseddau (or meetings) was the sheathing of the sword on the Maen Gersedd, at which all the Druid priests assisted. All the places of meeting were, like this, set apart by forming a circle of earth and stones around the Maen Gorsedd. This circle was called Cylch Cyngrair, or circle of Federation; and the priest, or bard, who recited the traditions and poems, was named the Dudgeiniad, or the Reciter. The Dudgeiniad, dressed in a uni-coloured robe, always commenced his recitations by one of the following mottos:- "In the eye of the light, and in the face of the sun"; - "The truth against the world". It is singular that this circle has not been more noticed, seeing that it is far more perfect than many, more particularly described.

How deeply impressed with sensations of veneration must be the contemplative mind, when he stands within this circle, which has been, some thousands of years ago, the theatre on which the ancient Briton displayed his knowledge, patriotism, and eloquence. This veneration, however, is diminished when we reflect on some of the bloody and unholy sacrifices said to have been made by the Druids.

Let us for a few moments fly back on the wings of thought, through the dim vista of two thousand years; let us imagine ourselves standing near this very spot, looking at the mysterious and bloody rites of the Druids. Behold within this very circle a lovely female is laid upon the central bloody stone; trembling with horror at the awful scene around her. About the place a countless throng look on with profound emotion, watching the victim with anxious solicitude. The fire on the altar burns dimly; noisy and discordant music incessantly plays to drown the victim's cries. All is now hushed, and the white-robed priest, with an infernal joy, approaches his shivering victim, brandishing his knife; and oh! horrible! plunges it into her heaving bosom; and in an instant tears out her reeking heart and casts it into the fire. Terrific scene! Let us return to this our day, and rejoice in the utter abolishment of the sacrifice of human beings.

In the immediate vicinity of this circle there are at least twelve more, each surrounded with circular mounds of earth, and some with stones. Most of these, as they are not above twelve yards in diameter, must be sepulchral; this is evident, for there appears to have been in all of them, a large heap of stones in the centre; under which stones, urns have been buried, but are now taken away.[1]

Contiguous to the large circle, or temple, there was, until some years back, one of the most interesting barrows in the Peak of Derbyshire. It covered an area of ground from twenty-five to thirty yards in diameter. It was in the form of a cone, ten or twelve yards high, when perfect; and was composed wholly of small stones. On opening this cairn, or barrow, a many years ago, an unbaked urn was found containing ashes, bones, an arrow-head of flint, and a little charcoal with which the body had been burned. The person interred in this cairn was certainly some great chief or king; for according to some authors, it was the custom of the aboriginals of this Island, to express their abhorrence of a tyrant or other wicked person after death, by casting a stone at the place of his sepulture as often as they passed it; and thus were accumulated the large piles of stones, under which urns, containing ashes and bones, have been found. In the Highlands of Scotland, it is common to this day, to say contemptuously, "I shall cast a stone at thy grave some day". There is, in the neighbourhood of Eyam, a very popular tradition of some great chief, or king, having been buried in this barrow; and it has been frequently explored in search of something appertaining to him. Nothing, however, has ever been found except the urn; but in the vicinity, spears, arrow-heads, axes, hatchets, and a many other remains of antiquity have been turned up. About a mile west of this barrow there was, about forty years ago, another of great dimensions: it stood on Hawley's piece. The diameter at the base was twenty-two yards, and about twelve yards high. When the Moor was enclosed, it was carried away to make fences. An urn of great size was found near the centre on the ground, and was carried away to the residence of the person who found it; but was afterwards broken and buried.[2] Another barrow unexplored may be seen in Eyam-edge, near the Old Twelve-meer's mine. It is about forty yards in diameter at the base, and about eight or ten yards high. In the top there is a dimple or cavity, which, according to Pilkington, is a manifest proof that it is British. Dr. Borlace, however, thinks that such are Roman; but in this, I imagine, he is mistaken.

Indeed the whole parish north of the village, is even now bestudded with barrows, cairns, mounds, and other remains of antiquity.

One large stone on the Moor has been a great object of curiosity, from its having a circular cavity in the top about a foot in diameter, and the same in depth. The stone is of an extraordinary size - by far the largest on the Moor. It is conjectured to have been the altar, or central stone of some large circle, but of which there is no trace now. That this place was one of the principal places of the Druids there are numberless proofs; but as it is out of the road to any place of note, it has been rarely noticed.

Numberless urns have been found at various times around Eyam. About forty years ago, in making the road called the Occupation Road, a beautiful urn, richly decorated, was found by Mr. S. Furness, Eyam; it contained nothing but ashes. Around the place where the urn was found, the earth appeared to have been burnt, which circumstance, according to Wormius, would lead us to believe it to be Danish. This author states, in his funeral ceremonies of the Danes, that "The deceased was brought out into the fields, where they made an oblong place with great stones, and there burned the body, and then collected the ashes into an urn, round which they set great stones; casting up over it a mound of earth and stones". Respectable as is this authority, it is nevertheless doubtful, as will be seen from the following contents of an urn found within a few yards of this.

Not many years ago, two men, Joseph Slinn and William Redfearn, were working near the Bole-hill, Eyam, when they discovered an urn surrounded with stones. Slinn wishing to procure it entire, went to a distance for a spade; in the meanwhile, Redfearn, thinking it might contain some treasure, immediately dashed it to pieces, when, to his utter mortification, he found it contained only some ashes and two copper coins. One of the coins was lost on the spot, but was found some years after, when I saw it, and found it to contain the inscription, Maximianus, and something else not legible: probably Dioclesian, as Maximianus and Dioclesian were joint Emperors of the Roman Empire.[3] As these two urns were very similar, and buried so near together, it is highly probable that they were Roman; at least, containing Roman coin implies as much. Another urn was found in the Mag-clough, Eyam, - a very large one: this was buried again afterwards. Robert Broomhead, Eyam, broke one to pieces in taking the foundation of an old wall up, at Riley, about fourteen years ago. One was found forty years since in Riley-side, in which was some ancient weapons and arrow-heads of flint. Two cairns or borrows were destroyed on the top of Riley, a many years since, in which were found urns containing ashes and bones. There is also some recollection of a very large circle of stones, or very high, unhewn pillars, near to those barrows, which stones were surrounded by a circular mound of earth. The circle had an entrance, if not two, something like that mentioned by Dr. Stukeley, at Abury, North Wiltshire. This celebrated antiquarian makes the Druidical remains at Abury, to have been in a form, symbolical of the serpent; and it is matter of regret, that he had not his attention directed to the numerous druidical remains at Eyam, for in his time they were certainly more perfect.[4] As, from what is already shewn, the Druids abounded so greatly, and had numberless temples around Eyam, it is natural to suppose that there would be some traces of their customs still observed. That such is the case there is ample evidence.

One of the incantations practised at the festival of the Druids was to anoint the forehead of a sick person with May-dew, which was carefully gathered at day-break, and the cure of course immediately followed. Now at Eyam and its vicinity it has been a general, and still prevailing custom to anoint weak and deceased children with May-dew. Another part of the ceremony of the great festival of the Druids, consisted in carrying long poles of mountain ash festooned with flowers. Hanging out bunches of flowers from cottage windows, so very prevalent at Eyam on May-day, has its origin in this Druidical ceremony. In fact, to notice all the customs of similar origin, and still observed at Eyam, would be tedious:- Passing the bottle or glass, (deas soil), or according to the course of the sun; diving for apples in vessels of water; making love-cakes, or speechless cakes; carrying garlands before the corpses of unmarried persons; giving cakes and singing at funerals, and numerous other observances, have a purely Druidical origin.

Gebelin and Brande have both noticed a peculiar custom practiced in Cornwall, and particularly at Penzance, the origin of which they say is lost in antiquity. The same custom is known and practiced at Eyam, in the very common plays - Loosing-tines and Long-duck. In reading an account of the antiquities of Cornwall, I was particularly struck with the identity of the two customs. The Golf, or Golfing, is said to be an amusement peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland, where it has been practiced from time immemorial. The same diversion is known at Eyam, by the uncouth name - Seg. Goose-riding, about half a century since, was at Eyam a very common, but barbarous amusement. The hopper-baulk; bees knitting on a dead branch, are considered to be certain prognostications of death. The Druidical customs and other observances may be deemed trifling and unimportant; but there was something of weight connected with the origin of each; at least they prove, to some degree, the great antiquity of the place where they are still observed.

That Eyam is a very ancient place may be still further ascertained. The word "Tor" is said to be of Phoenician origin, and this word is very common at Eyam: - The Tor Tops, the Shining Tor, the Hanging Tor, are all in its immediate vicinity. Bole, a word equally common, signified anciently the hearth on which the lead was melted: the boles were made on the western brows of Tors. Bole is an eastern word, which means a lump of metal. These, with numerous other words, can be clearly traced to an Asiatic source, which is a demonstrative proof that the mines in and around Eyam, were worked anciently either by a colony of foreigners, or under their direction. We are certain that the mines of the Peak were worked in very early times; some think before the Roman invasion; certainly, however, by the Romans, or their enslaved Britons. It is unnecessary to refer to the several pieces of lead found near Matlock, bearing the inscriptions of Roman Emperors. On Eyam-moor, small pieces of lead have been found in every direction: one weighing fourteen pounds was met with beneath the surface very lately; and about thirty years since, in planting some ground near to Leam Hall, belonging to M.M. Middleton, Esq., a conical piece of lead was found, weighing between thirty and forty pounds. It was a yard in length, and had a hook or handle attached to it, whereby it had been disengaged from the mould in which it was cast.

That the Romans had, at least, a temporary residence in or around Eyam, we have satisfactory evidence in the finding of Roman coins and other articles. In the year A.D. 1814, some persons employed in bareing limestone in Eyam Dale, found a great quantity of Roman coins, some silver and some copper, bearing the inscriptions of Probus, Gathenus, Victorinus, - Roman Emperors. These coins were in the possession of T. Birds, Esq., Eyam, a highly celebrated antiquarian. About sixty years ago, a copper coin was found on Eyam-moor, bearing the inscription of Probus; and near twenty years since, a Roman copper coin was found in the Dale, Eyam, with the inscription on one side, Divo Claudius, or God Claudius; on the obverse, Consecratia, or Consecration with the Eagle; it is now in the possession of Mr. J. Slinn, Eyam. In that part of Stoney Middleton, in Eyam parish, there have been Roman coins, at various times discovered; and a place called the Castle Hill, bears evident traces of the mighty masters of the world. Some spears, and various other weapons, have been found at Ryley, Eyam, under a large stone: they were nearly corroded away.

That the descendants of the Romans continued to reside in and around Eyam, may be conjectured from the language of the inhabitants. Plaust, from Plaustrum, to plaust hay or corn, for the eating of those articles; and sord, from sordes, the rind of bacon, and other things. I know a many unlettered persons who invariably use quantum for quantity, and many other Latin words. There was a word very commonly used at Eyam, some time ago, but whence derived I am not aware. Steven, to steven a coat: to order a coat. Rhodes says that he has somewhere read that the Romans erected elegant mansions among the Peak Hills. And it is believed that the Romans continued to reside amongst the mountains around Eyam, even when the Saxons and Danes successively possessed the surrounding plains. Roman remains have been found in abundance in a many places in the neighbourhood of Eyam, Stoney Middleton, Brough, and other villages. Indeed, it has almost been satisfactorily proved that the sixth legion remained in Derbyshire sometime before they marched to the North; but there are only a few traces of the works left, in which their taste and genius were exhibited. Thus, then, there are some grounds for indulging in the pleasing supposition that the place where Eyam stands, at least, has been honoured and hallowed by the presence of the mighty conquerors of the earth.

That the Saxons penetrated among the mountains of the Peak, and resided in and around Eyam, numerous proofs might be adduced. Almost every little eminence has a Saxon name, or termination of name:- Hay-cliffe, Shining-cliffe, Goats-cliffe, and a very many others, too numerous to mention. The following customs are of Saxon origin:-

Lich is a Saxon word, signifying a dead body. The principal gate into Eyam church-yard is to this day called Lich-gate, or, vulgarly, Light-gate. This is the invariable designation of the gate of the church-yard through which the funerals pass; and this appellation proves, to some degree, the antiquity of the church and village. The principal gate of Duddleston church-yard, Shropshire, is called by the inhabitants "the Lich-gate", and Duddleston has been particularly noticed for its antiquity. Lich-waking, sitting with the dead both night and day, is still practiced by the old and wealthy families of Eyam. - The cross at Eyam is said to be of Saxon or Danish origin. Another once stood in Eyam-edge, and one at Cross-lowe, Eyam; both have been destroyed. That in the church-yard (and of which I shall say more subsequently ) once stood in that part of Eyam, called "The Cross".

Another very ancient custom was observed at Eyam, until within a century back. The principal road into Eyam once, was the Lyd-gate, now called Ligget. Lyd, or Lid, is a Saxon word, which means to cover or protect. At this entrance into Eyam, there was a strong gate, at which "watch and wards were kept every night". Every effective man who was a householder in the village, was bound to stand in succession at this gate, from nine o'clock at night to six in the morning, to question any person who might appear at the gate wishing for entrance into the village, and to give alarm if danger were apprehended. The watch had a large wooden halbert, or "watch-bill", for protection, and when he came off watch in the morning, he took the "watch-bill", and reared it against the door of that person whose turn to watch succeeded his; and so on in succession. No village in England has retained and practiced a custom so ancient, to so late a period. In the Scriptures there are numberless allusions to this very antique custom: as in Joshua, c.2, v.5, "And it came to pass about the time of shutting the gate", and so on. Indeed the following distich may justly be applied to Eyam:-

"Here Antiquity enjoys,
A deep and mossy sleep." - R. HOWITT.

[1] Vide Brown, on Urn Burial.
[2] The person who had this precious relic of antiquity, was persuaded by his silly neighbours, that it was unlucky to have such a thing in his house; and on losing a young cow, he immediately buried it.
[3] Maximianus (M. Arul. Valer. Hercul.) born in Sirmium. He entered early into the Roman army, and exhibited so much valour, that the Emperor Dioclesian, in A.D. 286, shared the Empire with him. The cruelty of Maximianus towards the Christians is almost incredible. During his short career 144,000 were put to death, and 700,000 banished. He quitted the Empire with Dioclesian, and hanged himself at Marseilles in A.D., 310. - BAYLE.
[4] Some persons imagine to have seen the remains of a large funeral pyre, near the Shaw-engine, Eyam-edge. To this I cannot speak.

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This information was collated and transcribed by Rosemary Lockie in September 2012.

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