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The Church of St Lawrence (Eyam)

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The church building dates from the 1200s AD. Located in the Derbyshire Peak National Park, England, St Lawrence church became famous during the Black Death of 1665. An outbreak of the plague was contained when the villagers decided to isolate from the surrounding communities. It is also known that some of the village population were genetically unique and naturally immune to this very deadly disease.

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      28.11.2007 08:25
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      This Derbyshire Church played an important role in the story of the plague in the village

      The small Derbyshire village of Eyam is most famous for its association with the bubonic plague in the 17th century. The plague was brought here from London in 1666 via infected cloth and within just a few weeks over half of the population of Eyam had died. Many people are drawn here by this moving story and those that know the story well will know that that the Church of St Lawrence that stands in the centre of this pretty village is paramount in the story.

      When the plague struck in 1666 the Church had already been standing for almost five centuries. However in those days it was dedicated to St Helen and was not renamed until around 1900. The Church that we see today almost certainly stands on an ancient Saxon worship site and it thought that the stone foundations of this Church are probably of Saxon origin.

      In 1868 this Church was completely renovated and almost doubled in size. This project was undertaken to mark the bicentenary of the plague and to also provide a larger Church for the village since its population had increased considerably in size over the centuries since it was originally constructed.

      Following this renovation of the 19th century some of the original parts of the Church dating from the 12th century were still thankfully retained.

      The people of Eyam are particularly proud of their Church and therefore its doors are kept open almost all of the time. I have visited here several times and I have never been when it has been closed. It is free to enter, but donations are of course always welcome. On my most recent visit a few weeks ago there was at least a dozen other people wandering around inside this Church, marvelling at its glory.

      As you step inside the Church there are several immediate points of interest. The walls and ceilings are incredibly ornate and the stained glass windows are breathtaking, but for me the inside of this Church has three major attractions that set it aside from almost any other Church that I know.

      The first thing that never fails to amaze me are the paintings on the wall above the nave. The best preserved examples of these are at the back of the Church so to see these you will need to turn around to see them. I was fortunate to have some of these paintings explained to me by the Church Warden.

      These paintings date from the late 16th century and were carried out in three distinct phases spanning a period of around 50 years. It is not known who actually painted these murals but they are far from amateurish. All of these paintings were whitewashed over in 1648, during the period of the Commonwealth, and they did not see the light of day again for over two centuries.

      It is easier to understand these paintings if they are viewed from left to right. There were originally ten different Biblical scenes, each arranged in a chronological order. Amongst the best preserved examples are two cartouches that are numbered nine and ten. These depict two of the tribes of Israel. The first of these bears an inscription beneath it in Latin that includes the word "Asher" whilst the other is described as "Napthali" which is a mis-spelling of the tribe "Naphtali".

      The second highlight within this Church is known as Mompessons Chair. This huge wooden chair originally stood in this Church during the days of Reverend William Mompesson who made the decision to close off the village when the plague was discovered to prevent it from spreading into the nearby towns. His actions undoubtedly saved many lives. During the restoration of 1868 this chair disappeared but turned up 22 years later in an antiques shop in Liverpool, where it was purchased by a local man who returned it back its original home. This solid oak chair bears the inscription "MOM" and bears the date "1665"

      The final highlight for me at least is the Saxon font. This dates from the 8th century and originally stood outside the Church until someone realised its value and brought in indoors to preserve it.

      Before leaving the Church of St Lawrence I would strongly suggest that you have a wander around the Churchyard. This is incredibly well maintained and contains an 8th century Saxon Cross. Historians believe however that this cross and the font though similar in date have their origins in different parts of northern England.

      In summary I would have to say that this Church is a beautiful example of a traditional Norman style Derbyshire Church that has been sensitively and sensibly renovated. It is well worth a visit to anyone with even the slightest of interest in such things.

      Church of St Lawrence
      Church Street,
      Eyam,
      Hope Valley,
      S32 5QH

      Telephone - 01433 630930

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