The first record of a vicar at the church of St Michael and All Angels’ is mentioned in the list of incumbents that goes back to 1281, a hundred years before the building of the current structure was begun, though it is thought that there had been previous places of worship here for at least two hundred years by the time the first stone was laid. Traces of the 14thC church can still be found in the pillars of the nave, though most of what can now be seen dates to the 15thC when the local squires paid to remodel the building…the bearded head probably dates back to this time and may well be a representation of a local character.
As always in these ancient churches, antiquity is overlaid with later Victorian restorations. Victorian too are the pair of ornately carved chairs, once used by that great queen and her consort, Prince Albert, when visiting the area.
Above the chairs is an unusual stained glass window, showing local birds and animals and with scenes from the Pilgrim’s Progress. The window is a memorial to Freda Rylatt, who died on Dinas Cromlech, a rocky outcrop in the Llanberis Pass in Wales in 1949.
The ornate bronze war memorial also uses the symbolism of the Pilgrim’s Progress and sits between two simple wooden crosses that once marked the graves of soldiers who fell in France in WWI. The memorials in these little parish churches chart at least one part of the history of their congregation, both on a personal level and where the greater events of the world have intruded on the peace of the villages. Although the memorials in themselves are not our main area of interest, they do bring history home, giving it a name, a face and a story… of lives not dissimilar to our own. It makes history personal.
There are memorials, however, to people whose names are known for other reasons worldwide, though they themselves have been forgotten outside of their own community. The church houses the ‘Eyre Brasses,’ commemorating several generations of the Eyre family who had been connected to Hathersage since the 15th century. It was after a visit to the area that Charlotte Bronte chose to name her heroine ‘Jane Eyre.’ The best known of these memorials in brass and stone is the altar tomb of Robert Eyre, his wife Joan and their fourteen children. Robert died in 1459. As a soldier, he had fought at the Battle of Agincourt and as a local squire, he was responsible for much of the fabric of the present church.
In the chancel there are other brasses remembering members of the Eyre family and the font bears their coat of arms along with that of other local notables Above them, the roof is held in the wings of carved angels and the light plays through the three lights of the east window by Thomas Kempe.
The stained glass of this window, along with the small oak pews, was not designed for this church however. It was saved from the church in the village of Derwent when it was drowned to create the Ladybower Reservoir that nestles in the hills around the nearby Derwent Valley…and which was one of the places where 617 Squadron, better known as the Dambusters, trained with Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb.
War touches everyone, in town, country and city… even in remote and sleepy villages. The illuminated Book of Remembrance records the names of the local men and women who lost their lives in conflicts born far from their own hills. Yet the baptismal roll records too the happier occasions and the triple-padlocked parish chest still sits near the tower that once contained the records of the life of the community. Peace reigns here until the conflicts of nations intrude upon the stillness.
As we left the church we passed a fragment of stone… a broken grave marker some six hundred years old and marked with a cross and the letters L I. The ‘I’ here represents a ‘J’ and the story goes that this was the original gravestone for Little John… a character from life or legend who was also caught up in the warring politics of kings. Perhaps the Merry Men would have seen things a little differently from the way our sanitised and romantic stories tell of the plight of Robin Hood and his men… outlawed and under threat of death for challenging authority and injustice, rendered homeless to seek refuge in the forest. Yet perhaps the gaiety with which they are popularly portrayed does serve as a reminder that freedom is not bought with violence, but with the determination to stand up for what is right…and for those we love.