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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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The Famous Eyres of Derbyshire

Posted Wednesday, May 30, 2007

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Tom Bates Explores the History of the Eyres and Catholic Graces of Derbyshire:

The last direct descendants of the famous Eyre Family of Derbyshire may well have left over a century ago, but the legacy of their 950 year tenure has bequeathed to the county a history rich in its heritage of architecture and legend.

`The original family came over from Normandy with William the Conqueror'

The original Eyre family came over from Normandy with William the Conqueror in 1066 and by the time of Edward the First were settled at Hope.

Robert le Eyre was hereditary warden of the Royal Forest of the Peak which was administered from Peveril Castle in Castleton, a post which was held almost a century later in the reign of Edward the Third by his grandson William le Eyre de Hope who was also warden of the forests of Edale, Hassop and Derwent.

Throughout medieval times the Eyres of Hope branched out and a number of their descendants became lords of various manors in Derbyshire, thus in Tudor England they held catholic enclaves at Hassop, Hope and at Dunston and Newbold near Chesterfield, and also at Hathersage.

Later Eyres endowed Hathersage with its church and held manorial lands in Kiveton and across the border in Nottinghamshire.

Much of the parish church of St. Michael & All Angels in Hathersage dates from 1381, and it was extensively rebuilt by Sir Robert Eyre following his return from the Battle of Agincourt where he & his father, Sir Nicholas Eyre, and a company of local men had distinguished themselves on the famous field on St. Crispin’s Day in 1415. The porch was added in 1500 by Robert Eyre’s son and there are some excellent memorial brasses to the Eyre family inside the church; also a 15th century Sanctus bell inscribed with a prayer for Robert Eyre and his wife Joan.

On the north side of the chancel stands the magnificent stone-canopied altar tomb of Robert Eyre, whilst a memorial stained-glass window to William Eyre of Northlees Hall & his wife Mary relates that it was erected by George Eyre & his sister in 1856.

Of the post-medieval Eyres, Sir Nicholas was born at the beginning of the 14th century and married in 1340, and a century later Highlow Hall at Hathersage became the seat of this branch of the family. Robert Eyre rebuilt it during the Elizabethan period, and later became a High Sheriff of Derbyshire.

`Novelist Charlotte Bronte In Hathersage'

Robert is said to have built seven houses in and around Hathersage, one for each of his seven sons and all within sight of the others and his own new home, North Lees Hall – which Charlotte Bronte used as the model for Thornfield in her novel Jane Eyre.

The then 30-year old Victorian novelist was a visitor to the vicarage in Hathersage during the summer of 1845 and based the setting of her novel in and around Hathersage, which she called `Morton’ - where the Eyre family had been Lords of the Manor for over 600 years.

The Eyre Family also purchased the 20,000 acre manor of Hassop from Sir Robert Plumpton in 1498, and following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry V111, the vast sheep granges farmed by the monks fell into the hands of loyal local landowners. One such was Rowland Eyre who also discovered rich veins of lead ore on the Hassop Estate, and made a fortune from wool & lead sufficient to finance the construction of a new Hassop Hall built of local limestone, which was completed around 1610.

The Eyres were related by marriage to other historic families like the Fitzherberts, Babingtons and Nevilles and down the centuries provided many noteable Knights of both Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire, as well as Archdeacons, Prebendarys, Canons and Rectors within the Catholic Church.

The Padley Martyrs

The famous story of the `Padley Martyrs is historically connected with the Eyre Family who owned Padley Hall which was built around 1400 and was the scene of a local tragedy when the Padley Martyrs were arrested here in 1588.

The last of the Padley Eyres, Sir Arthur Eyre, died in 1560 and Padley Hall was inherited by his daughter Anne, who married Sir Thomas Fitzherbert, and they rented Padley Hall to his brother John Fitzherbert.

Catholic priests were banned during the time of Elizabeth 1st and it was a treasonable activity to harbour them. At the time Mary Queen of Scots was held prisoner on the orders of Queen Elizabeth by the Earl of Shrewsbury at Bess of Hardwick’s Chatsworth. On July 12th 1588 Padley Hall was raided by Shrewsburys men and two Jesuit priests were found in hiding.

Nicholas Garlick and Robert Ludlam, both local men, were taken to Derby where they were hung, drawn and quartered. John Fitzherbert was condemned to death, but the sentence was never carried out and he died in prison in 1590, and his brother Sir Thomas was imprisoned in the Tower of London where he too eventually died. Padley Hall fell into ruin, but the gatehouse survived and was used as a barn for centuries until it was purchased by the Diocese of Nottingham in 1933 and converted into a small chapel. Every year on July 12th a pilgrimage and special service takes place here and the chapel is open to the public on Sundays from Easter to September.

The Chesterfield Eyres were related by marriage to Bishop Pursglove, who founded the Grammar School in Tideswell in the 16th century. Pursglove’s sister Alice married Edward Eyre, grandson of Robert Eyre and Joan Padley and their sons Anthony and Gervas Eyre bought the manor of Newbold & Dunston in 1570. Bishop Pursglove died at Dunston Hall in May 1580.

Thomas Eyre, grandson of Anthony Eyre was a zealous Royalist and was a captain of the King’s Troop, and Governor of Welbeck under the Earl of Newcastle. It is said that three times during a Civil war action he was personally engaged with Cromwell and each time obliged the great General to retreat!

Eyre Chapel – Newbold, Chesterfield.

In a meadow behind the Nag’s Head at Newbold, Chesterfield stands the Eyre Chapel, built by the Normans in the eleventh century, and reputedly the oldest building in the town. Worship ceased here almost 400 years ago, and it was used as a burial place for members of the Eyre Family.

The building was restored at the end of the twentieth century and is now accessible to the public by special arrangement.

Thomas Eyre of Birchover

A little known branch of the family with the eccentric Rev.Thomas Eyre at its head settled at Rowtor Hall, Birchover early in the 17th century. Rowtor Rocks, which during the 19th and early 20th century had a paid guide to take members of the public on conducted tours, is a place of mystery and fascination to locals and visitors alike. A series of tunnels cut into the rock, with two rooms carved into the rock-face, viewing platforms and three armchairs carved out of rock with steps leading from level to level, formed a study and playgound for the eccentric reverend, where he is reputed to have entertained his friends. At one time there were two or three `rocking stones’ here, and the views from the top are spectacular. It is said that this mysterious pile of gritstone known as Rowtor Rocks reputedly had connections with the early Druids of Derbyshire!

The Eyres of Hassop

The legacy of the Eyres of Derbyshire is perhaps nowhere more apparent today than in the village of Hassop, where the ancient Eyre Arms and the fabulous Hassop Hall, now a first class hotel, restaurant and banqueting suite bear testimony to a bygone age of splendour and tell the tale of just one branch of the Eyre Family.

The Eyre Arms has a history of the family and a coat of arms in the lounge, whilst the present Hall is largely the work of another Thomas Eyre who, between 1827 and 1833 moved the entrance from the south side to the west, and built an impressive coach house and stable-block to the north. He also built the magnificent long ballroom with its gilded clock-face above the old dairy. But perhaps the most visible – and unusual of Thomas Eyres legacies is the Etruscan Temple of All Saints Catholic Church, standing on higher ground opposite the gatehouse entrance to Hassop Hall. The church was designed by Roman Catholic architect Joseph Ireland and built in severe Classical Revivalist style in 1816 –18, and whilst adding to the romantic atmosphere and imagery of the place, it seems completely incongruous in such a rural setting and would perhaps be more suitably sited in Tuscany or Rome; it is most certainly a sudden and totally unexpected sight when coming round the sharp bend in the centre of the village and one of the most unusual sites in Derbyshire.

The last of the impoverished Eyre ancestors sold Hassop Hall and the Hassop Estate to Colonel Stevenson in 1919, and the noble family with a rich Derbyshire heritage faded into history.

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