Sometimes the inspiration for a post comes from an unexpected place. I spent some time in Derbyshire this year, and whilst I wasn’t intending to work, the history of the place inspired me. It turned out to be a bit of a busman’s holiday I suppose!
Chelmorton and Buxton
Perhaps I should not have been surprised, as there are a lot of historical locations and attractions around Derbyshire. Right on the doorstep of the place I was staying was the immensely historical Church Inn of Chelmorton. As well as being situated in the highest village in Derbyshire, the history of the pub stretches back to at least the 17th century. Across the way from the Church Inn, is the village Church itself. St. John’s has a large set of graveyard memorials, many of which are much older, and more ornate than any I am used to seeing around Somerset.
On a visit to Derbyshire, I of course had to visit Buxton. I will admit that I spent most of my time at the bookshop, Scrivener’s, and I even managed to pick up some good bargains on genealogical/historical books. One of my favourite finds was Brass Rubbing by Malcolm Norris. Although published in 1977, I hope that the images of female brasses will help me in my quest in reproducing a woman’s outfit from the 1460s/1470s. This is around the time when one of my ancestors (Joan Sydenham) died. You can find out more about this quest (and my reasons for pursuing it) in one of my previous posts here.
Chatsworth and the Hunting Tapestries
The big excursions for me were visits to Chatsworth House (how could I not?), Hardwick Hall and Eyam. I have been to all three of these places on a previous visit, but it was many years ago now and it was great to be able to look at them again with fresh eyes.
Chatsworth obviously has bags of history in the form of the Dukes of Devonshire and their ancestors, but this time the most interesting part for me was their most recent exhibition. The ‘Life Stories’ Exhibition runs until the beginning of October this year and explores certain individuals through a specific painting or object. Henry VIII’s rosary was particularly fascinating and was quite frankly, far too large to be carried around on a regular basis in my opinion! Bess of Hardwick’s pearl necklace was another fascinating object. Although a replica of an original, it was apparently made from 1000 pearls. Given the nature of pearls and the way they are made, this was quite simply a statement of Bess’ accumulated wealth and status. The icing on the cake for me this time though, were the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries. Originally belonging to the Cavendish family, they are now part of the V&A Museum collection in London. The Museum has loaned them back to Chatsworth for this year, and they are quite a sight to behold!
Now, I am not the biggest fan of hunting scenes on the whole, but I am sure you can guess where this is going. The tapestries have some wonderful examples of period clothing! They are a little bit earlier than my target period, but are terribly interesting and useful nevertheless. Who knows, perhaps I may expand my efforts to other Medieval periods in the future?
Hardwick Hall and Bess of Hardwick
Chatsworth was not the only place where I encountered Bess of Hardwick. As I have already mentioned, one of my other excursions was to Hardwick Hall. For those in the know, I will not have to tell you that Bess was the wife of Sir William Cavendish and the ancestor of the Dukes of Devonshire. Bess also had a hand in building both Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall. The National Trust property stands right next door to the old Hardwick hall, which is looked after by English Heritage.
But there is much more to Bess’ story than merely being the sire of an illustrious family. Bess experienced widowhood four times in her life; she outlived all four of her husbands and used her widowhood to great advantage. Climbing up the social ladder, her fourth (and final) husband was the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, George Talbot. On the other hand, her first husband (Robert Barlow) had been of a significantly lower status. Bess’ third husband, Sir William St Loe, is on my to-do list to look into- his surname is curiously similar to that of some locations and places in Somerset.
Increasing my reading list further is the biography of Bess’ life: Bess of Hardwick, First Lady of Chatsworth, by Mary S. Lovell. In light of my Medieval interests and in particular those relating to Medieval women, Bess’ story is a fascinating one for me. She may not have been a Somerset woman, but she was a powerful and important one nonetheless.
Eyam, the ‘Plague Village’
My final outing in Derbyshire took me to the village of Eyam (not pronounced ‘I-am’ as my Somerset brain initially thought!). Famous for being the ‘Plague Village,’ the museum contains a fascinating exhibition concerning the plague in Eyam. It then makes sense walking around the village and seeing the places mentioned in the exhibition.
Since my first visit, the curators of the museum have significantly re-vamped and improved the exhibition. Consideration is given to the sort of disease that might actually have run rampant in the village (possibly not Bubonic Plague), how it might have gotten there, as well as the human cost. What particularly impressed me was the amount of research that had been done in local surviving records from the time, both to give a picture of the families that had succumbed to the plague, but also to try to get to the bottom of the facts of the matter. I remember reading in the exhibition that the estimate made at the time of the death toll and the number of survivors might be somewhat conservative in both cases- other documents and pieces of evidence from the time suggested different figures.
Most people will remember that the Plague swept through England in the 1300s, but will have forgotten that there were various outbreaks since then. The outbreak in Eyam took place in 1665-1666. The exhibition is perhaps particularly poignant at the moment with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, as the villagers of Eyam made the decision (back in the mid-1600s) to isolate themselves from the outside world, in order to stop the spread of the disease. In an era when the exact cause of disease was not fully understood, the villagers were ahead of their time.
What cannot be forgotten though, were the devastatingly sad stories of people being the only survivor in their families, parallels which can certainly be drawn today. As a genealogist though, seeing that the time and effort had been made to record the stories of these families (by using good research) was great to experience. It is a visit I would certainly recommend to anyone in the Derbyshire area.
So that is about it for my history inspired holiday to Derbyshire. If you are ever in that area (if you are not lucky enough to live there already), then I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!
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