Etwall, Derbyshire – St Helen

On Monday 8 October I had arranged to meet Chris my predecessor for a coffee. She is currently looking after Etwall and Egginton, two churches just outside Derby. This means she has the keys for Etwall and Egginton so she can show me round. St Helen’s church Etwall is in the middle of the village at SK 269319, and has a website. The church is apparently open on Wednesday afternoons.

You can imagine a small wooden church near Etta’s Well, perhaps replaced by a stone church in Saxon times. Domesday records that there was a priest and a church here, and at some point between 1154 and 1181 it was given to Welbeck Abbey, and in 1370 the Manor of Etwall was presented by John of Gaunt to the Priory of Beauvale. The south doorway and a two arched arcade date back to Norman times. There was more building undertaken in the C13, which can be seen in the Chancel – the stone gospel shelf on the north wall is rare, one of only eight in the country. (Northernvicar breathes a sigh of relief that he has included it in one of his photos).

Most of the church is C15 and C16. In 1536 it was recorded that the value of the Vicarage with the tithes of hay, lambs, wool and hemp was £8, and the rectory pertaining to Welbeck at £10. (I wonder what the priest of 1536, off to spend some time ploughing his strip and land, and having to negotiate his tithe from his neighbours, would make of the fact I am sat here, typing this on my laptop, and my wages arrived from London this morning – no doubt he would be amazed how much I’m paid!!)

We entered through the back door, and the Vestry has a wonderful ceiling. The guidebook uses the monuments to bring this church alive, so let’s do likewise. The earliest dated memorial is this incised alabaster slab which was dug up during the alterations in 1881. Richardus and Johana, surname illegible, he died in 1503.

The top left hand brass below is Elizabeth Port. Her husband was Henry. He died in 1512, and his brass has gone. Apparently Elizabeth is dressed in a fashion only allowed to those who had taken a vow of chastity.  Henry was a mercer of Chester, and his son John was a lawyer who married Jane, the daughter of and heiress of John Fitzherbert of Etwall. You can imagine Elizabeth coming and living with her son and his family. John was knighted in 1525 and became a Justice of the King’s Bench in 1527. He was one of the panel of judges at the trials of both Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, and after the Dissolution he managed to obtain the rectory of Etwall from the Welbeck Abbey estate, and the Manor of Etwall from the Beauvale Priory estates. (Does anything change?) . He was also the founder of Repton school. He and Jane had a family, and after her death he married Margaret, daughter of Edward Trafford. In his will he asked to be buried “under the arche that is between the chancel and the chapel where I am my wife had used commonly to knele”, and in 1541 he got his wish. He is wearing his robes of office with a collar and a pendant, with a wife on either side. The heads of all the three have been hacked away. On the sides of the tomb are the arms of Port impaling Fitzherbert and Port impaling Trafford, and the emblems of the Passion. The capital on the east side of the arch is intricately carved with a rose and pomegranate design, one of the badges of Mary Tudor. The guide does not explain the ‘slabs’ of stone holding the three of them in place.

His son, presumably from his first wife, was another John – and the right hand brass at the top above is him and his two wives, one of whom was also an Elizabeth. (I hope I’ve got this right). He was an extremely wealthy man from both father and wife. His wealth must have come in useful when, according to a letter found in the archives at the Tower of London, “at Derbye the 25th days of June, 1545 … the Dev[ill] as we do suppose began in Needwood which is XI miles from Darbie and there can be cast down a great substance of wood and pulled up by the rotts, and from thens he came to Enwall whereat one Mr Porte doth dwell, and there he pulled down ij great elms, that there were a dozeyn or xvj loode upon a piesse of them, and went to the church and pullyed up the lead and flonge it upon a great elms that standeth a payer of butt lengths from the church and hangyd upon the bowys like streamers.” The Gerald family inherited the Manor – they were Catholics, so live cannot have been easy for them.

The C17 has left us some lovely woodwork, the main south door, the reading desk dated 1635, and the carved pews in the Port Chapel. These pews were used by the pensioners from the Almshouses, and are fitted with pegs where they could hang their hats and cloaks. Above the altar are the armorial bearings of two of the Trustees, Gerard and Hastings.

The advowson and the manor eventually passed to the Cotton family in 1695, and remained with them for over 200 years. The Royal Arms of George III date to 1805, the year of Trafalgar, and there are three nice hatchments. The one with “Resurgam”, I will rise again, is that of the Reverend Charles Evelyn Cotton who died in 1857. His widow Frances Maria, nee Bradshaw, died in 1868. Apparently the black and white background means his partner was still alive. The Cotton half of the arms is on the left, the Bradshaw half on the right.

There are some lovely memorials. Here are two: Mary Mainwaring died 1747 (I think) and Rebecca Beer died 1829. I like the idea of being Master of the Hospital – shades of Barchester (I can imagine myself as Mr Harding).

The stained glass is Victorian, but none the worse for that. Note the two odd oblong windows above the East Window, with its pelican. A Victorian pulpit too.

At the back of the church they have done some work with a loo and tea point, and this rather lovely embroidery of St Helen was commissioned from Sarah Burgess in 1998. It shows St Helen in a pose taken from a figure in a wall painting in the Catacombs in Rome. Her arms are extended in blessing over the landscape around Etwall. The background of the central panel is made up of interlocking crosses forming a pattern developed from a Byzantine icon. The Chi Rho symbol, made of the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, was said to have been seen by Constantine in the sky above the battle of Milvian Bridge. Helen was Constantine’s mother, and in her old age she travelled to Jerusalem to find the Holy Cross (see the blog on Ashby-de-la-Zouch). The textile was installed in July 2000, and I think it has lifted the back of the church. Thank you for that Millennium vision.

Outside the church we had a look at the Sir John Port Almshouses. They date to 1681, with minor later repairs. The Screen is by Robert Bakewell, as is the lovely one in Derby Cathedral (which I will get blogged one day).


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7 Responses to Etwall, Derbyshire – St Helen

  1. Twiglet says:

    Lovely blog, thank you, have cited this is a little blog of my own.

  2. Peter Moore says:

    East window is by the firm of Burlison & Grylls: Hugh Alleyne Sacheverell Bateman is also the dedicatee of a (much richer!) east window by the same firm in St Matthew, Morley ( The Sacheverell Bateman Mausoleum ( “faultlessly proportioned and built of warm red Runcorn sandstone”, now in the care of the Mausolea and Monuments Trust, which adjoins St Matthew at Morley was commissioned by Bateman’s widow: Bateman was a good musician, a splendid shot and an expert horseman. Prior to his marriage he had led a number of exploratory expeditions to Asia and North America and had learned to sleep in the saddle. Apparently he was asleep while returning from a day’s hunting when his horse, which knew the way home, walked under a low branch. The branch struck Bateman full in the face and knocked the stem of his pipe through the roof of his mouth. He lived for a time but finally died of septicaemia. Built by G.F.Bodley 1897, furnished with sculpture by Robert Bridgman and stained glass by Burlison & Grylls.

  3. C Scott Port says:

    Wonderful article. Brought back many good memories of a visit to St. Helen’s and the Sir John Port Almshouses. Sir John Port is my 1st cousin 13x removed. My parents and an older brother also visited these locations. For many years my parents had a rubbing of Sir John Port’s tomb hanging on a living room wall in the house they owned. We also visited the Repton School during our travels.


  4. Andy King says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article.
    I happened on it whilst researching resources for a new on-line guide for our new St Helen’s web-site
    May we please use some of your excellent photos on our own site?

    • admin says:

      Dear Andy, Glad you like it. Yes, you are welcome to use the photos – just put a link in to the blog please. Cheers

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