Religious houses of Derbyshire: Introduction

Pages 41-42

A History of the County of Derby: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.

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Derbyshire was by no means rich in religious foundations within the county confines, although, as has been already remarked, many of its churches and manors, and much of its land, came under the immediate influence of monastic bodies, whose houses were in other counties. Chief among these was the abbey of Burton on Trent, which exercised so wide a sway over that part of the county that immediately adjoined its Staffordshire possessions; whilst Lenton Priory, in the neighbouring county of Nottingham, with Basingwork Abbey in the north, and Dunstable Priory in the south, were possessed of considerable influence and jurisdiction in the northern parts of the shire.

Repton, a great missionary centre of Mercia, had an important abbey, under the rule of a succession of abbesses, in days long before the Conquest, for it was founded in the seventh century.

The Benedictines made little impression in post-Conquest days in this county, for there were no Black Monks in the shire save a very small cell of Bermondsey established in the county town, and this was of the reformed Cluniac rule, and therefore considered alien until Bermondsey itself obtained a charter of denization.

There was also a small but fairly flourishing house of Benedictine nuns at King's Mead, Derby. This nunnery, the only one in Derbyshire at its outset in the twelfth century, was under the immediate fostering care of its big neighbour, the abbey of Darley, but this control was soon shaken off.

Nor had the White Monks, or Cistercians, any foothold in the county, save a few granges from houses outside the borders.

The form of religious life with which the county would be most familiar was that followed by the less strict regular canons. In the twelfth century the Austin Canons were established on a large scale at Darley, near Derby, which was founded as an abbey of the order; they moved there from the smaller house of St. Helen's, which was just outside the walls of the county town. Repton about the same time became the seat of a considerable priory of Austin Canons; in this case they moved from the much smaller neighbouring house of Calke, which was afterwards maintained as a cell of Repton. At Gresley, in the south of the county, there was another small Austin establishment; whilst another one, on a yet smaller scale, whose existence was a long continual struggle against poverty, was founded at Breadsall.

Considering the small number of its religious foundations, it is remarkable to find two houses of Premonstratensian, or White Canons, in Derbyshire. In 1183 Welbeck, one of the most important of the English houses, planted a colony at Beauchief, near Sheffield; whilst Newhouse (the present English house) established another colony at Dale, on the confines of Nottinghamshire, about the year 1200. Though the canons always had the liberty of conventual election, their dependence on the foreign motherhouse of Prémontré gave rise to constant difficulties. The order was entirely free from diocesan control, but their own visitations were searching and regular. For the last quarter of the fifteenth century the English Premonstratensians were under the control of Bishop Redman, who was also abbot of Shap, as visitor-general. The registers of his visitations of the Derbyshire houses of Beauchief and Dale from 1475 to 1500 are of much interest. (fn. 1)

Most of the larger mediaeval towns of England had more than one settlement of mendicant friars, and within the walls of some fifteen all the four leading orders were settled; but Derby was only served by the Dominican, or preaching friars, who had a fairly flourishing house in the street still so well-known as Friar Gate.

The Knights Hospitallers had a vigorous preceptory at Yeaveley, or Stydd, whence subscriptions towards keeping the foes of Christendom at bay were yearly collected from the whole county. To this preceptory, at a later date, was added the camera of Barrow, and the two went by the joint title of the preceptory of Yeaveley and Barrow. Much confusion has arisen by Barrow-on-Trent in Derbyshire being taken for Barrow in Cheshire, an error originally made in Dugdale's Monasticon.

Hospitals, primarily for lepers, and with the usual dedication in honour of St. Leonard, were established at an early date by the Normans at Derby, Chesterfield, Locko, and Alkmonton, and there was another early hospital dedicated to the honour of St. Mary between Castleton and Hope, known as the Spital-in-the-Peak. The hospitals at Derby and Chesterfield, on the extinction of leprosy, gradually drifted into mere small bits of patronage for the crown, the masters absorbing the inconsiderable revenues. Alkmonton was revised on a wider and more interesting basis. The hospital at Locko, afterwards dependent on Burton Lazars, in Leicestershire, was of much interest, as having preserved down to the beginning of the fourteenth century an independent existence, as a preceptory of the semi-military order of the Knights of St. Lazarus; it was the only preceptory of the order in England.

Derbyshire had an ancient example of a collegiate church in the important pre-Reformation foundation of secular canons at All Saints, Derby; this absorbed the second collegiate church of the same town, which was extant in the days of the Confessor. Bakewell was also, for a short time, an early prebendal foundation.


  • 1. We are indebted to Abbot Gasquet for kindly allowing us to use his copy of the registers from the Ashmolean MSS. made in preparation for his volumes on this order for the Camden Society.