10 historic events that defined Derbyshire

Peveril Castle

Peveril Castle - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Derbyshire has a proud, eventful and long history - here are ten times events helped shape the county.

Words by Steve Roberts

1048 – Chronicled 

Firstly, I feel I should introduce ‘Derbyshire’. It hasn’t always been here after all. Its first written mention comes in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the year 1048, when Edward the Confessor was king. 

On May 1 ‘there was an earthquake in many places’, including at Derby, ‘and wildfire which spread over Derbyshire … did much damage’. It seems that extreme weather events were alive and well almost a millennium ago.  

The Chronicle was a collection of annals detailing in pithy statements the history of the Anglo-Saxons. Begun during the reign of Alfred the Great, the Chronicle didn’t cease until the 1150s. 

1266 – Chesterfield 

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The 2nd Barons’ War (1264-67) saw Henry III and his son Edward (future Edward I) ranged against rebels led by the king’s brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, oft held to be the ‘father of parliamentary democracy’ in this country, having called a representative parliament in January 1265.  

Come the August of that year de Montfort was dead, slain at the Battle of Evesham, so the royal party moved on to mopping up operations, including the Battle of Chesterfield, fought on May 15 1266.  

The rebels, led by Robert Ferrers, Earl of Derby, and Baldwin Wake, Lord of Chesterfield, were defeated by a nephew of the king. Ferrers was captured, whilst Wake escaped from what was more a skirmish than a battle. 

1305 – High Peak 

The Normans loved hunting and after William’s conquest the Royal Forest of Peak was designated a royal hunting reserve.  

It covered most of north-west Derbyshire and appears to have reached its greatest extent in 1305, when it covered over 100 square miles.  

It was administered initially by William Peverel (c.1040-1115), a favourite of William who was granted lands in England, over 100 manors in central England, and built himself Peveril Castle or ‘Peak Castle’, overlooking Castleton.  

As this was Peverel’s main estate (the ‘Honour of Peverel’) we can assume the Royal Forest of Peak was administered from here. Once owned by Simon de Montfort, the castle was immortalised by Sir Walter Scott. 

1415 – Melbourne 

Anyone knowing their history will twig this was the year of Agincourt, when Henry V’s outnumbered ‘band of brothers’ defeated a French army.  

Built in the early-14th century, Melbourne Castle, south of Derby, became a prison for 18 years for John, Duke of Bourbon (1381-1434), who’d been captured at Agincourt and eventually died a prisoner in London after several ransom payments failed to secure his release.  

The castle was also considered for Mary, Queen of Scots but she was eventually incarcerated elsewhere (read on).  

Melbourne was in decline by the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and was demolished in the early 17th century so that just a section of wall survives. Lord Melbourne (‘Lord M’ of TV series ‘Victoria’) was born at the Hall.  

1569 – Wingfield 

Remains of Wingfield Manor, from the 1891 book Picturesque England

Remains of Wingfield Manor, from the 1891 book Picturesque England - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in July 1567. Fleeing southward, she was obliged to seek the ‘protection’ of the English queen, Elizabeth I.  

What followed was a 20 year ‘house arrest’ which saw her moved from place to place, including several in Derbyshire, not Melbourne Castle as we discovered above, but Chatsworth, Buxton, and Wingfield from 1569.  

The latter, a ruined manor house since the 1770s, played its part in Mary’s imprisonment and downfall.  

It may have been here she met Anthony Babington, whose conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with Mary was a key component of the latter’s treason trial and subsequent execution. 

1644 – Egginton Heath

St. Mary's, Wirksworth, where Sir John Gell is buried

St. Mary's, Wirksworth, where Sir John Gell is buried - Credit: Gary Wallis


Most English counties experienced a siege or skirmish during the English Civil War and Derbyshire was no exception.  

The Battle of Egginton Heath, fought in March 1644, was the largest battle fought in the county, eclipsing even Chesterfield.  

The Royalists had their tails up after a victory at Newark when they were surprised at Egginton by Parliamentary forces led by Sir John Gell of Hopton (1593-1671) who was prominent locally being at various times both High Sheriff and Deputy Lieutenant of Derbyshire.  

The Royalists were sent away with their tails between their legs. Gell, meanwhile, lived to the age of 78 and was buried at St Mary’s, Wirksworth. 

1665 – Eyam 

The book depicting those who died in the plague at Eyam

The book depicting those who died in the plague at Eyam - Credit: Nathan Fearn

It seems churlish to talk of ‘plague’ during a pandemic but Coronavirus is not the first virus to have had a significant effect in Derbyshire and beyond.  

There was the Black Death, then the 17th century Great Plague that hit London (1665-66), but also Derbyshire.  

Eyam became famous as ‘the plague village’ that chose to quarantine rather than spread disease. The story goes that a flea-infested cloth bundle from London brought the plague in and that it took 14 months for the pestilence to run its course by which time a large chunk of the village’s former headcount had been buried.  

Sources vary as to how many died but the local church records 273 victims. Plague Sunday has been commemorated since the tragedy’s bicentenary in 1866. 

1745 – Derby 

Statue of Bonnie Prince Charlie, in Derby

Statue of Bonnie Prince Charlie, in Derby - Credit: Ashley Franklin

After the Catholic-leaning James II had been deposed by Protestants William and Mary in 1688 (an event plotted in Chesterfield) the Stuarts made sporadic attempts to recover their lost crown.  

The most famous was the Jacobite rising of 1745-46 when Bonnie Prince Charlie’s march on London ended ignominiously at Derby. The Jacobites entered the city on December 4 1745, an event commemorated by an equestrian statue of the Bonnie Prince, Charles Stuart, unveiled in December 1995 for the 250th anniversary.  

At the time of his descent, though, he was given a ‘cool reception’. Here was the southernmost limit of his ambition, or more accurately Swarkestone Bridge, a crossing of the Trent about six miles south of Derby where the Scots finally turned around and headed back north. 

1771 – Cromford 

Cromford Mill, the centrepiece of a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Cromford Mill, the centrepiece of a UNESCO World Heritage Site - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A quarter century after the Highlanders descended on Derbyshire the county hosted a more peaceable army as the world’s first successful water-powered cotton spinning mill was established at Cromford under the auspices of Richard Arkwright (1732-92).  

Cromford Mill is the centrepiece today of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is popularly held to be the birthplace of the factory system, where large machinery, such as Arkwright’s water frame, patented in 1769, necessitated the gathering of labour in larger premises, the first mechanised textile factory in the world.  

1984 – Lismore Fields 

I’m ending at the beginning. I could have started with prehistory, of course, but then we wouldn’t know anything about that distant epoch without archaeology.  

In 1984 our knowledge was advanced that bit further when the remains of a Stone Age settlement, including both Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age) structures was discovered at Lismore Fields in Buxton.  

It’s believed the spa town’s first inhabitants lived here some 6,000 years ago at a place where the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer was evidenced making this possibly the earliest cereal cultivation site in the country. The ‘Lismore Pot’ is displayed in Buxton’s museum.