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The two unknown ladies of Prestwold

Phillip White

St Andrew's Church, Prestwold, dating back to Norman times, has a unique collection of chancel monuments tracing the story of past generations. There are impressive memorials to Royalist Sir William Skipwith (died 1610) and his wife, and his manorial successor Cromwellian Lord Mayor of London, Sir Christopher Packe. Most of the others are to Packe descendants, but there are two alabaster tomb chests from the Middle Ages. One is to Sir Richard Nele, a King's Judge under five monarchs during the Wars of the Roses, and his lady. More intriguing is the other, to two ladies. They are believed by some to have discovered a miraculous well, although George Farnham, in his Prestwold and its Hamlets in Medieval Times, suggests that they were probably from the Nele family and others claim they are Mary and Elizabeth Nele who built Swarkestone Bridge. Standing by this tomb with its reclining side-by-side effigies I thought of trying to resolve the conflicting claims to their identity.

The effigies of two ladies in Prestwold church

The effigies of two ladies in Prestwold church

The effigies of two ladies in Prestwold church. Photograph by Phillip White.

Both recumbent praying figures shown in the photographs are identically and plainly clad. They are probably maiden ladies, and most likely sisters, not yet of middle years. Each has a pedimental (pointed) headdress and girdled gown with belt hanging across and close sleeves to the wrists with cuffs. One wears a necklace of square links with a pendant, the other one of a different pattern. Their gowns are fastened by frogs through intersecting links.

The fingers of both hands are broken on the effigy of one lady but rings are visible on her first and third finger. She has a collared dog at her feet. The other lady has rings on the second and fourth fingers of her right hand and the first finger of her left. She has a running dog at her feet. There are two cushions with angels under their heads, and one has a rose at her head. Along the sides of the chest are panels with figures of bedesmen (mourners) in cowled robes, some with rosaries others with open bibles.

The double rose suggests the Tudor period (1485 to 1603). Nikolaus Pevsner in Buildings of England – Leicestershire and Rutland dates the tomb as 1520. The style of dress is of the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Local opinion is that the effigies depict Gertrude and Grace Lacey who lived at Hoton in the sixteenth century. The crops, cattle and people of Prestwold had endured a three-month drought. One night Gertrude dreamed of a crystal stream with pearls of water. The location was clear to her – about halfway between Hoton and Wymeswold, in a field beyond Gorse Farm called Langdale Field. However, before the water could be made to flow a wand brought from the Holy Land needed to be pushed into the ground. Her sister Grace was sceptical. But Gertrude dreamed the same dream three times in one night. The sisters agreed they would go to the field, but they lacked the wand. Other villagers remembered that a pilgrim who had travelled to Canaan had brought back and then buried a staff. They unearthed this staff and went to the place Gertrude had seen in her dream. When the staff was pushed into the ground the water started flowing and has never since dried up. Legend says that for many years the wand rested between the effigies of the two ladies in Prestwold Church, although there is no evidence for this. The well was known as the Sisters' Well or Shepherd Jacob's Well, but it was covered over when Wymeswold Airfield was built and the water presumably now flows into a culvert.

In these days of piped water it is hard to appreciate the importance of this precious resource to villages where every drop of rain had to be collected and conserved. As late as October 1864, the headmaster of my old village school in South Yorkshire wrote in his log book, 'thin school due to the blessing of heavy rain ending the drought of the past 8/10 weeks when many older scholars were kept at home for the sole purpose of going in search of water'. Even in towns that had pumps and wells, water vendors did a good trade delivering water, until piped water became widely available by 1870. In the early 16th century discovery of an inexhaustible supply of clean water would have seemed miraculous.

Why, you may ask, would country women be interred in the chancel amongst the local gentry? Rachel Flynn, in Hoton, a Stroll Around a Conservation Village, published by the author in 1992, writes that the Laceys were well-to-do farmers who lived in Prestwold in Tudor times. They were established in neighbouring Hoton by the 1590s, when Thomas Lacey left 20 yards of woollen cloth to his wife and daughters, hose cloth to his son and 23.6s.8d to each of his four children. During the next three centuries they were connected with the larger farms in the village, a 1735 map of Prestwold showing Lacey's Pingley Field and a Hoton field map Lacey's False Acre.

The first Prestwold Parish register shows seven Lacey (Lacye or Lacie) girls baptised between 1558 and 1639: Elizabeth, Margaret, Joanne, Helena, Elina, Mary and Dorothy. Many of these, and an Agnes, married between 1582 and 1598, and two Dorothys, a Katherine and a Margery were buried between 1566 and 1600. There were no Gertrudes or Graces listed. This suggests that the ladies were of an earlier generation, possibly dying young, although it would have been expected that their nieces and great nieces would be named after them, especially bearing in mind their fame. The only girls with these names were Gertrude Staples of Cotes and Grace Heatherley of Prestwold, both born 1604.

Were they Mary and Elizabeth Nele, claimed to have built Swarkestone Bridge? In Swarkestone Bridge and the Stanton Causeway, published in 1994 by J H Hall and Sons of Siddals Road, Derby DE1 2PZ in the Heritage Series, G R Heath says the stone bridge is almost 800 years old. (This is where, in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite Army abandoned their attempt to cross the Trent and continue south to take the crown of England.) Four arches originally spanned the river, there are now five, seven more lie along the causeway at the Stanton end. Its construction is credited to two sisters who saw their lovers drowned. Reputedly, during a party at Swarkestone Hall to celebrate the betrothal of the Lord of the Manor's two daughters, the festivities were interrupted by a summons to the Lord and the two knightly suitors to join an assembly of barons to settle a dispute with the King. This suggests Simon de Montfort opposing Henry III in 1265. When the two knights returned to Swarkestone, heavy rains had swollen the Trent into a raging torrent. In the darkness they missed the ford and, spurring their horses into the river, were swept to their deaths within sight of their loves. The sisters never married and devoted their lives to building a bridge and causeway, dying poor.

This confirms a popular belief that part of the bridge was erected by two maiden ladies named Bellamont, living in Swarkestone in the mid-13th century, who are said to be buried in one grave in Prestwold Church. The Bellamont family does have connections with the Harpurs of Swarkstone but not apparently until the 17th century when Frances, eldest daughter of William, 6th Baron Willoughby of Parham, and widow of John Harpur, married Henry Kirkhoven, Earl of Bellamont. The Bellamonts rented Swarkstone Hall from the Harpur family from 1679 to 1746.

It is interesting to speculate on Bellamont being a derivative of Beaumont. In 1329 Robert Poutrell held a moiety of the manor of Prestwold (by reason of forfeiture of Henry de Beaumont) by service of a knights fee. In 1350 John Poutrel held lands and tenements in Prestwold of Alice, relict of Henry de Beaumont by service of half a knight's fee. Richard Beaumont of Cole Orton died in 1538 possessed of lands in Prestwold, Burton, Cotes, Hoton and Loughborough.

I can find no connection with the Neles, who did not come to Prestwold until 1445. The Neles were a Shepshed family related to the Poutrels. Sir Richard Nele's son, Christopher, who died in 1528, married two heiresses, Margery Roke and Elizabeth Bishopesdon, acquiring the Manor of Keythorpe with land in Tugby, Goadby, Billesdon, Burton, Wymeswold and Saxelby. He was succeeded by his grandson Richard Nele (died 1558) who bought the Manor of Tugby with 20 messuages and 1800 acres there and in East Norton, Misterton, Burton Overy and Mountsorrel. Richard's son Francis, who only survived him by one year, had married twice and by his first wife Faith Kempe left Eleanor (John Nichols History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester says she was called Jane) who became the wife of Henry Hall and had a daughter Elizabeth. By his second wife, Jane Hall, Francis left Mary who married Everard Digby and went on to have two further husbands. He also left a posthumous son Thomas, who died in 1576 leaving his sister and half sister heiresses to the Nele estates.

Francis Nele's widow, Jane, married Henry Skipwith who took over at Prestwold and Cotes. Francis's will of 1559/60 mentioned four daughters so two must have predeceased their brother. By the terms of the will a tomb in his remembrance was to be erected at Prestwold but none exists although there is a memorial in Tugby Church. The Prestwold registers show five Nele births between 1563 and 1568, all boys, the marriage of Anna Nele in 1562, and the burials of William and Edward Nele in 1590. If the two ladies were Neles it seems unlikely that they were Francis Nele's surviving married daughters (they would be expected to be buried with their husbands) or his unnamed, probably infant, daughters.

Nichols states that Mary Nele, born 1559, lived until 1632 and had ten children, the two oldest being Mary and Elizabeth. The monument is dated much earlier.

After considering the evidence, I cannot state categorically that one or other version is true. If the conflicting claims are examined dispassionately, there is a possible case for the ladies being related to the early Neles, but I can find no connection between the Neles and the Bellamonts of Swarkestone Bridge fame. As mentioned earlier, however, the Beaumont family had property interests in Prestwold from at least 1329 to the mid-16th century, and if there is a family connection with the Bellamonts this adds a new twist to the tale. As Swarkestone Bridge was built in the mid-13th century and the table tomb is thought to date from the early 16th century, the possibility that these are the two ladies can probably be discounted.

The popular legend, that they were the ladies who found the miraculous well, may be more authentic, and most locals would love to believe it. Although people other than lords and ladies of the Manor and their relatives were only rarely buried in such magnificent tombs, the Laceys were well-to-do farmers, and the ladies had accomplished a feat of immeasurable worth in discovering a well that never dried up.

Originally published in the WHO Newsletter 2001.

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