Saturday, February 7, 2015

Juliana Cockerel Eyre, 1444-1503

Hans Memling The Last Judgment
detail (circa 1433–1494)
Mystery solved!

© 2015 Christy K Robinson

Medieval and Tudor-era women, unless they're royal or aristocratic (and even then...), are often forgotten when it comes to a surname or history, or where they were buried. 

The Eyres/Ayers of Wiltshire were no exception. Generations of Eyres lived in the villages of Urchfont and Wedhampton, Wiltshire, only a mile apart. Urchfont has a lovely church, St. Michael and All Angels, but I can't find record of the Eyres being buried in it (though some of them must certainly lie under the floor slabs). I visited the church in 2006. 

Records on the Eyres go back to 1221, when Humphrey LeHeyr was born--a good 30 years after he supposedly accompanied Richard I the Lionheart on Crusade. (Seriously, people really need to look at some timelines before they write that stuff!) 

Urchfont and Wedhampton lie on the Salisbury Plain near Devizes, north of Sarum and Salisbury, and not far from the prehistoric sites of Woodhenge, Stonehenge, West Kennet Long Barrow, and Silbury Hill.

There was a church at Urchfont from 900AD, the time of King Alfred and his Queen Aelswith, but the present building began early in the reign of King Henry III, about 1220. The tower was built in the latter 1400s, within the lifetime of Juliana Cockerel Eyre.  

After Humphrey LeHeyr, we have this succession of descendants:
  • Galfridus LeHeyr, b. 1250 in Wiltshire
  • Galfridus LeHeyr, b. 1285 in Wiltshire
  • John le Eyre, b. 1325 in Wedhampton who married Eleanor Crooke, heiress of Urchfont
  • Simon Eyre, b. 1364 who may or may not be the same man who was Mayor of London and founded Leadenhall Market.
  • Thomas Eyre, b. 1399
  • William Eyre, b. 1444 in Wedhampton who married Juliana/Johana Cockerel, b. 1444.
  • John Eyre, b. 1478
St. Michael and All Angels church,
Urchfont, Wiltshire, UK.
Photo by Christy K Robinson

William and Juliana had two sons, one of whom is my ancestor, John Eyre. Juliana, as far as I know, was not nobly born or notorious for her words or deeds; she was a wife and mother from Wedhampton, Wiltshire.

The other son was nameless, and isn't mentioned in genealogy records, so I and probably many others assumed he died young, forgotten, with no heirs.

But I found the other son, and it explains why, of all the Eyres, only Juliana Cockerel Eyre was buried in Christchurch Priory, 49 miles due south, on the chalk-cliffs coast of England. Their other son was named William after his father, and he was a man of the Church. William was born in 1478, and he was firstborn.That sets up the questions for which we have no answer:
  • Why the firstborn son instead of the younger son? Usually, the firstborn would inherit a double portion of the parents' estate, and a subsequent son would enter the military or monastic life.
  • Was William a promising scholar who would benefit with a Church education? 
  • Was he gay (closeted, of course)  and not likely to produce an heir for the Eyre line? His brother John is the ancestor of countless thousands in UK and America.
  • Did William's father do something wrong and feel the need to sacrifice his firstborn son to monasticism of the Church, and be a link to prayers for the parents for a lifetime? When a child or young person, male or female, was dedicated to the Catholic Church, they usually came with a dowry or large gift to benefit the monastery or nunnery. The larger the gift, the larger the chance the child would be destined to be an administrator with power: an abbot or prior, an abbess or Mother Superior, or perhaps a bishop. 
When googling Eyre and Christchurch, attempting to discover the location, and even better, an image, of Juliana's tomb or slab, I saw a link to an archaeological/historical description of the fabric of Christchurch Priory. And there I found a William Eyre, sub-prior and then prior of the priory (a monastic community), at exactly the right time. During his tenure as prior, 1502-1520, William Eyre was responsible for the rebuilding program of the quire/choir section of the huge church. The former choir had been destroyed in 1420, when the central tower of the church fell down or was taken down. So the new Great Choir, where the monks performed their worship at the daily appointed times, was a welcome addition. This choir still stands today! 

The web page, transcribed from an old book, says  

In addition to the monuments already noted there are a good many floor slabs with incised inscriptions, originally filled in with black composition. The oldest of these are in Gothic capitals, and there is such a strong resemblance between a number of them in treatment and in the peculiar form of the inscription as to make it probable that they belong to one date, although commemorating persons of different periods. Several of them belong to priors of the house, others to lay persons. The best preserved inscriptions run thus:—
'Tumba dni Wilhelmi Eyer vicesimi qũrti prioris huius ecclesie qui obiit vio die mēsis decembris anno domini Milleno ccccc . . .o cuius anime propicietur deus. amen.'  ['Tomb of lord William Eyer formerly of this church, who had died the 21st day of December in the year 1520. . .o may God bless his soul. Amen.']

Close to Prior Eyre's gravestone is that of his mother: -
'Hic jacet Johaña Cokrell mater Wilhelmi Eyer prioris huius ecclesie cuius anime propicietur deus. amen.'  ['Here lies Johaña Cokrell the mother of Willelmi Eyer the prior of this church of which may God bless his soul. Amen.']

Because the book didn't provide a translation of the Latin, I translated William's inscription several times using Google Translate, which returned variants, which I averaged. Five-hundred-year-old vernacular Latin wording won't be much like a modern computer translation, nor classical Latin.

Juliana lived long enough to see her son elected prior, which must have made her extremely proud. Does her inscription "of which may God bless his soul" mean that Prior William desired her prayers for him, from her place in heaven? Or does it mean that once she went to heaven, her soul became male? That was the belief of some people at the time. 

I had already combed through the Christchurch Priory website to find their virtual tours, and found 360-degree still pictures of the Great Choir and the choir aisles (hallways around the outside of the choir). There are floor burial slabs in both north and south aisles. Juliana and her son the prior (who died 17 years after she did) would have been buried in the floor of one of those choir aisles.
Screenshot courtesy of

In medieval terms, it was a prime burial spot because your grave would be close to all masses said in the chancel, and close to any saint relics the church might have. If you gave property to the church, or your surviving family did, the prayers and masses said, and candles lit, might help your soul out of purgatory sooner. The monks or priests frequently saw your tomb, effigy, brass, or slab, and remembered to pray for your soul. 

"One thing have I desired of the Lord, which I will require; even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to visit his temple."

And look: here we are, 500 years later, thinking about Juliana Cockerel Eyre. If you're her descendant, why not light a candle wherever you are, and say a prayer.

"I AM the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die." 

The Christchurch nave, looking east to the stone choir screen
behind which lies the Great Choir built by Prior William Eyre.
He died in 1520, nineteen years before the Dissolution.
Henry VIII had the monastery torn down, but the church was
allowed to stand as a parish church. It's larger than 20 of
England's cathedrals. One might suspect that the people
of Christchurch paid a very large ransom to keep their church
from destruction.

Seventy-five years later, the Eyre descendants placed alabaster memorials high on the south walls of St. Thomas Beckett Church, almost in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral. By this time, they were prosperous merchants, Members of Parliament, and Salisbury mayors in the Elizabethan era, and they may have been Puritan, since the memorial inscriptions say they “hated idolatry.” Several generations after that, a branch moved to the oh-so-Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony and settled near Salem (where a descendant, Mary Ayer Parker, was hanged as a witch in 1692), then moved south to New Jersey. From the Reformation in the early 16th century, they were Protestant all the way: Anglican, Puritan, Baptist, and Seventh Day Baptist.

If you enjoy life sketches, anecdotes, and historical details like these, you can find them in the book Effigy Hunter, by Christy K Robinson. It's available in print from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

Christy K Robinson is the author of five-star nonfiction and fiction historical books, as well as author of Rooting for Ancestors and William and Mary Barrett Dyer websites. You will find her books at http://bit.ly/RobinsonAuthor.

·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Marbury Hutchinson: American Founding Mother (2018)

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating historical information. I'm glad you attached it to my ancestors in FamilySearch. Thank you.


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