Is this Derbyshire’s quirkiest church?

PUBLISHED: 15:32 02 November 2020 | UPDATED: 15:46 02 November 2020

Muggington Church, Francis' burial place. Image: Simon Elson

Muggington Church, Francis' burial place. Image: Simon Elson

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Exploring the unique and mysterious story behind a 1700s building with a fascinating past

Halter Devil from the front. Image: Simon ElsonHalter Devil from the front. Image: Simon Elson

Do you remember an old black white movie called ‘Daniel and the Devil’ from 1941? I watched it years ago, although it has been shown with several different titles including ‘All That Money Can Buy’ and ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster,’ It is shown quite often on nostalgia film channels.

A New England farmer down on his luck curses out loud. When the curse is answered, the farmer does a deal with a Mr Scratch who is actually the Devil. I have got a story from Derbyshire that has a similar theme, I’ll call it ‘Francis and The Devil’ - the difference is that my story is true.

It was winter, early in the 18th century, near the village of Mugginton. The old man stared out from the window of his farmhouse, the rain lashed at the glass pane, inches from his face. He turned and spoke to his wife, his speech slurring, ‘I’ll have to fetch the horse into the stable tonight, if I’m to set off early for Derby in the morning.’

His wife looked up from her needlework, the fine stiches being done by candlelight, ‘Francis, my dear, you are far too drunk to be haltering a horse in the dark and look at the weather, I wouldn’t turn a dog out in this weather.’ The man turned away from the storm to face his wife.

‘That’s another reason the horse needs to be brought in,’ he drank down the last few swallows of his ale and strode purposefully towards the door, he pulled on his riding boots and ventured forward into the storm.

He looked into the dark wet night for his horse, stamping around the muddy field, searching for the jet-black mare, he shouted curses, ‘Horse, come here, you infernal beast.’

For what seemed like an eternity he looked out for the black silhouette of his horse, without success. Eventually after several minutes, he found the animal and started to put the halter around its neck to lead it back to the stable ready for the morning, he struggled to get the straps around its head. In his desperation he looked up to the sky and shouted, ‘If I can’t halter thee, I’ll halter the devil.’

The church's interior. Image: Simon ElsonThe church's interior. Image: Simon Elson

As the words left his lips, a bolt of lightning lit up the night. Standing right in front of him was a black horned creature. Francis, it seemed, had summoned the devil with his rash challenging words.

His hands fell upon the horns and his fingers felt up and down them, checking whether he was holding what his eyes were showing him, he followed the hard shapes back to the beast’s head. He gave a cry of surprise and fainted. His wife who had been watching from the window, ran to his side.

‘Francis, my dear, come inside, you will catch your death,’ she said with affection.

He replied, although his answer was little more than ramblings. ‘The Devil.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ asked his puzzled wife.

‘The Devil, I’ve summoned the Devil, mark my words, get away while you still can.’ He pointed to the beast he had been trying to halter.

His wife looked up, a smile came up on her face when she saw one of their cows with a halter half around its neck. Her mind thought fast, perhaps this is what he needed to sober him up for good. Feigning shock, she ran over to the distressed bovine and removed the halter. She shooed it away.

Harmonium inside the church. Image: Simon ElsonHarmonium inside the church. Image: Simon Elson

‘Get away Devil, there is nothing for you here, no souls will be yours to take, we are good Christian people,’ she turned back to her husband: ‘Oh, Francis, you are right, let us get back safely to the house.’

She led her still dazed and confused husband back to their warm home, inside he collapsed into his usual chair beside the roaring fire. His wife tried a test, ‘Francis let me get you a nip of whisky.’

‘No, never again will I succumb to the evil of drink, from this day forward not a drop will pass my lips.’ He got up haltingly from his seat, I’m going to bed, he staggered into the hall and up the stairs. He spent the night tossing and turning in his sleep interrupted with visions of what he had seen hours earlier.

READ MORE: Why is Haddon Hall so unique?

The church's window. Image: Simon ElsonThe church's window. Image: Simon Elson

Next morning, he woke up at dawn and minutes he was pacing up and down a patch of ground adjacent to the house. His wife watched puzzled from the bedroom window, she opened and shouted down to her husband. ‘Francis what are you doing?’

Head still down, he carried on pacing while he replied, ‘I’m measuring.’

‘What for?’, she replied.

He looked up to his wife at the window, ‘I’m going to build a chapel, right here next to our house. Never again will the Devil walk upon my land and as long as I live and breathe, I will abstain from the evils of drink.’

His wife closed the window and shook her head in amazement at her husband, he genuinely believed he had seen the devil, it had turned him away from his drunken ways and turned his casual Christianity into a passion, should she tell him about his drunken mistake? she smiled to herself. ‘No, I don’t think he needs to know.’

Now the disclaimer (or perhaps confession is a better word) the above is ‘Faction’ - a blend of fact, fiction with an added dash of supposition. The facts are the Chapel was built and finished in 1723 complete with a plaque set into the wall - ‘Francis Brown in his old age did build him a hermitage in 1723’.

The word ‘hermitage’ can have several meanings. It can be a religious retreat occupied by an hermit or, in the 18th century, a social retreat like a modern-day summer house in the garden of country house, but a third meaning is probably the most accurate in this sense, a chapel built on private land that is seconded to a nearby Monastery or Parish church.

The plaque has long since been broken up and is now missing but there are eyewitness accounts of the time describing it in the records of the parish. Below the plaque were once painted some more words.

‘Who being old and full of evil, Once a time haltered the devil’

It is believed that Francis Brown did drunkenly try to halter a cow and then thought it was the devil, according to the accounts shouting the words: ‘If I can’t halter thee, I’ll halter the devil.’ The fiction was the rest of the dialogue and the supposition was the involvement of his wife and that she knew it was a cow. There are also differing accounts whether he was haltering his horse for a journey that night, possibly to an ale house in Derby, or getting ready for an early start for farm supplies the next morning, I chose the latter for my ‘faction’.

The chapel is still standing three centuries later. I decided to pay it a visit. I met up with Annette Eley, a member of the Mugginton Parochial Church Council. Upon Francis’ death in 1731, it was recorded that the chapel was to be left to the Parish Church at Mugginton, when his three surviving relatives had died, so since the mid-18th century it has been owned and maintained by Mugginton Church rather than the owners of the farm house to which it is attached.

Annette has been attending the church since moving to Mugginton in 1991 and is very fond of The Halter Devil Chapel. By talking to her I could tell she loved the building and its strange history.

The Chapel still holds services to this day, although the current pandemic situation at the time of writing has put these on hold for the time being. It isn’t licensed for weddings but baptisms are occasionally done there. Annette is a regular member of the congregation and her family have only missed one Christmas Day service since 1991, when she was out of the country one year for Christmas, but admits it felt wrong to be somewhere else that Christmas morning. Even when her children were teenagers the whole family arrived promptly for the 8am Christmas Day service.

The key to the chapel is a large mortice key and the lock is installed upside down, I was wondering if this had any significance in relation to the history of the church, to ward off the devil and such like, unfortunately after searching the internet for what seemed like an age, I couldn’t find anything to suggest this so I will have to just put it down to quirkiness.

The Chapel is furnished with pews, a small pulpit and an impressive Harmonium, a family heirloom that was kindly donated by a member of the congregation at Mugginton Church, after the original became beyond economical repair and sold on ebay. After acquiring the new harmonium, a 19th century example by Estey of Battleboro Vermont U.S.A it was restored by Phil Fluke, a renowned expert on organs and harmoniums. It is still in full working order and played at services.

The chapel can hold 15 to 20 and at times, especially at Christmas it can be standing room only. It is not open to visitors outside of services, due to it being on private land, and still attached to an inhabited farmhouse. If you do wish to visit, use the website achurchnearyou.com and enter Mugginton to get contact details and future service times and dates - when things are back to normal of course.

The Mugginton Local History Group are at present doing lots of their own research, ready for the chapel’s 300th anniversary in 2023. They hope some special events and services can be held to mark the event.

If any distant relatives of Francis Brown are reading this article, Mugginton Local History Group would love to hear from them, again get in touch via the achurchnearyou website – Mugginton.

One part of the research is going through the church records to find Francis Brown’s grave, it is known that he was laid to rest in Mugginton Churchyard, a short distance from the chapel but some grave stones have been removed due to damage and his whereabouts are currently unknown. It would be a fine tribute to Francis if he can be found in time for the anniversary in three years’ time.

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