Prior to the mid 17th Century, the inhabitants of this village had all belonged to an agricultural community, seeking what meagre living they could, from the land. For whatever reason, in about 1650 various people with connections in London began to buy land and settle around Stoke Golding.
Of these, surely Sir Henry Firebrace must be Stoke Golding’s most illustrious resident and benefactor, and a white marble monument to him is on the wall of the Lady Chapel in the Parish Church.
The family of Firebrace are supposed to be originally Norman, deriving their name from Fier à brás or Brás de Fer, which translates as “Strong of arm,” but when the family first came to England cannot be determined. From records of 1682 it appears that Henry was the sixth and youngest son of Robert Firebrace of Derby.
It is said he was born in Derby in 1619 and at 20 he was an apprentice to a money broker in All Hallowes, Barking. In 1643, Basil, Earl of Denbigh, who had estates near Monks Kirby in Warwickshire was appointed Commander in Chief of the Midlands District and Firebrace was chosen as Secretary to the Court and Council of War. It is believed he acted between Denbigh and the King and he became a friend and confidant of the latter.
He married Elizabeth, daughter of Daniel Dowell of Stoke Golding, in 1645 and they lived in St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe in London. In 1647 he was gazetted to serve in the King’s household, “at the Back Stairs”, and when Charles I was imprisoned by Cromwell in Carisbrooke Castle, on the Isle of Wight, he was “Page of the Bedchamber”.
He assisted in the King’s first attempt to escape imprisonment and he later took on the post of “Clerk of the Kitchen”. No doubt due to his allegiance to the King and the help he gave to his escape attempts, one of which ended with the King becoming stuck in a window, he was dismissed by the Sovereign’s gaolers. He returned to the mainland where he continued to write, offering help by providing a boat to carry the King from the island and horses along a proposed escape route, but these efforts were to no avail. Some of the letters between them are reproduced in “The History and Antiquities of Leicestershire” by J. Nichols, dated 1801.
When King Charles I was about to be executed and was on the scaffold, it is said that he gave Sir Henry Firebrace a ring which contained a portrait of His Majesty in diamonds.
Through marriage, the Firebrace family became related to the Earl of Denbigh and that ring was passed down from the Firebrace side of the family to the Denbighs, in whose possession it still remains.
On the restoration in 1660, Sir Henry was able to secure a position with the court of King Charles II as “Chief Clerk of the Kitchen”. He received further advancement and became a senior official in the King’s Household in 1680. He received his Knighthood in 1685, becoming Clerk Comptroller Supernumerary of the Royal Household and Assistant to His Majesty’s Officers of the Green Cloth.
His first wife had died and he married twice more. When his third spouse, Mary Dalton of Leatherhead, died in 1687 she was buried in Westminster Abbey.
His advancement continued and by 1685 he was Clerk Ordinary in the Court of King James II. However, long before then, he had made provision for his later life, for in 1678 he had bought a large country house in Stoke Golding. His connections had obviously begun long before, with his marriage to his first wife, a member of a Stoke Golding family. And so it was that, in 1689, upon the accession of William and Mary, he decided to retire to his country seat in this village.
His residence, which was called the Old Hall, was an imposing building standing opposite the church on what was, in those days, a bridle path to Dadlington. The house survived until 1850, when it was demolished by the Baxter family to make way for the Men’s Reading Room, which is now the school caretaker’s house. A wall bordering the Old Hall remained for even longer, known as Crinkle Crankle wall because of its shape; it was only demolished in living memory. A set of steps led from the house to the church.
No doubt the village people were pleased that such a wealthy and well connected member of the gentry had decided to live in their midst.
He settled well into his new life away from the Royal Court in London, buying property in Wykin and then a house and almost three hundred acres of land in Sutton Cheney, but he lived mainly in the Old Hall.
He spent the last two years of his life in these idyllic surroundings until his death, aged 72, on 27th January 1690/91. He was buried in the chancel of the Church and his offspring erected a white marble memorial, which is now in the lady chapel. The plaque, in Latin, recounts his life at court. His eldest son, Henry Firebrace D.D., who was a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, continued to live in the Old Hall until his death in 1708, for Henry senior’s will, made in 1680 bequeathed his house in Stoke and other property there and at Sutton Cheney to him, and thence to his second son, Basil, for Henry junior remained a bachelor.
That second son was Sir Basil Firebrace Bart., who was the father of the Right Honourable the Countess Dowager of Denbigh and Charles Firebrace who had King Charles II as his Godfather.
Other bequests in the will were, “To my daughter Susanna Hall, widow £100 together with £100 which I lately lent her: To my daughter Elizabeth £100: To my most worthy Aunt Mistress Hester Hodges, a spinster, of Somerset House, £20 to buy her a gold ring”. This grand lady, too, had Royal connections and founded Stoke Golding’s Grammar School.
Sir Henry must have loved the village he had come to live in, and the people and the church too, for he and his second son, Basil, gave to the church various items of communion plate which, although safely stored away are still in the possession of the church authorities.
These gifts are listed as follows:-
A silver cup and cover of twelve and a half ounces dated 1688. The Latin inscription shows the cup to have been gifted for the use of the church in 1689.
A seven ounce silver cover paten with a foot and a Latin inscription which translates as the Church of Stoke Golding HF A.D. 1689.
A forty three ounce silver flagon with a Latin inscription which states that the flagon and dish were given by Sir Basil Firebrace to the Church of Stoke Golding 1689.
A silver dish of 8.8ounces with a foot. It is inscribed in Latin which translated shows it was gifted to the Church of Stoke Golding B.F. A.D.1689.
Although Sir Henry and his family have long departed and his grand house, the Old Hall has been demolished, his life and achievements will be long remembered by reason of the marble memorial in the church and by his splendid and generous gifts of silver to the Church and the people of Stoke Golding.