Lanercost Parish

This is an ecclesiastical parish, comprising a large and picturesque district, extending about ten miles in length from E. to W., and nine from N. to S., bounded on the south and east by the river Irthing, on the north by the parish of Bewcastle, and on the west by the parishes of Walton and Stapleton. It is intersected by the Kingwater and several smaller streams. The soil in the lowlands is generally loamy and fertile; on the eastern side, bordering on Northumberland, it is cold and sterile; but on the banks of the Irthing and Kingwater, where it rests upon limestone, good grain crops are produced. The parish was formerly divided into four townships, viz., Askerton, Burtholme, Kingwater, and Waterhead, but these have been, according to the Local Government Act of 1894, constituted distinct civil parishes; but for all ecclesiastical matters the first three mentioned and part of the fourth remain united under the name of the old parish.


Is a civil parish, comprised within the ward and petty sessional division of Eskdale, county council electoral division of Farlam, and poor law union, deanery, county court, and rural districts of Brampton. Burtholme-with-Askerton, Kingwater, and Waterhead, formed the old parish of Lanercost, but according to the Local Government Act of 1894, these four townships have been constituted distinct civil parishes, but the three first mentioned remain united, for ecclesiastical purposes, under the name of the ancient parish. The principal owners of the soil are the Earl of Carlisle, John Joseph Addison, Esq., J.P., the Hill, Gilsland; George Bell Routledge, Esq., J.P., Tarn lodge; and William Martin, 41 Cheswick street, Carlisle. The parish covers about 2,148 acres, which are rated at £1,682, and the buildings at £641, while the gross rental reaches £2,569.

In Burtholme stand the ruins of the priory, which has given a name to the ecclesiastical parish of Lanercost. This monastery was founded, according to a tradition related in the Denton MSS., by Robert de Vallibus, or Vaux, in expiation of the crime of murder. This story the Messrs. Ferguson, in their "Lanercost Priory," treat as fabulous, and show that there were other reasons for its foundation. A tablet placed in the church in 1751 gives the date of its erection as 1116, but the same writers have shown that this is also incorrect. The language of the charter of foundation shows that the father of Robert de Vaux was dead at the time, and that event did not occur until 1164. The church was consecrated in 1169, and placed under the patronage of St. Mary Magdalene. The priory was endowed by its founder with all the land between the Roman Wall and the Irthing, and between Burgh and the Poltross burn. He also gave the village and church of Walton, the chapel of Triermain, and the churches of Irthington, Brampton, Carlatton, and Farlam; the land of Warthcolman, Roswrageth Apeltre thwayt, and Brenkiber Moor; pasture for thirty cows and twenty sows, with their young, for two years in the forest of Walton; the bark of the timber wood on their lands, and the dry and fallen wood in his forest for fuel; liberty to erect mills, and to fish in the Irthing, King, Hetheringburn, and elsewhere. Besides these gifts, the founder still further enriched the priory by granting to it the two Askertons, and the tithes of almost everything bred, grown, or made on the farms. Others emulated the pious founder, and benefactions were conferred upon the newly founded house, until it must have sorely puzzled the prior to know the extent of his possessions and privileges. The bare enumeration would fill two pages of this book. Amongst them were grants of land, pasturage for sheep, rent charges, and several villeins with their wives and families. The priory became not only the favourite of kings, it was also taken under the ęgis of several popes, as attested by the charters of Alexander III, Honorius III, Lucius III, Innocent III, and Gregory XI. Many and valuable privileges were granted to Lanercost by kings and pontiffs - privileges which clash with our ideas in this matter-of-fact age, but which at a time when might rather than right ruled, were highly beneficial to the less powerful members of the community. It possessed the right of sanctuary, that is, freedom from arrest for its inmates and others fleeing thither from the pursuit of the law; a privilege akin to that of the Cities of Refuge recorded in the Bible. During interdicts, when the churches were closed and no sacraments administered, the members were permitted to celebrate mass privately in their own church. If there be any value in a papal curse, then woe to him who should injure or despoil this house, for he incurred the malediction of God and the Saints, and the anathemas of His Holiness.

The fortunate grantees of the new monastery were the Augustinians, or Black Canons, an order of regular clergy living in community, under rule and discipline.

The information we possess of the history of this house is of a fragmentary character, contained in the Chartulary or Register of Lanercost. The original MS., formerly at Naworth Castle, cannot now be found, but a copy of it, made by Mr. Nicholson, one of the editors of the History of Cumberland, in 1777, is preserved in the library of the dean and chapter of Carlisle. Another manuscript, known as the Chronicle of Lanercost, was long supposed to be the work of some inmate of this house, but has been proved by Mr. William Stevenson to be the production of a friar minor of Carlisle. It is a history of the times, and was found in the library of the dissolved priory; but beyond an allusion to the visit of Edward I to Lanercost, there is nothing to connect it with that house. It appears from that document that Edward I and his queen, Eleanor, paid a visit to Lanercost while on their way to Scotland, in 1280, and presented the prior and convent with a cloth of silk. The king, it seems, devoted a portion of his time to hunting in Inglewood forest, where he is said to have killed 200 deer. In the March following, Ralph Irton, Bishop of Carlisle, made his visitation of the priory, and, was, according to custom, met at the gates with great pomp. In 1296 the priory suffered from an incursion of the Scottish army, 40,000 strong, who burnt the conventual buildings, but not the church, and then fled on the approach of the English. The Scots again, the following year, led by Wallace, plundered the priory. In 1306, we find Edward I at Lanercost, unable, from the infirmities of age and sickness, to follow his army into Scotland. He continued the guest of the prior from Michaelmas until the 28th of the following February. The burden of maintaining the royal retinue must have sorely taxed the resources of the prior; but the brotherhood lost nothing by their hospitality; royal gifts and appropriations followed, by which they were requited a hundredfold. Several writs and documents received the royal signature at Lanercost; one of the most important of these was the writ of expulsion against Piers Gaveston. From Lanercost Edward despatched his judges to Berwick, where, as Stow informs us, they tried hundreds and thousands of breakers of the peace and conspirators, many of whom were hanged, and the Countess of Bowen was enclosed in a cage, whose dimensions did not exceed eight feet each way, and hung over the walls of the town. Another incident occurred during the king's sojourn which illustrates still further the fierce and cruel manners of the age. Dungall Machduel, a noble of Galway, captured Thomas and Alexander Bruce, the latter dean of Glasgow, brothers of Robert Bruce, and also Reginald de Crawford. They were sent prisoners to the king at Lanercost, and with them were sent the heads of a petty Irish king, a gentleman of Cantyre, and two nobles, whose names are not recorded. The only crime of the Scotchmen was their patriotism, and of the Irishman his having fought in the army of Bruce. The priestly character of Alexander Bruce could not save him from an ignominious death; Thomas, his brother, was dragged by horses round the city, then hanged and beheaded, and his head stuck upon a spike above the castle of Carlisle, the others were merely hanged and beheaded, and their heads placed in couples on the three gates of the town. This was Edward's last visit to the north; he died at Burgh-by-Sands on the 7th of July following.

Royal visits, however, were not always welcome events at Lanercost. In 1311 Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, invaded Cumberland, and was, for three days, the unbidden guest of the prior. He imprisoned several of the canons, but set them at liberty on his departure. In 1346 the Scottish army, under David Bruce, again invaded the county, and the priory became a prey to their depredations. They plundered the monastic treasury, profaned the sacred vessels, and destroyed the property. In 1357, Thomas de Hexham was appointed prior. Thomas, it appears, was no ascetic; he was fond of pleasure, and the bishop exacted from him, besides the oath of canonical obedience, a solemn promise to abstain from frequenting public huntings, and not to keep so large a pack of hounds as he had formerly done. From a letter of Bowet, Archbishop of York, to his suffragan, dated 18th April, 1409, we learn that the conventual buildings were then in a ruinous condition; the priory lands lay uncultivated, and the monks reduced to such straightened circumstances that they were obliged to appeal to the generosity of the faithful to enable them to restore the priory, and to serve God according to the rules of their order. The Archbishop was himself a Black Canon; and, as "a fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind," he desires all his bishops to give the monks, when they come collecting in their dioceses, a cordial reception; to aid them in obtaining subscriptions; and, further, to let them have the money without any deduction. To all who subscribed to the restoration fund he granted an indulgence of forty days. From this time until the suppression, the priory passed an uneventful existence, its very name being dropped from the Register of the Bishops. At the dissolution it consisted of a prior and seven canons, whose yearly income was, according to Speed, £79 19s. In 1543 the priory lands were granted to Thomas Dacre, a descendant of the founder, reserving only the parish church and burial ground, with the house, stables, granary, and garden called Uttergate, for the residence of the curate. Edward VI granted a more comprehensive patent, in which he included the churches of Lanercost, Grinsdale, Farlam, Lazonby, Brampton, and Irthington, and the chapel of Walton, their advowsons and patronage, and all the tithes of corn, grain, sheaves, &c.; and all the houses, land, and tithes belonging to those rectories; also a water mill at Walton, and all the property held by the late priory in Walton, Thorney Moor, Whitehill, Wall, Dosecite, Burtholme, Banks, St. Mary's Holme, Waltholme, Irthing, King, Brampton, Haverhen, Denton, and Carlisle; all the fairs and markets of those places, courts leet, views of frankpledge, waifs, strays, goods of felons and fugitives, &c., &c., to be holden by the said Thomas Dacre, Knt., and his heirs for ever of the king in capite, by the service of the fortieth part of a knight's fee, rendering for the same £55 17s. 7d. This Thomas, an illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Dacre, fitted up the conventual buildings for his residence, which was occupied by his descendants till the demise of James Dacre, Esq., in 1716, without male issue, when the priory estate reverted to the Crown. It was afterwards held on lease by the earls of Carlisle, but was purchased by them some time ago.

Had the Crown, whilst receiving the revenues, spent a little in maintaining the fabric in repair, Lanercost might have possessed one of the finest parish churches in the county. The ruinous state into which it was permitted to fall, may be surmised from the following advertisement from the Newcastle papers of May, 1775:-

"Whereas some evil-disposed person did, some time this spring, enter into the ruinous part of Lanercost Church or Priory, and did feloniously take away from out of a vault in the said Church a lead coffin, which contained the remains of Lord William Dacre, Knight of the Garter. A reward of ten guineas on the conviction of the offenders. - Naworth Castle, 9th May, 1775."

Mr. Hutchinson, writing 1795, says he was told by an old person who lived near the abbey, that some years previous one of the sepulchral vaults fell in, which excited his curiosity to view the remains deposited there, when he found several bodies entire; one in particular, with a white beard down to his waist; but in a few days they were reduced to dust. Not content with the work of the mighty destroyer, Time, the volunteers, it is said, at a later period, aided in its destruction by making the walls a target for ball practice.

The Ruins, - A shattered ivy-covered gateway gives access to the precincts of the grey ruins of the priory, which strangers are permitted to visit between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., on application at the vicarage. The ruined buildings consist of the remains of the church, the refectory, and the cloisters. A study of the architecture shows that the church occupied nearly a hundred years in building. The oldest portions were erected in the early part of the Transitional period, and the later portion when the florid Early English had attained perfection. This is seen in the beautiful west front, the most modern portion of the church. A beautiful and elaborately moulded doorway gave entrance to the nave, and above this is a series of elegant niches, which once probably contained the sculptured images of Christ and the Twelve Apostles; filling up the wall is a window of seven tall lancets, the alternate ones only pierced for light. Surmounting the central lancet is a canopied niche, containing the statue of a female, probably Mary Magdalene, the patroness of the priory.

The church, as was usual with all those belonging to monastic establishments, was cruciform; and consisted of nave with north aisle, transepts, choir, and chancel. The tower, rising from the intersection of the transepts, is 75 feet high, 26 feet 9 inches square, and rests upon massive piers. The nave, in the time of Bishop Nicholson, was roofless and in ruin, the aisle only being used as the parish church; it was afterwards repaired and used for Divine service. On the 14th September, 1847, a portion of the roof immediately over the Communion table fell in. By the aid of a grant from the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, the nave was again restored, and set apart for Divine service. It has since undergone extensive repairs, the entire cost being defrayed by the Howard family. A colonnade or triforium, encircles the nave in the upper part, and gives it a light and elegant appearance. On each side of the chancel is a row of massive circular columns, supporting on the one side a dilapidated clerestory, and on the other a triforium, above which is the clerestory. The aisles thus formed have been used as chapels.

There are several monuments in this part of the church; in the north transept is the tomb of Sir Rowland Vaux, of Triermain; and in another chapel is that of Lord Humphrey Dacre, Warden of the Western Marches, in the reign of the unfortunate Richard II, who died in 1485, and Mabel Parr, his wife. In an archway between the south chapel and the choir, is the richly-sculptured altar tomb of the puissant Thomas Lord Dacre, who commanded the reserve forces at the battle of Flodden Field, and died in 1526; and another is that of Lord William Dacre, whose leaden coffin was stolen out of the vault in 1775. The most recent tomb is that of the Hon. C.W.G. Howard, who represented East Cumberland for forty years, and was buried here in 1879.

The transepts, tower, chancel, and chapels are now roofless and in ruins; but their ivy-covered walls add picturesqueness to the view. In the walls of the various chapels may be seen the remains of the piscina, into the basins of which the water used in the mass was poured and carried by a tube into the earth. A portion of the sedila, in which the priest and his attendants sat at certain parts of the mass, is still preserved in the wall of the choir; but it has not been a work of elaborate carving as was frequently the case in conventual churches.

Adjoining the church on the south side were the cloisters, around which was the ambulatory enclosing a garth now converted into a garden. Surrounding the cloisters were the conventual buildings, consisting of the prior's lodge, the refectory, dormitories, and other domestic offices.

Much of the stone used in the erection of the priory was obtained from the great Roman Wall, and both altars and inscribed stones have been found embedded in the walls. Into the east wall of the crypt, near the south-east corner, has been built a centurial stone bearing the inscription "C. COH : X. P. F." which may be read Centuria cohortes decimę ponedum fecit, i.e., A century of the tenth cohort caused this to be placed. Another centurial stone is found on the outside of the eastern wall of the refectory inscribed "C CASSII PRISCI" - the Century of Cassius Priscus. An altar, first noticed in 1744, and described in the "Gentleman's Magazine," was lost sight of until rediscovered by the Rev. Mr. Maughan, forming the keystone of an arch in the clerestory of the southeast corner of the choir. The inscription upon it may be thus translated:- "To Jupiter, the best and greatest, the first cohort of the Dacians, styled the OElian, commanded by Julius Saturninus, the tribune (dedicated this)."

In the crypt are preserved several other relics of Roman occupation, including altars, mill stones, &c., which have been found in the neighbourhood. One brought from Birdoswald is an altar dedicated to the God Silvanus by the huntsmen of Banna. Another altar, found at the hamlet of Banks, is dedicated to the God Cocideus by the soldiers of the 20th legion, styled the Valerian and the Victorious, during the consulship of Aper and Rufus.

The only other portion of the buildings requiring special notice is an old border tower, probably once surrounded by an outer court connecting it with the priory. This was erected as a place of refuge and defence during the troublous times of the Edwardian period; it was here also that persons of distinction were lodged when they visited the priory. A chamber is still pointed out bearing the name of the "King's Chamber," where it is said Edward I lodged during his stay at Lanercost.

These are the most noticeable features of an edifice characterised by the simplicity of its style, rather than by its elaboration or sculptured embellishment. Though curtailed of its fair proportions, and less noble and majestic than of yore, yet happily the voice of praise has never ceased to ascend within its walls, since Robert de Vallibus first reared the cross in the vale of Gilsland, seven hundred years ago. The benefice, now a vicarage, is held, in conjunction with Kirkcambeck, by the Rev. Thomas William Willis, M.A., and is in the patronage of the trustees of the Earl of Carlisle. The living is worth £215 a year. An Act of Parliament was obtained in 1802 for the enclosure of the commons, when allotments of land were made to the impropriator and vicar in lieu of tithes.

The school, situated at a place called Island, was rebuilt in 1862. The attendance averages 43. The straggling village of Banks, four miles N.E. of Brampton, is partly in this parish.

The great Roman Wall ran through Burtholme and portions of it may still be seen.



Bulmer's History & Directory Of Cumberland, 1901

19 June 2015

© Steve Bulman