Muncaster

Stretches from the coast inland as far as the chapelries of Ulpha and Eskdale, and is bounded on the north and south by Irton and Waberthwaite. It is situated in Bootle ward and petty sessional division; the county court district of Whitehaven; the deanery of Gosforth; and the union and rural district of Millom. Muncaster gives its name to a division for the election of a member of the county council. The parish comprises the two townships of Muncaster and Birkby, whose united area is 6,495 acres, which are assessed at 4,290. The population at the commencement of the past century was 448, in 1851 it was 623; in 1881, 648; it is now 571. The soil towards the sea is loamy and tolerably fertile; but further eastward it is mossy, and near the mountains gravelly. A vein of iron is supposed to exist at a place called Brankenwalls Gill; but neither coal, limestone, nor freestone is found in the parish. The Esk, Mite, and Irt are the only streams that enter it, and though of inconsiderable size they abound with trout, and afford excellent sport to the disciples of Izaak Walton. Woodcocks were once so plentiful in the district that "by a special custom the tenants were obliged to sell them to the lord at one penny each."

Muncaster is a place of great antiquity; the very sound of its name carries us back to the time when the mail-clad legions of Rome held in doubtful subjection our untutored British forefathers. In old documents Muncaster appears as Meolcastre, Mealcastre, and Mulcastre, the origin of the first portion of which we shall find in the Meso-Gothic, malma, sand; and is descriptive of the chief physical feature of the district. The second part castre, Latin castrum, a camp, tells the story of its Roman occupation. If further proof were needed beyond the Roman name, we have it in an old building bearing the appellation of Walls Castle, not far from Ravenglass, which is said to have been the residence of the Penningtons prior to the erection of their present castle. Some writers have ascribed to this building a British origin, but recent excavations and researches by the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian Society prove beyond doubt that the ruins are of Roman fabrication - that they once formed part of a Roman villa or Tepidarium. Both Roman and Saxon coins have been found here, as also stone axes and arrowheads, "the undoubted arms of our Celtic ancestors."

The walls are cemented with run lime - a mode of building which disproves the Celtic origin, as the ancient Britons had not attained to such perfection in the art of building. In the excavations carried out under the superintendence of the above society a hypocaust was found in a very good state of preservation; parts of the furnace and flue were readily recognisable. Tiles of different kinds were unearthed; and an arrangement of pillars, 30 in number, in three rows of 10 each, with arches resting on them, left unmistakeable proof of the nature of the structure. The charcoal, bones of domestic animals, broken pottery, and variously coloured glass, which were also found, were matters of less interest, but no unimportant evidences of its Roman origin.

The Manor of Muncaster has been held by the Penningtons from a very remote period. The first residence of the family was at Pennington in Furness, where may be seen the foundations of a square building, called the castle. They are said to have been located here before the Norman Conquest, and removed to their Cumberland residence about the year 1242. The first of the family of whom we possess any record was Gamel de Pennington, who lived in the reign of Henry II, and was a man of consequence even at that early period. From this Gamel, Francis Jocelyn Pennington, the present Lord Muncaster, is descended. The family name is derived from their Furnessian abode, but another branch of the family descended from David, the son of Benedict Pennington, adopted Mulcaster as their patronymic. In the 35th of Henry VIII, Sir William Pennington "held the manor of Mulcaster of the King, as of his castle of Egremont, by the service of the sixth part of a knight's fee, rendering yearly for sea-wake 12d., sergeants' food, &c.," together with the 17th part of a knight's fee for "the hamlet of Ravenglass." Several of the Penningtons were knighted for their valour, and their estates were settled in tail male in the 23rd of Edward IV. Sir William Pennington was created a baronet by Charles II in 1676, and was succeeded by Sir Joseph, Sir John, and Sir Joseph. The last mentioned had three sons, one of whom (John), was a colonel in the army at the time of the French Revolution, when he was created Lord Muncaster, an Irish peerage, without a seat in the House of Lords. The present Lord Muncaster is the fifth baronet, and succeeded to the title and estates in 1862. He was created an English peer, with a seat in the House of Lords, in 1898.

Muncaster Castle is a handsome modern structure, occupying a delightful situation on the side of an eminence north of the Esk. The old castle almost entirely disappeared under the restorations effected by the first baron Muncaster, who rebuilt nearly the whole pile. The principal tower of the old stronghold has been preserved, but it wears no longer the garb of antiquity. The castle is surrounded by beautifully laid-out grounds, comprising gardens, "devious walks," shrubberies, &c., and, from its situation, commands fine views of the wild mountain scenery bordering the vale of the Esk, and also an extensive sea prospect. The unfortunate Henry VI found shelter here, when a fugitive, after his defeat at the battle of Hexham, A.D. 1463.* The room in which the king slept has been scrupulously preserved throughout all the alterations and rearrangement of the buildings. The bedstead is of carved oak, bearing a crown, and the initials H.H. Henry left behind him a memento of his stay at the castle, which has since been known as the "Luck of Muncaster." It is "an ancient glass vessel of the basin kind, about seven inches in diameter, ornamented with some white enamelled mouldings." A similar relic is preserved at Edenhall, which has been rendered famous by its poetic legend. A new billiard room was added in 1886. The castle contains one of the finest libraries in the North of England.

The Church of Muncaster, dedicated to St. Michael, is an ancient structure, standing in a sequestered spot between the high road and the castle. Surrounded by a bosky shade, and covered with a dense mantle of ivy, the very appearance of the venerable edifice impresses the soul with sentiments of piety. Cold and callous, indeed, must be the heart of him who, hearing the tinkling of the twin bells break upon the solemn stillness of the Sabbath morn, does not feel within him promptings of a purer and a better world to come. The church consists of nave and chancel, with a small campanello, in which are two bells. Two stained-glass windows were inserted by Lord Muncaster, in memory of the two unfortunate gentlemen who were murdered by Greek brigands in the early part of 1870, when his lordship narrowly escaped a like fate at the same time. There was until recently, on the apex of the gable at the east end of the nave a small bell turret, which probably in Catholic times carried the "Sanctus Bell" - a bell rung to give notice, to such as could not be present, of the most solemn parts of the mass. The church contains numerous monuments of various members of the Pennington family. The earliest bears the date 1390. On another monument is the following inscription:- "Of youre charitie praye for the sowl of Syr John de Penyngton, sonne of Syr Alan de Penyngton, who hadde to wyfe Elizabeth dowter of Syr Nichols de Radcliffe de Derwentwater, a woman of noble blode yis Syr John resseved holie Kynge Harry whyche was Henry ye Sixth at Molcastre 1461. Kynge Harry gave Syr John a brauve workyd glasse cuppe, with his rod before yat whyllys the famylie shold keep it unbrecken thei shold gretelye thrif whyche cup is kalled the lucke of Molcastre. He was a grete captain, and heded the left winge of the armie agayne the Scotties; whiles Erle of Northumberland headed the mayne bodie." In the churchyard is the shaft of an ancient cross, four feet nine inches high. The church was appropriated to Conishead Priory by Gemel de Pennington, in the reign of Henry II. On the dissolution of religious houses it was again restored to the Pennington family, who have ever since held possession of it. Through its subjection to Conishead, Muncaster ranked only as a perpetual curacy, a title which it retained through all the mutations of religion, until Lord Blandford's Act constituted it a vicarage. The living was formerly certified as worth 10 a year, but in 1723 it was augmented with 200 from Queen Anne's Bounty. To the commissioners for inquiring into ecclesiastical revenues it was stated to be worth 97. In 188O the revenues of the church were further augmented by 3,000, contributed by Lord Muncaster and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The benefice is worth 202, and is in the incumbency of the Rev. Canon H. Bell, who is also rural dean, and chaplain to Lord Muncaster.

The School (mixed) has accommodation for 150, and an average attendance of 60. Master, William M. Birkett.

RAVENGLASS is a small but ancient market town and seaport in the parish of Muncaster. It is situated on a small creek at the confluence of the Esk, Mite, and Irt, which here form a sandy harbour. There are 22 feet of water on the bar in spring tides, and 12 feet at neap tides. Whatever may have been the former importance of Ravenglass as a seaport, it is now quite, deserted, save by an occasional manure-laden sloop in spring, bringing guano or other fertilizers for farm use, and discharging them on the beach. Its market is an ancient institution, dating as far back as A.D. 1209, when Richard Lucy, baron of Egremont, and lord paramount of the whole barony, obtained a charter from King John to hold a market and yearly fair. But the fair is now obsolete, and the market little more than a name. Fairs were formerly held three times in the year, viz., May 6, June 8, and August 5. The last-mentioned one, until within a few years of its abandonment, was attended with some singular circumstances. Nicolson and Burn, who published their exhaustive "History of Cumberland" in 1777, tell us that the fair was held "on the eve, the day and the morrow of St. James. On the first of these days, in the morning, the lord's officer, on proclaiming the fair, is attended by the sergeants of the bow of Egremont, with the insignia belonging thereto; and all the tenants of the forest of Copeland owe a customary service to meet the lord's officer at Ravenglass, in a place set out for that purpose. On the third day, at noon, the earl's officer discharges the fair by proclamation; immediately whereupon the Penningtons and their tenants take possession of the town, and have races and other divertisements during the remainder of the day." Annual Sports are now held on this day, August 5th. The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway forms a junction here with the Whitehaven and Furness line, which runs through the village. This line was opened September 16, 1876, and is the shortest registered railway in Great Britain. In its course of 7 miles, it passes though a district full of the most varied and pleasing scenery, and gives access to several interesting Druidical remains, Wastwater, Scawfell, and other mountains in the immediate neighbourhood. The town consists chiefly of one long straggling street, but many of the houses are well built. There is a Public Hall built in the Swiss style, with a residence at each end. It was erected at the sole expense of Lord Muncaster, and is used during the week as an Infant School, and on Sunday evenings for religious purposes. The number of names on the books at present is 32. Mistress, Miss M.B. Dickinson. A Reading Room was established in 1862. The premises were enlarged in 1898 at the expense of Lord Muncaster, and a billiard-table added, the gift of Miss Ramsden.

BIRKBY is a small township, containing a few scattered houses, three miles east of Ravenglass, and on the south side of the river Esk. Its population, acreage, and ratable value are included in the parish returns. At a place called Chapel-garth, in this township, some ruins were dug up in 1822, supposed to have been those of the chapel or church which formerly stood here. On Birkby Fell are the remains of a fort or encampment, said to be the ruins of the ancient city of Barnscar, or Bardscar, which, tradition tells us, was peopled by the Danes. According to Mr. Ferguson the name is pure Scandinavian, and is "derived from its probable founder, some Norseman called Barna or Bardi." The circumference of the city and suburbs appears to have been about three miles. In the beginning of the eighteenth century a large treasure of silver coin was found concealed in the foundation of one of the houses, none of which, unfortunately, has been preserved to tell its history. An ancient road passed through the city, leading from Ulpha to Ravenglass. A popular legend tells us that Barnscar was peopled by taking the men of Drigg and marrying them to the women of Beckermet; and hence the saying, "Let us gang together like lads o' Drigg and lasses o' Beckermet." A similar circumstance, we may mention, is recorded of ancient Rome, where the men who had been gathered into the city, carried off the Sabinian women for their wives.

Walls is the name given to a mansion built by Lord Muncaster in 1885. It is close to the ruins of Walls Castle, and is the residence of the Earl and the Countess of Erroll. Newtown, another fine mansion, is the residence of Lady Harriet L'Estrange, the mother of Lady Muncaster.

CHARITIES. - There were formerly several charities attached to this parish. They are now all lost with the exception of 20, the interest of which is distributed among the poor at Easter.

*This event is generally supposed to have taken place in 1461, and that date is given on a picture in the castle, and also on a monument in Muncaster Church; but there are strong reasons for believing that this date is not correct, and that the monarch's sojourn at the castle occurred after the battle of Hexham, 14th May, 1463, when Henry's troops ware defeated, and the King became a fugitive.

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Bulmer's History & Directory Of Cumberland, 1901


19 June 2015

Steve Bulman