St. Bees

Is a parish of 1,715 acres, situated in Allerdale-above-Derwent ward, and petty sessional division; and the deanery, poor law union, rural and county court districts of Whitehaven. St. Bees gives its name to a division, for the election of a member of the county council. The area embraced within its limits measures 1,715 acres, which are assessed at 6,898. The population at the beginning of last century numbered 409, and in 1882 it had increased to 1,150. It is now about 1,300. The principal landowner is the Earl of Lonsdale, but the manorial rights are vested in the governors of St. Bees Grammar School. Other proprietors of the soil are Henry Fox, Esq.; Mr. Waugh, Mrs. Anderson, and the Parish Council. The name is derived from an Irish saint, Bega, an abbess, who founded a small nunnery here about the year 650. She spent her life in the practice of piety, virtue, and self-abnegation, and soon earned for herself the reputation of a saint. After her decease a church was built on the spot, and placed under the tutelage of Sancta Bega. Many legends are connected with the name of this saint; and various and contradictory accounts have been given of the foundation of the nunnery. The common version is the traditionary account related by Mr. Sandford in his MSS., preserved in the library of the Dean and Chapter, Carlisle. From these MSS., it would appear that a ship, containing a lady abbess and her sister nuns, was "driven in by stormy weather at Whitehaven." The abbess applied for relief to the lady of Egremont, and she, taking compassion on their destitution, obtained of her lord a dwelling place for them "at the now St. Bees," where they "sewed and spinned, and wrought carpets and other work, and lived godly lives, as got them much love." The MS. relates further that the lady of Egremont, at the request of the abbess, besought her lord to give them some land "to lay up treasure in heaven," and that "he laughed and said he would give them as much land as snow fell upon the next morning, being Midsummer day; and on the morrow as he looked out of his castle window, all was white with snow for three miles together. And thereupon builded this St. Bees Abbie, and gave all those lands was snowen unto it, and the town (?) and haven of Whitehaven, &c. " How much of truth or of fiction there may be in the tradition is not our place to determine. Though the name of Sancta Bega is invariably connected with the snow miracle, different though it be in the several traditions, in this one there is an evident anachronism committed by introducing the lord of Egremont, who lived in the time of Ranulph Meschines, many hundred years after the death of the mild saint.

"Old legends say, to prove her wond'rous right,
Still on the eve of midsum's sacred light,
When the deep shades have mantled o'er the skies,
The silent forms of shadowy shapes arise,
And the mild saint amid her pious train
Betakes with printless steps her course again,
And spreads her snow-white mantle o'er the plain."

Of the history of this Convent from its foundation until the reign of Henry I tradition is silent. Its proximity to the coast would doubtless invite a visit from the hardy Norsemen in their piratical excursions, and there is every probability to suppose that it suffered destruction at their hands. "On their conversion to Christianity the fierce sons of the North gave a name to this place in their own language, and Kirkby Beges, Kirkby Begok, or Kirkby Betock, the church town of St. Bees, the name by which it is known in ancient records, proves that round the church and altar, which their forefathers so ruthlessly destroyed, the Christian Danes formed themselves into a community, or town, in which they dwelt, mixed up, no doubt, with a goodly number of Angles, till the time when the Norman brought England into subjection, and parcelled out its fair fields among his followers. "

Beyond its name we have nothing to guide us in tracing the history of St. Bees until the time of William de Meschines, the Norman grantee under his brother, Ranulph de Meschines, who at an early date after the Conquest restored the monastic buildings, and gave them to the celebrated Benedictine Abbey of St. Mary, York. According to the charter of foundation the grantor "gave to God, St. Mary of York, and St. Bega, and monks serving God there, all the wood within their boundaries, and everything within the same, except hart and hind, boar and hawk; and all liberties within their bounds, which he himself had in Copeland, as well on land as on water, both salt and fresh." The convent at this time consisted of a prior and six monks; and William further enriched them by a grant of seven carucates of land; the chapel of Egremont, the tithes of his demesne of Copeland, and of his men there; the tithes of his fisheries, hogs, venison, pannage and vaccaries throughout Copeland; and the manor of Ennerdale.

Benefactions were made and privileges granted by so many pious Normans, that the prior of St. Bees must have looked out on his wide domains with the pride of a prince. Of these numerous grants were the chapel of Stainburn from Waltheof; the church of Preston from Ketel; two bovates of land and one villein in Rottington from Reiner; the churches of Whittington and Botelle from Godard; and Swarthoft from William de Lancaster. All these gifts were confirmed by Ranulph, son of William de Meschines, the first grantee. These benefactions were again confirmed to the prior of St. Bees about the year 1192, by William de Fortibus, Earl of Albermarle, whose charter may be seen at length in Dugdale's Monasticon. But the possessions of the prior extended beyond the limits of the county, he was a baron of Man, and had lands and tithes in that island, for which he was called upon, on certain occasions, to do homage to the Manx king.

The little community, leading their quiet sequestered lives at St. Bees, seem to have taken no active part in any of the great questions which agitated church and state during the middle ages. On one occasion we find the prior of St. Bees appointed arbiter in a matter of dispute between the abbot of Furness and the vicar of Dalton, as to the right of burial claimed by the latter over the church of Hawkeshead, which was twenty miles distant from the mother church. Beyond this and the continual fear of an eruption of marauding Scots into the district, they passed their quiet and unobtrusive lives in works of charity and prayer. The exposed situation of the house, and its proximity to the Scottish border, rendered them at all times liable to these unwelcome visits. In one of their raids, the Scotch, under Sir James Douglas, whose name carried terror into the heart of every man in Cumberland, and whose cruelties earned for him the well-merited epithet of the Black Douglas, plundered St. Bees abbey, and burnt the manor houses of Cleator and Stainburn. At a later period, about the year 1523, when the Duke of Albany was regent of Scotland, during the young king's minority, and the English were at war with France, the prior, in a state of the utmost consternation, wrote to Lord Dacre, warden of the west marches, beseeching his protection against the meditated invasion by the Scotch.


My right honorable and myst speciall good Lord, in my most lawley manner I recomende me unto your good Lordship, evermore beseking our Lorde God to reward your good Lordship for me at all tymes. And now as especially as I can think, I besiche your good Lordship for your good contynuance. For my good Lord, it is thus of surtie that great nombre of shippis are sene upon this cost, both on Fridaye and Saturdaye last past. And we have warnyng that they are of the Duke of Albany's company, and woll land upon us here in Cowplande and destroye us utterly. Wherefore my speciall good Lord, I besiche your good Lordship to regard this pour cost and country, which belongeth unto your merchies and undre your protection, and is not accustomed with such weres, but only such certein gentilmen and their company, as your said Lordship have called upon heretofore at your time of nede, that ye wol be good Lorde nowe, so as to assigne and command Mr. Christopher Curwen, of Wirkington, and Mr. John Lamplew, lieutenaunt of Cockermouth, and Mr. Richard Skelton, of Branthwaite, to give attendaunce, with the help and aide with the hole company of this little Angle of Cowplande, to resist and defende the countrey with the grace of God and prayer of his holy sainctes, to whome your Lordship now may bynde us evermore to pray for your good preservation and good spede. And els I cannot see, but this countrey shal be utterly destroyed for ever, which God forbid, whom I hartily besiche to preserve and prosper your good Lordship, with all goodness after your deasire - Amen. Scriblyd in hast at Sainct Bees, upon Sainct Luke day the evangelist,

By your awne dayely hedeman.
Dom. Robert Alanby, prior of Sainct Bees aforesaid."

Had the dreaded invasion taken place, and the convent been wrecked, it would have but anticipated the more complete destruction which overtook the abbey a dozen years afterwards. The storm was brewing, there were signs in the political horizon as well as dark and ominous clouds in the religious firmament, which portended a speedy explosion. The King, who boasted that he "never spared woman in his lust nor man in his anger," had squandered the immense wealth left by his father; and the revenues and possessions accumulated by the religious orders offered a ready means of replenishing his exhausted coffers.

The storm at last burst; sundry charges were laid against the monks. A general visitation was appointed; and, whether the charges were proven or not, the fiat of dissolution went forth. The brotherhood were expelled from their home, and the abbey and its revenues were taken possession of in the King's name. The lands and emoluments belonging to the priory yielded a yearly income of 149 19s. 6d. according to Speed, or 143 17s. 2d. by Dugdale's valuation. There were only two religious houses in the county more amply endowed than St. Bees. This income, though apparently trifling, represented a purchasing power of 900 of present money. Thus was "the parish sacrilegiously robbed, not only of the endowments which had been appropriated for works of charity and education, but even of a suitable maintenance for its ministers, and to such an extent, that in 1705 the church was certified of only the annual value of 12."

Edward VI, in the seventh year of his reign (1553), granted to Sir Thomas Challoner, Knight, the manor, rectory, and cell of St. Bees, with all its rights and possessions (not granted away by the Crown before), to be holden by him and his heirs "in fee farm rent of the King as of his manor of Sheriff Hutton, in Yorkshire, in free and common soccage by fealty only, and not in capite, paying to the Crown yearly the fee farm rent of 143 16s. 2d." His successor, Mary, in conjunction with her husband Philip, attempted to restore to the church some of the confiscated property. The yearly rents of St. Bees were given to Cuthbert Scott, Bishop of Chester, and his successors, subject to an annual payment of 43 8s. 4d. to the Crown. The Wyberghs succeeded the Challoners in the ownership of the manor; but having been sufferers for their loyalty in the civil wars of Charles I, they mortgaged St. Bees to the Lowther family, and on a suit instituted by Sir John Lowther, of Whitehaven, the equity of redemption was foreclosed, and the estate decreed to him and his heirs in the year 1663, in which family it has since continued, and now forms part of the possessions of the Earl of Lonsdale, who is lord of the manor, and patron and impropriator of the benefice.

The Village of St. Bees lies in a narrow valley near the rocky promontory to which it gives its name. It has been distinguished from remote ages for its religious and scholastic foundations, and at the present day two of the most noteworthy objects of the village are the college and the grammar school. A small stream called the Pow, or Poe, crossed by a bridge bearing the date 1585 and the arms of Archbishop Grindal, separates the church, college, and school from the rest of the village, then dividing, reaches the sea by two separate channels.

The Priory Church at the dissolution was unroofed for the value of the lead which covered it, and remained in that condition, a prey to wind and weather, until 1611, when the villagers began to feel the want of a parish church. The tower had fallen in, crushing the east wall of the south transept, and the clerestory and the north wall of the nave had disappeared. The chancel, too, was a ruin. But in 1611 the nave was re-roofed and repaired, and converted into the parish church. The reparation must, however, have been of a very limited character, for, eleven years after, the inhabitants of the five chapelries forming the parish were ordered by the Bishop of Chester (Dr. Bridgman) to contribute to the repairs of this the mother church. It remained in that state of partial restoration for about 200 years, when several improvements were effected. In 1855 the transepts were re-roofed and added to the church. A peal of eight bells was purchased in 1858 by subscription, and the fallen tower rebuilt to receive them; and in 1881 the aisles were re-roofed, at a cost of about 900. A bust of the late William Ainger, D.D., by the celebrated sculptor Lough, and a monumental slab were placed in the church by subscription, as a tribute of affection from sorrowing pupils and friends. In 1898 the roof was repaired at a cost of 150. There is now accommodation for 1,000 persons. The living, styled in the Diocesan Calendar a vicarage, is worth 160, and is held by the Rev. R.H. Snape; patron, Lord Lonsdale. The church commands the admiration of the beholder, not for its magnitude nor ornamentation, but for the beauty of its design, It appears to have been built about the middle of the 12th century, in the transition period when the Norman style of architecture was gradually giving place to the Gothic; and we accordingly find examples of both styles in the edifice. The portions rebuilt in 1611 are of the barbarous style, which was prevalent about that period. The west door is a fine specimen of Norman work; the pillars and arches vary in design. A few fragments of Bega's building still exist. The lower part of a seventh or eighth century cross may be seen in the churchyard, and sepulchral slabs of various ages are preserved in and around the building. The south transept contains a splendid organ, erected by Henry Willis, of London, the renowned organ builder, at a cost of about 1,600. The church is rich in its stained-glass windows, beautiful alike in design and execution, which impart to it an aspect of solemn, devotional grandeur. The handsome metal chancel screen, erected to the memory of Mr. William Fox, was designed by Mr. Butterfield, and cost about 400.

St. Bees Grammar School was founded in 1587, by Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury, under a charter from Queen Elizabeth. The school was formerly known as the Free Grammar School; but all the provisions of the original charter have been abrogated, and new constitutions drawn up in conformity with the Endowed Schools Act of 1869, 1873, and 1874, and the school is now administered according to the provisions of a scheme approved by her Majesty in Council, May, 1881. By the charter of foundation the headmaster must be a native of Cumberland, Westmorland, Yorkshire, or Lancashire, and the scholars were limited to those born in Cumberland or Westmorland. The benevolent founder appointed certain lands to be purchased of the yearly value of 50, for the maintenance of his school; for the finding of one fellow and the scholars in Pembroke Hall, 20; to the schoolmaster, 20; to the usher, 3 6s. 8d.; to the receiver for his fee, 1; for the dinner at the annual meeting of the governors, 13s. 4d.; the residue to be applied to repairs and other necessary charges. James I, in 1604, in augmentation of the endowment, granted to this seminary sixteen messuages or tenements in Sandwith, being parcel of the possessions of the priory, with pasture for 300 sheep on Sandwith Marsh; forty-eight messuages in the manor of St. Bees, with divers quit rents, &c., and 16s. 8d. called Walk Mill Silver, payable yearly by the tenants of the manor; a rent of 24s. out of the manor of Hensingham; with four messuages at Hensingham and Wray.

The school has received many grants and donations since its foundation, and there are several Exhibitions at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, open to the scholars. The school-house is a plain, substantial building near the church. The present headmaster is the Rev. W.T. Newbold, M.A. According to the revised scheme, the school is now carried on as a day and boarding school, and is open to all boys, irrespective of their place of birth. Boarders are received into the houses of the head and second masters at a charge of 40 per annum, in addition to the tuition fee of 8 in the lower School and 12 in the upper school. In the hostel, under the care of a matron and two resident masters, and the general supervision of the headmaster, the boarding fee is 25. The governors are directed to maintain foundation scholarships for boarders in the hostel, value 16 a year each, which exempt the holder from the payment of tuition fees. Of these one-third will be open to general competition, one-third confined to the natives of Cumberland and Westmorland, and one-third confined to candidates from some public elementary school in the above two counties. These scholarships are 18 in number. There are also two scholarships, value 15 a year each, for boarders in the masters' houses; also an Exhibition scholarship for a boy born in Egremont parish, raised by the sale of the old infant school and site. The school buildings have been enlarged and modernised, and a house built for the headmaster in 1886. A swimming bath was added in 1889, and a fine gymnasium in 1899. The grounds are large and beautifully-situated, and contain cricket and football grounds and pavilion.

The following Exhibitions are attached to the school:- Five Grindal Exhibitions, each value 40 a year for three years, tenable at any place of higher education. One Fox Exhibition, open to natives of Cumberland and Westmorland, value 37 10s. a year, for five years, tenable at Queen's College, Oxford. Two Dixon Exhibitions for natives of Whitehaven, value 36 each for five years at Queen's College, Oxford. One Grindal Exhibition, value 5 10s., also at Queen's College, Oxford. Boys from St. Bees School have also the right of competing for the following Exhibitions, all tenable at Queen's College, Oxford. Two Thomas Exhibitions, value 68 10s., open to sons of clergymen in the diocese of Carlisle only, tenable for five years. Carlisle Grammar School has the prior right, St. Bees next, for sending up candidates. Two Holme Exhibitions, open to natives of Cumberland and Westmorland, value 45 per annum for five years. Four Eglefield Exhibitions, open to natives of Cumberland and Westmorland, value 81 per year for four years; and fifteen Hastings Exhibitions, open to boys educated at twelve schools in Cumberland, Westmorland, and Yorkshire, of which St. Bees is one, value 90 a year for five years. The total number of boys at present attending the school is 151, of whom 98 are boarders.

The Board School has an attendance of 126 boys and girls, and 100 infants. The United Methodist Free Church is a small brick building erected in 1866. Hodgett's Club, built by the late Alfred Hodgett, Esq., of Abbott's Court, has been converted from a Liberal into a Social and Recreation Club. There is a large hall suitable for concerts, etc., with seating accommodation for 200. The Recreation Ground contains tennis court, cricket ground, and bowling green, and is open to visitors on payment of the following fees:- Daily, 1s.; weekly, 2s. 6d.; monthly, 5s.; family, monthly, 10s. The Gas Co. have small works here, but the gas is very little used.

CHARITIES. - In 1896 the Rev. Alfred Pagan, of Shadforth, Durham, bequeathed to the Parish Council a farm of 31 acres, known as Town Head farm. It is let for 42 per annum, the rent of which, after paying for repairs, etc., is to accumulate to purchase other land in the parish or adjoining parishes. The interest, when reaching 10, is to be divided among the poor. Miss Ann Shepherd left in 1863, 700 invested in the Mersey Dock Bond, the interest to be applied to the relief of the poor at Midsummer and Christmas. The trustees are the vicar, the headmaster of the Grammar School, and the churchwardens of St. Bees and Preston Quarter. Madam Thompson bequeathed 500, invested in the Furness Railway Co., for the benefit of the Sunday School.


Bulmer's History & Directory Of Cumberland, 1901

19 June 2015

Steve Bulman