Diocesan Histories : Carlisle




The ecclesiastical architecture of the diocese of Carlisle has been influenced by the circumstances under which that diocese has existed; - its dangerous proximity to Scotland; its liability during great part of its existence to devastating raids; its consequent poverty; and its lack of wealthy traders in wool and wine, such as reared the glorious churches of Lincolnshire. The diocese of Carlisle lacks such churches; its cathedral is but small, less even when uninjured [a reference to the demolition of several bays of the nave during the Civil War] than several parish churches in other dioceses, and now a fragment only of itself: a native of the diocese can have no idea of what church or cathedral can be until he has travelled beyond its limits.

The earliest ecclesiastical building we have record of in the land of Carlisle is in the Veredictum Antiquorum, somewhere between 1056 and 1071, preserved in the cartulary of Lanercost, concerning the chapel of Triermaine, in Gilsland. It says the lord of Triermain fecit primum unam capellam de virgis, a chapel of wattlework. It is probable that most of the churches in this diocese were originally of this material, and that they were gradually replaced by buildings of stone after the advent of the Norman into the diocese, though in some cases the change may have been sooner.

The earliest type of church of stone in the diocese is to be found at Over Denton, near where the Roman Wall enters Cumberland from Northumberland, the quarry from which the church was built. This church retains its original plan, unaltered except that the west end has been rebuilt: it consists of chancel and nave, the chancel being only 11 ft. wide and 12 ft. long, and the nave 27 ft. by 16 ft. wide: the original chancel arch remains. The nave possesses two doorways, the principal one, that to the south, is square headed, the lintel being supported on two quaintly-wrought corbels; that to the north is built up. One of the original windows remains on the north side, a round headed slit, only a few inches wide, made before the general use of glass, and therefore kept as small as possible. The other windows are insertions of various dates. The west wall and belfry are modern, but built on the old foundations. In the absence of detail, it is difficult to fix the date of this church: the peculiar form of the door, and the rude character of the chancel arch, resembling that under the tower at Corbridge, have induced some to believe that Over Denton may be an example of that primitive English Romanesque called Saxon, but it is more generally assigned to early Norman Romanesque. The ground plan of Over Denton church is that from which most of the parish churches in the diocese of Carlisle were developed: the general process being, first, the lengthening, in Norman times, of short Norman chancels, as at Dacre and Torpenhow; then followed the widening of the nave by the addition on the north side of an aisle, as at Ormside, Dacre, Torpenhow, Irthington, Blencogo, Dearham, and the subsequent addition in many instances of a south aisle also; the addition of a tower at the west end, sometimes as at Ormside, built to abut on the west wall with only a door of communication, but more usually as at Caldbeck, built to the west of the existing church, and the nave lengthened to meet it by an additional arch to its arcades; next, the addition of a clerestory and large windows, as the use of glass became more general; the further rebuilding on a larger scale of some part of the building, a process which went on to post-reformation times; at Ormside we find the chancel rebuilt on a larger scale; and finally the introduction of the ugly modern sash window. The church of Over Denton, owing to the poverty of the parish, and the paucity of inhabitants, escaped these improvements, and, carefully repaired as it has been under skilled advice, enables us to see the original germ from which the parish churches of the diocese have grown. Two or three of its neighbours also escaped until the end of the last or beginning of this [19th] century, when they were pulled down, in whole or part, and replaced by hideous and shapeless erections, covered with a coating of roughcast.

Among the churches of the diocese that have had a continuous life, many very interesting ones exist. Some of the churches in the diocese of Carlisle are fortresses as well as churches, being intended as refuges for the inhabitants in times of hostile raids: such are those of Burgh-on-Sands, Newton Arlosh, Great Salkeld, and others whose towers are places of strength; the abbey of Holm Cultram was protected by heavy earthworks, and the inhabitants of the parish, in a petition to Cromwell in 1538, ask for his intercession with the king to keep the church standing as a "greate ayde, socor, and defence for us agenst our neighbours the Scots." Another tell-tale feature of the churches in the old diocese of Carlisle is their modesty; they are generally placed in a valley, and the tower rises just to the level of the surrounding hills, so that a watcher on the top may see any one that crosses these hills, while the tower itself is not conspicuous, and does not catch the eye of any wandering marauder from Scotland. Such is the tower of Dearham; such was that of Wetheral until modern ingenuity placed a sort of summer-house on its top. The antiquary will be interested in the church of Bolton, Cumberland, with its pointed barrel roof of stone, ascribed by local legend to Michael Scott, the wizard; in the church of Warwick, with its circular apse; of Torpenhow, with its fine chancel arch, and its unique classical ceiling, painted with cupids and flowers; Long Marton, with its curiously-carved tympanum: in fact, most of the parish churches that have had a continuous life possess some feature over which the antiquary will love to linger and to speculate.

A few larger churches exist in the old diocese of Carlisle, - at Appleby, Kirkby Stephen, Brough-on-Stainmoor, Crosthwaite (Keswick), Caldbeck, Greystoke, &c., mostly Perpendicular in style, but, as a rule, somewhat poor and bald. The district added to the diocese in 1856, possesses fine large churches at Kendal, Kirkby Lonsdale, and Ulverstone.

The last century saw some commodious Georgian churches erected at Carlisle, Penrith, Wigton, Workington, and Whitehaven. It has always been the fashion to abuse these churches; they are ugly without, inside they are comfortable and convenient, and capable, when well treated, like St. Cuthbert's, Carlisle, of being made very beautiful. One can hardly commend the attempt now being made to convert the one at Workington, built in 1780, into a Gothic church, inside and outside. At Kirkandrews-on-Esk is a fine building of red sandstone, with a tower and spire in the classic manner, but bald and poor inside, built from the designs of Telford, the great road engineer, and standing north and south, an eccentricity which was purposely exceeded in Christ Church and Trinity Church, Carlisle, built in 1830, and St. John's, Houghton, built in 1840; these churches have a tower at the east end, and the altar at their west. Good work in churches has been done in the last two episcopates, and it may be said that on the whole the churches of this diocese have been fortunate in their repairs; the churches of Isel and Burgh-by-Sands may be quoted as an example. Of modern churches several good examples exist. The new church of St. Nicholas, Whitehaven, and those at Millum [Millom], Dalton-in-Furness, and Netherton [?], are, perhaps, the most noteworthy.

The diocese has more to boast of, architecturally, in the remains of its great religious foundations. In Carlisle Cathedral the Norman work in the fragmentary nave, the beautiful early English aisles, the noble east window of Decorated date, the doom [i.e. the Last Judgement] in painted glass in the top thereof, the unique series of carvings on the capitals of the chancel pillars, representing the labours of the months, the legendary paintings on the backs of the stalls, and the carved woodwork (of which, alas, too little is left) are all of the highest interest. Want of space forbids us from entering into a detailed account and history of Carlisle Cathedral, but the following table may be useful:


Building commenced, reign of William Rufus post 1092
A priory of Austin Canons established there 1102
A bishop's seat established there 1133
Choir taken down and enlarged 1245-1255
Burnt 1292
Rebuilt 1352-1362
Stained glass inserted in east window 1380-1384
Transept partly burnt 1392
Upper part of tower built 1401
Stalls erected 1401
Legendary paintings added 1484
The Priory surrendered to the Crown 1540
Dean and Chapter created 1541
Nave and Chapter-house destroyed 1645-1646
Ancient ceiling, bishop's throne, &c., destroyed 1764
Restored 1855

Little remains of the Benedictine priory at Wetheral beyond the gateway tower, but careful search might reveal a good deal; the ruins are said to have been used by the canons of Carlisle as a quarry when they built their residential houses shortly after 1660.

Of the church of the once great and wealthy Cistercian Abbey of Holm Cultram all that remains is a most melancholy fragment of the nave; every evil that can be imagined has befallen this luckless church, which in length exceeded the cathedral of Carlisle in its best days; it has been burnt by fire; the steeple was blown over by the winds to the ruination of the chancel and transepts; parts were rebuilt and pulled down by the parishioners, until nothing but the six westernmost bays of the nave remained, and of these the parishioners pulled down the aisles, and with the materials walled up the nave arcades. A fine transitional western door, covered by a modern porch, tells of the former splendours of the Abbey of Holm Cultram, and the farm-houses of the district are replete with carvings in stone and wood obtained from too ready a quarry. Part of the monastic buildings, the mill, and the boundaries of the precinct, can yet be made out, and legends of the grandeur of the great abbot, Robert Chamber, and of his white horses still linger. This abbey was founded in 1150 by Prince Henry, son of David, King of Scotland; its revenues were valued at £477 19s. 3d. in the Valor of Henry VIII. Queen Mary granted the rectory of Holm Cultram, the advowson of the vicarage, and all tithes and other profits and emoluments of the rectory and church of Holm Cultram, and the chapel at Newton Arlosh to the University of Oxford. The abbot was also lord of the great manor of Holm Cultram, co-extensive with the parish; this the Crown took, and long did the parishioners have muse to regret the change, and fierce and prolonged was the litigation that arose.

But if the wreck of Holm Cultram inspires the spectator with melancholy, the beauty and vivacity of ruined Lanercost will do much to raise the spirits again. Beautifully situated in a charming valley on the north side of the river Irthing, in a commanding position, whence two long reaches of water lead the eye to the Roman stations of Nether Denton and Walton, the ruins of this house of Austin Canons is the architectural gem of the diocese, enriched by a setting of most lovely scenery, in striking contrast with the sterile moors and barren fell, over which the neighbouring Roman Wall pursues its course. This house was founded in 1169 by Robert de Vallibus, baron of Gilsland. We have already incidentally in this volume made mention of the sufferings it endured from Scotch invasions, and raids; of the visits paid to it by Edward I, and of the poverty and obscurity into which it fell. The greater part of the buildings now remaining are of the very best period of the Early English architecture of the thirteenth century, and we may see at once that little of the structure was raised in 1109. The income of the priory as given in the Valor of Henry VIII, was only £77 11s. 11d. Most of the property of the dissolved house was granted by Henry VIII and Edward VI to Sir Thomas Dacre the Bastard, who converted some of the domestic buildings into a dwelling-house. The nave now forms a beautiful parish church, a purpose for which it originally served, the church being, as at Carlisle, a divided one, but in the last century the nave was roofless, and the parish church was held in the north aisle.

Hardly inferior in beauty of site and interest is the Premonstratensian house at Shap, whose ruins are nestled into a charming little valley amid bleak Westmorland fells. This house was founded about the end of the twelfth century, and the buildings were commenced shortly after that date, and went on almost continuously until near the dissolution, when the revenues were valued at £154 17s. 7½d. The possessions were granted to the Whartons, and now are in the Lowthers.

There are some religious houses in the district, added to the diocese in 1856, which must be briefly mentioned, though their histories belong to the history of the archdeaconry of Richmond, to the histories of the sees of York and Chester.

At St. Bees, probably on or near the site of the nunnery established by St. Bega and destroyed by the Danes, a fine church commemorates the Benedictine Priory which William le [de] Meschines founded while Thurstan was archbishop of York (1119-1139), as a cell of St. Mary's, York. In the Valor of Henry VIII its revenues were estimated at £143 16s. 2d., surpassed only in the county of Cumberland by St. Mary's, Carlisle, and Holm Cultram. Its possessions passed to the Chaloners, and through the Wyberghs to the Lowthers.

Seven mile to the south of St. Bees the Cistercians had a house at Calder, founded about 1130 by Ranulp[h] le [de] Meschin[es], son of the founder of St. Bees, whose beautiful ruins may almost compare with those of Lanercost. It was valued in the Valor of Henry VIII at £50 9s. 3½d, and the site of the abbey was granted to Dr. Thomas Leigh. The church is now in ruins, but part of the domestic buildings have been converted into a dwelling-house.

A little Benedictine nunnery existed at Seton [Seaton, in Bootle parish], in south-west Cumberland. Its revenues only mounted to £12 12s. 0½d.; and we have omitted to mention a little Benedictine nunnery at Armathwaite, on the river Eden, which had a revenue, after paying their chaplain, of £13 12s.

In the portion of Lancashire which was added to the diocese of Carlisle in 1856, - viz., Lancashire North of the Sands - were the great Cistercian house of Furness, with an income of £805 16s. 5d.; the Austin Canons' priories of Conisheed [Conishead], £97 9s. 11d., and of Cartmel, £91 6s. 3d. Of Conisheed little remains; the church of Cartmel and the ruins of Furness are well known.

No remains exist of the houses of the quatuor ordines of friars at Carlisle, Appleby, and Penrith; nor of the leper hospitals at Carlisle, Appleby, and Kendal. There were several small chantries in the diocese, but only one, that of St Alban's, Carlisle, existed as a separate building, and it now survives [only] in the name of a street.

An elaborate catalogue and account of the church plate of the diocese has been compiled and published by the local Archæolgical Society.1 Only one example of pre-Reformation church plate is known in the diocese (we now speak of the extended diocese), a chalice of the middle of the fourteenth century, at Old Hutton, near Kendal. A Communion cup, with cover of secular work, at Bridekirk, comes next in date, - viz., 1550-1. The Communion cups of Great Salkeld and Crosthwaite (Westmorland), both of the year 1567-8, both of York make, and one at Newton Reigny, 1568-9, come next. Five cups of 1570-1 and eleven of 1571-1 are historically interesting, as closely following upon the appointment of Bishop Barnes to the see of Carlisle, who seems to have enforced the injunctions about Communion cups of Archbishop Grindal, whose chancellor he had been. There are in the diocese thirty-nine more cups of Elizabethan date, twenty-three of London make, three of York, three of unknown assay, and ten assigned to an irregular assay at Carlisle. Of post-Elizabethan plate, in the seventeenth century, the diocese contains ninety-eight examples, fifty-seven from London, twenty from York, nine from Newcastle-on-Tyne, eight doubtful, while Dublin, Hull, Nuremberg, and Cartagena each contribute a single example. The diocese possesses fifty-six examples of the Britannia or higher-class silver, of which forty-three are from London, twelve from Newcastle, and one from Chester. One peculiarity should be noticed, the rarity of silver Communion flagons, especially in Cumberland, down to recent times. Only four parish churches in Cumberland, twelve in Westmorland, and two in the part of Lancashire now belonging to the diocese of Carlisle, had silver flagons before the nineteenth century, and only four, all in Westmorland, had such before the eighteenth. The earlier flagons were all of pewter.

Edward VI's commissioners, though ordered to allow only one bell to remain at each church, seem not to have strictly, if at all, followed their instructions in this respect throughout Cumberland and Westmorland, since to this day several churches in these counties retain at least two bells, which, by their shape, stamps, and legends, are clearly shown to have survived from mediaeval times; the most noteworthy instance being Greystoke, the only Cumberland church besides the cathedral which had "foure gret belles" in 1552, which same four it still retains. The "quatuor magnæ campanæ" given by Bishop Strickland, in 1401, to the cathedral, remained intact until three of them were recast in 1658. The churches of Burgh-by-Sands, Renwick, Distington, Dacre, and Edenhall have each two pre-Reformation bells, as also had Skelton church, when visited by Bishop Nicolson in 1703.

Few Cumberland churches, according to Edward VI's inventory, had more than two bells in 1552; and wherever, as at Holm Cultram, Cumrew, Scaleby, Langwathby, Aikton, Newton Reigny, Castle Sowerby, Egremont, Eskdale, Brigham, Ennerdale, Threlkeld, &c., only one mediæval bell remains, it can, in most of these cases, be shown that its mate disappeared in the last century. As yet the church bells of this diocese, mostly hung in gable-cots, and therefore difficult of access, have been but partially explored. But, from the discoveries which are being made, there is reason to believe that the diocese contains a larger percentage of ancient bells than any other part of England; and, as many of them are of considerable antiquarian interest, it is to be hoped that they may escape the fate which, in these days of "restoration," too often befals the venerable relics of the past in our parish churches.

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1. "Old Church Plate in the Diocese of Carlisle," Cumberland and Westmorland Archæological and Antiquarian Society. C. Thurnam, Carlisle, 1888


Diocesan Histories : Carlisle,
by Richard S. Ferguson, Chancellor of Carlisle
Published by SPCK, London, 1889


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19 June 2015

© Steve Bulman