Diocesan Histories : Carlisle




On the death of Bishop Appleby in 1395 the prior and convent of Carlisle procured a congé d'élire from the king, and elected Bishop William Strickland, or Stirkland, member of a well known and ancient family in Westmorland. Again the Papal Court disregarded the chapter's election, and in 1396 imposed upon them Robert Reid, bishop of Dromore, and a Dominican friar, who was almost immediately translated to Chichester. He was, in 1397, succeeded by Thomas Merks, a monk of Westminster: who probably owed his elevation to the Papal Court. So far as local matters are concerned, he is a mere nonentity - no acts of his in his diocese are recorded; but to many he is the best known of the early bishops of Carlisle by reason of his speech on behalf of his king in Shakespeare's play of Richard the Second. Bishop Merks was the only person who raised his voice in Parliament to protest against the deposition of Richard II :-

"Worst in this royal presence may I speak,
Yet best beseeming me to speak the truth.
Would God, that any in this noble presence
Were enough noble to be upright judge
Of noble Richard; then true nobless would
Learn him forbearance from so foul a wrong.
What subject can give sentence on his king?
And who sits here that is not Richard's subject ?

"And shall the figure of God's Majesty, -
His captain, steward, deputy elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years -
Be judg'd by subject and inferior breath,
And he himself not present? O forbid it, God,
That, in a Christian climate, souls refined
Should show so heinous, black, obscene a deed !
I speak to subjects, and a subject speaks,
Stirr'd up by heaven thus boldly for his king."


"Well Have you argued, sir; and for your pains
Of capital treason we arrest you here.
My lord of Westminster, be it your charge
To keep him safely till his day of trial."

The poet puts sentence on the bishop in the mouth of Bolingbroke, (Henry IV.) -

"Carlisle, this is your doom:-
Choose out some secret place, some reverend room,
More than thou hast, and with it joy thy life,
So, as thou liv'st in peace, die free from strife;
For, though mine enemy thou hast ever been,
High sparks of honour in thee have I seen."

Merks was deprived of his bishopric, but allowed to accept other preferment, and died a Gloucestershire rector. He is the first Bishop of Carlisle of whom a portrait has come down to us; it represents him in the choir-tippet and hood of a monk of Westminster.

With the accession of Bishop Reid we lose the assistance we have had during the fourteenth century of the episcopal registers: no episcopal registers are in existence for the diocese of Carlisle from 1396 to 1561, unless by some miracle Bishop Strickland's register still survives; it was in the possession of Lord William Howard of Naworth in 1606 as is shown in a paper in the seventh volume of the "Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archæological Society." Nothing exists to supply the place of these registers. Canon Raine, in the preface to "Letters from Northern Registers," says:

"It is much to be regretted that, in a city like Carlisle, which is one of the gateways into Scotland, so few documentary memorials should have been preserved. Their destruction, however, was probably due to that restless people whose dangerous proximity has invested with such interest the past history of the capital of the Borders.

We hardly are inclined to put quite so much blame on our neighbours. The earlier records, ecclesiastical and civil, perished in the conflagration of 1292, none being left. The later perished in the time of the Troubles, between 1643 and 1649 or 1660, a few alone, like the two volumes of episcopal registers we have dealt with, the volume containing the episcopal acts from 1561 to 1643, and the Dormant [now usually Dormont] Book of the city of Carlisle, luckily escaping. The monastic chartularies survived this second period of ruin, because they had gone as muniments of title into the hands of those who had got the property of the religious houses dissolved at the Reformation.

To Bishop Merks there succeeded in 1400, on petition of the king by papal provision, William Strickland, the same whom the pope had in 1396 set aside: Henry IV had purchased the support of the Church by the promise of persecution, and the Papal Court would accede readily to the king's wishes. The pledge of persecution was speedily redeemed; very strong powers were given to the bishops for the repression of heresy and of the wandering preachers, or Lollards, who had in the last years of the fourteenth century spread far and wide the doctrines of Wyclif. The infamous Statute of Heretics soon followed, bristling with terrible provisions, to be worked by the bishops, and for the first time placing on the statute book the penalty of death by fire for religious opinions. No evidence exists to connect Bishop Strickland with the enforcement of these measures in his diocese, nor is it known how far Lollardism had a hold there; that it had some is probable from the fact that John of Gaunt, an accredited protector thereof, was in Carlisle from 1380 to 1384 as the king's lieutenant on the Borders. The diocese also probably contained many sympathisers with Richard II, who would hold by the belief that the body exposed at Pontefract was not his, but that he was alive, well, and with the Scots. Such persons would be likely to aid the Percies and the Scots in their incessant revolts against Henry IV. Bishop Strickland's name is honourably connected in his diocese with various good works: the traveller to the North on leaving Penrith by the London and North-western Railway still sees to his left, parallel to the line, the water-course by which Strickland supplied the people of that town with water. In Penrith he must have been much interested, as he founded a chantry there. He also did much work at his cathedral, and at his palace of Rose. From whence he obtained the money, it is hard to say, for Cumberland was so wasted and impoverished by the Scots that the king had, in 1402, to remit all taxes and debts due to the crown. Bishop Strickland died in 1419, and was buried in his cathedral in accordance with the provisions of his will, which is printed in the Testamenta Eboracensia by the Surtees Society. He was succeeded by another local man, Roger Whelpdale, a native of Greystoke, of high distinction and office at his university of Oxford, and the writer of books on logic and mathematics. He was appointed by papal provision, and then elected by the chapter of Carlisle under the king's licence. He died in 1422 at Carlisle Place in London. His lengthy will is also printed among the Testamenta Eboracensia, and by it he bequeaths books, vestments, and money to Queen's and Balliol Colleges, Oxford, and £20 to the scholars of that university; he also left £200 for the endowment of a chantry in his cathedral in memory of Sir Thomas Skelton, and Mr. John Glaston, both natives of the diocese. William Barrow, bishop of Bangor, another distinguished Oxford man was translated by papal provision to the vacant see: he died in 1429, and was buried in his cathedral: his monument is in the south aisle. Marmaduke Lumley was elected to the see by the chapter, confirmed by the king, and approved of by the pope. He suffered much from the devastation of his see by the Scots, and was translated to Lincoln in 1449. To him succeeded, by papal provision, Nicholas Close, archdeacon of Colchester, who had done good service in procuring a treaty with Scotland. He was translated to Lichfield in 1451, and died in that year. During his episcopate the prior and convent of Carlisle zelo piæ devotionis accensi conceived the project of placing in their cathedral ymaginem sive statuam ejusdem
Virginis laminis argentiis superornandis aure, gemmis, monilibus multisque aliis ornamentis pretiosis
. The project was not carried out; an indulgence to donors to the image is recorded in the registers at York, but is marked non emanavit, Surtees Society, vol. xliv.

Next came, by papal provision, William Percy, who died in 1462: John Kingscott, elected by the chapter and approved by the pope, who died in 1463: Richard Scrope, by papal provision, who died in 1468; his brief nuncupative [spoken] will is printed in the Testamenta Eboracensia. Edward Story, probably a local man, succeeded, who was translated to Chichester in 1477, where his register, full of interesting information concerning the state of his new diocese, makes us much to regret that his Carlisle register does not exist. He was a man of great liberality. Richard Bell, prior of Durham, came next, by papal provision, known to fame for his tower at Rose, and his magnificent brass in his cathedral. He died in 1496, and William Severn, a Benedictine, abbot of St. Mary's, York, followed, and was translated to Durham in 1502. Roger Leyburn, of the Leyburns of Cunswick, in Westmorland, then held the see to 1508, when came John Penny, bishop of Bangor, who died in 1520. It would be superfluous to give a catalogue of the treaties with Scotland, at the foot of which will be found the name of one or another of the bishops thus rapidly enumerated. The century and quarter over which their successive tenure of office extend cover much of fascinating interest in English history, - the battle of Agincourt, the conquest of France, its subsequent loss and the end of the Hundred Years' War, the Wars of the Roses, the advent of the New Monarchy, the introduction of the printing press, and of the new learning, the battle of Flodden, &c.; but there is nothing special to be said of the diocese of Carlisle.

The North of England, under Clifford influence, was largely Lancastrian in feeling, but Carlisle was held by the Yorkists in 1461, when the Lancastrians besieged it, burnt its suburbs, and so impoverished the place, that Edward IV remitted, by charter, to the citizens for the future one-half of their fee farm rent of £80. The people in the diocese most have been poor, ignorant, and barbarous. Æneas Sylvius Piccolomini, in an account of his adventures (which has generally been considered to belong to the East Marches, and not to the West, but which internal evidence proves to relate to the West),1 describes the people at a place on the Solway at which he landed, either Bowness-on-Solway or Burgh-on-Sands, as never having seen wine or white bread, crowding to look at him as a novelty, and asking if he was a Christian. Chastity they cared nothing for, and the country he describes , "rugged, uncultivated, and in winter sunless." At this place he stayed all night in a cottage and supped with his host and the priest, of whom he tells us nothing, except that he and all the men took refuge nightly in a tower against the incursions of the Scots, leaving the women outside.

1. See Cadwallader J. Bates, on "The Border Holds of Northumberland," in "Archæologia Æliana," vol. xiv. pp 1,7.


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


Previous chapter
Next chapter
Chapter index



19 June 2015

© Steve Bulman