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Pre-Conquest Benedictine Post Reformation 19th Century 20th Century Conjectural layout Monastic Services

The Benedictine Priory

Founding

Although the Normans invaded southern England in 1066, it was not until 1092 that they controlled West Cumbria. William de Meschines was the first Norman Lord of Egremont, and he decided to found a Benedictine priory for six monks and a prior at the main existing religious site in the area, at St Bees.

From charter evidence the Priory was founded between 1120 and 1135 though it's thought from the wording that it was early in this period. It was dedicated by Archbishop Thurstan, and was a subsidiary of the great abbey of St. Mary at York. The main dedication was to St. Mary, but it had a chapel dedicated to St. Bega, possibly a concession to the existing church.

Right: This stone lintel, dated Ca 1120 was possibly from a first Norman church on the site, after the Normans took control but before the Priory was founded. It shows St Michael slaying a dragon, and is now opposite the west door. It was discovered in the 1800's during restoration work. Possibly it was disposed of when the new west door was built in about 1140. An historic analysis of the stone can be seen here

At its foundation the Priory received many grants of land and property. The foundation charter says "I, William, son of Ranulf to all ... greetings ...I have given to God and to St Mary and to the holy virgin Bega for the salvation of myself and of my wife and of my sons and of my parents, six carucates of land in Kirkby and ... the manor which William the Bowman had...." It also says that Waldeve, lord of Allerdale, granted the manor of Stainburn; Ketel gave Preston (the land north of Pow Beck), and Reiner, two oxgangs of land in Rottington. William Meschin added the church of Kirkby and its parish, "from Whitehaven to the river Keekle, and as the Keekle falls into the Egre (Ehen), and as the Egre flows to the sea." Notably the present-day civil parish only lost the Keekle portion in 2010.

Norman Architecture

Nothing exists of the Pre-Norman church, and what you see today is the Norman layout, with various additions and restorations. The west door, the Bega chapel, the nave pillars and the base of the tower are original Norman. The Bega chapel is the most complete Norman area.

Left: The present west door dates from about 1140

 

Right: The Nave. Although there are Early English pointed arches, the pillars are nearly all original Norman work. The pillars have a considerable lean to the west, it is thought due to the sinking of the tower. The pillars lean but the arches do not, indicating the old Norman arches were removed and rebuilt in gothic style, but on top of the old pillars.

 

 

The Bega Chapel

Right: the Bega Chapel, with the modern sculpture group "The Vision of St Bega" on the original medieval pedestals. The Norman windows can be seen behind the altar.

The Priory grows

Various grants of land were made by local lords throughout the life of the priory. The Priory even gained property in the Isle of Man and at Neddrum in Ireland and the Prior was one of the eight spiritual barons of the Isle of Man. The Priory was also given the churches of Workington, Gosforth, Corney, Bootle, Whitbeck and Whicham, the chapels of Harrington, Clifton, Loweswater, and the chapel and tithes of Weddicar. The influence of the Priory thus stretched throughout West Cumbria.

The ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Priory covered much of the Western Lakes, stretching to Eskdale, Ennerdale, Loweswater and Wasdale. For many of these outlying parishes, burials had to be conducted at St. Bees and several "Coffin roads" led to the Priory

It was also an important place for the local lords and their families, some of who enlarged the priory. In 1190 a new chancel was added at the east end, and about 1270-1300 a large chancel aisle was added to the south. These would have been built by rich local families. It is nearly certain the chancel aisle was built by the de Lucy family, Lords of Egremont, as both Maud de Lucy and Anthony de Lucy (the "St Bees Man", died 1368) are buried in the central vault.

Priory - Original chancel now Old College Hall

 

Monastic chancel of 1190

The marvellous monastic chancel in the Early English style, was added not later than 1190, and the chancel aisle added to the south of this (now ruined) in about 1270-1300.

Left: from the south east.

Right: Detail of interior today showing the tabernacle behind the position of the medieval high altar. The Romanesque style of the pillars indicates they were probably from the original Norman chancel built sometime after 1120, and were moved here when the 1190 chancel was built. Religious statues would have occupied the niches between the pillars.

 

 

The east end by the 14th century

Right: the likely layout of the east end of the monastic church is shown on the present-day plan. The high altar was in the main chancel, further east of the present high altar. There was no wall dividing the chancel from the body of the church, but only the monks would be allowed in the chancel. The parishioners, as lay people, would have stayed in the nave, and perhaps allowed access to the Bega Chapel.

The benefactor of the 1190 chancel is unknown, but the chancel aisle to the south is almost certainly due to the De Lucy Family.

The chancel aisle collapsed, probably due to unstable ground, before the Dissolution. It was not rebuilt and the arches between it and the chancel were filled in.

 

Prosperity

At its most active, in the 14th century, the Priory had an extensive range of monastic buildings which would have included the cloister and chapter house adjoining the south side of the Priory, a gatehouse, and the monk's infirmary in the meadow to the south.

Right: Conjectural aerial view of the medieval priory.

In comparison with the other monastic houses in the county, St. Bees was wealthy, ranking in revenues only after Holmcultram and Carlisle. In 1291 its income was valued at £66 13s. 4d., and in 1535 at £149 19s. 6d. However the Priory was close enough to the border to suffer occasional raids. It was raided in 1315 by the Scots, and it may have been at this time that the "Bracelet of St. Bega", on which oaths were sworn, was lost.

 

The Lapidarium in the south aisle contains one of the best collections of medieval sculpture in Cumbria. This is testimony to importance of the site in the eyes of the rich and powerful of Copeland.

Lapidarium

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