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Priory Church History

The 20th Century

The closure of the College in 1895 marked a new era in the history of the Priory. Gone were the students, leaving the Old and New College Halls as the only tangible reminders.

The Rev. Alexander inherited a project that had been started by one of the College lecturers, Although the existing organ had been installed as recently as 1868, it was felt a larger instrument was needed, and the job was entrusted to "Father" Henry Willis, the master organ builder of the Victorian era. Willis had rebuilt most of the cathedral organs in England, and his reputation as a builder of organs in the Romantic style was unsurpassed. This was quite a catch for St. Bees, and the outcome was eagerly awaited.

The project evidently caught Willis' fancy, and although approaching his 80th year, he traveled up from London to view the Priory and decided to supervise personally the construction and final tuning. This was probably due to his satisfaction with the grand tonal scheme drawn up by Francis Livesey, the organist and Choirmaster, and George Dixon, an amateur organ designer living in St. Bees. Certainly Willis seems to have made this organ his "swan song". He included the stopped diapason that he had originally built for his first cathedral organ - Gloucester in 1847- and also the 16ft pedal open bass formerly in the Lincoln cathedral organ of 1826 by W. Allen.

The "Father" Willis Organ.

Right: The organ case, completed in 1908, is a marvelous example of carving in English oak by the workshop of Ralph Hedley of Newcastle. The pipes at the front are the 16ft open metal diapasons. The organ was opened with a recital on Tuesday May 16th 1899, given by Dr T.H. Collinson of St. Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh. Willis died in 1901, but the St. Bees organ remains as a fitting memorial to a half-century of brilliant work. The organ is one of the finest Victorian Romantic organs in the country. See the Priory Organ History for more details

St Bees Willis Organ
Right: Like many Parishes in the country, the First World War hit the community hard. Over 100 St. Bees men served in the war, and 26 gave their lives, several from the choir. The names of the fallen are recorded on the village War Memorial which is next to the lych gate in the graveyard. Designed by W. G. Collingwood, John Ruskin's secretary, the memorial is a fine example of modern sculpture in the Northumbrian style, and takes motifs from the old cross in the centre of the graveyard. Note there are two war memorials in St. Bees - See "Dead of WW1" in "publications" for details.
Priory War Memorial

In 1928 the lych gate itself was built and the graveyard extended further westward. This process has continued to the present day, so that the Priory has one of the largest graveyards in the Diocese.

The great era of restoration had been in the 1800's, and little was changed in the 20th Century. However, the Butterfield spire, with its distinct Romanesque style, had long attracted comment for its uncompromisingly French appearance. It was also becoming a maintenance headache. In 1953 the bells were taken out for re-tuning by Gillett and Johnston of Croydon, and the opportunity was taken to remove the Butterfield spire and remodel the tower to give the more practical design you see today.The wind vane dating from the late 1980s, which carried the figure of a monk pointing to the wind, was replaced with an identical one in 2007 during the roof renovation work.

Left - The Lady Chapel in the medieval north transept was created in 1955 and two statues were placed on the existing medieval pedestals. They are known as "The Vision of St. Bega". In memory of Barbara Wright and George Dixon, they were sculpted by Josefina de Vasconcellos. This chapel still retains its medieval character, which the statues complete.


Visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury

It is recorded that Archbishop Thurstan visited the Priory in the early 1100's to dedicate it, but it was not until 1983 that an Archbishop of Canterbury paid a repeat visit. The occasion was the 400th Anniversary of the founding of St. Bees School by Edmund Grindal, a native of St. Bees and Archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of Elizabeth I. A large combined service was held in the Priory and a commemorative stone blessed. This is now set in the east wall of St. Bees School Chapel.

A long-standing complaint about the Priory for many years was that it lacked a centre aisle due to the centre block of pews that had been installed in the restoration of 1820. In the early 1960s the nave floor was dug up and under floor heating installed. A centre aisle was created by swapping the nave pews with those in the side aisles. Since then the comfort factor has been further improved by pew heating and carpeting of the Centre Aisle.

The nave of St Bees Priory

The Nave of the Priory today

When the two board schools at Nethertown and Sandwith were closed, the buildings became "missions" of the Priory, to cover the northern and southern extremities of the ecclesiastical parish. Harvest and Carol services were sung each year by the full choir, and monthly services taken by the Vicar. However, in the early 1970s the Vicar of St. Bees also became the Chaplain of St. Bees School, and the additional workload made the extra services at the missions difficult to maintain. Regular services ceased and both buildings have now been sold. The proceeds from Sandwith mission were used to fund a travel bursary.

In the late 1970s it was proposed to use the area known as Priory Paddock as the next graveyard extension. It was felt this area might have considerable archaeological interest, so in 1977 a survey was conducted by Professor Rosemary Cramp of Durham University. This showed extensive traces of buried structures, so in 1979 and 1980 two digs were undertaken by Leicester University. These revealed the probable precinct walls of the Priory and a medieval farmstead. Evidence of iron smelting and tanning were also found. Because of the wet nature of the ground, a decision was taken not to bury here, and it is now a managed wetland (see Priory Trail).

Priory - Original chancel now Old College Hall

Left - This shows the Priory from the east. The fine lancet windows of the monastic chancel can clearly be seen on the right, and on the left the large arches which would have led to the Lady Chapel.The remains of what must have been a magnificent east window can be seen in the left centre.

Roofless after the Reformation, the chancel was restored in 1816 to house the Theological College.

One of the shortcomings of the Priory is the lack of an east window. The architect William Butterfield attempted to remedy this by bright tiles and patterns, but large expanses of sandstone cannot have the same effect as a window. To enliven this area and to mark the Millennium, an impressive wall hanging was embroidered by members of the congregation to a design commissioned from Leonard Childs, who has also designed embroideries for Durham Cathedral. It complements the colours of the Butterfield design.

There are more views of the Priory in Priory Tours

Wall hanging by Altar
Left: The present high altar of the priory. Behind the east wall is the Old College Hall, shown on the right. Above: After the College closed in 1895, the monastic chancel was used as a store room, parish room, and music room. However, there was no direct access between it and the church. In the early 1990s a door was installed in memory of Keith Walker, a master at St. Bees School. This has made this impressive room more accessible for church and parish events. This was restored in 2012.


In 1981 the undercroft of the Old College Hall was cleared of several feet of rubble, revealing the floor of the monastic church, several grave slabs and a large stone effigy of about 1450. Perhaps the most fruitful dig was in 1983 in the area between the ruined wall and the south arcade of the Old College Hall. This was again undertaken by Leicester University. There were many interments in this area, and the foundations of an earlier building were found. Perhaps the most important find was a lead coffin in a stone vault. In it was the so-called St Bees Man, the most perfectly preserved medieval body found in modern times. The history display area has two glass cases in which the dig is described and the shroud of St. Bees Man displayed.

The ancient graveyard to the north of the Priory was cleared in the 1970s and the ground leveled, with the intention of eventually re-using it for burials. In 1988 the Garden of Remembrance for the interment of ashes was created by the lych gate. This now has two terraces, which will extend up the hill to the 17th century sundial in the course of time.

In the late 1990s the Friends of the Priory was founded. This body exists to help preserve the heritage and fabric of the Priory. Details can be found at the table by the entrance.



Finally, a summary of the the Priory's phases of construction