Legend has it that when the monks from Bradenstoke travelled to Cartmel to found a new priory, they selected the top of a hill with commanding views. However, as they prepared the ground they heard a voice saying “Not there, but in a valley, between two rivers, where one runs north and the other run south.” Following this mysterious advice, they found a small island of hard ground in a valley, surrounded by marshy ground, and built the priory there. The historical reality is that there was already an older existing chapel in place the monks picked for their priory church, close by a ford which was the only crossing point for the river Eea. They did however put the church on the firmest ground, with the monastery buildings around it on a less solid footing, which was to have disastrous consequences in the future.The monastic buildings would have included a chapter house, dormitory, refectory (dining room) cloister, priors lodgings, infirmary, bakery, cellars, mill, fish pond and were all completed by about 1250 AD.
The priory’s founder, William Marshall, led an eventful life. Held as a child hostage by King Stephen in the medieval civil war, he became a court favourite. He was active in the court of Henry II, taking Henry’s son’s crusader cloak back to Jerusalem on his death. Outliving both King Richard the Lionheart and King John, he effectively became ruler as Regent of England for the nine year old King Henry III. On his death he was buried as a Knight Templar at Temple Church, London.
In the mid 1330s the huge chantry tomb of Sir John Harrington and his wife Joan was installed in the church and this can still be seen today. Attached to this is another legend of the area, that of the death of the last wolf in England. The story is told that Sir John was estranged from this father (Sir Edgar of Wraysholme) because of his love for this father’s niece, Adele. John leaves to join the crusades, but later returns in disguise. His father states that whoever kills the last, troublesome wolf will gain half his lands and his niece’s hand in marriage. After a daring pursuit of the wolf around the local countryside, John duly kills it. Upon revealing his identity, he is reconciled with his father and marries the niece. A good story, but the historical reality is that John’s wife is called Joan, not Adele and there is no record of a Sir Edgar of Wrayshome ! Still, in memory of the legend, a wolf’s head weathervane is atop Cartmel Priory today.
Over the years the priory had its share of troubles. In 1322 it was attacked by Robert the Bruce, causing so much damage that the priory’s property value was reduced by four fifths. By 1390 the priory buildings surrounding the church were suffering from collapse because of their soft foundations. The decision was made to relocate all the buildings to the north of the church at huge expense. After the closing of all monasteries by Henry VIII, the canons tried to return, throwing them into conflict with the new owner, Thomas Holdcroft. The resulting struggle was to see four canons executed at Lancaster for treason, along with ten local men that supported them.
The reason the church still stands and has not become a ruin like many of its contemporaries, is the fact that the founder William Marshall had stated in the priory’s founding deeds that the church was to be used by locals as their parish church. For that reason it was spared, but all the other buildings were destroyed except for the gatehouse that remains at the centre of Cartmel today. The gatehouse was the local manorial court, and so it too was spared. It was later put into use as the village school. The gatehouse is well worth viewing from both sides of the large entrance way, but it is rarely open to the public at the moment.
The priory church is open everyday and much remains from the time of the original building and its subsequent use. Immediately on entering church Medieval glass is featured in the windows of porch, conveniently at head height.Inside the church in both the North and South transept we have the unusual occurrence of two sets of night stairs (both now blocked doorways), down which the canons would come to say prayers during the night hours. Normally a monastery church would just have one set, but the monks dormitory had to be moved because of subsidence (along with many other buildings), so the church has two. The north transept features a superb huge ‘Transitional Norman arch’- a fusing of the earlier Norman chevron and dogtooth decoration with the later Perpendicular style.
In the ‘town choir’ we find the Harrington tomb that was moved when chantry chapels were abolished to the position we see it in today, hacked rather unceremoniously into the north wall. This botched building job resulted in the destruction of part of the sedilla (the seats for the priests) in the chancel – with no attempt to cover up the mess ! The tomb itself has fantastic carvings of angels upon it, including two angels lifting a person up to heaven in a blanket. The town choir also contains the Jesse Window from the 1300s . The neighbouring chancel contains 26 fabulous misericords (choir seats) from the 1400s, which include a rare carving of a hedgehog. The equally impressive carved screen put in place around the seats in 1622 features swords with ears attached to the blade, amongst many other designs.
What we have at Cartmel is a wealth of medieval and Tudor history, that no history lover should miss. The village itself is a honey pot, but there is ample parking, as described below.
Opening Times: Cartmel Priory church is open 9.00am- 5.30 pm in summer, and from 9.00am – 3.30pm in winter. There is no charge for entry, but visitors can give a donation and/or buy something from the gift shop.
Cartmel Priory Website: http://www.cartmelpriory.org.uk/Home
Parking: Lots of space at Cartmel Racecourse, which also serves as the main car park for the town. There is a parking charge.
Cartmel Priory: Ancient Jewel, Living Church, Ruddocks Publishing (available from the gift shop)
The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys, Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson (2006), Penguin. (This book is a superb guide to local English legends and folk stories, that are often told as ‘true history’)
The Priory of Cartmel, J.C. Dickinson (1991), Cicerone Press, Cumbria
The Misericords and Screen in Cartmel Priory, Eric Rothwell (1997), RJL Smith & Associates, Much Wenlock (available from the gift shop)
The Stained Glass in Cartmel Priory, Eric Rothwell (1995), RJL Smith & Associates, Much Wenlock (available from the gift shop)