In 1153, William of Lancaster, Baron of Kendal and Lord of Wyresdale, gave the manor and church of Cockerham to Leicester Abbey. This gift included the local windmill, watermill and a rabbit warren, together with the right to collect salvage from the sea. At this time, none of the Augustinian canons from Leicester came to live at Cockerham, but instead a baliff was appointed to run the estate and a chaplain was installed in the church.
A Rival Monastery and a Court Case
When William’s son (also called William) inherited from his father, he revoked the gift of Cockerham away from Leicester Abbey and gave the land to his wife Helloise. He had his own religious personage to patronise, Hugh Garth, a “hermit of great perfection”. Garth set up a leper hospital in the Cockersand region of Cockerham and two Premonestarian canons from Croxton Abbey joined him to minister to the sick. When William died, his widow Helloise married Hugh de Morville. They continued to support the Premonestarians and did not restore the land back to the Augustinians of Leicester. By 1200, the Premonestarian Cockersand site was now being called an abbey, much to the indignation of the abbot of Leicester.
The abbot struck back, taking the case to court claiming that the premonestarians had no right to be on any of the Cockerham manor, including Cockersand. The Premonestarians temporarily vacated their monastery and moved to Pilling. This was at the invitation of Theobald Walter, Lord of Amounderness and brother of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Three years later the court reached its decision. The manor of Cockerham was to be restored to the Leicester Abbey’s Augustinian canons. However, the Premonsterians would be allowed to stay at Cockersand, and continue to build their abbey there.
The Canons Arrive
The abbot of Leicester then decided he needed some of his own men on the ground. He sent three canons to run the manor, one of which would have been the prior. They would work as vicars in the community, and also run the estate.
It is not clear that the canons built buildings specifically for Cockerham Priory. They are described as living in a “hall with chambers over” which was probably the local manor farmhouse. Records show that they had access to a vegetable garden, dovecote and fish pond.
Cockerham manor was 6000 acres of land, which included peat bogs, salt marsh, arable fields and pasture. The land would have had cattle grazing, sheep on the lush salt marsh, pigs and fishing rights to the sea. A variety of crops including peas, beans and brassicas would be grown too.
As the 1300s approached, the canons were not as involved in running the concerns of Cockerham. There had only ever been four of them at most, and now all but one was withdrawn. The remaining canon stayed behind to act as the warden, overseeing the renting out of the land to local farmers, along with 29 salt pits.
In 1477, the last canon left and the whole of Cockerham estate was rented by John Calvert. In the contract drawn up he had to provide board and lodgings for one or two visiting canons and their horses for a week, when they came up from Leicester to visit.
In 1538, Leicester Abbey was closed. It was a large house of 40 canons, and all its possessions were taken from it and given to the crown, including the church and manor of Cockerham. The Calvert family continued to rent the land and eventually bought it. They still owned it in the 1700s.
What is to be seen today
The priory probably never had purpose-built facilities, with the monastic buildings just being adaptions of pre-existing local ones. As we saw earlier, the canons were described as living at the local manor farmhouse which is probably Cockerham Hall Farm today. The church of St Michael is on the original site of the building that the canons would have known. However, much of it is of a later date. The tower is from the early 1500s, but the main body of the church is largely a restoration from 1814, and then again a hundred years later. The church sits separate from the village which dates from around 1700. It would have been surrounded by an earlier Medieval village, but this was probably moved to its present position due to flooding.
The site is worth visiting though. Base yourself at the church and look around at the lush pasture of the fields around, with views out to the sea. See our page on the history of St Michael’s Church here.
If you are interested in reading about a very extensive and well excavated Augustinian monastery, have a look at our page here on Norton Priory near Runcorn.
Site visited by A. Bowden 2019
Park outside St Michael’s and All Angels Church, which can be found down a track just off Main Street in Cockerham.
On the same site St Michael’s Church Cockerham
Nearby Cockerham Cross
Lancashire’s Medieval Monasteries, Brian Marshall (2006) Landy Publishing. Copies available from Pendle Heritage Centre shop. (See here).
From the Fells to the Sea: 3,000 years of Amounderness, Brian Marshall (2009) Parrox Hall Trust. Available from Fleetwood’s Maritime Museum shop. (See here).