A History of the County of Cumberland: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1905.
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HOUSES OF BENEDICTINE MONKS
5. THE PRIORY OF ST. BEES (fn. 1)
The Benedictine priory of St. Bees occupies a favourable position on the western coast at the opening of a valley sheltered by a great berg or hill, which projects into the sea like a vast irregular bastion, and is known as St. Bees Head. It is said that the valley which connects the promontory with the mainland was once traversed by the tide. But there is no warrant for assuming that any appreciable change has taken place in the physical configuration of the neighbourhood within the historic period. As the site of the priory marks the level of the valley beneath the south-eastern spur of the headland, the sea must have receded long before its foundation.
The priory took its name from a previous religious establishment, of which nothing seems to have survived till the twelfth century except the tradition of its former existence. From the legendary life of Bees or Bega, written in all probability by a monk of the priory at a late date, (fn. 2) we learn that she was the daughter of an Irish king, who reigned as a Christian monarch in the seventh century. For good reasons she fled from her father's court, and taking ship, landed after a prosperous voyage 'in a certain province of England called Coupland.' Bega found the place covered with a thick forest, and admirably adapted for a solitary life. Wishing to dedicate her life to God, she built for herself a virgin cell in a grove near the seashore, where she remained for many years in strict seclusion and devout contemplation. In the course of time the district began to be frequented by pirates. The good saint however dreaded not death, nor mutilation, nor the loss of temporal goods, of which she was destitute except her bracelet (armilla), but she feared the loss of her virginity, the most precious treasure with which heaven can endow her sex. By divine command Bega hastened her departure from the place, but she was induced to leave her bracelet behind her, that miracles in ages to come might be performed in that neighbourhood in testimony of her holy life.
At this time Oswald was the king of Northumbria, and the holy Aidan was the chief bishop of Lindisfarne. To the bishop, Bega directed her steps and disclosed the secret of her heart. The man of God, struck by her story, admitted her to sacred vows, putting upon her head a veil for a royal diadem and a black garment for a purple robe, for before that date, as Bede testified, the kingdom of Northumbria was without nuns. By the influence of St. Aidan she prevailed on King Oswald to grant her a place fit for religious uses, by name 'Hereteseia,' which by interpretation is called Hartlepool. Here she built a beautiful monastery to which many maidens flocked for the service of religion. Thus the pious Bega was the first to establish a nunnery in Northumbria.
Several centuries have elapsed since the historian gathered up the traditions of the priory, and wove them into a connected story. We have little to say about the life or miracles of the saint except as they bear on the district with which her name is connected. Leland mentions that 'Bega at first built a humble little monastery in Coupland not far from Carlisle in the extreme limits of England where there are now so many monks of St. Mary's, York, commonly called Sainct Beges,' (fn. 3) but the venerable Bede is silent on the saint's residence in Cumberland. The legendary life gives no support to the belief that a nunnery was continued at St. Bees after Bega had taken her departure. If such were the case, all trace of it must have been lost during those dark centuries in northern history which preceded the Norman Conquest.
There can be little doubt that the influence of Bega was a power in the south-western portion of the county in the early years of the twelfth century. The district had borne her name, and a parish church was entitled in her honour before the Norman lord of that place determined to found a religious house within a few miles of his baronial seat at Egremont. The date of the foundation of the priory by William Meschin, the first Norman owner of Coupland, can only be approximately given. His first charter was, as one might say, only declaratory of his intention to proceed with the undertaking. It was also an invitation to his own knights and to the proprietors of neighbouring fiefs to aid him in the work. The new institution was to be founded as a cell or subordinate house of the great abbey of St. Mary near the walls of York, to which his family apparently owed some obligation. In the first instance he made it known that he had given to God, St. Mary and the holy virgin Bega, six carucates of land in Kirkby (Cherchebi), as well as the manor which William the Bowman (balistarius) had in addition, and moreover that he would confirm similar gifts for the same purpose by any of his knights from their own lands. Most of those who witnessed this deed, Waldeve, Reiner, Godard, Ketel, William the chaplain, Coremac and Gillebecoc, were afterwards the foremost in forwarding the scheme. When the project had taken practical form, Thurstin, Archbishop of York, in whose diocese the barony of Coupland was included, was called in to advise on the character of the institution about to be established. It is evident that the great archbishop was the moving spirit of the whole scheme. The large landowners of the neighbourhood associated themselves with the founder, and contributed their share to its first endowment. Waldeve, lord of Allerdale below Derwent, who had received his barony from Henry I., granted the manor of Stainburn; Ketel gave Preston; Reiner, two oxgangs of land in Rottington with the native who dwelt there. As a supplement to his former gift, William Meschin added the church of Kirkby and its parish, the bounds of which were defined by trustworthy men as from Whitehaven to the river Keekle (Chechel), and as the Keekle falls into the Egre, and as the Egre flows to the sea. He also gave the chapel of Egremont within the said bounds and the tithes of his domain and of all his men, as well as the tithes of his fisheries and the skins of his venison. One of the most interesting grants in the early endowment of the priory was that of Godard, lord of Millom, who gave the churches of Whicham (Witingam) and Bootle (Bothle), with two manses (mansuræ), and their whole parishes and tithes. The gift was made by the advice and assent of William the founder, his liege lord, in the presence of Archbishop Thurstin on the day of the dedication of the church of St. Bees for the special purpose of finding lights for divine service. These churches and estates were demised to the Benedictine abbey of St. Mary, York, with the view of founding a monastic establishment in the church of St. Bees consisting of a prior and six monks of their obedience. The pious work was done for the health of King Henry and Archbishop Thurstin, for the souls of Queen Maud and William the Atheling, and for the relief (pro remedio) of his ancestors and successors. From these deeds it may be inferred that the foundation of the priory could not have taken place before 1120. (fn. 4)
William Meschin the founder paid a graceful tribute to the co-operation of his wife Cecily and his son Ranulf in his efforts to establish the institution. His children and descendants in after years were foremost among its benefactors. To the memory of his father and by the advice of Fulk, his uncle, Ranulf gave the monks the manor of Ennerdale (Avenderdale), and endowed them with many liberties in his woods and forests. Alice de Romilly, when she became owner of the barony on the death of Ranulf her brother, was a munificent patron of her father's foundation. There can be no truth in the story that Ranulf Meschin was jealous of the possessions of the priory, and sought to diminish the boundaries of their franchise. It is said that men, envious of the monastic life, had instilled into that nobleman's ear that the monks had encroached upon his lands. In the suits at law which ensued the cause was defended, and ample evidences were produced on behalf of the priory, but no agreement could be arrived at. On the day appointed for measuring the landmarks and setting the bounds, the dispute was settled by divine intervention, for the whole of the surface of the adjacent country was covered with a deep snow, but within the bounds that the monks had attached to the church of St. Bees not the vestige of a single flake appeared.
It would be tedious to enumerate the gifts of lands, churches and rents made to the monks at various periods. Numerous deeds of endowment have been preserved in the fine chartulary of the priory. Landowners, great and small, distinguished and obscure, had contributed a share to its possessions. But there is one noticeable feature of the endowments worthy of special mention. It is very remarkable how the traditions of a family were carried on in connection with a single religious house. It is not only true that the descendants of William Meschin in the barony of Coupland were generous to his foundation, but the descendants of Waldeve, Ketel, Godard and Reiner, who were associated with him in its first establishment, were liberal in their benefactions. In fact it might be said that the priory owed whatever measure of prosperity it possessed to the munificence of these families, the Romillys, Albemarles, Lucys, Multons, Curwens, Milloms, Hudlestons, Rotingtons and others.
Though most of the property of the priory was confined to that portion of the county bordering on St. Bees, where the magnates in question lived, the monks kept up a frequent communication with the Isle of Man, where they enjoyed some manors. It is said that the prior of St. Bees had a seat in the little parliament of that kingdom. It is very probable. Guthred, King of the Isles, gave the priory the land called 'Eschedale' and 'Asmundertofts' quit of all service, tam de pecunia quam de aconeux, in exchange for the church of St. Olave and the little vill of 'Evastad.' King Ragdnald bequeathed the land of 'Ormeshau' which lay towards the sea at the port of 'Corna,' while King Olave granted licence to buy and sell in the island. The abbot and convent of Rushen were consenting parties to some of these charters. In later years, when Thomas Ranulf, earl of Moray, and Anthony Bec, Bishop of Durham, ruled the island, the grants of the former kings were recognized and confirmed. The priory also owned some property in the south-west of Scotland, chiefly of the gift of the families of Curwen and Brus.
In comparison with the other monastic houses in the county St. Bees was wealthy, ranking in the matter of revenues after Holmcultram and Carlisle. In 1291 the cell was valued at £66 13s. 4d., and in 1535 the gross annual income was assessed for taxation at £149 19s. 6d. or £143 16s. 2d. after the deduction of reprises. (fn. 5) In 1545 a sum of £280 2s. was returned to the Augmentation Office as the total issues of the late priory with arrearages. (fn. 6)
In 1178 the church of Neddrum, now called Island Magee in Strangford Lough, was remodelled into a monastic establishment by Sir John de Courcy, the conqueror of Ulster, and affiliated to St. Bees, as a cell of St. Mary of York. The island was a portion of the ancient possessions of the see of Down, but as Malachi, the bishop, was a prisoner in the hands of Sir John, his consent to the alienation was easily obtained. In the bishop's confirmation of the grant it is stated that, when he gave and confirmed to the monks of St. Bees the church and two-thirds of all the lands and benefices belonging to it, he was acting of his own free will out of devotion to God, and not under any compulsion. Courcy's gift was also confirmed by Thomas and Eugene, archbishops of Armagh. The monks of St. Bees do not seem to have taken kindly to their Irish relation, for no memorandum of the transaction was made in the register of their house. The only connection that we have noticed between the two institutions is that one of the early priors of St. Bees was transferred to the priory of Neddrum. Its conventual existence seems to have been of short duration, for at the date of the taxation of Pope Nicholas it is mentioned simply as the church of Neddrum, and was valued at the small sum of seven marks. (fn. 7)
The chief relic to which the monks of St. Bees paid veneration was the bracelet above mentioned, which St. Bega left behind her on her flight from Cumberland. In the legendary life of the saint several stories are told of the power of this talisman. It had been the means of convincing Walter Espec, the great Yorkshire baron, that he was claiming wrongfully some possessions of the abbey of St. Mary, York; and it brought destruction on Adam, son of Ailsi, who had forsworn himself in favour of the lord of Coupland on the subject of the Noutgeld to the detriment of the people of that district. On one occasion, when the holy bracelet was exhibited in public on account of its great sanctity, a certain perverse creature sacrilegiously stole the precious cloth in which it had been wrapped and hid it in his boot. By the vengeance of St. Bega the leg of the thief became paralysed, and thus was his sin discovered. Having been carried to the priory church, he confessed his guilt, and his leg was restored to its original soundness by the goodness of the most merciful Virgin, who is wont to pity those who are truly penitent. There can be no doubt that the bracelet of St. Bega was a powerful institution in Coupland. The monks used it to give special sanction to their agreements. Obligations were rendered pre-eminently binding and sacred when they were made on the bracelet. For instance, John de Hale, for the greater security of faithfully observing his obligation, bound himself and his heirs on his corporal oath by touching the holy relics et super armillam sancte Bege. The touching of the relics was the usual mode of taking an oath, but in matters of high importance the bargain was made upon the bracelet as the means of giving it the greatest sanction.
The priory appears to have had little dealings with the ecclesiastical world in its papal or diocesan aspect. There are few papal documents in the register. Far removed from the centre of the great diocese of York, it pursued the even tenor of its way in solitude. It is true there are some deeds of the mother house of St. Mary and some commissions from the archbishop with the men tion here and there of an archdeacon of Richmond, but they are comparatively few in number. Unlike the religious houses or the county within the bounds of the see of Carlisle, episcopal authority was seldom invoked for the purpose of discipline or for the confirmation of the acts of the convent. At some date between 1154 and 1181 Archbishop Roger of Pont l'Evêque confirmed to the priory all their churches, chapels and tithes in Coupland, with the lands belonging to them, viz. the churches of Workington, Gosforth, Corney, Bootle, Whitbeck and Whicham; the chapels of Harrington, Clifton, Loweswater, and the chapel and tithes of Weddicar. He also freed the church of St. Bees for ever from attendance on synods, and from all aids to archbishop or archdeacon, at the same time granting the priory disciplinary powers to deal with the clergy of their appropriate churches. Except for the short period during the reign of Stephen, when David, King of Scots, exercised sovereignty over Cumberland as far south as the river Duddon, the kings claimed no royal prerogative in confirming the charters of this house.
The priors of St. Bees did not take a prominent part in the public affairs of church or state. Some of them, like Alan de Nesse, Roger Kirkeby and Edmund Thornton, rose to high dignity on becoming abbots of York; but few of the others were known outside their immediate surroundings. In 1219 Pope Honorius III. appointed the priors of St. Bees, Lancaster and Cartmel to determine a dispute between the abbot of Furness and the vicars of Dalton and Urswick about the right of burial in the chapelry of Hawkshead; they delivered judgment in favour of the monastery, and ordered the chapel yard to be consecrated for sepulture. At a later date Gregory IX. delegated plenary authority to the priors of the same houses as a sort of ecclesiastical syndicate to dissolve sentences of excommunication and interdict against the Cistercian monasteries of the province of York. (fn. 8) It will be seen from the list of priors that we have been able to collect how few of them had attained to anything like distinction in the general history of the county. Perhaps the geographical isolation of the district had a depressing effect on the chances to promotion of its leading ecclesiastical magnates.
John Matthew, who was prior while the clouds were beginning to gather around the monastic houses, was not a favourite with his superior, William, abbot of York. In a letter ascribed to the year 1533, the abbot told Cromwell that ' this man, in whos favor ye writ to me of, hayth beyn prior at Lincoln and at seynt Martin's, parcell of our monasterie, who alwey hayth beyn of such ordre, condicions and liberalte that he thereby brought our house to great dettes and other cherges and vexacions.' On representations from Cromwell, Matthew was transferred to the priory of St. Martin near Richmond. Sir George Lawson, in support of the abbot's action, told the secretary that the prior was ' a verey yll husband as hath bene well proved at Lincoln, Saynt Martyn's and Seynt Bees where he hathe bene prior. And now of late gret complayntes cumyng of extorcion and other gret urgent wronges done at Saynt Bees to the tenauntes and inhabitantes ther. Wherapon on Saynt Calixt daye last, at the generall chapitor yerely holden at Saynt Mary abbey, as the usuall custume is, when all the priors of the celles and other hede officers of the said Monasterie dothe assemble to see and aview the state and accomptes of the same, knowing the demeanor and yll husbandrye of the said Dan John, exchanged and revoked hym from Saynt Bees. And yete when he shuld have bene a conventuall, for your sake and favour of your former letter, named hym to be prior of Saynt Martynes, a propir Celle nye unto Richemond and a reasonable good liffing, whiche he cold never obtayne but in your favour. And now it is reported unto you that he shuld be otherwise entreated, whiche of a suretie is not so, but my lord abbott dothe and woll do at your complentacion all that reasonably is to be done. And yete his brethren and covent is sore sett against the said dan John Mathew for his mysdemeanour many wayes.' Sir George urged Cromwell 'to give no credens to any person that shall make suite or labour agaynst my said lord abbott, for it hath not bene sene that any perpetuite hath bene graunted undir covent seale to such like person' as 'Dan John Mathew, late prior of Saynt Bees, without a special and urgent cause and a man proved of good demeanour and husbandrye for the well of his house.' Robert Cokett, a kinsman of the deposed prior, denied all the charges made against him, and appealed 'to ye gentyllmen and yomen in ye cowntre with all ye honest men yerin' in proof of John Matthew's honesty and good behaviour. (fn. 9) At the dissolution of the religious houses John Matthew was a cloister monk of St. Mary's, York, and received a pension of £6 13s. 4d. (fn. 10) It is evident that Prior Matthew was permanently deposed, for John Poule was incumbent of St. Bees in 1535 when the ecclesiastical survey was made. (fn. 11)
The clouds had burst over the religious houses and the end was drawing near. Priors were made or unmade as it suited the royal will. The last prior of St. Bees was Robert Paddy, who caused a memorandum to be entered on the flyleaf of the chartulary of his house that he had agreed with Christopher Lyster for all manner of labour, debts, payments, wages and covenants from the beginning of the world till Michaelmas Day 1538, and that the said Christopher had undertaken to pay at the following Martinmas his yearly rent with all fines due to the said Prior Robert from his entry or coming to the priory. The prior of St. Bees was suspected of complicity with the 'Pilgrimage of Grace.' William, Abbot of York, wrote to Cromwell early in 1537 that he had sent Dan Robert Paddy 'to his room,' but was afraid of what might befall him on the journey. 'I sent him thither,' he said, 'and as it is surmised he should be lettyd by ye commons in these parts in his riding thither un knowledge or writing of me.' (fn. 12)
The king's agents in 1536 were unable to find cause of complaint against the prior, and though efforts were made to connect him with the northern rebellion, nothing seems to have come of it. The only evil report made by the commissioners was that two of the monks, John Clyffton and John Fullscroft, were accused of personal depravity. When the priory was surrendered Robert Paddy, the last prior, received an annual pension (fn. 13) of £40, the warrant being dated 3 June, 1538. In his survey of the monastery at the time of the dissolution James Rokeby, auditor of the Court of Augmentations, thus described (fn. 14) the priory precincts: 'The scite of the late house, with a towre koveryd wt lead called the Yatehouse, and other edificez with garthings lienge within the utter walls, contenyng one acre and di. (a half) and is worth by the yere over and above the reparacons, wt one dufe cote wt in the same scite, vs.'
On 21 November, 1541, Thomas Leighe was granted a lease (fn. 15) for twenty-one years of 'St. Bege monastery, with the rectory of Kyrkeby Beycoke and chapels of Lowsewater, Ennerdale, Eshedale and Wasedale.'
Priors of St. Bees
Robert (fn. 16)
Deodatus, (fn. 17) late twelfth century
Richard (fn. 18)
Waleran, (fn. 19) circa 1197
Robert, (fn. 20) 1202
John, (fn. 21) circa 1207
Daniel, (fn. 22) circa 1210
Guy, (fn. 23) circa 1235
Nicholas de Langeton, (fn. 24) circa 1258-82
Absalon, (fn. 25) circa 1287
Alan de Nesse, (fn. 26) 1313, transferred to St. Mary's, York
William de Seynesbury, (fn. 27) 1360
Thomas de Cotingham, (fn. 28) circa 1379
Roger Kirkeby, (fn. 29) 1434-6
Dr. Stanlaw, (fn. 30) circa 1465
Edmund Smyth or Thornton, (fn. 31) circa 1496
Edmund (Whalley?), (fn. 32) circa 1516
Robert Alanby, (fn. 33) circa 1523
There is an indistinct cast of a seal (fn. 34) at the British Museum, showing what appears to be an ornamented cross, the legend of which is defaced.
An impression of the seal of Prior Absalon, circa 1287, exists. (fn. 35) It is a pointed oval, and shows the Lamb of God. The legend is SIGILL' FRIS'SALON' PRIORIS DE BIGEE.