A History of the County of Cumberland: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1905.
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6. THE PRIORY OF WETHERAL (fn. 1)
The priory of Wetheral, of the Benedictine order, was founded in the beautiful valley of the Eden a few miles above Carlisle by Ranulf Meschin, the first Norman lord of Cumberland, at a date not later than 1112 and perhaps in 1106. Ranulf conveyed the manor of 'Wetherhala' and all the land belonging thereto, which no doubt included the churches of Wetheral and Warwick, to Stephen, abbot of St. Mary's, York, in perpetual alms, and when the priory was brought into being as a cell of that great Benedictine house, he supplemented his former gift by the concession of a salmon weir and a water mill in the Eden close to the site of the new institution. The munificent founder soon afterwards gave to the priory the two churches of St. Michael and St. Lawrence in his castellum or fortified town of Appleby, and two parts of the tithe of his domain on both sides of the Eden, and two parts of the tithe of Meaburn and Salkeld. From these charters (fn. 2) we are not able to gather the size of the institution Ranulf founded, but we afterwards learn that the priory was constituted with twelve monks (fn. 3) at the outset, though that number was not maintained at a subsequent date. In the formalities attending the foundation of this house some of the leading men of the district appear for the first time. In one or other of the four charters granted by the founder, such well-known persons as Waldeve son of Earl Gospatric, Forn son of Sigulf, Ketel son of Eldred, Odard, Hildred the knight, Wescubrict, and Godard, are mentioned at this early period. We know little of other local magnates associated with the scheme, such as Richer, sheriff of Carlisle, to whom Ranulf addressed the foundation charter, (unless indeed he be identified with Richard the knight of subsequent fame,) Hervey son of Morin and Eliphe de Penrith. Of his own relations William Meschin and Richard, his brothers, as well as his wife Lucy, took part in the foundation as witnesses to his charters. The priory was entitled in the name of St. Constantine, but the dedication was afterwards changed to the Holy Trinity and St. Constantine, perhaps an amalgamation of the original dedication with that of the parish church of Wetheral.
The priory had many influential patrons, not only amongst the kings but among the great landowners of the district. Henry I. was of course the first royal patron (fn. 4) who confirmed the acts of his subordinate and added to his foundation grants of all the pasture between the Eden and the highway called the 'Hee-strette' running parallel to the river and leading from Carlisle to Appleby, and also the privilege of feeding swine in the king's forest, free of pannage. Other privileges were bestowed by succeeding kings with the exception of Stephen, who had yielded up the land of Carlisle to David, King of Scots, as a preliminary to his attainment of the Crown. The lords of Corby on the opposite side of the Eden were good and generous neighbours to the monks, though at times the fishing rights in the river were the occasion of disputes, but to the credit of both parties be it said that they soon made up their differences and settled their disputes. Some of the greatest families of the district as well as some of the humblest are numbered among the benefactors of the house.
In its ecclesiastical aspect the priory of Wetheral differed very widely from that of St. Bees, though both were cells of the same abbey, arising no doubt from their geographical situation, the one being in the diocese of Carlisle and in close proximity to the cathedral city, and the other being in the vast diocese of York far removed from the centre of diocesan life. The bishops of Carlisle exercised an immediate supervision over the affairs of Wetheral, but no evidence has been traced whereby it may be assumed that a similar oversight was extended to St. Bees either by the archbishops of York or by the arch deacons of Richmond. At one time the bishops of Carlisle claimed the custody of the priory of Wetheral during a vacancy, as well as the right of institution and deprivation of the priors. These episcopal privileges were contested in 1256 while Robert de Chause was bishop of Carlisle. The dispute was settled in a manner agreeable to the litigants. The bishop consented to relinquish his right to the custody, and to institute the nominee of the abbey of York in consideration of the grant of 2½ marks which the monks were accustomed to receive out of the church of Nether Denton since the episcopate of Bishop Walter. (fn. 5) The bishops of Carlisle exercised their ordinary power of visitation when they thought fit, and never gave up the right of benediction and institution of the priors to the very last.
The bishops also kept a firm hand on the churches and spiritual revenues in the diocese which belonged to the priory. Adelulf, the first bishop of the see, confirmed to the monks of St. Mary's, York, the churches they were known to possess in his diocese, viz. the cell of Wetheral with the parish of Warwick, all the tithes of Scotby, the churches of St. Michael and St. Lawrence in Appleby, the churches of Kirkby Stephen, Ormside, Morland, Clibburn, Bromfield, Croglin, and the hermitage of St. Andrew in the parish of Kirkland, with the only condition that the monks should make decent provision for the maintenance of a priest in each of these churches, and pay their episcopal dues which included of course synodals and archidiaconals. (fn. 6) As a rule the monks thought it desirable to obtain similar confirmation from successive bishops, thereby differing materially from the priory of St. Bees, in whose register very few of these confirmations from the archbishops have been recorded. It must not be assumed that all these churches continued in the patronage of the priory. As all the religious houses in Cumberland had been founded and for the most part endowed before the diocese of Carlisle enjoyed a regular succession of bishops, many of the churches in the county were in some way connected with these institutions. In after years the bishops were not reluctant to obtain possession of some of these churches where it was possible. It was ever the policy of the see to gain a supremacy within its own jurisdiction. Nor were the heads of houses loth to conciliate the bishops by an occasional indulgence of this kind, for in many ways the good offices of the bishops of Carlisle were of the greatest moment to the monks.
In 1248 Bishop Silvester obtained from the abbey of York the right of patronage of the churches of Ormside, Musgrave and Clibburn, and also of the churches of Burghunder-Stanemore and St. Michael in Appleby, (fn. 7) all of which remain to the present day in the hand of the Bishop of Carlisle, except the church of Clibburn, which passed into lay patronage in 1874. (fn. 8) The laity were not backward in protecting the interest of parishioners in case the appropriate churches of the monks were insufficiently served. In 1366 Sir John de Warthewyk complained in forcible terms to the Archbishop of York that the priory had been dealing unjustly with the churches of Wetheral and Warwick in not supplying proper ministrations. (fn. 9)
Papal interference with the affairs of this priory was not always successful. In 1165, when the see of Carlisle was void, Alexander III. granted an indult to the abbey of St. Mary, York, which applied to Wetheral, permitting chaplains to serve in the churches where there were no vicars. (fn. 10) Gregory IX., relying on the confirmation of previous bishops, allowed the priory to enter on the appropriation of St. Michael's, Appleby, notwithstanding the opposition of Bishop Walter. (fn. 11) But the papal court had not always its own way. In 1309 Clement V. provided a prior for the house in the person of Robert de Gisburne, though the convent of St. Mary's, York, the lawful patrons, had a prior of its own presentation already in possession. The Crown intervened and prohibited the induction of the papal nominee until the letters of collation were examined in regard to any encroachment on the royal prerogative. (fn. 12) It is known that at this time Bishop Halton was a prelate of pronounced anti-papal proclivities. (fn. 13) By a natural process the controversy with Bishop Kirkby in 1338 about the advowsons of Wetheral and Warwick was referred to Rome, when the English ecclesiastical courts failed to grant redress to one or other of the contending parties.
One of the most interesting features in the history of Wetheral is the right of sanctuary or freedom from arrest which it afforded to criminals for offences committed outside its bounds. This privilege was conferred on the priory by Henry I. when he endowed it with all the customs and liberties enjoyed by the churches of St. Peter in York and St. John in Beverley. (fn. 14) It was also confirmed by later kings. The bounds of the sanctuary were not conterminous with those of the manor, but were marked by six crosses, viz. the cross on the bank of the Eden opposite Corby, the cross near St. Oswald's chapel, the cross by the lodge (juxta le loge) on the bank of the river, the cross by the hedge at Warwick on the boundary of the manor, called the Wetheral 'gryth crosse,' the cross between the vill of Scotby and the prior's grange there, and the cross on the bank of the burn at Cumwhinton. (fn. 15) It is a curious fact that no refuge was allowed to those whose offence was committed within the liberty. When the felon reached the desired asylum, he was obliged to toll a bell in the church and swear before the bailiff of the manor that he would henceforth behave himself as a law-abiding subject.
The right of sanctuary was a conspicuous privilege involving such far-reaching consequences to the community to which it appertained, that claims to the exercise of this liberty were regarded by the law with a jealous eye. It may be taken, we suppose, that the church which enjoyed this privilege was called upon at some time or another to prove its title. There are few places of sanctuary that have not figured in the law courts. The sanctuary of Wetheral was not singular in this respect. Three cases of considerable interest came before the justices itinerant at Alston in 1292, whereby the title of the priory to the liberty was established. Andrew, son of Thomas of Warwick, having slain a man by a blow on the head with a stick, fled to Wetheral and obtained 'the peace' according to ancient custom. As it was not known by what warrant the priory exercised such a privilege, the abbot of St. Mary's, York, was summoned to prove the title. It was maintained that from time immemorial the liberty of receiving felons within its jurisdiction (infra banlucam) was possessed by the priory of Wetheral, an oath having been first taken by such felons that they should conduct themselves well and not depart beyond the bounds. The verdict of the jurors was given in favour of the right of sanctuary. In two other cases of manslaughter at the same assize, the felons sought refuge at Wetheral, and the jurors found to the same effect. (fn. 16) From the fact that Edward III. offered pardon in 1342 to all the 'grithmen' or criminals who had obtained the 'grith' or peace at Wetheral, Beverley, Ripon and Tynemouth, on the condition that they should go out and fight in Scotland, it may be inferred that the liberty of sanctuary was largely used in the northern counties at that date. (fn. 17)
During the wars of Scottish independence the resources of the religious houses (fn. 18) on the Border were put to a severe strain by the entertainment of royalties and magnates on their way to Scotland. The English side was of course the basis of military operations. The depredations of the Scots or the expenses incurred by hospitality were the principal excuses alleged for the appropriation of churches to meet the increased outlay. Edward I. had stayed at the priories of Carlisle and Lanercost and the abbey of Holmcultram, as well as with the bishop of the diocese at Rose Castle. It is not surprising therefore that the Prince of Wales should have sojourned at Wetheral about the same period. He was there, presumably, as the guest of the monks, on 20 October, 1301, and again early in the year 1307, a few months before he came to the throne. It was on the latter occasion that Dungall Macdowill, a Galwegian captain, brought to the prince's court at Wetheral Sir Thomas de Brus and Alexander his brother, brothers of Robert de Brus, King of Scots, and Reynold de Crauford, whom he had wounded and taken in battle, together with the heads of certain Irish and Cantire men decapitated by him and his army during the war. The Chronicle of Lanercost gives a grim account of the subsequent execution of the prisoners at Carlisle, the head of Thomas de Brus having been placed on the keep of the castle. (fn. 19)
Several of the priors of Wetheral were advanced to the distinction of being abbots of the mother church of St. Mary, York, and one of them was appointed to the great priory of Durham. William Rundel rose to be abbot of York in 1239, John de Gilling in 1303, William de Brudford in 1382, Thomas Pigott in 1399, Thomas Bothe in 1464, and William Thornton in 1530, the latter being the last abbot of St. Mary's. (fn. 20) William de Tanfeld was 'provided' to the priory of Durham by Clement V. in 1308, and the monks of Wetheral were not sorry at his promotion. It is said that he paid for the appointment 3,000 marks to the pope and 1,000 marks to the cardinals, the enormous sum having been extorted from the priory of Wetheral to the impoverishment of the house. Robert de Graystanes, an official of Durham at the time and one of its historians, described the new prior as tall in stature, handsome in countenance, pleasing in manners, and liberal in spending money, but ignorant of the way to get it, inasmuch as he increased rather than diminished the debts of the house. (fn. 21)
In 1536 the royal commissioners made their report on this house, when, strange to say, they had only an accusation of personal depravity to make against two of the monks, Nicolas Barneston and Robert Goodon. At that time the priory was reputed to have possessed as relics a portion of the Holy Cross and some of the Blessed Virgin's milk. (fn. 22) It is probable that Ralf Hartley, the last prior, was put in by Cromwell's influence for the purpose of the dissolution. The deed of surrender was executed on 20 October 1538, and authenticated, not with the official seal of the house, but with a seal bearing the prior's initials. The document has only two signatures: 'per me Radulphum Hartley priorem Monasterij sive prioratus de Wederhall: per me Johannem Clyfton monachum ibidem.' (fn. 23) The surrender was enrolled on 28 January following before Thomas Legh, one of the clerks of the Chancery. (fn. 24) By a warrant dated 20 November 1539, a pension of £20 was allotted to the late prior, and smaller sums to Thomas Hartley, John Wytfeld alias Batson, John Clyfton, and John Gale, brethren of the house. On 31 January 1539-40, Ralf Hartley's pension was revised and fixed at £12 with the addition of his interest in the rectory of Wetheral and Warwick and the annexed chapels of St. Anthony and St. Severin. (fn. 25) In 1555 only two of the pensioners of Wetheral were alive, viz. Ralf Hartley, who was still drawing his pension of £12, and one Edward Walles who was enjoying his annuity of 40s. (fn. 26)
The demesne lands and churches of this house were granted to the dean and chapter of Carlisle by their charter of endowment, with the exception of the churches of Wetheral and Warwick, which were afterwards bestowed by letters patent, dated 15 January 1547, on the petition of that body. (fn. 27)
The work of dismantling the priory was soon commenced. Account was rendered by Sir Thomas Wharton and James Rokebie, the commissioners of surrender, on 31 December 1538, of the sale of divers church utensils, tables of alabaster, brass candlesticks, various wooden images, choir stalls, vestments, censers, altar linen, and a lectern, not to mention the domestic furniture and farming stock, implements and produce belonging to the monks, the more costly articles like chalices, vases and jewels having been delivered to William Grene, the king's receiver. (fn. 28) In 1555 Lancelot Salkeld, dean of Carlisle, reported 'that one bell of the thre bells perteyning to the layte sell of Wetherell came to Carlysle, whiche bell was hanged uppon the walle called Springall Tower in Carlyle to call the workmen to worke at the making of the new cytydall in Carlyle and mending of the castell ther.' The other two bells, he said, remained in a house at Wetheral unbroken awaiting removal. (fn. 29) The priory buildings soon went to decay and were never repaired. Thomas Denton, writing in 1687, stated that only the gatehouse remained entire and in good repair in his time. Its survival may probably be accounted for by the fact that it then 'served the minister for a vicaragehouse.' (fn. 30) As for the dormitories and cloisters, iam seges ubi Troja fuit.
Priors of Wetheral
Richard de Reme, early twelfth century (fn. 31)
William, late twelfth century (fn. 32)
Thomas, circa 1203-14 (fn. 33)
Suffred, circa 1218-23 (fn. 34)
William Rundel, circa 1225-39 (fn. 35)
William de Tanfield, 1292, (fn. 36) prior of Durham in 1308
John de Gilling, resigned on becoming abbot of York in 1303 (fn. 37)
John de Thorp, appointed on 16 November, 1303 (fn. 38)
Gilbert de Botill, instituted in 1313, (fn. 41) prior of St. Mary, York, in 1313–9
Robert Grace, circa 1379 (fn. 49)
Richard de Appilton, circa 1382 (fn. 50)
Thomas Pigott, admitted in 1386, (fn. 51) abbot of York in 1399
John de Stutton, 1399 (fn. 52)
Thomas Stanley, 1434 (fn. 53)
Robert Hertford, 1444, 1446 (fn. 54)
Thomas Bothe, 1456, abbot of York in 1464 (fn. 55)
Robert Alanby, 1497, afterwards prior of St. Mary's, York, (fn. 56) and St. Bees
William Thornton, made abbot of York in 1530 (fn. 57)
Richard Wederhall, 1535 (fn. 58)
The only known seal referring to this monastery is that attached to the deed of surrender, (fn. 59) which is Prior Ralf Hartley's signet. It is shield-shaped and bears his initials united by a knot looped and tasselled.