Records : The foundation and growth to 1200

Pages 117-126

Register and Records of Holm Cultram. Originally published by T Wilson & Son, Kendal, 1929.

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VI. The Foundation of the Abbey, 1150.

The site chosen for the monastery may or may not have been fixed by the monks, but they at any rate made it suitable to the purposes of their Order. They came from Melrose Abbey and they settled in Cumberland under the protection of the Scottish Crown, which happened at the time to be dominant at Carlisle; but it would put a false colour upon the circumstances to say that Holm Cultram was a Scottish abbey on English soil. In ecclesiastical matters there was then no difference between the two groups of population which later became Scots and English on two sides of a sharply defined border. Socially and economically the shores of the Solway were closely connected; many landholders had estates north as well as south of the sands, and there was more distinction between Cumberland and Southern England than between Cumberland and Southern Scotland. It was only after the wars of Edward I, a hundred and fifty years later, that the Border was finally fixed, and then desolated by continual and embittered hostility.

The actual founder of the abbey was a Cumberland man with Scottish connexions. The so-called Foundation Charter (Register, no. 260) is only the ratification and amplification by the superior lord of a grant already made. In it Prince Henry, son of King David I, confirms the gift by Alan f. Waldeve and his son Waldeve of a third part of the Holm, held from the prince as a huntingground and granted to the monks by charter at Carlisle; and the prince adds the remaining two-thirds of Holm and Raby. Alan's foundation charter is lost, but there can be no doubt as to his own identity as lord of Allerdale. The Distributio or Chronicon Cumbriae says that he granted to King Henry 'senior' the forest of Allerdale with hunting ground in Holm Cultram; this perhaps meaning Henry I, and a transaction earlier than the cession of the land of Carlisle to King David. Henry II re-granted the Holm to the abbey after he had gained possession of Cumberland, and this was regarded by many as the valid foundation; but in 1219 the earl of Albemarle, Alan's successor, claimed the advowson of the church, showing that there was a definite tradition, seventy years later, assigning the foundation to Alan of Allerdale.

The motive that led him to make the grant is fairly clear. His son Waldeve died shortly afterwards, unmarried and without issue; no doubt an ailing boy, the only son of his father. On his death Alan had him buried at Carlisle priory and gave, as fee, three churches in Allerdale and a valued relic, the holy cross which his father had brought home from the East; the priory owned it in the fourteenth century but it disappeared at the Reformation. As the young Waldeve had joined in the foundation of Holm Cultram one might expect that he would have been buried there, but the church was probably not built in time. Alan was a benefactor also to St. Bees, Hexham and Guisborough; he was obviously a religious man and one who thought of the world to come; these benefactions were to engage the prayers of the monks for himself and family. At his death the direct line of the great Earl Gospatrick went to William f. Duncan, nephew both to Alan and the King of Scots; and when William's son, the Boy of Egremont, was killed at Bolton Strid the tragedy was repeated. From the story of the second event made familiar, if a little distorted, by Wordsworth, we can imagine the poignancy of the first, although no legend remains to dramatize the loss of the young Waldeve.

In 1150 the land of Carlisle was not Scottish, but held by the Scottish Crown since 1136. Prince Henry had been recognised as Earl of Cumberland and therefore was feudal superior to Alan of Allerdale. He too died before his father (June 12, 1152) and King David died at Carlisle on May 24, 1153, succeeded by prince Henry's son Malcolm IV, called the Maiden, who in 1157 gave up the land of Carlisle to Henry II. Thenceforward Cumberland became part of England, politically, though socially its character changed very slowly. In 1158 King Henry came to Carlisle, and it was probably on that occasion that he took Holm abbey into his protection (Register, no. 208), renewing the grant of prince Henry and making it definitely English. But even so, Holm Cultram was ecclesiastically under Melrose. The time when that arrangement would become impracticable was . yet unexpected.

Of those who witnessed Prince Henry's charter the first was the bishop of Carlisle, Athelwold, Adelof, Aldulf, Adulphus (representing O.E. Æthelwulf). As he has been studied by Chancellor Prescott (Wetherhal, 479–488) and Canon James Wilson (V.C.H. Cumb. ii, 12ff; Rose Castle, 2–5) it is enough to say that he was originally a wealthy Yorkshire landholder, lord of Pocklington, who took orders and became archbishop Thurstin's friend, prior of Nostell in Yorkshire and confessor to King Henry I. When that king came to Carlisle in 1122, he seems to have become interested in the religious house there, for Pipe Rolls show that in 1130 payments were made towards the building of the priory church. On Aug. 6, 1133, Athelwold was consecrated bishop of Carlisle. When Carlisle was ceded to King David, Athelwold found it possible to serve him diligently without forsaking his duties to the English Church and court. He was still prior of Nostell shortly before his death in 1156 at Carlisle, where he was buried in the cloister he had built.

Walter the prior, who was active till 1169 and perhaps later, seems to be a generation younger than the Walter, chaplain to Henry I, who gave the priory Linstock and Carleton-by-Carlisle, which he had from King Henry I.

Beside the two chancellors, and the Scottish William de Somerville, Walter de Ridale, Hugh Ridill and Walter f. Alan, high steward of Scotland under Malcolm IV, the remaining witnesses were men who had interests on both sides of the Solway. Hugh de Morevill was probably grandfather of the Hugh, baron of Burgh-by-Sands, who appears often in connexion with Holm Cultram (Wetherhal, 186). William de Heriz granted land in Cumwhinton to Wetheral. William Engaine held in Lazonby and was father-in-law to Simon fitz Hugh de Morevill. Radulf de Soll' (Soulis), butler to King Malcolm, gave land in Liddel to St. Peter's, York. Radulph de 'Ludeseia,' for which a contemporary charter (St. Bees, no. 39) enables us to read 'Lindeseia,' was brother-in-law to Alan f. Waldeve, and held from him Blennerhasset and Uckmanby in Cumberland. Gospatrick f. Orm also was first cousin to Alan; he surrendered Appleby to William the Lion in 1174, and was ancestor of the Workington family. Henry f. Suan or Swain held Langwathby and Edenhall; his brother Adam was a great landowner in East Cumberland and Yorkshire. And Alan de Laceles was brother of Gerard of Asby, Westmorland, a benefactor to Byland abbey (Wetherhal, 203n). All these illustrate the statement that, before the Edwardian wars, the Border was no hard and fast line; and that Holm Cultram, though founded from Melrose under a Scottish king, can not be truly described as a Scottish abbey.

VII. The Growth of the Abbey From 1150 to 1200.

Everard was the first abbot, so named in the Chronicle of Melrose, and he ruled Holm Cultram until his death, 42 years later. Fordun, in the Scotichronicon, described him as a saintly man; and that he was a man of letters and an antiquary of wide sympathies appears from the tradition that he wrote not only the life of his old superior, St. Waldeve of Melrose, but also lives of two abbots of Iona, St. Cumen and St. Adamnan. These are lost, but in 1610 some book of Everard's was extant, for John Denton quotes his statement that Thursby was the site of a temple of the pagan Danes where they offered human sacrifices to their god (meaning Thor); a belief now hardly tenable but a not unreasonable explanation of the place-name. It is most curious that the first abbot of Holm was a historian and interested in Celtic ecclesiology, in the Viking age and in place-names; but the twelfth century was a wonderful period. To it we owe the foundation or the rebuilding in stone of most of our parish churches as well as the abbeys; and Everard was one of a great company of chroniclers, romancers and philosophers who made the age brilliant with a renascence that was eclipsed only by the brighter outburst of the late fifteenth century.

This abbot witnessed, probably at his abbey and in 1158–64, the charter (printed in Edgar's Dumfries, edit. R. C. Reid, 218f) of Huctred f. Fergus, lord of Galloway, granting land in Troqueer near Dumfries (for that is the place, not 'Crevequer' as in V. C. H. Cumb. ii, 168); and in the list of witnesses we get also the name of his prior, Robert, and cellarer, William. On behalf of his abbey he received from Robert (Meschin) and Euphemia de Brus the fishery in Tordiff (Register no. 93). He went to Scotland to perambulate the bounds of Kirkwinny (no. 120a) and witnessed William the Lion's grant to Jedburgh at Peebles. On Sept. 3, 1189, he attended Cœur-de-Lion's coronation at Westminster, the unfortunate occasion of the anti-Jewish 'pogrom.' And in 1192 "he entered into rest in a good old age, full of days and virtues," succeeded by Gregory, sub-cellarer at the abbey.

For this second half of the twelfth century we propose, first, to trace the extension of the monk's possessions, which means their growing wealth, and then to collect what is known of the buildings at their headquarters.

The first thing they did, apparently, was to throw a rampart and ditch round the abbey precincts (C. &. W. Trans. i, 266), still traceable on the north side adjoining the Carlisle road. The 'portion of a mound, and at its foot a broad wet ditch' (Whellan, 231) suggesting a motte or Norman castle (Curwen, Castles & Towers, 40) may possibly have been Alan's capital messuage, before the monks came. Then they enclosed the land of Holm and Raby with a dyke, called in an early charter 'the new dyke' and later 'the outer dyke' (Register nos. 73, 71) as opposed to the inner dyke round the precincts. The possessions of the abbey as they stood in 1158 (no. 208) coincide almost exactly with the old parish of Holm Cultram. The boundary started close to the west of Kirkbride; it included part of what is now Kirkbride parish, and then followed a line which is still taken every seven years at the boundary-riding and was marked by the Munking dyke on the south. Indeed, the usual practice of the abbey was to throw a dyke round its land soon after getting it, as at Flimby (no. 49a), Distington (no. 90), Kirkbythore (no. 157), Warnell (no. 221), Bromfield (no. 234). These records contribute much to the study of boundary earthworks, though it is not always easy to identify them with existing remains.

Within this area five granges were in working by 1175, the old Grange, Tarns, Mawbray, Skinburgh and Raby; the grange of Arlosh was added before 1185 (nos. 269 and 50a.] Outside this area the first acquisition of the monks appears to have been in Dumfriesshire, where they had land at Conheath and Carlaverock, confirmed by King Malcolm who died in 1165 (no. 133a). As Robert de Brus, lord of Annandale, gave them wayleaves in 1157 (no. 110), that may have been the date when they acquired the Annandale property. But before 1174, Dundrennan abbey, an older foundation than Holme Cultram, objected to its rival's influence east of the Nith (no. 133) and this is perhaps why Carlaverock passed into other hands and became entirely forgotten as Holm Cultram property.

It was otherwise with the early lease of Kirkwinny, now the parish of Kirkgunzeon, co. Kirkcudbright, which Huctred f. Fergus, lord of Galloway, let the abbey have at a rent, before 1174 (no. 120). This, though the southern part of the area was disputed, remained intact to Holm after a date not later than 1190 (no. 123) until the state of the Border made it impossible to hold it and it was neglected and at last given up. After 1185 (no. 128) Roland, son of the same Huctred, gave the monks a saltwork at Southerness and a fishery at Southwick, north of the Solway; and before 1191 Robert and Euphemia de Brus granted them the fishery of Tordiff (no. 93). Thus, well before the first half-century was out, they were astride the Solway and at work in two kingdoms.

Under the patronage of Robert and Euphemia and about the same time they got a house at Hartlepool (no. 109), no doubt for the furtherance of their trade in wool. That such foreign business had begun already we gather from leave given by Godred II, king of Man, before 1187, and his successor Reginald I to trade and fish at the Island (nos. 265a, 266); from Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster, for similar wayleaves in his domains before 1175 (no. 267a) and perhaps earlier from William the Lion in Scotland (no. 140).

In Cumberland and Westmorland the abbey's extension began about 1174 with the grant from Cospatrick f. Orm (of Workington) at Flimby and Kelton (no. 49) and fishery in the Derwent (no. 52). By arrangement with his son Adam, rector of Flimby, Gospatrick also let them have Flimby chapel (no. 53), and through an exchange with Carlisle priory he consolidated their estate by giving them Waitcroft for Kelton about 1185 (no. 49b, c). About the end of the century his son Thomas, ancestor of the Curwens, added land in West Seaton, rented to the abbey (nos. 55, 55a, 62). A grange at some place called Milburn they had before 1175 (no. 269) but it is not clear where this place was; it would be merely a guess to suggest that it was the Milburn in Westmorland afterwards held by Shap, but we have seen that their possessions were sometimes exchanged or otherwise alienated. It was in 1179 that Waldeve f. Gamel granted them land at Kirkby thore (no. 157) and there they established the grange of Hale and acquired more land in the thirteenth century (nos. 166–168, 172, 173, 174b).

Before 1179, William, earl of Albemarle, and Cecilia his wife granted them an iron-forge in Whinfell, with wood for the smelting furnace and pasture in the forest, as well as iron ore in Egremont (nos. 50b, c). About 1190 a small property in Blencogo was given by Galiena de Heriz (no. 206a).

Before 1195 Adam de Newton, who had stood in the way of his father's benefaction, agreed to let the flocks of Mawbray grange pasture on his land, and to allow the monks to make a watercourse to Mawbray (no. 191). A little later his brother Richard gave three acres in West Newton (no. 195) and then two more (no. 197). Another brother, Alan, gave leave to get millstones at Hensingham (no. 196). Adam f. Odard granted two bovates and three acres in West Newton (no. 198a). About the end of the twelfth century the abbey got a farm in Bromfield (no. 235), various houses in Carlisle (nos. 10. 11, 37, 40c, 41) and important grants from Hugh de Morevill, who gave them the church of Burgh-by-Sands (no. 15) and fisheries there (no. 24), and finally, with his body to be buried at the abbey, pastures at Lazonby (nos. 26, 27).

Another notable person buried at the Abbey (no. 141) was Christian, bishop of Whithorn from 1154 to his death on October 7, 1186. He had acted as suffragan bishop of Carlisle during the vacancy following Athelwold's tenure of the see and had always been a friend to Holm Cultram. Much later, in 1294, Robert de Brus the Competitor, father of the king, was buried there (no. 141e); also, about that time, the family of Kirkconnel in Galloway (no. 152), and in the fourteenth century the de Bassenthwaites (V.C.H. Cumb. ii, 166).

From sources external to the Register we glean only a very few notices of the abbey before 1200. In 1170 pardon was given to the monks of 'Holcotann[..],' for which they paid 100s. (Pipe Roll). As this occurs in connexion with the Forest, it probably means that the abbey had 'improved' or cleared forest-land without the necessary leave. But the great event, not noticed in the Register, was the birth of Holm Cultram's only daughter. On August 25, 1193, was founded, as a cell of Holm Abbey, the Irish house of Jugum Dei (or Domini); in Irish, Mainistir Liath, i.e. the Gray Abbey; sometimes—from the Irish name—called the abbey of Leigh. It stood on the shore of Strangford Lough, co. Down. It was founded by Africa (Affreka), daughter of Godred II, king of Man (Register no. 265a), and wife of John de Courci (no. 268), grantor to St. Bees of the lands of the very ancient abbey of Neddrum, which was on an island not far from the new foundation. The Chronicle of Man says (under the year 1204) that Africa was buried at the abbey she founded, and her effigy is said to exist there still, in the interesting ruins of an aisleless church and buildings on a Cistercian plan, though small in scale. About 1215 or earlier, William de Courci became abbot of Holm, and it is tempting to connect him with Africa and her foundation, although the connexion does not seem to be established. Two later abbots, Radulph and John, were translated from Gray Abbey to Holm Cultram. (fn. 1) It is said that in clearing the ruins about 1840 a leaden seal of bishop Ralph de Ireton of Carlisle was found.

The century closes with King John's protection to Holm Cultram (Register, no. 213) on December 12, 1200. By that time, no doubt, stone buildings had been erected, but the want of materials at hand has already been noticed (p. 107), and perhaps a study of the existing remains might lead to further dating of the fragments, by comparison with the sources from which the stones may have come. Mr. Charles J. Ferguson (C. &. W. Trans. i, 273), noticed chippings on the banks of the Waver, at the point nearest the abbey, indicating that the stone had been brought by sea from Scotland; and the Register (nos. 95a, d) suggests that Melrose abbey had a quarry at Rainpatrick, across the Solway, early in the 13th century. If mina means a quarry, Holm Cultram acquired one near the mouth of the Nith (no. 150) about 1276. But some stone, as well as timber, must have seen got in Inglewood from the first, under the foundation-charter, for the petition of 1302 mentions it (no. 115d) in asking for Holm's ancient rights. Shortly after 1210 Alice de Romilly granted a quarry at Aspatria (no. 54a) for building purposes. These dates, taken with two occasions when rebuilding may have been necessary after attacks by the Scots in 1216 and 1322, and with the architectural features, give some indications of the periods at which building was going on.

It seems probable that for the first few years the monks were content with wooden houses, and did not begin to build in stone until they had the means to carry out their work on a grand scale. But very little remains to be seen of the pre-Reformation fabric, except the Transitional west doorway (hidden by Abbot Chamber's porch) and the wall, 7 feet thick with a newel stair in it, on either side of that door. The present church was rebuilt in the eighteenth century, leaving only the six piers of the nave (see chapter XIV) and, all around, the graves of the churchyard forbid exploration. We know, however, that the medieval abbey church was much larger than the present building, larger indeed than Carlisle Cathedral. It was cruciform, with a nave of nine bays, a choir and transepts, and a tower at the crossing; the total length was 279 feet, of which the nave measured 162 feet; the greatest width of the transepts was 135 feet; the length of the chancel 96 feet; the tower was 38 feet wide and eventually 114 feet high; the arcade was 18 feet in height, and 26 feet to the crown of the arch (C. & W. Trans. o.s.i, 266ff). Exploration in 1872 and 1906 revealed a few fragments of ancient masonry at the N.E. corner of the central tower and the E. wall of the choir, also on the south part of the S. wall of the transept and, beyond that, remains of the chapter-house were found. All these were judged to be of the earliest (i.e. Transitional) period. Of the second period were found two sides of the north doorway of the tower; interesting illustrations of this doorway and the tiled floor adjoining are given by Mrs. Hesketh Hodgson in C. &. W. Trans. n.s. vii, 262–268. The porch is early sixteenth century; and Mr. J. H. Martindale, F.S.A., F.R.I.B.A., writing in C. & W. Trans. N.S. xiii, 244–251, on these explorations, considered that the oak timbers, now existing under the roof and above the ceiling, were pre-Reformation, re-used when the church was brought into its present shape in the eighteenth century.

The plan of the conventual buildings must have been on the normal Cistercian model, from which variation was not usual; such a plan is given for Furness abbey by the late Sir W. H. St. John Hope (C. & W. Trans. o.s. xvi, facing p. 302); and by comparison with this it seems evident that the row of buildings about 172 feet south of the church, remodelled in 1664 and still used as cottages but substantially ancient structures, must have been the monks' infirmary with a chapel of St. Thomas adjoining, and the mill to the south of the precincts.


  • 1. The references for Gray Abbey are Reeves, Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Down, etc., and Monasticon Hibernicum by Mervyn Archdall, edited by Moran, 1873.