Religious houses: Introduction

A History of the County of Cumberland: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1905.

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'Religious houses: Introduction', in A History of the County of Cumberland: Volume 2, ed. J Wilson( London, 1905), British History Online [accessed 20 July 2024].

'Religious houses: Introduction', in A History of the County of Cumberland: Volume 2. Edited by J Wilson( London, 1905), British History Online, accessed July 20, 2024,

"Religious houses: Introduction". A History of the County of Cumberland: Volume 2. Ed. J Wilson(London, 1905), , British History Online. Web. 20 July 2024.

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The religious houses of Cumberland, though not individually of great fame and importance, played no inconspicuous part in the moral well-being of a district unfortunately situated for the cultivation of the arts of peace and civilization. Within a comparatively small area six monastic foundations carried on their work with varying success for almost four centuries. Four of these houses were close to the border, and suffered much during the long period of hostility between the two kingdoms. The priories of Carlisle and Lanercost, separated only by 10 or 11 miles, were of the Augustinian order; the abbeys of Holmcultram and Calder, between which there seems to have been little communication, were of the Cistercian; and the priories of Wetheral and St. Bees were cells of the great Benedictine abbey of St. Mary, York. The houses of Calder and St. Bees were in the archdeaconry of Richmond and diocese of York, but the rest were in the old diocese of Carlisle. With the exception of Holmcultram, which owed its origin to the Scottish occupation, the foundation of all the Cumbrian houses may be ascribed to Norman influence. We are indebted to the great period of religious revival under Henry I. for the foundation of Carlisle, Wetheral, St. Bees and Calder. Four of the houses were undoubtedly founded by subjects. Carlisle was of royal foundation. It is difficult to tell whether Holmcultram, which was an offspring of Melrose, was founded by Alan son of Waldeve, in whose fee the lordship was situated, or by Henry son of King David, who at the time ruled Cumberland.

The priory of Carlisle stood apart from the rest of the religious houses by reason of its peculiar association with the ecclesiastical life of the district. At the creation of the diocese in 1133 the church of the priory became the cathedral of the bishop, and the canons were constituted his chapter. In the fourteenth century the capitular body consisted of a prior and twelve canons, which number may be taken as the normal strength of the chapter. At the same period only four canons and a prior were reckoned on the foundation of Lanercost, and though Wetheral was founded as a community of twelve monks its numbers had dropped at the date in question to a prior and three monks. Holmcultram was the largest and most important house in the county, and its abbot was for a time a lord of parliament. (fn. 1) The number of monks varied according to the political state of the country. In 1379 the abbot and fourteen monks contributed to the royal subsidy, but at the time of the dissolution the surrender of the abbey was signed by the abbot and twenty-four brethren. All the houses on the border were subject to vicissitude. In times of special distress, when the Scots were successful in frequent raids, the revenues were found incapable of supporting the inmates, and orders had to be issued to houses in more peaceable parts of the kingdom to admit brethren of the northern monasteries to hospitality till the pressure was relaxed.

It is a peculiar feature of monastic history on the border that the heads of religious houses were not exempt from the international custom of trial by battle which prevailed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In spite of condemnation by the highest authorities, (fn. 2) the duel was observed among clerics as well as laymen. In 1216 Pope Innocent III. issued his famous bull contra duellum religiosi to all the faithful throughout the province of York and realm of Scotland, describing 'the pestiferous custom' then in fashion between the two kingdoms as quite contrary to the law and honesty of the church. 'Even to this day its observance is so far abused,' he said, 'that if a bishop, abbot or any cleric happened to be prosecuted for an offence for which the duel was wont to be fought between laymen, the religious man was compelled to undergo the duel in person.' (fn. 3) Some years later, in 1237, the clergy of England presented a list of grievances which they wished Henry III. to redress. In one of the articles it is declared that by the command of the kings of England and Scotland not simply clerics but also abbots and priors in the diocese of Carlisle were forced to fight with lances and swords the duel which was called Acra on the marches of the realms. An abbot or prior, whatever his dignity or order, was obliged to sustain the combat in person or to provide a champion. If the champion succumbed, he was slain, and the abbot or prior, who was a prisoner on the scene of battle, was likewise beheaded. (fn. 4) Though the clergy petitioned that so detestable an abuse should be no longer allowed with respect to ecclesiastical persons, churchmen remained subject to the duel in the border laws promulgated in 1249. (fn. 5) As late as 1279 we have an instance of preparation for a duel at Appleby before the justices itinerant between the champions of the abbot of Furness (fn. 6) and Roger son of Ralf de Hestholm in a plea of common pasture at Meles in Kirksanton in Cumberland. Roger had disputed the right of the abbot to the common, and as an agreement could not be arrived at, one of the parties appealed the other in wager of battle that God might defend the right. The justices sat in area duelli attended by members of the county court, and as the combat proceeded the affair was abruptly ended in the abbot's favour by Roger renouncing his claim to the property and withdrawing his champion. (fn. 7)

It will be readily admitted that a county on the Scottish frontier was ill adapted to the multiplication of nunneries. In fact, one marvels that a religious society of women could exist during the periods of barbaric strife which broke out from time to time between the two kingdoms in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The few nuns at Armathwaite in the valley of the Eden, nine miles to the south of Carlisle, were often plundered and impoverished, but managed to hold together till the dissolution. The nunnery of Seton, though far removed from the scene of frequent forays, did not increase in wealth or influence. The glimpses we get of it betoken its miserable condition of poverty. Both institutions were entitled in the name of Our Lady and constituted under the Benedictine rule.

All the monastic bodies in the portion of Cumberland within the ancient diocese of Carlisle were subject to episcopal visitation and correction except the Cistercian abbey of Holmcultram. The value of the bishop's periodic inspection was proved on several occasions of dispute or mismanagement. Monks, canons and nuns were alike amenable to his pastoral advice. In the early centuries of diocesan history the Bishop of Carlisle was not a popular figure with the regular clergy. Whether the hostility took its rise from his differences with the priory of Carlisle about the distribution of the property of his church, or on account of his zeal in keeping cloistered life up to the requisite standard, there can be no doubt that the monasteries smarted under his supervision. In cases of dispute between neighbouring houses the bishop was the natural referee for the readjustment of friendly relations. From some instances on record we see that he did not spare the litigating parties; his award was often drawn up in language of sternness, not to say of asperity. But as time went on more amicable relations prevailed. The monks found the bishop a useful ally in promoting their interests, and they were too worldly wise not to grapple with the situation by making him their friend. Holmcultram was a papal peculiar over which the bishop of the diocese had no visitorial jurisdiction. Like the priories of Carlisle and Lanercost, the monks had the right of electing their own superior, but that election would be void unless it took place under the presidency of the abbot of Melrose. In this respect the abbot of the mother house stood in much the same relation to Holmcultram as the bishop did to Carlisle and Lanercost, for in these houses the bishop's licence was the necessary prelude to every election as his confirmation was indispensable for its completion. By virtue of a series of papal bulls Holmcultram was freed from episcopal control. An unwarrantable exercise of papal privilege brought the monks into conflict with the secular clergy in 1401, when proctors were employed in the deaneries of Carlisle and Allerdale, where the influence of Holmcultram was predominant, 'to labour pro clero against the Cistercians' in the matter perhaps of the refusal of that house to contribute to a subsidy due to the Bishop of Carlisle. (fn. 8) It is worthy of note that it was only in this house that undoubted evidence of anarchy and disorder was discovered during the great agitation which preceded the final overthrow of the monasteries in the county.

The coming of the friars to Carlisle at so early a date as 1233 seems to have been due to the ecclesiastical sympathies of Bishop Walter. At all events in that year the Dominicans or Black Friars and the Franciscans or Grey Friars were introduced into that city. Soon after the Augustinians gained a footing in Penrith. The Carmelites or White Friars settled at Appleby, and, though not in Cumberland, they were reckoned among the four mendicant orders which exercised their vocation in the diocese of Carlisle. All the friars were under episcopal control. The houses in Carlisle and Penrith were furnished with churches and churchyards.

It is claimed that hospitals should rank as religious houses among eleemosynary institutions. Little is known of the nature or origin of those which at one time must have been numerous in Cumberland. No other hospital in the county, of which record has been discovered, attained to the importance of St. Nicholas, Carlisle. It was of royal foundation and originally a house for lepers only, but in process of time, as it increased in wealth, it became an asylum for the sick and needy.

The foundation of colleges seems to have been attended with considerable difficulty in Cumberland. The first attempt, undertaken at Melmerby in 1342, utterly failed, and it was only after prolonged negotiation that the project for converting the parish church of Greystoke into a college was carried to a successful issue. The college of Kirkoswald was founded a few years before the dissolution.


  • 1. Parl. Writs (Rec. Com.), i. 1, 25, 72; ii. 37; Lords' Report on the Dignity of a Peer (Index Summonitionum).
  • 2. The ordeal by hot or cold water or hot iron was condemned by the Lateran Council of 1215 (Landon, Manual of Councils, i. 331). Henry III. instructed the justices itinerant in Cumberland and Westmorland in 1219 to discontinue the custom 'cum prohibitum sit per ecclesiam Romanam judicium Ignis et Aquæ' (Pat. 3 Hen. III. m. 5).
  • 3. Reg. Epis. Glasguensis (Bannatyne Club), i. 94. In 1176 a letter was obtained from Henry II. in which he declared 'that no cleric should be forced to fight the duel' (Ralph de Diceto, Opera [Rolls Ser.], i. 410).
  • 4. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), i. 256-7.
  • 5. Nicolson, Leges Marchiarum, 8.
  • 6. For some churchmen's champions see Neilson's Trial by Combat, 50-3, which is considered the standard authority on this subject.
  • 7. Beck, Ann. Furnesienses, 224-5. The deed of quitclaim which followed was witnessed by William son of Thomas de Craystok, Roger de Loncastria, Thomas de Muletona, Roger de Lasceles, Ranulf de Daker, Thomas de Musegrave, Alan de Orretona, and Robert de Mulcastre. On the back of the deed there is the following endorsement: 'Die et anno contentis in hoc scripto Inrotulata fuit tota sententia scripti istius cum divisis eo contentis in rotulis Justiciariorum hoc scripto nominatorum. Ipsis Justiciariis sedentibus in area duelli in parte percussi, et retractis utrimque campionibus pacificati ad instanciam Rogeri de Estholme ibidem presentis et tam Inrotulamentum predictum quam presentis scripti tenorem gratis concedentis et approbantis.' A somewhat similar duel was fought in Yorkshire in 1239, when an abbot was intimidated by armed force to withdraw his champion and renounce his right (Cal. of Papal Letters, i. 179-80).
  • 8. In the accounts (compoti) of the deans of Allerdale and Carlisle for the financial year 1401-2 certain sums were allowed to the accountants for 'procuratoribus laborantibus pro clero contra ordinem Cisterciensem.' These entries can only be explained in their relation to the monks of Holmcultram. Compare statute 2 Hen. IV. cap. 4 and Chron. mon. de Melsa (Rolls. Ser.), iii. 271-2, 279.