Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Calder

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

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'Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Calder', in A History of the County of Cumberland: Volume 2, (London, 1905) pp. 174-178. British History Online [accessed 24 April 2024]

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The abbey of Calder is situated in a wooded recess nearly a mile from the village of Calderbridge, on the high road midway between Egremont and Gosforth, in the south-west of the county, not far from the priory of St. Bees. It was an affiliation of the neighbouring monastery of Furness and at first of the order of Savigny which in 1148 was united to the Cistercian Order. (fn. 1) As no chartulary of the house is known to exist, we are dependent for its history on incidental notices gathered from various sources.

From a trustworthy narrative of the founding of the abbey of Byland in Yorkshire (fn. 2) by Philip the third abbot of that monastery, we derive almost all we know of the early history of Calder with great fulness of detail. As Abbot Philip obtained his information from Roger his predecessor, one of the original monks of Calder, and as his story fits in well with the local events of the period and contradicts no ascertained historical facts, it may be taken that his narrative is worthy of credit. Other evidences of undoubted authority seem to support his statements.

This abbey is the third house in the county which owes its origin to the great and famous family of Ranulf Meschin, the first Norman lord of Cumberland. The priory of Wetheral was founded by him in the early years of the reign of Henry I., and the priory of St. Bees was founded by his brother, William Meschin, soon after 1120, both as cells of the Benedictine abbey of St. Mary, York. It may be admitted that Ranulf, the son of William, took an interest in St. Bees, which lies within the fee of Coupland, and was a great benefactor of his father's foundation. The time came, perhaps after his father's death, when this Ranulf founded another house at Calder (fn. 3) a few miles from his baronial seat at Egremont. The abbey was founded on 10 January 1134, when Ranulf gave the land of Calder (Kaldra) with its appurtenances for that purpose. It was at a later date probably that he added 'Bemertone' and 'Holegate,' a burgage in Egremont, two saltpans at Whitehaven, fisheries in the Derwent and Egre, pasture for the cattle of the monks in his forest, and materials for building their houses. A colony of twelve monks with Gerold as their abbot went out from Furness and occupied the new foundation. Abbot Philip of Byland has left their names on record, viz. Robert de Insula, Tocka de Loncastre, John de Kynstan, Theodoric de Dalton, Orm de Dalton, Roger the sub-cellarer, Alan de Wrcewyk, Guy de Bolton, William de Bolton, Peter de Pictaviis, Ulf de Ricomonte and Bertram de London. These monks remained in community at Calder for four years, living in great hardship and privation under the constitutions of the order of Savigny in Normandy, to which at that time the abbey of Furness belonged.

The political troubles which followed the death of Henry I. were disastrous to the new institution at Calder. David, King of Scots, while he was laying siege to the castle of Norham, sent William son of Duncan, his nephew, into Yorkshire, who wasted the province of Craven and obtained possession of Furness. The atrocities committed during that expedition by the Picts and Galwegians of the Scottish army are well known. (fn. 4) Philip of Bywell tells us that the abbey of Calder was one of the victims of the raid. Thirsting for the blood of the English, 'the barbarian Scots' came unexpectedly with great fury on the newly founded (nuper inceptam) abbey and took away all they could lay hold of, entirely spoiling the house. The desolate monks sought refuge at the gate of Furness, but they were refused admittance. It was said in excuse for the cruelty of the convent that as Abbot Gerold was unwilling to resign his office and absolve his monks from their profession to him, it would have been inconvenient to have had two abbots with their communities dwelling in the same abbey. Others have assigned a more sordid motive to the monks of Furness. We need not follow the wanderings of the monks of Calder till, under the protection of Archbishop Thurstin and by his mediation, they were established at Byland. One cart drawn by a team of eight oxen was sufficient to convey all their books and household stuff as they set out from Calder never to return. As soon as Abbot Gerold had found a resting place and begun to increase in this world's goods, fearing lest the abbot of Furness would exercise a patronal jurisdiction over him, he set out to Normandy and laid the whole truth of his departure from Calder before Serle, abbot of Savigny. On the feast of St. John the Baptist, 1142, a chapter general of the Order was held and he was released from his allegiance to Furness. Returning to England in haste, he repaired to York, where he died on 24 February following. Roger, who had come from Furness with him and was sub-cellarer at Calder, was chosen abbot in his place. When the news of these proceedings was noised abroad, the abbot and convent of Furness, perceiving that they had been outwitted by the deceased Gerold, and that the monks who were driven from their gates had submitted themselves and their successors to the church of Savigny and were settled elsewhere with no intention of returning, ordained Hardred, one of their monks, and sent him out, in or about 1143, at the head of another community to occupy the deserted house of Calder. Thus was the succession resumed and the original foundation revived.

The confusion arising from disputed jurisdiction did not end with Gerold's renunciation of Furness. Abbot Hardred of Calder set up a claim to jurisdiction over Byland on the ground of affiliation, as the monks had departed from his house and the church of Savigny had unjustly obtained their allegiance. Roger, then abbot of Byland, answered with becoming dignity that no such claim could be entertained, and reminded Hardred of their rebuff from the gates of Furness. Ultimately a friendly arrangement was made and the claims of Calder were abandoned. On the other hand the convent of Furness challenged jurisdiction over Byland by similar arguments, but at a general chapter in the presence of many abbots and priors of the northern counties, with the famous Ælred of Rievaulx as referee, the claims of Furness were disallowed.

It is needless to say that the successors of Ranulf Meschin in the barony of Coupland, including William son of Duncan, his brother-in-law, who had previously ravaged the district, continued to befriend the abbey and augment its possessions. Cecily, Countess of Albemarle and lady of Coupland, confirmed the monks in all their lands, for the souls of her father and mother and of King Henry, to which Master Robert the constable, Isaac de Scheftling, Simon de Scheftling, William Chirtelig, William de Scheftling and Thomas, chaplain of the countess, were witnesses. The example of the founder's successors was followed by the landowners in the vicinity. William de Esseby and Hectred his wife, benefactors of St. Bees, gave Beckermet and the mill of that place in memory of William, Earl of Albemarle, and Cecily the countess, and of Ingelram the earl's brother, as the donor had received it from the earl. The witnesses of this deed were Richard, prior of St. Bees, Robert priest (presbiter) of Ponsonby, Roger priest of Egremont, Jurdan parson of Goseford, Richard son of Osbert of St. Brigid, Richard vicar of the same church, and Ketel son of Ulf. Beatrice de Molle bestowed on the monks 5 oxgangs of land in Little Gilcrux (Gillecruch) and the fourth part of the mill in Great Gilcrux. The land had been previously confirmed to Beatrice by Adam son of Uhtred, her uncle, as the gift of William, his nephew, as the charter of the said William son of Liolf de Molle testified. Richard de Boisville gave 10 acres of land in his part of Culdreton with common of pasture pertaining thereto.

The lords of Millom were also benefactors of Calder. By a charter given at 'Milnam' in the month of April, 1287, John de Hudleston bestowed on the abbey pasture for six cows, four horses and forty sheep with their following on the common of Millom, saving to the monks the other privileges granted by his ancestors. At a later date in 1291, John son of John de 'Hideleston' gave William son of Richard de Loftscales his 'native' and all his belongings, quit of all villenage as far as the donor was concerned. (fn. 5) The abbot paid a fine in 1300 for the alienation in mortmain to his convent by John de Hudleston of 8½ acres of land, 1 acre of meadow in Bootle, and a place in Millom called 'Barkerhals' containing 9½ acres of land and 1½ acres of meadow. (fn. 6)

The abbey had also been endowed by John son of Adam and Matthew his brother with the whole land of 'Stavenerge'; by Robert Bonekill, with a carucate in Little Gilcrux (Gillecruz) which Ralf the clerk of Carlisle occupied, 12 acres and 1 perch in Little Gilcrux, 1 acre of meadow between these two places and pasture for twenty oxen, twelve cows and six horses with their following of one year; by Roger son of William with land in 'Ikelinton' and 'Brachamton' and part of the mill in the latter place; by Richard de Lucy, with a moiety of the mill in Ikelinton (fn. 7); by Thomas son of Gospatric, with a toft in Workington, an annual gift of twenty salmon, and a net in the Derwent between the bridge and the sea; and by Thomas de Multon, with a moiety of the vill of 'Dereham in Alredale' with the advowson of the church of the same vill. These donations were confirmed to the monks in 1231 by charter (fn. 8) of Henry III.

The convent was called upon from time to time to defend its title to its possessions. Adam son of Gilbert de Comwyntyn impleaded the abbot in 1279 in respect of a messuage in Cockermouth as the right of Emma his wife. (fn. 9) Certain manorial privileges of the abbey lands were questioned by the Crown in 1292, when it was stated that the monks had enjoyed them since the reign of Richard I. From this suit at law we gather that the house possessed 3 carucates of land in Gilcrux, a carucate in Dearham, an oxgang in Millom, 10 acres in Irton and 2 oxgangs in Bootle. (fn. 10)

The abbey was not rich in appropriated churches. At the time of the dissolution, the monks only possessed the rectories of Cleator, Gilcrux, and of St. John and St. Bridgid, Beckermet. (fn. 11) An attempt was made by Thomas de Multon to transfer the advowson of Dearham from the priory of Gisburn, to which Alice de Romelly had given it, but the attempt failed, and the church continued in the appropriation of the Yorkshire house to the last. (fn. 12) In 1262 the Archdeacon of Richmond prevailed on the abbey to bestow upon him the church of Arlecdon (Arlokedene), as he had no convenient retreat in Coupland wherein he could lodge for the exercise of the duties of his vocation. (fn. 13) That powerful official had only a poor opinion of the natural features or the climate of Cumberland. It needed the attraction of the church of Arlecdon to induce him to cross the sands of Duddon and to brave the swollen rivers and uncertain weather of that outlying portion of his spiritual charge. (fn. 14) An arrangement was made apparently to the advantage of the abbot as well as the archdeacon. The church of Arlecdon had been a trouble to the abbey, inasmuch as the abbot had paid a fine of 40s. in 1255 for having an assize of last presentation against Richard son of John le Fleming. (fn. 15) The church of St. John lay near to Calder and to the parish church of St. Bridgid which already belonged to the monks. By judgment of the Archbishop of York, St. John's was appropriated to the abbey in consideration for the abbot's consent to the appropriation of Arlecdon to the archdeaconry of Richmond. It is stated by J. Denton (fn. 16) that John le Fleming had given the patronage of the rectory of Arlecdon to Jollan, abbot of Calder, in 1242. The abbot and convent proved their title to the church of Gilcrux in 1357 before Bishop Welton of Carlisle. (fn. 17)

Little on record has been found about the history of the abbey church or precincts. J. Denton was of opinion that the abbey 'was not perfected till Thomas de Multon finished the works and established a greater convent of monks there.' In 1361 Bishop Welton issued a licence with indulgence to a monk of that house to collect alms in his diocese for the fabric of the monastery. (fn. 18)

It cannot be said that Calder was ever a rich house. In 1292 its temporalities were valued at £32 a year, (fn. 19) and in 1535 the gross revenues of the abbey amounted only to £64 3s. 9d., which, after deducting certain outgoings, was reduced to the clear annual income of £50 9s. 3d. (fn. 20)

The abbots of Calder do not often appear in the public life of the country. They occasionally come into notice when applying for royal protection to go beyond the sea on the business of their house or to attend the general chapters of the Cistercian Order. (fn. 21) In the fourteenth century they were sometimes employed in the collection of ecclesiastical subsidies. (fn. 22)

The abbey was visited by the king's commissioners (fn. 23) in 1535 and an unfavourable report was made in the Black Book. Five monks, Robert Maneste, William Car, John Gisburne, Matthew Ponsonby, and Richard Preston were accused of uncleanness; William Thornton and Richard Preston of incontinency; and John Gisburne and Richard Preston were said to desire freedom from their conventual vows. The only relic of superstition found in the monastery was a girdle of the Blessed Virgin supposed to be efficacious to women in child-bed. (fn. 24)

The monastery seems to have been surrendered to the commissioners and dissolved on 4 February 1536, Richard Ponsonby, the abbot, receiving a pension of £12 a year which was to date from the Feast of the Annunciation following. William Blithman was the actual agent in its overthrow. The rectories of St. Bridgid, St. John, St. Leonard, and Gilcrux were leased to William Leigh, but the house and site of the abbey and the adjoining lands were granted to Thomas Leigh, LL.D., the notorious commissioner for the northern suppression. To Dr. Leigh were also given a right of common on Coupland Fells and the fishery called Monkegarth on the sea sands near Ravenglass. (fn. 25) The clear annual value of the doctor's grant was £13 10s. 4d., and the rent of 27s. 1d. due to the Crown continued to be paid by the owners of Calder Abbey till its late owner redeemed it.

Abbots of Calder

Gerold, 1134, afterwards abbot of Byland, Yorks

Hardred (Hardreus), circa 1143 (fn. 26)

Adam, towards the close of the twelfth century (fn. 27)

David, circa 1200 (fn. 28)

John, circa 1211 (fn. 29)

G., circa 1218 (fn. 30)

Ralf (fn. 31)

Jollan, 1241-6 (fn. 32)

John, 1246 (fn. 33)

Nicholas, circa 1250 (fn. 34)

Walter, circa 1256 (fn. 35)

William, circa 1262 (fn. 36)

Warin, circa 1286 (fn. 37)

Elias, 1298 (fn. 38)

Richard, 1322, (fn. 39) 1334 (fn. 40)

Nicholas de Bretteby (Birkby), 1367 (fn. 41)

Richard, circa 1432 (fn. 42)

Robert de Wilughby (fn. 43)

John, 1462 (fn. 44)

John Whalley, 1464

John Bethom, 1501

Lawrence Marre, 1503-13

John Parke, 1516

John Clapeham, 1521

Richard Ponsonby, 1525-36

Only one impression of the seal of this house is known. (fn. 45) It is a pointed oval, showing an abbot in vestments. The legend is much mutilated: + . . . TIS DE CALDRA.


  • 1. Though the abbey of Calder, like all Cistercian churches, was entitled in the name of the Blessed Virgin, we have on record an indulgence, granted by Thomas, Bishop of Whithern, and dated at Furness on 26 July 1314, for the soul of Richard Carpenter, who formerly lived in the vill of 'Goderthwayt' and was buried in the churchyard of St. Andrew within the monastery of Calder (Duchy of Lanc. Chart. Box A, No. 121).
  • 2. Dugdale, Mon. v. 349-53.
  • 3. Pope Eugenius III. (1145-53) said in a letter that William son of Duncan gave Calder to the monks of Furness, but further on he qualified the statement by saying that 'Ranulf Mustin' was the real founder (Dugdale, Mon. v. 249-50). At the time of the suppression, the tradition was that the abbey 'was founded by Lord Raynalld Meschynne, lord of Copland, in 1134' (Harl. MS. 604, f. 122).
  • 4. The Priory of Hexham, i. 82. Canon Raine has pointed out the singularity of King David's injunction to his nephew William son of Duncan that he should devastate the district of which he was feudal chief. The only explanation seems to be that an effort was made in 1138 to keep William out of his inheritance. John of Hexham tells us that the seignory of Skipton was restored to him in 1151 by King David. It is almost certain that Ranulf Meschin was dead at the time of the raid.
  • 5. The six charters, of which a summary is given above, were copied by the Rev. John Hodgson in 1830 'from the originals in possession of W. J. Charlton of Hesleyside, Esq., which came into his family in 1680 by the marriage of his great-greatgrandfather with Mary, daughter of Francis Salkeld of Whitehall, in the parish of All-hallows, Cumberland,' and were printed in full by him in Arch. Æliana, ii. 387-90. S. Jefferson has given a good account of these charters in Allerdale Ward, 314-7.
  • 6. Pat. 28 Edw. I. m. 13; Inq. p.m. 20 Edw. I. No. 172.
  • 7. Roger de Lucy held 15 librates of land in Ickleton (Ikelington) in the hundred of Whittlesford, Cambridgeshire, late of the Honor of Boulogne, and Richard de Lucy held a knight's fee there in 1212 (The Red Book of the Exch. [Rolls Ser.], ii. 529, 582; Testa de Nevill [Rec. Com.], 274b). In 1302-3 the abbot of Calder was assessed at 10s. to the royal aid for the fourth part of a knight's fee held of Thomas de Multon as of the Honour of Boulogne (Feud. Aids, i. 144, 161, 175, 180).
  • 8. Chart. R. 15 Hen. III. m. 9; Dugdale, Mon. v. 340-1.
  • 9. Three Early Assize R. of Northumb. (Surtees Soc.), p. 297.
  • 10. Plac. de Quo. Warr. (Rec. Com.), 116-7.
  • 11. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), v. 264.
  • 12. Dugdale, Mon. v. 340-1, No. i.; vi. 271, No. xv.
  • 13. Ibid. v. 341, Nos. ii. and iii.
  • 14. By all accounts the climate of Cumberland was considered a distressing experience by outsiders. In this year, 1262, a justice itinerant prayed to be excused going on circuit, 'in partes Cumberlandiæ . . . tum propter loci distantiam, tum propter distemperantiam æris meæ complexioni valde discordantem' (Royal and Hist. Letters, [ed. Shirley], ii. 222).
  • 15. Fine R. 39 Hen. III. m. 10 (Excerpta E. Rot. Fin. [Rec. Com.], ii. 203).
  • 16. Cumberland, 27. Denton must have had in mind the plea between the parties in 1241 when the right of Calder was confirmed and the benefits of the prayers of the monastery were granted to John le Fleming (Feet of F. Cumberland, case 35, file 3, No. 26a).
  • 17. Carl. Epis. Reg., Welton, f. 51.
  • 18. Carl. Epis. Reg., Welton, f. 81.
  • 19. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.), 329b.
  • 20. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), v. 264.
  • 21. Pat. 16 Edw. I. m. 6; 20 Edw. I. m. 7.
  • 22. Ibid. 14 Edw. III. pt. ii. m. 45; 15 Edw. III. pt. i. m. 32; Close, 6 Edw. III. m. 16d.
  • 23. Harl. MS. 604, f. 122.
  • 24. The Compendium Compertorium or 'Cleane Booke of Compertes,' as arranged by John ap Rice, otherwise called the 'Black Book,' is well known. Fragments of it will be found in L. and P. Hen. VIII. x. 364; Cott. MS. Cleop., E, iv. 147; Lansd. MS. 988, f. 1.
  • 25. L. and P. Hen. VIII. vol. xii. (i.), 1025; vol. xiii. (i.), 577, 588. The grant to Dr. Leigh has been enrolled on Pat. 30 Hen. VIII. pt. vi. m. 20, of which an abstract has been made in the L. and P. Hen. VIII. vol. xiii. (i.), 1519 (71).
  • 26. Duchy of Lanc. Chart. Box B, No. 262.
  • 27. He was contemporary with Prior Robert of St. Bees and witnessed Richard de Lucy's charter of incorporation to the borough of Egremont (Trans. Cumb. and Westmld. Arch. Soc. i. 282-4).
  • 28. Duchy of Lanc. Chart. Box B, No. 80, printed in Farrer's Lanc. Pipe R. and Early Chart. 362. He was a witness to this charter.
  • 29. An unnamed abbot of Calder received benediction from Ralf, Bishop of Down, in 1211 (Chron. of Melrose, in anno; Chron. de Lanercost, 2), and about the same time John, abbot of Calder, witnessed several charters (Duchy of Lanc. Chart. Box B, Nos. 164, 260; Reg. of Fountains abbey [Cott. MS. Tib. C, xii.], ff. 104-11).
  • 30. With Augustin, prior of Conishead, he witnessed a deed in the Reg. of St. Bees (Harl. MS. 434), vij. 5.
  • 31. Dugdale, Mon. v. 340. Professed obedience to Archbishop Walter Gray (1216-55).
  • 32. Between these dates he was engaged in suits at law with John le Fleming, Alexander de Ponsonby, and John, prior of Conishead, about the property of the abbey (Feet of F. Cumberland, case 35, file 3, Nos. 26a, 34, 54b).
  • 33. J. Denton, Cumberland, 23.
  • 34. Duchy of Lanc. Chart. Box B, No. 187.
  • 35. Reg. of St. Bees, MS. xii. 1; Denton, Cumberland, 23.
  • 36. Dugdale, Mon. v. 341.
  • 37. Trans. Cumb. and Westmld. Arch. Soc. ix. 232.
  • 38. Dugdale, Mon. v. 340.
  • 39. Ibid.
  • 40. Close, 7 Edw. III. pt. ii. m. 4d.
  • 41. Dugdale, Mon. v. 340; Dur. Obit. R. (Surtees Soc.), p. 58.
  • 42. Testamenta Eboracensia (Surtees Soc.), iii. 327. Quotation from Register of the Archdeacon of Richmond in Harl. MS. 6978, f. 25b.
  • 43. A monumental inscription still preserved among the ruins of the abbey, records the name of this abbot whose place in the list is not known, but entered here as being its probable position. The inscription may be thus read: HIC IACET DOMPNVS ROBERTVS DE WILVGHBY ABBAS DE CALDRA CVIVS ANIME PROPICIETVR DEVS.
  • 44. For this and the subsequent abbots see Dugdale, Mon. v. 340: Torre MS. (York) f. 1408, compiled from the archiepiscopal registers.
  • 45. Anct. D., L 478.