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Cartmel Village and Its Priory Church, Cumbria

Cartmel Riverside by Barbara Ballard The River Eau (Eea) winds its placid way through the Furness and Cartmel peninsula unaware of the role it played in the building of Cartmel Priory and its Church of St Mary and St Michael.

The priory’s location came about, it is said, as the fulfillment of a vision in which St Cuthbert directed the monks from Bradenstoke Priory in Wiltshire to construct a priory between two streams, one flowing north and one south. Seeking such a place, they found it in the village of Cartmel beside the river and its tributaries. King Egfrith of Northumbria gifted the village, along with “all its Britons”, to St Cuthbert in 677.

Cartmel Priory exterior by Barbara Ballard However, another legend states that the priory was planned for nearby Mount Bernard, and it was an architect whom St Cuthbert directed to locate the priory between two springs of water. The next morning water flowed from the two foundation stones where the priory church now stands. Regardless of the truth of either legend, Cartmel priory church was constructed in the village. No trace remains of this early monastery’s buildings. It is the Augustinian priory of St Mary and St Michael founded in 1188 by William Marshall, Baron of Cartmel and later 2nd Earl of Pembroke, that defines the village and is now considered one of northern England’s best ecclesiastical buildings.

Marshall, a servant to four kings—Henry II, Richard I, John, and Henry III—was the most powerful subject in England for almost 50 years. He gave the priory “every kind of liberty that the heart can conveive or the mouth utter; and whosoever shall in any way infringhe upon these immunities, orinjure the said priory, may he incur the curse of God, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of all other saints, as well as my particular malediction.”

Cartmel Priory interior by Barbara Ballard Marshall provided an altar within the church and a priest for the people of Cartmel. This act saved the priory church from total destruction during the dissolution of the monasteries—but not until after its lead roof was stripped. On appeal to the Crown, the people were awarded the right to continue using the church as a place of worship—this right was then known as ‘unplucked down’. In 1618 George Holker provided funds for the roof’s restoration.

Cromwell stayed in Cartmel in 1643 and treated the church as a stable for his troop’s horses. The door in the southwest corner of the nave, appropriately called Cromwell’s door, contains bullet holes and traces of lead, allegedly made by villagers shooting at the soldiers or the soldiers themselves desecrating the church, depending on which story you believe.

The Priory Church reflects a mix of building materials from 12th century limestone and slate rubble walls to red sandstone, millstone grit, and Caen stone. The church interior, with its massive columns, is the result of many centuries of change, including a major Victorian restoration. The south doorway’s carved, rounded arch was part of the original church. The crossing and transepts in the eastern part date from 1190 -1220. The church chancel, transepts, nave, and north wall were all altered in the 14th century when the southern end of the domestic buildings collapsed.

Cartmel Priory window by Barbara Ballard The great Perpendicular east window of nine lights still retains some of its 15th century glass. Medieval carvers practiced their skills on the misericords that include an elephant, a pelican, a unicorn and the devil enthroned. 17th century screens with pierced carving and arabesque work sit above the choir stalls and are among the finest church woodwork of their time.

Unusually, the upper part of the tower was placed at a 45-degree angle on the tower base when it was decided to add bells to the tower. One bell dates from 1661 and another from 1729. The ancient rules are posted in the belfry and read:

'If you come here to ring a bell,
With hand and ear you must ring well,
Should you your bell to overthrow,
12 pence to pay before you go. . . .

Cartmel square courtesy Graeme Dougal The arch of the priory’s medieval gatehouse, built in 1330, dominates Cartmel’s square. At the time of the dissolution of the priory, the Gatehouse was in use as a courthouse of the manor of Holker. On July 7th, 1624, George Preston of Holker Hall (once the property of the Priory) sold the gatehouse, then called the ‘Tower of Cartmel’, to the district for use as a schoolhouse. It continued in that capacity until 1790.

Subsequently it housed a lock-up, artist’s studio, and craft shop. Acquired by the National Trust in 1946, it’s now a Heritage Centre depicting the history of the monastery and the village. A circular staircase reaches the one large room.

Cartmel Square courtesy Graeme Dougal 16th-18th century stone and roughcast (a coarse plaster of lime, shells, and pebbles) cottages cluster in the village square. Whitewashed houses with slate roofs add to the mix. Cobbled forecourts and bowed windows speak of medieval origins. One house, its upper floor supported by pillars, hangs over the street. Another, a 1650 oak beamed building with its original stone fireplace intact, serves the modern traveller as a tearoom. To the right of the post office, a 15-foot high building with a small upper storey window once played the role of village lock-up.

A Market Cross, long since gone, marked the spot where farmers gathered to trade their dairy products and vegetables. An old water pump and ancient fish slabs are reminders that the village was home to fishermen and conklers. A Methodist Chapel now sits beside the River Eau, held in check by limestone embankments. Humpbacked bridges and timeworn streets add to the village character.

Pubs in the village centre cast shadows of the past. The 15th century Cavendish Arms, with its low beamed ceilings and planked floors, sits where the Priory’s former guesthouse was located. A plaque reads, “After the Cartmel Commons Enclosure Act of 1796, the Commissioner’s first meeting took place at this hotel, then known as Mrs. Hulland’s Cavendish Arms Inn”. Other buildings and old walls on the same street are thought to be former monastic buildings.

Cartmel Race Course courtesy Graeme Dougal The smallest National Hunt racecourse in Britain is located at the opposite end of the village from the church. It is said the Cartmel monks, for Whitsun amusement, started the races that still take place today.

Cartmel, traditionally more closely linked to Lancashire than to Cumbria, bears the distinctive mark of the priory church around which it grew. The legacy of a thousand years of history is everywhere present on the tranquil pathways of this rural peninsula and none more so than in Cartmel, one of south Lakeland’s oldest villages.

Visitor Information

Cartmel lies off the A590 5 miles (8km) south of the foot of Windermere Lake and 2 miles west of Grange-over-Sands off the B5278. Cartmel is ½ mile outside the Lake District National Park.

Cartmel Priory Church
Cavendish Street, Cartmel
Cumbria, LA11 LA11 6QD
Open: 9am - 5:30pm, until 3.30pm in winter, Mon – Sat; until 4.30pm on Sun;
Web: Cartmel Priory Church

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