Holme Cultram Abbey was founded in 1150 by Cistercian monks from Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders. Prince Henry, son of King David of Scotland, conferred the foundation charter. At the time the Solway area belonged to Scotland.
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In 1157 Holme Cultram came under English rule. The industrious monks were given land and money and began draining the marshes and raising sheep on them as well as crops. With more than 6000 sheep under their ownership, they were able to export wool to Europe as early as the 14th century. They also mined the salt from the sea.
The Abbey had the rights to 21 salt pans, used for heating and extracting salt from the brine. Their medieval saltpans are still visible at Saltcotes and Crosscanonby. The monks lived by the adage that “to work was to pray”, and the abbey grew to become the second most important Cistercian place in Cumbria.
The Abbey drew the fire of Scottish raiders during the 13th and early 14th centuries. In 1296 the Scots took valuable manuscripts, vestments and altar silver. The beleaguered abbey was expected, in 1300 and 1307, to provide kingly comforts for Edward I and his retinue. In 1319 Robert the Bruce sacked the abbey, causing it to lose 80% of its value. By 1332, when another raid took place, the abbey was left financially desperate.
In 1536 Holme Cultram’s abbot joined the Pilgrimage of Grace (a rebellion against Henry’s VIII’s seizure of church properties) with severe consequences to the abbey. Its monks were ordered to leave, and its land came to the crown.
The Abbey’s church then became the parish church after the locals petitioned Cromwell to preserve it as a refuge against the Scots. As the rest of the buildings became derelict, locals purloined the stone for private use. In 1600 the church tower collapsed. A fire four years later did further damage.
The present church, much restored, retains its arched Norman doorway, old pulpit, ancient oak beams, and 1507 porch. Robert the Bruce’s father, Robert de Bruce Earl of Carrick, is buried here.
Holme Cultram was Cumbria’s leading Cistercian abbey and is today the only Cistercian abbey in England whose nave still serves as a place of worship.
On Friday afternoon 9th June 2006, local youths deliberately set fire to Holme Cultram Abbey. The roof collapsed, and the fire spread, gutting the interior of the building, destroying the organ and the medieval records. Some of the stained glass survived. It has been restored and can be visited.
Holme Cultram Abbey’s Church of St Mary is at Abbeytown on the B5302.
Photos courtesy Graeme Dougal