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Cartmel Priory (the Church of St Mary and St Michael)

See also Cartmel Village

Cartmel Priory exterior by Barbara Ballard The first religious use of the village of Cartmel occurred in 677, when King Egfrith of Northumbria gifted the village, along with “all its Britons”, to St Cuthbert. No trace remains of any of these early religious buildings. However, it is Cartmel Priory and its Church 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 today.

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.”

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 the major Victorian restoration.

Cartmel Priory interior by Barbara Ballard At the time of the founding of the abbey, the cloisters and living quarters were located on the south side of the church, but these were moved to the north side in the 15th century. 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.

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.

Cartmel Priory by Andy Wallace However, another legend states that the priory was planned for nearby Mount Bernard, and it was the 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 and is now considered one of northern England’s best ecclesiastical buildings.

The number of canons serving the priory was limited to 12, some of whom are depicted in the stained glass windows. The lay workforce amounted to only 38. Their main purpose was to assist travellers in a safe passage over the Kent Sands from Hest Bank to Kent Bank, Cartmel being a northern terminus of the route. A guide was necessary to avoid quicksand and channels that changed each day with the rapid tides. In the churchyard can be seen graves of travellers who did not make it across the sands. A milestone made in the shape of human fingers records the distance to Lancaster and Ulverston.

Cartmel Priory tablets by Andy Wallace The church benefited from the generosity of Lord Harrington, when between 1327 and 1347, a chapel with four traceried windows, was constructed in the south choir aisle. The tomb of Lord Harrington and his wife decorate a space here. Their effigies are lifting up their hearts to God. Traces of original painting remain on the wooden ceiling of the tomb’s canopy. The stone chest that once contained Lord Harrington and his wife’s bodies stands empty. Lord Harrington is depicted in full chain mail armour with his feet resting on a lion. His wife is in full dress with her feet on a dog. Angels hold their heads. Two other monuments are of note. One records George Presenton’s restoration of the church and a second, a white Carrara marble tomb, commemorates Lord Frederick Cavendish, murdered in 1882 in Dublin.

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 by Henry VIII. Four of the canons and ten supporters from the farming community refused to give up the priory and were tried for treason and hanged. One exception was the prior, Brian Williams, who was given a position in the Protestant church. 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’.

Roof courtesy Andy Wallace Though roofless, services were held in the priory church until 1618 when George Holker of Holker Hall provided funds for the roof’s restoration. The church, in need of repair in 1830, underwent a typical Victorian 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.

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
If we for you the changes ring.
You must to us a shilling bring.
& 6 pence too, without demur
If you appear in hat or spur.
& if above you choose to go,
You 6 pence pay or stay below.'

Cartmel Priory gatehouse by Graeme Dougal In the village stands the original priory gatehouse built in 1330. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries it was in use as a courthouse.

Cartmel Priory is a rare example of a monastic medieval place of worship that still serves the village it brought to life.

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 Priory (Church of St Mary and St Michael)
Cartmel, Cumbria, LA11 6QD
Open: 9am - 5:30pm, until 3.30pm in winter, Mon – Sat; until 4.30pm on Sun; guided tours on Wed, April-end Sep, 11.00am and 2.00pm; phone to check if events being held
Web: Cartmel Priory Church

Photos © by Barbara Ballard except distant view, gatehouse courtesy Graeme Dougal and closeup of exterior, tablets, interior view 2 courtesy Andy Wallace

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