Friday, October 31, 2014

Lanercost Priory -- History in Stone and Land

The priory was founded in 1116 by Robert de Vaux, second Baron of Gilsland. Close to the border of Scotland, Lanercost was continually being raided, and de Vaux, tiring of the constant depredations to his land, proposed a "cease fire" and a meeting on neutral ground with the Scots leader--whom he treacherously murdered on the spot. Stricken with grief (apparently), he paid his penance with the founding of the priory. In 1306, Edward I  and Queen Elinor visited there in October, when he fell ill and was obliged to take up residence for several months--an occurrence which taxed the resources of the Priory considerably, but which Edward later made up for by giving them gifts and churches for income. Lacking male issue at some point, ownership passed to the Dacres, kin to the de Vaux, and ultimately to the Howards, male cousins who married female Dacres cousins. Nearby Naworth Castle (more on that in a future post) is still a country residence of the Howard family, upon whose estate the Priory was built.

The following descriptions of the Priory Ruins are from an account published in 1844 by one Reverend Percy Strutt. The ruins would have appeared much in this way to John Sargent and Violet Paget during their brief visit (in my novel), on their way to Naworth Castle, the ancestral home of the de Vaux, Dacres and Howards. The photographs are from my recent research visit to Lanercost.

"The ruins of the monastic buildings are of considerable extent; and being situated in a secluded vale, watered by the meandering Irthing, surrounded by well-wooded heights, with the grey mountains in the distance, present an exceedingly venerable object, and give a peculiar interest to the beautiful landscape."

"The approach from Carlisle is over a stone bridge (probably the one erected by the munificent Lord William Howard,) and serves to prepare the visitor for the scene of former religious solitude to which he is introduced."

 "The ancient gate-house...the arch of it alone remains, bearing a profusion of ivy and hanging shrubs..."

"There is a fine verdant the centre of which, raised upon a small platform, is the stump of what appears to have been a cross." [The cross itself, below, was discovered years later, and now stands inside the church.]


"The south side of the nave, against which the cloister abutted [see the pointed outline of the roof on the wall] is differently constructed from the generality of churches...four lofty lancet-shaped windows [are] placed at unequal distances from each other..."

 "...the splendid ruins of the eastern parts of the church, with the rich monuments of departed heroes, open to the day, present themselves with a peculiarly imposing effect...the roofs...are gone...the groined vaulting supports a great accumulation of soil, affording nourishment to several trees, which together with the shrubs...add to the picturesque effect of the ruin."

"The eastern end of the choir is lighted by six lancet windows...beneath them is a square recess, to contain the sacred vessels of the high altar..."

"In the wall on the south side of the altar, is a tomb, under an arch in whose mouldings in the toothed ornament...leaving little or no doubt of its being the tomb of the founder."

"Of the other tombs...there are two which, for richness of sculpture, and the illustrious persons whose memory they commemorate, are deserving particular notice."

The succeeding generations of the Earls of Carlisle, their wives and children, are also buried inside the church and the ruins. A lovely old graveyard provides a peaceful, almost cloistered walk for the thoughtful visitor.

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