We’ve now reached the end (nearly) of 2017, and I have one last ‘real’ post to go before my festive hiatus. A few weekends ago, my friend, Amy, and I visited Lanercost Priory, near Brampton. The site has been a place of worship since the 12th Century, and it is now presented as a mix of ruin and functioning church. Like most places in the vicinity of the Scottish border, such as Carlisle Castle, it has a rocky history of raids and hardship; and, like Brougham Castle, there have also been a handful of royal visits.
Lanercost Priory is quite an intriguing place to visit, owing to the fact that so many different historical eras can be seen in the same location. Many of the stones used to create the Priory were pinched from the nearby Hadrian’s Wall and Roman script and sculpture can still be seen in some of the stones dotted around the site. Then, of course, there’s the medieval ruins of the church which are really something special. Moving on to a post-dissolution era, there are the remains of Dacre Tower and the still-functioning Dacre Hall. Finally, there is the parish church, which is still in use today.
There’s a bit of uncertainty as to when construction began on Lanercost, but most agree it was around the 1169 mark. Robert de Vaux founded the Augustinian priory in the hopes of securing good vibes for his family in the afterlife, and so that prayers could be said for them until the end of time. The Augustinian canons were slightly less strict than some other monastic groups at the time, and were all for living communally and sharing. The Augustinian group at Lanercost was never that substantial, but they seemed to have plodded along well for a time. It was mostly local men that became canons, and their way of life was based heavily around agriculture. The priory had to be incredibly self-sufficient and so grew and raised much of their food, drink, and other resources.
The Scottish Wars heavily impacted life at the Priory. Raiders pillaged the priory lands, destroying the canons’ source of income, and source of food, resulting in some very tough times for the men that lived there. It wasn’t only the raiders that drained resources. In many ways, Edward I’s stay messed with every part of priory life, bringing very little in way of compensation to the canons or the surrounding community. Edward didn’t come alone either. As well as his servants and noblemen, he also brought Queen Margaret and all of her household too. It’s not like it was a short stay either. Edward and Margaret’s visit lasted just over five months! They really outstayed their welcome, I think.
The most dramatic era of the Priory’s history came during Henry VIII’s Dissolution. To cut a long story short, our dear old Henry needed money for military campaigns on the 1540s, and so, to fund his gallivanting he seized the land from monasteries, priories, convents and friaries up and down the country. Lanercost was no exception, and on 4th March 1537, the Duke of Norfolk arrived at the priory and ordered its closure. Prior to this, Lanercost was falling steadily into decline and many of the lands were already sold off so that the canons could keep their heads above water. Following the closure though, work began on demolishing the cloister and refectory, as well as other buildings. Only the nave survived as it was the designated parish church, and this nave is still used as the parish church today. The eastern end of the Church was kept too, due to it housing the Chantry, and it is easily the most dramatic part of the site still standing.
The eastern end is also where you’ll find the presbytery and the two transepts to the north and south. Hidden away in the small chapel area is this slightly surprising effigy of a baby.
It is made of terracotta and commemorates Elizabeth Dacre Howard, the daughter of George and Rosalind Howard. She died at the age of four months in July 1883. She is surrounded by the tombs of previous patrons of the Priory. When new, they would have been painted in bright colours, and would have been a rather spectacular sight, I imagine, given the intricacy of the masonry. One of the tombs belongs to Sir Humphrey Dacre who died in 1485 and was had previously secured his family’s ownership of Lanercost. The other is that of Lord Thomas Dacre and his wife, Elizabeth.
The Dacres were a key family in the story of Lanercost, as were the Howard family, who owned (and still own) the nearby Naworth Castle. The Howards took over the Priory once the final Lanercost-based Dacre, James, had died unmarried and £1800 in debt. The Howard family worked hard to restore the ruins of the Priory before handing it over to the Office of Works in 1929. The Office of Works is now more commonly known as English Heritage, and it is this group that now manage the oldest parts of the Priory today.
To conclude, if you’re looking for a good day out, I’d say Lanercost Priory is a pretty good go-to. There’s more to it than a church! When Amy and I visited, we lunched at the Lanercost Tea Rooms afterwards which had absolutely fabulous cakes and a smashing BLT if I do say so.