Beowulf’s warriors and the pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales may have smacked their lips over mead, but I thought a free swig of the legendary medieval honey wine was no match for the intoxicating feeling of being at Lanercost Priory.
Around 1169, an Augustinian monastery was founded at Lanercost in Cumbria. Since it was less than a mile from a portion of Hadrian’s Wall, the 73-mile defensive fortification that the Romans built in northern England around 122 AD to keep their empire intact, the priory and its associated buildings were built with stones that had been salvaged from the wall.
Look at lovely Lanercost today, and you can hardly imagine its troubled past. It was repeatedly raided during the Anglo-Scottish wars at the end of the 13th century, which were led by Edward I of England and Robert the Bruce of Scotland. In fact, an ill Edward ruled England from Lanercost for six months during the winter of 1306-7, joined by his queen, Margaret, and their court. They worshipped in Lanercost’s newly renovated church, which had recently been given a new sanctuary, a north aisle along the nave, and a grand west portal. It’s said that the statue of Mary Magdalene, the church’s patron saint, in the gable above it was a gift from Queen Margaret.
When Henry VIII dissolved England’s monasteries in 1538, Lanercost’s priory was closed, and the roofs of the cloister, refectory and church were taken off. The king gave Lanercost’s buildings and land to Sir Thomas Dacre, who converted the west cloister into a family home, built a fortified pele tower there for protection against the Scots who raided and ransacked settlements along the border, and buried their family members in the priory’s ruined presbytery, including this tomb of tiny Elizabeth Dacre Howard.
The parish church survived, and services were held in the single-aisled nave. In 1740, the church got a new roof, but the building wasn’t restored until the 1840s. In the 1870s, George Howard, the 9th Earl of Carlisle, commissioned leading Arts and Crafts designers of the day to do some amazing things.
William Morris designed a dossal, or ornamental cloth, for the east wall behind the altar. He chose to represent grapes, grape leaves and wheat – symbols associated with the bread and wine of the Eucharist — in pink, blue and green. After ladies of the parish spent five years embroidering the felted woolen material with worsted wool, the completed piece was hung on Easter Sunday in 1887. Measuring 24 feet long by four feet high, the dossal is artistically and historically significant not only because such an important person was especially commissioned to design it, but also because it was embroidered locally. Exposure to everything from light and dampness to rodents and moths caused fading, broken threads and other damage, so it was taken down in 2003 for restoration and conservation. It was rehung in 2013.
Edward Burne-Jones designed three stained glass windows, and Morris’s firm executed them. One installed in 1877 shows St. Luke writing his account of the Nativity and the healing of the lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. Another depicting the Annunciation to the Shepherds was installed in 1890. The third window illustrates the burial of Moses.
The shaft of the intricately carved Lanercost Cross has stood in the northwest corner of the church since it was brought there for preservation in 1888. A Latin inscription on one side of the cross reveals that it was made in 1214. Its base still stands on the green outside the church.
For more on Lanercost Priory, see its entry in The Abbeys and Priories of England, by Tim Tatton-Brown and John Crook, as well as The William Morris Lanercost Priory Dossal – History and Conservation, by Christine Boyce, and The William Morris Lanercost Dossal, a DVD by Alan Sawyer. The design for the endpaper of Parish Church Treasures: The Nation’s Greatest Art Collection, by John Goodall, was taken from the Lanercost Priory dossal.