Interior Of St Bees Priory

St Bees Priory

The Benedictine Priory of St Bees occupies a favourable position on the western coast of Cumbria. The Priory took its name from a previous religious establishment, of which nothing seems to have survived till the twelfth century except the tradition of its former existence.

St Bees Priory
St Bees Priory

The Priory was founded by the first Norman Lord of Egremont William Meschin, and was dedicated by Archbishop Thurstan of York, sometime between 1120 and 1135.

Interior Of St Bees Priory
Interior Of St Bees Priory

The magnificent Norman west doorway of the Priory dates from 1150-1160, and is the most richly decorated in the county, with three orders of columns, zig-zag and beak-head decoration. Opposite in the west courtyard is a fine romanesque lintel, which may have served an earlier church, dating from 1120.

St Bees Priory Doorway
St Bees Priory Doorway

The six nave arcades are Early English arches sitting on the original Norman pillars and the base of the tower is Norman but the arches are Early English. The east wall of the north transept has plain Norman windows above the chapel altar, and there is a fine Norman window on the north side of the present chancel, though with Victorian plate tracery.

9th Century Norman Cross
9th Century Norman Cross

The St Bega chapel in the north transept has two fine Norman windows above the altar. Flanking the altar are the two sculptures of St Bega and the Virgin Mary by Josefina de Vasconcellos which make up the “Vision of St Bega” (1950). In the 19th Century two large cinquefoils were inserted by Butterfield into the medieval east walls of the transepts. The side aisles are a Victorian restoration down to the string course.

A Stunning, Commemorative Golden Lectern
A Stunning, Commemorative Golden Lectern

At the east end, beyond the present chancel wall by Butterfield, is the monastic chancel of about 1190, still almost complete, with a fine range of lancet windows on the north side, and on the south an arcade of arches (now infilled and with modern windows) which would have led to the 14th Century chapel in the chancel aisle. The monastic chancel is currently separated from the body of the church by the altar wall, though there is a modern connecting doorway. It is currently used as a parish room. Beneath the elevated wooden floor of the present building is the original stone floor of the medieval church.

Resting Place Of Maria Claudine
Resting Place Of Maria Claudine – Age 5

Outside to the south of the chancel are the remains of the chapel built 1270-1300, which may have fallen due to structural problems before the Dissolution. In the ruined fragment of the south wall can be seen the top steps of the monk’s night stairs and a squint window, while to the east the north jamb is all that remains of what must have been a very impressive window.

Dissolution

The Priory was dissolved on 16 October 1539. The roof of the was removed at the Dissolution of Monasteries under the direction of King Henry VIII.

  • The Dissolution of the Monasteries, sometimes referred to as the Suppression of the Monasteries, was a set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland.

The 19th century was the great era of restoration, helped greatly by the presence of the Theological College and the increasing prosperity of the village of St Bees. The West door came into use, a new vicarage was built to the west, and the last of the monastic cloister was demolished.

The nave and transepts were re-roofed, and to accommodate a new organ in 1867 the west Gallery was taken down. The altar was moved from under the tower east into a new chancel which occupied one bay of the monastic choir. The tower was re-built in the Romanesque style to the design of William Butterfield when the eight bells were installed in 1858.

Henry Willis Organ, Constructed 1899
Henry Willis Organ, Constructed 1899

The north and south aisles were partly rebuilt and completely furnished with new stained glass. In 1899 the present magnificent “Father” Henry Willis organ was installed. The organ has over 2000 pipes and sounds wonderful. Thanks to Mr Ian McAndrew for a tour around the inner workings of the organ.

Inner Workings Of The Henry Willis Organ
Inner Workings Of The Henry Willis Organ

St Bega

St Bega was the daughter of an Irish king, who reigned as a Christian monarch. The princess fled across the sea to avoid an enforced marriage, and landed after a prosperous voyage ‘in a certain province of England called Coupland’.

Bega found the place covered with a thick forest, and admirably adapted for a solitary life. Wishing to dedicate her life to God, she built for herself a virgin cell in a grove near the seashore, where she remained for many years in strict seclusion and devout contemplation.

In the course of time the district began to be frequented by pirates. The good saint however dreaded not death, nor mutilation, nor the loss of temporal goods, of which she was destitute except her bracelet, but she feared the loss of her virginity, the most precious treasure with which heaven can endow her sex. By divine command Bega hastened her departure from the place, but she was induced to leave her bracelet behind her, that miracles in ages to come might be performed in that neighbourhood in testimony of her holy life.

St Bega Arriving At St Bees, Around 880 AD
St Bega Arriving At St Bees, Around 880 AD

The bracelet was said to have been given to St Bega by an angel in Ireland. It is described as “a bracelet having the sign of the holy cross clearly stamped on the top (in summitate) of it”. In 1315, when Lord James Douglas “came to the castle of Egremont in Coupland and there did many evil things with his men” the “ecclesiastical vestments of St Bega the virgin” were looted.

There can be little doubt that the influence of Bega was a power in the south-western portion of the county in the early years of the twelfth century. The district had borne her name, and a parish church was entitled in her honour. Legend has it that she then lived a life of piety at St Bees. The most likely period for her journey would have been sometime in the thirty years after 850, when the Vikings were settling Ireland.

  • The St Bees place-name is derived from “Kirkeby Becok” – the “Church town of Bega”.
Statue Of St Bega Praying To Mary
Statue Of St Bega Praying To Mary

The chief relic to which the monks of St. Bees paid veneration was the bracelet above mentioned, which St. Bega left behind her on her flight from Cumberland. In the legendary life of the saint several stories are told of the power of this talisman. One story claimed that when the holy bracelet was exhibited in public on account of its great sanctity, a certain individual sacrilegiously stole the precious cloth in which it had been wrapped and hid it in his boot. By the vengeance of St. Bega the leg of the thief became paralysed, and thus was his sin discovered. Having been carried to the priory church, he confessed his guilt, and his leg was restored to its original soundness by the goodness of the most merciful Virgin, who is wont to pity those who are truly penitent.

The Life manuscript contains accounts of nine miracles brought about by the influence of St Bega. They are earthy folk tales with miraculous interpretation:

  • The first concerns a raider from Galloway, who set out to steal a horse. His mother warned him against theft on the land of St Bega, but her son was scornful and moving his hands to the private parts of his buttocks he tauntingly said, “what can that little old woman do to me?” As he escaped on the horse, arrows were fired after him as he crouched low, and the inevitable happened.
  • The third concerns Godard of Millom, whose men would not remove their horses from the monks’ pasture to which they had strayed. When the men came to saddle the horses, they found the hooves almost severed, and in penance Godard gave the field to the Monks.
  • The seventh miracle tells of three men of Workington, who were imprisoned in Egremont Castle for killing a man in a drunken brawl, but having confessed their sins to St Bega, were rescued by her and found sanctuary at St Bees.
  • The ninth miracle tells of two sick brothers who, after seeing a vision at Tynmouth, travelled to St Bees in a cart, and were healed; leaving the cart as thanks.

Around 1400 it is recorded that St Bega’s day was celebrated ‘in albs’ (for a lesser saint) at the mother house of St Mary’s Abbey, York. A fifteenth-century Book of Hours in the Bodleian Library from St Mary’s records the day as 7 November. Since this discovery in the late 20th century, St Bega’s day has been celebrated in St Bees on this date.

St Bees Man

During an archaeological dig in 1981 in the area of the 14th Century ruined chapel at the east end of the Priory, a number of medieval burials were uncovered, and the remains of an earlier building on a different alignment to the Priory was found.

The most significant find was of a man aged 35–45 in a lead coffin in a stone vault (effigy), given the name St Bees Man, whose body was in a remarkable state of preservation. It has now been established that he was Anthony de Lucy, a Teutonic Knight, who died in 1368 in the Crusades in Prussia.

St Bees Man Effigy (Nearest)
St Bees Man Effigy (Nearest)

Anthony had suffered several traumatic injuries, both prior to and at the time of his demise. One of the latter injuries, a puncture to the right lung, is the likely cause of death. The extent of these injuries suggests that he had been a physically active man who participated in violence.

  • DISTURBING IMAGE BELOW↓

His remarkable preservation seems to have been the result of post-mortem preparation, including the use of a lead wrapping, a pine-pitch impregnated shroud, and the formation of adipocere. The use of a lead wrapping has analogues with late-medieval funerary practices for some individuals of high social standing. High status is also implicit in tooth extractions, dental treatment being a rarity in the medieval period.

Although the body was over six hundred years old, his nails, skin and stomach contents were found to be in near-perfect condition. After his death the vault he was discovered in, was enlarged to take the body of his sister, Maud de Lucy, who died in 1398. The probable effigies of both Maud and Anthony can be seen in the history display at the Priory.

The six hundred year old face of St Bees Man during autopsy:
Note the short-cropped beard, irises of the eyes and worn dentition.

St Bees Man. Photo: © Dr Ian McAndrew
St Bees Man. Photo: © Dr Ian McAndrew
The Crucifixion

Happy Easter!

We’ve only just celebrated the birth of Jesus at Christmas. We are still in the month of January, and now local shops are full of Easter eggs. It’s as if the stores are willing The Messiah’s death to occur earlier so that they can profit from his suffering. I was gobsmacked at seeing the chocolate delights.

  • Easter eggs, also called Paschal eggs, are decorated eggs that are usually used as gifts on the occasion of Easter. As such, Easter eggs are common during the season of Eastertide.
  • The oldest tradition is to use dyed and painted chicken eggs, but a modern custom is to substitute chocolate eggs wrapped in colored foil, hand-carved wooden eggs, or plastic eggs filled with confectionery such as chocolate.
  • However, real eggs continue to be used in Central and Eastern European tradition. Although eggs, in general, were a traditional symbol of fertility and rebirth, in Christianity, for the celebration of Eastertide, Easter eggs symbolize the empty tomb of Jesus, from which Jesus resurrected.
  • In addition, one ancient tradition was the staining of Easter eggs with the colour red “in memory of the blood of Christ, shed as at that time of his crucifixion.”
  • This custom of the Easter egg can be traced to early Christians of Mesopotamia, and from there it spread into Russia and Siberia through the Orthodox Churches, and later into Europe through the Catholic and Protestant Churches.

Easter, also called Pascha (Greek, Latin) or Resurrection Sunday, is a festival and holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, described in the New Testament as having occurred on the third day of his burial after his crucifixion by the Romans at Calvary c. 30 AD. It is the culmination of the Passion of Jesus, preceded by Lent (or Great Lent), a forty-day period of fasting, prayer, and penance. Easter is the most important and oldest festival of the Christian Church.

My photo of The Crucifixion was captured at The Grotto, St Mary’s Church in Cleator. Work on building The Grotto began in 1926, just as the Great Depression began to create economic hardship around the world. The idea behind the Grotto was to build a replica of Lourdes. The Grotto was completed and opened on Sunday 30th October 1927 by the then Abbot of Douai, the right Reverend Edmund Kelly OSB. The Grotto is a place of Annual Pilgrimage, and a centre of devotion, not just for Catholics, but for all faiths. The Grotto is appointed one of the Marian Shrines in the Lancaster Diocese.

  • This year, Easter Sunday is on 21 April.
  • Is it too early for shops to be selling Easter eggs?
The Crucifixion
The Crucifixion
St. Nicholas Church, Whitehaven

St. Nicholas Church, Whitehaven

The tower of St Nicholas Church stands in the busy centre of Georgian Whitehaven. St Nicholas’ Centre and Chapel stand as a unmistakable landmark amongst the busy commercial and retail life of the town. It is a focus for a whole variety of activities – café, meeting place, chapel for worship and private prayer and contemplation.

In 1642, the first place of worship is known to existed in Whitehaven, although the discovery of a medieval Piscina in the church ground point to a place of worship from around the 12th Century. The chapel of 1642 was a small building with five windows and measured forty five feet long by twenty one feet wide. It was classed as a chapel of ease. The chapel was used by the fishermen and their families who lived in and around the town, and was served by the Vicar of the Priory Church at St. Bees.

As the population grew, so did the congregation, so a bigger church was deemed necessary. A chapel had been built on Lowther Street near Chapel Street, so when the new church was started the old chapel was demolished.

The second place of worship was consecrated by the Rt Rev. Dr Nicholas Stratford, Lord Bishop of Chester on the 16th July 1693. Hard white stone was used for the building, and was quarried from Tom Herds Rock. This stone is alleged to have given Whitehaven it’s name. The Church was not originally dedicated to any saint- the later dedication to St Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Sailors and Children is obscure. This Church served the needs of the community for almost two hundred years and the stone doorway dating from 1693 has been preserved and is at the inner entrance of the present building.

The third place of worship was constructed of red sandstone. This was a magnificent building which consisted of Nave, Chancel, Side Chapel, Clerestory, Tower and an Organ Chamber that housed one of the finest church organs in the country, and had a seating capacity of 600 but could accommodate up to 1000 when the need arose. It was consecrated on the 31st of August 1883. The building was a gift to the town by Miss Margaret Gibson, in memory of her parents, and stood as a magnificent addition to the town until it was practically destroyed by fire 93 years later almost to the day.

In 1955 a plaque was placed in the church by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in memory of Mildred Gale, nee Warner, the grandmother of General George Washington, the first president of the United States of America. In the graveyard at St. Nicholas Church Mildred Gale is buried, the exact location of her grave though is unknown.

Fire destroyed the Nave and Sanctuary on the afternoon of August 31st 1971. The High Altar, a fine example of Renaissance carving was lost in the fire and the Altar piece which had been brought from the earlier church was also lost. This depicted the Last Supper and was painted by Matthias Read. His paintings of Moses and Aaron were both saved, and after they were cleaned and restored, now hang in St James’ Church on the Gallery. Rebuilding the Church was considered, but in April 1973 the Diocesan Pastoral Committee decided against this.

The St Nicholas Tower was fitted out as an auxiliary chapel for services, and regular coffee mornings were held there. A plan was submitted to, and approved by the Parochial Church Council to make more use of the Tower by providing more facilities that would be of benefit to the community. An appeal was launched, and the development went ahead, and became a Centre for Worship, Social activities and Tourism.

St. Nicholas Church, Whitehaven
St. Nicholas Church, Whitehaven