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Graham D. Keevill
This guidebook provides a full tour of all the buildings, and traces the evolution of the priory and the history of its inhabitants from medieval times to the present day.
Lanercost Priory is living history. Nestled in the Irthing Valley, the ancient sandstone walls seem to be a place of peace and contemplation. This has not always been the case.
The Priory was founded in 1169 by Robert de Vaux as part of the process of settling the Borders under Norman rule. The first buildings were probably made of timber, but Hadrian's Wall provided a convenient local quarry of ready-cut stone. Gradually a community developed with all the necessary religious and social facilities.
The priory of Augustinian canons was always a comparatively small and poor house and they continued to be beset by the Scottish raiders.
The monks dined in the refectory. Eating was a solemn occasion. Silence was observed and the monks would resort to sign language if they needed to communicate. A canon would read from the scriptures throughout the meal. However, below the refectory was the undercroft, a vast, vaulted cellar used for the storage of food and drink. At the far end of the undercroft was one of the few places that afforded physical comfort to the monks enduring the damp and cold northern winters. At the west end is a fire-place - the area was known as the warming room - and it was the only place where the canons were allowed to keep warm. It was, not unexpectedly, a social too. In the sills of the stone window-seats there are still the marks of board games that the canons scratched into the stone eight centuries ago.
On September 28th, 1306, Edward I came to Lanercost. He was an old man of 67, pursuing a wearying campaign against the marauding Scots. Edward, ill and exhausted, borne by his servants in a litter, could not proceed further, and his whole entourage - 200 people or more, Queen Margaret, bodyguards, noblemen, servants, doctors - sought the hospitality of the small congregation of monks. A timber village - including a bath-house for the queen was built within the precincts of the Priory - and when the court left six months later, the monks received little recompense for entertaining the King of England.
Worse was to come as cross-border raids increased. In 1311, Robert the Bruce, himself, led an army to the Priory's door, and although Lanercost itself suffered little, neighbouring churches and valuable property were destroyed.
When the monasteries were dissolved in 1536, part of Lanercost Priory became the parish church. Another part of the buildings was acquired by Thomas Dacre and converted into the comfortable living accommodation of a sixteenth century nobleman. He built a large fireplace and the plastered walls were decorated with paintings. Traces of these paintings survive to this day, although the nobleman's fine hall is now used for village business.
Lanercost was fortunate in later years. The fine Victorian architect, Antony Salvin took the building in hand, and, unusually, preserved as much of the original medieval fabric as possible, and George Howard, the Earl of Carlisle and a keen member of the Arts and Crafts Movement further beautified the buildings.
Today, the Priory buildings are in the care of various bodies, including English Heritage.
They have combined to produce a splendid, well illustrated guide to the whole site.
It assists the visitor in tracing the lines left by history on the walls and it tells the story of one of our greatest treasures in Cumbria. - Steve Matthews, Bookcase.
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