Apart from their location in the far north of England, there is no obvious connection between Cumbria’s Lanercost Priory and the nearby Hadrian’s Wall. After all, Lanercost Priory was not built until the 12th century, long after the Romans had left Britain and their wall had started to crumble. But the Priory appears on all the maps of “Hadrian’s Wall Country”, and we had caught a glimpse of it nestling among the trees as we hiked the Hadrian’s Wall Path. So we were keen to go back and see it properly. And it wasn’t long before we realised how much it had in common with the Roman wall.
Stone from Hadrian’s Wall
The first connection became apparent as soon as we got there. The original builders constructed Lanercost Priory using stone plundered from the remains of Hadrian’s Wall. Look carefully and you will see some of the inscription stones that were set into the Wall to show which legion had built a particular section. It is a bit like a jigsaw with all its pieces in the wrong place: in one case an inscription has been positioned upside down!
It is not just the fabric of the Wall that found its way to Lanercost. Over the centuries Roman artefacts such as tombstones and altars have been uncovered locally. Today these are on display in the refectory undercroft of the ruined Priory. Another link with Hadrian’s Wall: as the Priory fell into disuse it was itself plundered for local building works.
The Turbulent History of Lanercost Priory
From early times this area saw frequent skirmishes between warring tribes. This conflict was an integral part of the history of both Hadrian’s Wall and Lanercost Priory. The Wall was built in part to control the northern part of Britain and to ensure a relative peace in the area. But both the peace and the Wall disintegrated once the Romans left the country in the 4th century.
By the time the Augustinian priory was built at Lanercost England and Scotland had become distinct countries but there was constant strife in the border areas, and the priory suffered many attacks. Edward I of England made an extensive stay here in 1306 before his final campaign against the Scots; soon afterwards the priory was raided by the Scottish king Robert Bruce.
The final act of destruction came when Henry VIII dissolved the Priory in 1538. The church was retained for parish use, and part of the Priory was converted into a private house for the Dacre family. You can still see the Dacre family tombs in the ruined presbytery (the area where the monks once gathered for prayer).
Today both the church and the remains of the Priory are open to visitors.
The Arts and Crafts Movement at Lanercost
Although the Priory itself is ruined, the church is still flourishing. It is worth a visit, to admire the fusion of ancient and modern design. There is plenty of evidence of the church’s early history, from a medieval stone cross to the view of the priory remains behind the East window. High above the front entrance is a statue of Mary Magdalene (to whom the church is dedicated), given to the church by Edward I. And a modern window commemorates King Edward’s connection with the Priory.
But the most remarkable thing about this church is the 19th century restoration work. This was done by designers from the Arts and Crafts Movement, including William Morris and Edward Burne‑Jones. Particularly impressive are the Burne‑Jones stained glass windows and the dossal (embroidered altar cloth) designed by William Morris.
As we left, I turned back to look at the ruins of the Priory, mysterious in the early autumn gloom. Like the Roman wall that supplied its building material, it has continued to attract visitors long after its original purpose has gone.
(More information about Lanercost Priory on the English Heritage website.)