Lanercost Priory And Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria: Making The Connection

Presbytery, Lanercost Priory, Northumberland - www.worldwidewriter.co.uk
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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 I had caught a glimpse of it nestling among the trees while hiking the Hadrian’s Wall Path. So I was keen to go back and see it properly. And it wasn’t long before I realised how much it had in common with the Roman wall.

Stone From Hadrian’s Wall

The first connection became apparent as soon as I 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!

Red brick buildings of Lanercost Priory and the neighbouring parsonage
Lanercost Priory Church and Parsonage

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.

Looking through a stone archway towards an inner chapel and an arched window.
The Priory was built using stone from Hadrian’s Wall

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.

Remains of a cloister surrounded by red brick buildings of Lanercost Priory
The remains of the cloister

The Augustinian monastery at Lanercost was founded by Robert de Vaux in the 13th century. By this time England and Scotland had become distinct countries but there was constant strife in the border areas, and the priory suffered frequent 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.

Arched vaults and stone tombs
The Dacre family tombs in the presbytery of Lanercost Priory

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 by Sir Thomas Dacre. You can still see the Dacre family tombs in the ruined presbytery (the area where the monks once gathered for prayer). And the Dacre Hall, which would once have been used as a banqueting room, now functions as the oldest village hall in England.

Today both the church and the remains of the monastic buildings are open to visitors.

The Arts And Crafts Movement At Lanercost

Stained glass window

Although the Priory itself is ruined, the parish 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.

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 I 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.

Visiting Lanercost Priory

  • Lanercost Priory is under the care of English Heritage. Entrance is free to English Heritage members.
  • The nearest railway station is Brampton, around 5 km away.
  • A 2 km walk from the Priory will take you to Hare Hill on Hadrian’s Wall.
  • For hotels in the Brampton area have a look at the recommendations on booking.com.

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7 thoughts on “Lanercost Priory And Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria: Making The Connection”

  1. Lanercost Priory has an interesting history. I enjoyed reading about it. From your pictures, I can tell this is the kind of place I would like to visit and see for myself. Things I visited on my most recent trip to England made me realize how many churches and monasteries went into ruins because of the actions of Henry VIII in the 1500s.

    1. In this country we sort of take it for granted that monasteries will be ruined and churches bare inside (Oliver Cromwell carried on where Henry VIII left off!). It’s not until you see some of the wonderful religious buildings in other countries that you realise how different it could have been. But at least the ruins are atmospheric…

  2. I love how you could find stones from Hadrian’s Wall in Lanercost Priory! I guess there was no sense of shame in it, given that the wall was already so old. An early example of recycling, I suppose!

  3. Thanks for this piece, really informative. Having spent the last two years exploring other countries we’ve realised there is so much in the UK that we never bothered to see. Will make a note to visit this place in the near future.

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