Why hadn’t I heard of Holme Cultram?

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:05 am

Holme Cultram Abbey church at Abbytown

“Do you want to go into the church?”  The neatly dressed middle-aged lady beamed at us. It was a little late in the day and it seemed she was just about to lock up. “Well, if it’s not too much trouble…”.

Visiting Holme Cultram was one of those happy accidents.  I had never heard of the place.  We were exploring the remote part of north west Cumbria, formerly the county of Cumberland.  It is almost as far as you can get without leaving England and getting your feet wet in the Solway Firth.  Seeing a sign for a place called Abbeytown, and with a rare flash of intuition, I remarked that the name strongly suggested a town with an abbey; and so it proved.  Naturally, Holme Cultram Abbey was oblivious to my ignorance; it had been getting along with its eventful life for the best part of 900 years before we met.  The loss, of course, was mine.

Holme Cultram Abbey, Cumbria

At first sight, I don’t suppose Holme Cultram Abbey would win too many beauty competitions.  It looks inelegant, grubby and a bit angry – the last an unlikely attribute conjured up by the weathered red sandstone from which it is built.  Inside is another matter – through a magnificent Norman doorway, you enter a wide, high, nave, flooded with light. Soaring Gothic arches frame whitewashed walls pierced by beautiful windows.  It was unexpected and took my breath away.  There are reasons for the way it looks; Holme Cultram’s appearance is in good part a consequence of its history – rather like the rest of us, I suppose.

This part of the world changed ownership several times.  Once in the old Kingdom of the Strathclyde Welsh, it was conquered by the Scots in the 10th century, by the Anglo-Norman King William II (‘Rufus’) in 1092 and then retaken by King David I of Scotland in 1135.  By 1157, it was back in the hands of the English Crown.  In the meantime, in 1150, St Mary’s Abbey at Holme Cultram was founded by white-robed monks of the Cistercian order from Melrose Abbey, 80 or so miles away to the northeast.  The site is surrounded by low-lying wetlands.  The name ‘Holme Cultram’ is derived from Old Norse holmr which means ‘island’, or ‘land surrounded by marsh’ and cultram or culteramCulter might be Celtic, meaning ‘narrow piece of cultivated land’, or it may be an Anglo-Saxon name.  Ham is a common Old English suffix for settlement.

Norman doorway at Holme Cultram, Cumbria

Henry II of England confirmed grants of land and timber to the abbey and it swiftly developed.  These places were the economic powerhouses of the day, with wide-ranging interests and assets often miles distant.  The monks drained marshes for grazing sheep and became the largest suppliers of wool in north-west England. The abbey also controlled a score of coastal saltpans and traded extensively in high quality salt.  It had a port at the village of Skinburness on the Solway and links across the Irish Sea with the Isle of Man and Ireland, where a daughter house, Grey Abbey, was established on Strangford Lough.  The remains of an abbey wharf have been discovered on the nearby River Waver, which would have been suitable for flat-bottomed boats coming in from Skinburness.  It is suggested that the sandstone used to build the abbey would have been landed there, brought from the same quarry in Scotland used to build Sweetheart Abbey across the water in Dumfries and Galloway.

However, the proximity of the English/Scottish border meant that, in the medieval period, this was bandit country.  In 1216, Holme Cultram was raided by troops of the Scottish king, Alexander II, who ransacked the place – even stealing the bed covers off a sick monk.  In 1235, the lay brothers – the muscle-power of monastic communities – were granted a license to bear arms; don’t mess with the monks of Holme Cultram!  A castle, Wolsty Castle, was built on the coast for the specific purpose of defending the abbey.  Nearby Newton Arlosh church was built with a fortified tower.  The ‘Hammer of the Scots’, Edward I of England, used Holm Cultram and its port when setting out to campaign north of the border, including before the siege of Caerlaverock Castle in 1300.  Edward spent his last night at the abbey in 1307, dying the next day near Burgh-by-Sands (where you will find a monument to the event).  Some say the king’s entrails were buried at the abbey – though most of him ended up in Westminster Abbey.

Holm Cultram east window

Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots, carried out a devastating raid in 1319 (or 1322) – despite the fact that his father, Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale and Earl of Carrick, had been buried there in 1304.  The raid was so destructive it is said that some monks decided to leave and that the value of the abbey was reduced by 80%.  Raids carried on in future years, a constant risk of violence and drain on resources.  In spite that, the monks of Holme Cultram apparently continued to enjoy supportive ties with their Scottish motherhouse in Melrose. I don’t suppose Cistercians were particularly bothered about which kingdom they were in, as long as they could carry on with their work.

In the years before the Reformation, we read of new orders being issued by the Abbot of Melrose, which regulated the times of worship at Holme Cultram and forbade unaccompanied women from visiting.  What had the monks been getting up to?  In the 16th century, one candidate for the post of abbot was accused of poisoning another and was imprisoned at Furness Abbey (another very red place).  Just before the dissolution of the monasteries, it was reported to Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister to Henry VIII, that the abbot, Thomas Carter, dined and supped with women at the abbey and had sold off the church plate and jewels.  Carter took part in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a northern rebellion against Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Church and the dissolution of the monasteries.  The rebellion was harshly crushed and hundreds were gruesomely executed.  It is not known what happened to Carter.  The last abbot of Holme Cultram, Gawain Borrodaile, surrendered the abbey to the King’s Commissioners on 6 March 1538. 1600 acres of land passed to the Crown and the 24 monks still living there were sent on their way.  The abbot was given a pension of £100pa and continued to live at the abbey as rector – in the place now used as a tearoom and offices.  Unusually for a monastic house, the abbey church had also served as the parish church and Cromwell allowed that to continue, particularly as it was the parishioners’ only refuge from marauding Scots.  When Gawain Borrodaile died in 1557, Queen Mary passed the Right of Presentation to the Living of Holme Cultram to the University of Oxford – and so it remains to this very day.

Holme Cultram Abbey

Thereafter, the abbey buildings followed a similar pattern to other dissolved religious houses all over the country.  They fell into disrepair and useful materials were taken away and reused in dwellings, barns and other buildings in the district.  In 1600, the great tower of the abbey church fell, bringing the chancel and part of the nave down with it.  Then a great fire destroyed the repaired chancel.  Restoration work was carried out in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  In 2006, a teenage peasant, with a gap where his brain should be, got drunk using the £5 he had stolen from the church collection and then pointlessly set fire to garments in the vestry.  The church was gutted in the resulting blaze, which also destroyed the abbey’s medieval records.  It took years to repair the building, but money was somehow found and the result is spectacular. As part of the renovation, the young arsonist was walled up in the nave as a deterrent to future vandals *.

Holme Cultrum Abbey nave

The current church of St Mary’s at Holme Cultram occupies about two-thirds of the space of the old abbey nave – 6 of the original 9 bays.  The original abbey church as a whole was about twice as long and its footprint lies to the east under the graves of subsequent parishioners.  This explains the somewhat stubby shape of the present building.  The remains of the rest of the monastery buildings are under the ground to the south; the entire abbey precincts would have covered a vast area – some 10 acres, I believe.

  • Grave of Robert de Bruis
  • Stained glass donated by the family of Sir Walter Scott
  • Christ enters Jerusalem
  • Holme Cultram - St Mungo window
  • Holme Cultram - St Mary window dedicated to Martha Mark

Apart from the fascinating history and exhibition (which includes the grave slab thought to have belonged to Robert the Bruce’s dad), the church interior is lovely, and peaceful.  The stained glass in the east window was a gift from the family of Sir Walter Scott.  Other windows that caught my eye depict Christ entering Jerusalem, the Scottish saint, Mungo (founder of Glasgow and its cathedral) and St Mary.  The latter window is dedicated to Nursing Sister Martha Mark who served with the Royal Red Cross in the South African Campaign (Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902) and in France during World War I.

Among the dignitaries of the past that were laid to rest at Holme Cultram might have been Michael Scot (c1175-1235), renowned Scottish scholar – and perhaps a wizard too.  Mind you, he is also rumoured to have been buried at Melrose Abbey.  However, he is definitely credited with turning Long Meg and Her Daughters into stone.

Grave of F/Lt I J Muirhead DFC

A lone war grave in the churchyard caught my eye.  It is that of Flight Lieutenant Ian James Muirhead DFC, born in 1913 in West Ham, London.  His parents moved north, he grew up nearby and joined the RAF as an apprentice in 1929. One of ‘the Few’, he was shot down and killed in his Hurricane over Maidstone, Kent, on 15 October 1940. You can read more about F/Lt Muirhead here – I’m glad they brought him home.  Even though Holme Cultram is such a peaceful place now, it reminded me that the violence never seems to end; it just moves around a bit.

Sadly, I couldn’t find a website for Holme Cultram, but I’m sure it would welcome your visit.  Finally, I leave you with a completely irrelevant photograph of a horse. This splendid fellow was in a field next to the churchyard and seemed very friendly; perhaps he was lonely.

* Just in case anyone is daft enough to believe this, it is a lie; sorry.

A nice picture of a friendly horse

78 thoughts on “Why hadn’t I heard of Holme Cultram?”

  1. Mike, this is an excellent post. I admire the rustic, even angry, appearance of the church. Given its age, it looks fantastic. Annandale is a city in the state of California.

  2. So pretty inside! I’m glad it’s being used. But “angry” is a good word for it’s outward appearance! 🙂 And the horse, I’m sure is glad to be rememebered.

  3. Lovely and interesting piece of work, Mike. I am quite familiar with Cumbria, but I honestly didn’t know much about Holme Cultram. You have once again enlightened my darkness! Keep up the excellent work. Best regards, Colin

  4. It’s so good to check in again after too long an absence – and what a fine post to visit. It is a rather homely building on the outside but you’re so right about the interior and I’m grateful that over the centuries so many have taken on the task of renovating (and renovating again) this structure. It’s a marvelous find. It makes me wonder if my Scots reiver ancestors might have discovered this on one of their raids!

  5. Surprised you didn’t spot it when you visited the Edward I monument just down the road a while ago (or maybe you did, but noted it for future exploration) Many of my ancestors are buried in the sadly overgrown graveyard at Holme Cultram. It remains wonderfully peaceful up here, even in the crowded summer tourist season just down the road.

    1. Hi – I might have done if I’d been meandering around. The visit to Edward’s monument was a specific target on the way back from a business meeting, so I was in and out (as it were). It is certainly beautifully peaceful at Hulme Cultram – in contrast with parts of the Lakes just down the road!

  6. Your dits always brighten up the day and open my eyes to parts of our wonderful country I have yet to visit.
    I love your writing style – but you always were good with words way back in the dim distant past of our shared schooldays.

  7. Hi Mike – what a fun place to find … delighted you were in the right place at the right time – pity about the peasant story not being true – lots of fund-raising opportunities there! I really should spend time up in Cumbria – great post – thank you – cheers Hilary

      1. The like button doesn’t work … but I’d love to learn more about my country – I do through you though … cheers H

  8. Hi Mike, a most interesting story. It seems that Gawain Borrodaile survived the Reformation a lot better than most of the Abbots. That story about the teenage arsonist was rather vile. I assume he was still alive when he was walled in as was the fashion of the time.

    1. I believe many abbots were treated reasonably – it was the ones who opposed our friend Henry VIII that met gruesome ends. Ah – I’m sure the arsonist would have been sedated at first, so that the screams wouldn’t disturb choir practice.

  9. Travel advice: Whenever someone asks if you want to go into a church, always say “yes, please!” I am so glad you shared this with us! That arch! The stained glass windows! Someone would have had to drag me away.

  10. Thank you for this great excursion! I agree – the place looks a little angry from the outside, what with its downturned mouth for a door and stern looking windows for its eyes. But it certainly is an unusual building, and the Norman arched doorway is truly spectacular.
    As for the violent history, as you say, it is never far away and spoils even the most peaceful place.
    (And no, I did not believe the young arsonist was walled in!)

  11. artandarchitecturemainly

    I can see you mentioned medieval records, and there must have been formal records as well, church or royal. But where did the masses of informal information come from – who was seducing women, who was draining swampy land, who traded in salt etc?

    1. Information like that would have come from other records, too, Hels. No one said anything about women being seduced, though. Sometimes Cromwell seems to have paid tame monks to inform on their brethren – but I guess some of it could have been fabricated anyway.

  12. I’ve been up that way many times but, sadly, never discovered this beautiful gem. What a pity that the aptly described teenage peasant (although that is unfair to peasants) was not walled up or dropped in an oubliette!

  13. I always open up a Google map when I read your wonderful blog posts, Mike, so that I can see where all the historic sites you mention are located in relation to each other. Thank you for yet another splendid armchair visit to Britain! The layers and layers of history that have unfolded there are mind-boggling. I also loved seeing the photo of the friendly draft horse nearby.

    1. Thanks, Jennie. The architecture probably looks unusual because you’re looking at a truncated building. If you look at the 5th photo down, you can see where the current church seems to come to an abrupt end.

  14. It’s amazing how many places we don’t know exist. Even places close to where we live.
    I’m going to the Lake District in July. I’ll look this place up.

    1. As you probably know, it’s a bit outside the National Park. If you don’t know it, it’s quite bleak in places – but fascinating and packed with history. Check out the Roman Museum at Maryport, the church at of Crosscanonby and Burgh by Sands to get you started.

  15. Sorry to hear your account of the punishment of the young Vandal was not accurate. It was very appropriate.

  16. Lovely and interesting piece of work, Mike. I am quite familiar with Cumbria, but I honestly didn’t know much about Holme Cultram. You have once again enlightened my darkness! Keep up the excellent work. Best regards, Colin

  17. Such a great post, Mike. I like the rugged and even angry as you say, look of the church. It looks great considering it’s age. There is a city in California called Annandale. There is a Cumberland Gap in the Smokey mountains in the east of the US. We are connected in many ways!

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