Lanercost Priory

I wasn’t stealing.  But if anyone saw me furtively taking more than my fair share of the packets of condiments offered at Lanercost Priory’s cafe, I’m sure they’d think I was acting unlike anything but a thief. And they would be right.

Lanercost Priory

Lanercost Priory, established circa 1169.
(B&B, Cafe, Parish Church, Medieval Ruins and Cultural Events Venue)

Eyes to the ground, I finished lunch and made my way to the lady at the gift shop and ticket area, who looked exactly how you’d imagine an actress playing the part of “overly kind lady of a certain age at the ticket area” would look if there ever was a play in production that required such a character. She spent fifteen minutes telling me all the information I needed to buy an entrance ticket to this English Heritage site: when the priory was built, how to tell which of the stones were from Hadrian’s Wall, how best to traverse the area and everything but how much this was going to cost and if she had change for a tenner. But she was kind, so I nodded and uttered the occasional “Ah,” while I tried not to sweat, being very aware of the ill-gotten packets of ketchup and mustard in my purse.

The Priory Nave. 800 years. Still a church.

The Priory Nave.
800 years. Still praying.

There’s something about churches that always succeeds to make me act guilty. We’re expected to wear our Sunday best and observe proper behavior, and anyone who messes with the rules should expect a sound smiting. Because, inevitably, they will know, you will repent and they will deliver justice.

I don’t know who “they” are, but I’m a coward and I’m scared. The possibility of spending an eternity anxiously looking over your shoulder and feeling observed is indeed a close second to hell. After the ticket lady finally handed me my ticket, I wondered if this was how the border raiders felt during the many times they ransacked this priory throughout the Middle Ages. I only hope they had enough money to fund their prayers.

Located on the border between Scotland and England, Lanercost Priory has a violent and turbulent history. I suppose that can only be expected when a religious structure is erected during the reign of a monarch who’s known for having Thomas Becket killed. Several centuries later,  Edward I and his second wife Margaret made this former Augustinian priory their home for 5 months in 1306-7, making it a royal palace while he worked on vanquishing the Scots and depleting the priory’s funds. In 1311, Robert the Bruce made the priory his headquarters for three days and in 1341 Robert’s son King David II felt like entering a “holy place” with haughtiness, so he ransacked and desecrated the buildings. Hopefully, they all funded prayers for their immortal souls afterwards.


Can you afford to do that, Your Highness?

They gave it their best shot, but border warfare isn’t the reason that the only part of this priory not in ruins is the nave, and that it still serves as the village’s parish church. Like many other abbeys/monasteries in Britain, it’s mostly in ruins because of Henry VIII‘s love/hate relationship with the church. Lanercost was given to the Dacre family, headed by the baron, a Knight of the Garter who fought in many wars including the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Lord Dacre owned more than a hundred thousand acres of land by the time he died in 1525, and although he was a closet Catholic, he had the king’s favor. So, naturally, his son William assumed he’d keep Lanercost after inheriting the barony. All Dacres were buried there, after all. Yeah… too bad the king didn’t like William as much as he did the old baron. In May 1534, William was committed to the Tower, along with 2 other people, under suspicion for treason.


They were all acquitted in July, but something happened during their incarceration that was big enough to cause a fallout between William and his co-prisoner, loyal servant and illegitimate brother-from-another-mother, Thomas. Let’s go straight to the action:

Thomas: My name is all I have, William. I don’t have your lands, or money, or the respectability of a title. I don’t even know who my mother was. And now your shenanigans has tainted my name with treason! Seriously, bro, WTF? Gads, and I thought was the bastard in this family…

William: Thou art a varlet and a knave, unworthy of all but cleaning the chamberpot! Get thee from my sight. I’ve no need of thy presence and thy filthy blood.

Thomas: That’s just fine by me, Billy. From now on, you can clean your own crap! Good luck with that, yer lordship.

Soon after, Thomas (who was a Protestant) was serving under the new guy the king was promoting in the North West, Wharton, to counterbalance the powerful and Catholic Lord William Dacre. Thomas’s skills in border warfare was recognized after he made a stellar performance in the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542. He was knighted, and granted the Lanercost Priory estate, becoming known as “Sir Thomas Dacre of Lanercost.” He made improvements and converted part of the priory into a respectable country house that he called Dacre Hall. It was practically next door to his half brother Lord Dacre, who lived at Naworth Castle.

Dacre Tower, Lanercost Priory

Dacre Tower, Lanercost Priory

Maybe it was all part of Henry VIII’s plan to use the Dacre family’s issues to his advantage, but now we know he managed to have two different men competing for favors in the problematic border area, instead of being reliant on just the one man. I was hoping for a Hollywood ending where the family reunites or Sir Thomas becomes wealthier than his half-brother, but life rarely has happy endings. In some situations there isn’t even any ending at all, and many people around the world are desperate for closure or someone to tell them it wasn’t their fault. Sir Thomas married 3 times, all to women from the local gentry, and had 3 children plus 1 illegitimate son.

He was able to gain independence from the Dacre baron, but never gained enough money or influence to escape the family’s scorn, and Sir Thomas’s sons were often harrassed/bullied in court. Especially after the Dacres married into the Howard family (through the Duke of Norfolk’s sons in a Brady Bunch kind of way) and eventually gained the earldom of Carlisle. The rift was never mended, but Sir Thomas, the previous barons Dacre, and many Howard Earls of Carlisle are all buried in Lanercost, so at least in death there is equal treatment, the past is buried and there’s no obvious signs of discord.

The priory passed on to public ownership in 1929, giving people a discreet access to unlimited supply of condiments.


St. Michael’s Mount

It could have been a dragon’s lair. At the very least, it should have been the headquarters of a company owned by an evil gazillionaire genius who tries to avoid dealing with his daddy issues by screwing with the world.


St. Michael’s Mount, Low Tide.

St. Michael's Mount, High Tide

St. Michael’s Mount, High Tide

But this was Cornwall, so the legend surrounding this castle/priory/country home situated on a tidal island off the town of Marazion, needed to threaten elements close to the Cornish heart, if the story were to have any impact on the population.

When I found out that the resident mythical being preying on the village’s sheep was a giant, I admit to being a little disappointed. Dragons and evil geniuses meant dramatic fight scenes and maybe a heart-wrenching back story, but a mutton-loving giant called Cormaron? It couldn’t have been more trite if the hero was called David. Unless he was called Jack. And he was. Considering the pattern of stories involving giants and boys named Jack, Cormaron didn’t stand a chance.

Sure enough, the poor sod was dead two paragraphs into the story, when he fell into a pit that Jack was able to dig without waking him up. Perhaps Jack had a magic shovel instead of beans, but we just don’t know and there’s no explanation why no one thought of digging up a pit before, and it’s even more impossible to find someone who cares to find out. Considering that the brilliant writer/journalist Edward St. Aubyn is part of the family that still lives in this National Trust-managed property, I somehow expected a more captivating tale than the half-baked one about Jack the Giant Killer.


The buildings date back to the 12th Century, making me wish for a conical head dress.

St. Michael’s Mount was occupied by Perkin Warbeck  in 1497, and owned by Sir Robert Cecil during Elizabeth I’s reign. It was where the first beacon to warn of the Spanish Armada’s approach in 1588 was lit, but since all that achieved was give Sir Francis Drake enough time to finish his game of bowls, it’s not really enough of a history highlight to take the focus away from the screwed up St. Aubyn family, who have owned and occupied it since 1659.

Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn
(Has Daddy Issues)

Another Edward St. Aubyn (1799-1872) was a “Sir” in the nineteenth century, and is the ancestor of the Barons St. Levan of St. Michael’s Mount.  Although Sir Edward wasn’t repeatedly raped by his father or became a heroin addict like his journalist/writer descendant,  he did become a baronet in his own right because he was illegitimate and couldn’t inherit his father’s title.

Sir Edward’s father, Sir John (5th and last Baronet St. Aubyn of the first creation), is one of the most distinguished members of the St. Aubyn family. He had a keen interest in science and the arts. Having ascended to the title by the age of 14, he served as High Sheriff of Cornwall at age 23. He was a well-known fossil collector and constant patron of the painter John Opie. Sir John was a fellow of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, Society of Antiquarians, the Geological Society of London, the Society of Arts, was a Member of Parliament and a Grandmaster of the Freemasons.

He was smart, rich and cloaked with a sensitive aura evidenced by his appreciation of the arts and his eclectic taste in women. He had 13 (acknowledged) illegitimate children from the two women he lived with (5 children born to a woman from an old, respected Cornish family named Martha and the others–including Sir Edward–were from the woman Sir John eventually married in 1822, who was a blacksmith’s daughter named Juliana). He died without a legitimate heir, since the only child (his 14th kid) who was born after his marriage in 1822 was a girl. Considering that this was only 6 years before Sir Edward’s own marriage and Sir John was 63 and his wife 53 at the time, this was no mean feat.

It’s quite impressive, actually, but also confusing. What would have been the point of marriage at that late date?  If he intended to marry her all along, why didn’t he do it sooner so that his children could inherit without problems? Was he just unconventional or was he a brilliant but self-indulgent arse? Strangely enough, it’s the same questions people ask about the journalist/writer Edward St. Aubyn.

Sir John St. Aubyn, 5th Baronet 1758-1839

Sir John St. Aubyn, 5th Baronet

Maybe the giant Cormaron had it easy, after all, with his simple pleasure of feeding on sheep. Freed from the worries of poverty and survival, the St. Aubyns seemed to start worrying about everything else, heaping problems upon problems on each others’ lives. Having too many options can be just as daunting as having none at all. St. Michael’s Mount is a beautiful property, but I guess growing up in a place like that, with the remains of ancestors’ lives and expectations in every corner, makes it difficult for a person to appreciate the magnificent coastal view that it offers. Instead of waking up everyday grateful for the inspiring sight of the ocean, you see nothing but the glare from the crashing waves that surround you.

Still, you’d be able to have anything you want for breakfast. Anything at all–it’s your stomach, just be brave enough to make a decision and stand by it.



Lichfield Cathedral

The problem with pointing out that Lichfield Cathedral is unique because it’s the only medieval cathedral with three spires, is that no one seems to know the answer to the follow up question of WHY.

"3 is a magic number. No more, no less. You don't have to guess..."

“3 is a magic number.”

Perhaps it’s because this is the third church to be built on this site.A Norman church was built on the same site in 1085, replacing the wooden Saxon one and in 1195 construction of the present church began.

But three is also a crowd, and like a crowd, the history of Lichfield Cathedral is full of rabble. There were three significant “rabbles” concerning the cathedral and the state. The first of which happened at the Council of Chelsea in 787 AD, often referred to as the “Contentious Synod” because King Offa of Mercia proposed that the Archbishop of Canterbury share powers with the new Archbishop of Lichfield. The proposal was vehemently opposed and although the king got his wish the Archbishopric of Lichfield was dissolved upon his death, presumably because he couldn’t pay the promised annual shipment of gold to the pope any more.

St. Chad’s bones are interred in the Saxon church beneath the present building, so Lichfield became a site of pilgrimage until the Reformation but it wasn’t until the Civil Wars that there would be another major “rabble” concerning the church. Most of the townsfolk were Parliamentarian, the fortified church was Royalist and during this time (1643-46) there were three great sieges of Lichfield. Robert Grenville, 2nd Baron Brooke, led an assault on the fortress on behalf of the Parliamentarians but was killed by a deflected bullet from John Dyott, who was up on the battlements of the central cathedral spire. It is one of the earliest recorded incident of death from a sniper.

With Brooke down, his loyal deputy Sir John Snell had to step up and take over the siege. If this were a Hollywood movie, this would be the point where the hero’s had enough. There would be a heartbeat of silence as Brooke falls in slow motion, followed by a roar of murderous rage that almost drowns out the sound of fire power exploding everywhere. The camera would focus on Snell’s fierce yet undeniably attractive face. Muscles straining, he runs towards the cathedral to avenge his friend. Somehow, he remains unscathed while ineptly shot bullets whiz past him as he saves the day and gets the girl. And she’ll be a thin girl, too. At some point, Celine Dion starts singing because she ALWAYS sings at the end of a film. No one notices as you leave the theatre and go back to your uneventful life, and you just know you will die alone alone alone.

But wait… the guy is named Snell. No self-respecting hero will be called Snell. And this guy was no hero–he was notorious for his tyranny and arrogance. Plus, he profited from the Ship Money collected under Charles I, and married the widow of some dude he harassed to demand payment. If that’s not bad enough, he also did it while looking like this:

Sir John Snell (1593-1671).

Sir John Snell (1593-1671)

The Royalist forces surrendered two days later, and though it was retaken by Prince Rupert of the Rhine in the same year, the real loser was the cathedral. It suffered extensive damage–all the stained glass windows were smashed, the roof was ruined and the central spire was demolished so it could be used as a metaphor for the collapse of a heretofore unchallenged notion called the “divine right of kings.” The Royalty may have been restored with Charles II, but the “natural order” has changed and power had irrevocably shifted to Parliament.

Following the Restoration, the cathedral began the process of refurbishment, made possible by funds donated by the monarch, but anyone who’s had their house refurbished knows it’s a slow and never ending process. In the 18th century, while Lichfield was going through a “golden age,” the cathedral was in decay. It wasn’t fully repaired until the 19th century, when James Wyatt, the same architect who worked on Westminster Abbey and gained the sobriquet “The Destroyer,” was hired. He arranged for some major structural work to be done, and this prompted a final rabble.

Church Interior

Church Interior

Screen by Wyatt

Screen by Wyatt

Wyatt’s work on the cathedral was heavily criticized, most notably by John Carter in Pursuits of Architectural Innovation. Original features were covered by Roman cement and the 15th century library was pulled down. No one liked it, so eventually it was restored to its former grandeur by George Gilbert Scott who had a more sensitive approach to renovation.

Thanks to Scott, original features from the medieval period (including the tombs of ancient Saxon kings) remain today, and the cathedral looks pretty much the way it did in the days when Anna Seward, Erasmus Darwin and Lichfield’s favorite son, Dr. Samuel Johnson, attended sermons in the cathedral hall when he wasn’t busy working on his famous dictionary. They didn’t know why the cathedral had three spires either, but there have been no major rabbles from the crowd since.


St. Conan’s Kirk

It just suddenly appeared. There we were, driving on the A85 and looking forward to seeing the town called Oban, when this church demanded our attention. It was free to look around, so we did just that knowing we’d be spending nothing more than our time.
Time is gold.

Time is gold.

For the most part, St. Conan’s Kirk is all about appearance. It looked ancient, so one assumes that from its enviable location in Loch Awe, this pile of stones would have witnessed more than a millennium of bloody battles between Highland clans consumed by their burning vengeance. It was probably built by someone called Lachlan or Cormag or some equally tough, Gaelic warrior-sounding name. Never would I have imagined the guy would be some Victorian called Walter. And he built the church for his mother.
Made for Momma

Made for Momma

So, Walt (as I imagine his mom called him) was probably one of the Campbells from Argyll, headed by the Duke. Or one of the Campbells who loved canning their soup.  Being a member of either family would have given him enough resources to build this here church so his mother could appear devout without having to bother to travel very far like some pilgrim when she was mother not only to Walter but to the First Lord Blythswood.

Now, far be it for me to speculate on old Walter’s relationship with his Mama, but somehow I get the feeling she was quite difficult to impress. The project started with Walter, but soon it also involved his sister Helen. Work began in 1881 and the original church was finished by 1886. Its present form, however, was “dedicated for worship as recently as 1930. ” That information was gleaned from the guidebook discreetly available just beyond the church’s doors for 70p.

It looked like this inside.

It looked like this inside.

Nice job, Walt.

Nice job, Walt.

I assume Walter worked on the kirk long after his Mama was gone, so he really must have wanted to prove to her that he was more than just a younger son destined not to become Lord Blythswood. And how come his brother got all the attention when Walt was a brilliant architect knowledgeable in the Romanesque and Norman styles that he employed with the construction of this building which, he probably would have relished pointing out, had not only a Cloister Garth just for the heck of it but also an ossuary with some bones belonging to Robert the Bruce.

That's KING Robert the Bruce, mom!

That’s KING Robert the Bruce, mom!

By the way, that window there behind Robert the Bruce’s effigy was the original window of St. Mary’s Church (circa 1483). That church was demolished in 1836 and the window was rescued from certain “death by rotting in an Edinburgh garden” by our sentimental Walter. I’d like to see your other son do something like that, Mrs. Campbell.

So, no. Walter was not a lord. But he was talented and dedicated and to be honest, “Blythswood” sounds like a made-up name anyhow. After Walter’s death in 1914, his sister Helen continued the work according to Walter’s plans. Says something about our guy if he had such a devoted sister. I keep asking myself if I would do the same thing for my brother… I’ll keep asking until I don’t feel bad about my answer any more.

Then again, said devotion might altogether be about something else. It certainly provided Helen with an outlet to showcase her own considerable talents during a time when ladies weren’t supposed to have any beyond the ability of bearing an heir. St. Conan’s Kirk is no doubt a beautiful building that would provide the perfect backdrop to a wedding where the bride is supposed to look like a princess. The building certainly looks ancient enough to provide an illusion of reality to any bride’s royal wedding fantasy.

Cynical, I know, but the Victorians were notorious for keeping up appearances and I’m inclined to think Walter’s family was not above this. Mrs. Campbell wanted to appear devout, so her son built her a church to show his affection but this labor of love ended up being more about himself than anything.  Helen might have wanted to honor her brother’s memory (what kind of sister wouldn’t?), but she chose to do it in a way that would prove her own remarkable skills and employ locals for years and years. Actually,  I wouldn’t be surprised if she did it all for the gargoyle bunnies.

I might have done it for the gargoyles.

I probably would have, as well. Those bunnies are adorable.


Martin, J.C., Saint Conan’s Kirk Loch Awe Guidebook, House of Letterawe, 1954.