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.

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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.

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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.

References:

http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=39956

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/lanercost-priory

http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/ThomasDacreLanercost.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanercost_Priory

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Dacre,_3rd_Baron_Dacre

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