A few months ago a reader wrote to me - a Mr. Peter Douglas. He had enjoyed my novels about William Marshal - The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion, particularly so because he is a Server and choir member at William's foundation of Cartmel Priory in Cumbria. Mr Douglas has been kind enough to send me a guide book and postcards relating to the Priory and I thought this was a good opportunity to write a blog about it in William's day and to say a public thank you to Mr Douglas for sending me information about the Priory.
Cartmel Priory stands in the Cartmel valley, not far from Grange Over Sands and just round the corner from the modern resort of Morecambe. Click here for a map of the region. http://tinyurl.com/25dtdl
William was granted the land on which Cartmel is built by Henry II in approximately 1186, and the plans for founding a priory probably got off the ground around that time. At this period, William was newly returned from the Holy Land and had been granted lands in the north of England. He was also granted the wardship of an heiress - Heloise of Kendal, and it may even be that Henry II expected William to marry her. However, William had grander prospects in mind and in 1189, following Henry's death, Richard Coeur de Lion rewarded William's service with the hand of Isabelle de Clare, one of the greatest heiresses in the land.
Her wealth gave William sufficient funds to begin work on Cartmel in earnest.
It was an Augustinian Priory and when it first started, its community was formed from monks at the Priory of Bradenstoke in Wiltshire. William's parents and other relatives were buried at Bradenstoke and his family had strong ties with the place, so it was an ideal source from which to draw the first brethren.
The foundation charter dates to 1189. We don't know where it was signed, but we do know that it was executed in a public assembly and quite likely a palace because of the presence among the witnesses of Geoffrey FitzPeter, the King's right hand man. Richard himself wasn't present, but his brother John, as lord of Lancaster was, and so were all of William's closest relatives and the senior knights of his household.
William declared that he had founded Cartmel 'for the widening of the field of the Holy Religeon' and 'for the soul of the lord King Henry II, and for the soul of the Young King Henry my lord, and for the soul of King Richard; for my soul and soul of my wife Isabel, and those of my ancestors and successors and our heirs.'
Although the monks were drawn from Bradenstoke, Cartmel was to be completely independent of the other house. It was William's alone - his personal concern. It was always to remain a priory and was never to become an abbey, because that would have meant the king would be able to interfere with the advocacy. William was the priory's patron and to him would fall the formal right of choosing the prior, in consultation with two canons sent to him by the priory's chapter.
When William wrote his foundation charter for Cartmel he was very concerned with the future security of his project. As well as insisting it remain a priory and thus keeping the advocacy secured to him and his family, he also made sure that it was protected by a curse upon anyone who messed with Cartmel or intended it harm. Professor Crouch, author of William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147-1219, is of the opinion that William was being doggedly traditional in writing this curse into the foundation charter (as he also did for his foundation at Duiske in Ireland). Apparently it was becoming a bit old fashioned by his day to do this. However, knowing William as I do, I suspect he had seen or heard about what had happened to various religeous establishments during the civil War between Stephen and Matilda (Wherwell and Wilton come immediately to mind). I also think that he himself had been involved in the robbery of churches and shrines with his own lord The Young King. (Our Lady of Rocamadour for example) and it is my own belief that the curse was born of those experiences and intended to warn off any such behaviour upon his own establishments.
In later years, although Cartmel did undergo some ravages due to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII, it was saved from the fate of so many other establishments because it had been not only a monastery, but also a Parish church since its inception. The latter were unaffected by the Dissolution and thus Cartmel was permitted to remain in situ.
The Priory church of St Mary and St Michael at Cartmel has been a place of worship now for more than 800 years and continues today and very actively so as can be seen from the church's website. http://www.cartmelpriory.org.uk/index.htm I haven't gone into the later history of the church here, but the website has more details and I certainly hope to make my own visit there soon.