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Cistercian Abbeys: HOLMCULTRAM

Name: HOLMCULTRAM Location: Abbey Town, nr Carlisle County: Cumbria
Foundation: 1150 Mother house: Melrose
Relocation: None Founder: Prince Henry of Scotland
Dissolution: March 1538 Prominent members:
Access: Accessible to the public

Holmcultram nave looking east
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
Holmcultram nave looking east

Holmcultram Abbey was founded in 1150 by Prince Henry, son of David I King of Scotland. Prince Henry ruled over the province in the north of England called Cumberland, which had been ceded to Scotland by King Stephen (1135-54). Holmcultram was intended as an affiliation of King David’s own foundation of Melrose, and the first monks were thus brought from this abbey. Holmcultrum did not remain a purely Scottish institution: it had friends and benefactors on both sides of the border and King Henry II of England extended his protection to it after he re-established his authority over this area in 1157.(1) Holmcultrum was the richest and most influential of the religious houses in Cumberland and Westmoreland, yet its proximity to the border meant that the house also suffered greatly during the years of hostility between Scotland and England.(2) Great damage was inflicted upon the abbey during the Scottish attack of 1319 and for a while the monks had to find shelter in neighbouring religious houses. Having endured Scottish attacks for many years it comes as no surprise that in 1428 the house was reported to have been in a state of disrepair. The pope offered indulgences for anyone willing to contribute to the reparations but the house was still under reconstruction fifty years later.

Despite its troubles, the house was favoured by many of its aristocratic contemporaries. The abbey was one of the Cumbrian houses at which Edward stayed during his expeditions against Scotland. He was known to have been there during the campaign of 1299, and was also staying at the abbey the day he died on 6 July 1307. His entrails are said to have been deposited at the abbey while his body was carried to Westminster for entombment.(3) Many men of position and influence bequeathed their bodies to be buried within the abbey precinct; of particular importance were Christian, bishop of Candida Casa or Whithern, and the father of Robert the Bruce. The house also occupied a pre-eminent position amongst the religious houses of England: the abbot of Holcultram was summoned to parliament and to the great councils of state between 1294 and 1312; the abbot was also selected to pray for the souls of Edmund, earl of Cornwall (1296) and for Joan, queen of France (1305).(4) The value of the house in 1535 was assessed at £477, and despite all its problems there were still twenty-four monks at the time of the Dissolution (March, 1538).(5) Following the Dissolution the local people petitioned Thomas Cromwell for the use of the church, which they were duly granted. Unfortunately, the church does not seem to have been kept in good repair and in the sixteenth century the tower fell. Further damage was caused by a fire which broke out during the repair work. In 1724 a Trust was set up to ensure that the parts of the church still used for worship were restored to a good state.(6) The western parts of the nave remain in use as the parish church of Abbey Town.(7) The church is normally accessible to the public.