Lanercost was founded roughly in 1169 by a 12th century nobleman, Robert de Vaux, who later became the Sheriff of Cumberland. Robert’s family had been granted a barony on the border with Scotland, as reward for their part in the Norman Conquest, but the area had only come under English rule in 1157. According to English Heritage, the founding of a priory was a symbol of Robert’s permanence in the area and of his wealth, as well as an act of piety. He gave the priory considerable lands and the living from churches nearby, and allowed the canons the freedom to elect their own prior. Much of the work on the priory is from the late 13th century, using stones taken from Hadrian’s Wall—as evidenced by the fact that you can still see Roman inscriptions on some of the stones.
Lanercost greatest claim to fame is the role it played in the wars of Edward I between England and Scotland. In 1296, the Scots occupied its lands, but Edward took them back and himself visited the priory multiple times. The final time was in 1306, when he was very ill. He and his men stayed for six months, nearly bankrupting the monks. Edward did eventually make some amends by giving them the appropriation of two other churches.
Edward died in 1307, after which, in 1311, Robert Bruce came to stay, though he is accused of “committing infinite evils” and imprisoning some canons. Robert had already killed his rival John Comyn in a church, so few English churchmen were kindly disposed to him at that point anyway. However, in 1328, it was near Lanercost that the peace was agreed to between Robert Bruce and Edward III. Things went bad again with Robert’s son David, who in 1346, ransacked some of the buildings and desecrated the church. Fresh from the overthrow of Liddel he “entered the holy place with haughtiness, threw out the vessels of the temple, stole the treasures, broke the doors, took the jewels, and destroyed everything they could lay hands on”. As late as 1386, one of the priors was taken prisoner by the Scots and ransomed for a fixed sum of money and four score quarters of corn.
As with all the monasteries in England, the Reformation brought ruin. Still, much remains today of the original church. The oldest masonry is in the south transept, and dates from the late 12th century. The cloister and monastic buildings have been largely dismantled, except for the west range. There’s also a statue of Mary Magdeline, given to the church by Edward I, located high up in a niche on the west front.
Ironically, although the ancestors of Robert de Vaux, the original founder, received their lands as part of their reward for fighting with William in his conquest of England, Robert himself was required to pay a fine to Henry II for not participating in his conquest of Ireland—and it’s that, and the establishment of Norman Christianity there, we’ll be talking about next week.