History of the Priory
An artist’s impression showing how the Priory might have looked in about 1300
Nothing survives of this early church building, but there are two shafts of crosses from the Viking period – one in the north churchyard, the other in the Priory history display area.
When the Normans took over the lordship of the land, William le Meschin, lord of Egremont, founded a small monastery on the existing religious site at St Bees, staffed from the great Benedictine house of St Mary at York. The monks rebuilt the existing church.
Outside the Priory, opposite the west door, is a lintel from around 1120, possibly from the first Norman church, showing St Michael fighting a dragon (below).
The monastery was closed on the orders of Henry VIII in 1539. The Priory, now rather large for the needs of St Bees, went back to being just a parish church. The medieval chancel at the east end was abandoned and walled off, leaving the nave and tower for parish worship. Although there was a considerable repair of the building in 1611, the church had to wait for the increasing prosperity of the nineteenth century for major renovation, and much of what you will see inside is of that period.
The architect, William Butterfield, was responsible for: the steeply pitched new roofs (1870); the reconstructed aisles and chancel (1867-1899); the ornamental iron screen (1886). Father Henry Willis built the organ in 1899, his last major commission and one of the best examples of the work work of this master Victorian organ-builder. The organ case was dedicated in 1908 and the choir stalls in 1936.
Outside, nothing survives of the monks’ living quarters, which were on the south side of the church. However, at the east end of the church (nearest the road), the chancel remains. It was re-roofed in 1817 and brought back into use as the library and lecture hall of a small theological college: the first successful training college for Anglican clergy outside the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The college was closed in 1895. The building is now used by the parish and was restored in 2012.
Original text by John Todd with additions by Chris Robson, Doug Sim and Bob Jopling.
Text edited for website by Kelvin M. Knight.