An artist’s impression showing how the Priory might have looked in about 1300
St Bees Priory has been a centre of Christian worship for over a thousand years. What first drew people to the church site no one knows. According to medieval legend, a holy Irish girl called Bega fled from the prospect of a forced marriage to a Viking chieftain, sailed single-handedly across the Irish Sea, landed at St Bees, and lived here as a hermit most likely around 850AD. Within the next two hundred years, Norse-speaking settlers were calling the place Kirkeby Begoc, which means settlement by the church of Bega.
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).
You enter the church through the west door, which is decorated with zigzag ornaments and grotesque blockheads from around 1160. Inside, the pillars of the nave are from that period, but with arches from a later date. It is believed structural problems caused the arches to be rebuilt later; however, the leaning pillars were retained.
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, th
e 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, now known as Old College Hall, is now used by the parish and was restored in 2012.
On the right is an etching of the Priory as it looked in 1739. Above is a view of Old College Hall with the Priory tower behind.