Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Gilbertines of Ravenstonedale


St Oswald’s Church in Ravenstonedale is a gem in a beautiful setting.  The Georgian church seems hardly changed since the eighteenth century.  The Georgian three-decker pulpit  is certainly eye catching but there has been worship on this site since Saxon times and it was once home to the Gilbertines.

The Gilbertines, founded in 1131, are the only English order.  Their rule is based on the Cistercians with their life of poverty and work. What makes them even more unusual is the fact that the Gilbertines were a mixed order. One of their prime rules was the line from the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Lead us not into temptation’. Monks and nuns lived side by side in a mixed community.  The order originated in Sempringham in Lincolnshire under the strict rule of Gilbert.  Although the order was mixed, the nuns and monks were rigidly segregated.

By the time of the Reformation there were twenty-five Gilbertine houses in England – including one at Malton and Watton in Yorkshire as well as Ravenstonedale.  Interestingly a lower age limit was set before men and women could take full orders.  Lay brothers  professed at twenty-four while lay sisters were allowed to take orders when they reached twenty.  Of course, as with every religious order there is scandal – take the story of the pregnant nun of Watton for instance.  More of that in another post.  Incidentally, the Gilbertines of Ravenstondale had their roots in Watton.  The manor of Ravenstonedale was granted to them in about 1200.

Ravenstonedale was never independent of Watton but the canons would have had a fish pond and possibly some rabbit warrens for self-sufficiency.

On a tranquil summer’s evening in June these days, it’s possible to surprise the rabbits scampering about the Gilbertine ruins which were excavated in 1929.

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Kirkby Stephen

DSC_0020At Kirkby Stephen I am hard on the trail of Sir Andrew de Harcla, First Earl of Carlisle – hero and traitor.  I’ve posted elsewhere about his treaty with Robert Bruce that left Edward II so enraged that he had Sir Andrew arrested, stripped of his titles and sent to a traitor’s death on Harraby Hill in 1325 despite the fact that Edward owed his crown to Sir Andrew.  Various bits of Sir Andrew’s anatomy were nailed to various city gates but eventually his sister was allowed to gather his remains together and bury him near his childhood home- Hartley Castle- which is just down the road from Kirkby Stephen.

Hartley Castle lies beneath the Eighteenth/Nineteenth Century house that stands on the castle’s outer court.  On Sir Andrew’s death all his property was forfeit to the crown.  It passed from Harcla or Hartley hands into those of Ralph Neville of Raby.  He sold it on to Thomas de Musgrave. The stones from Hartley Castle were used by the Musgraves to build a manor house at Edenhall.

There are two memorials to the Musgraves in Kirkby Stephen Church and until I read the notes in the church I assumed the knightly effigy in the Hartley Chapel belonged to Sir Andrew.  It turns out that the knightly chap is Sir Richard de Musgrave- a good century later than the earl (note to self revisit medieval costume)- while the humble red sandstone slab next to the altar belongs to Sir Andrew.  It makes sense because this is, after all, the position with most honour attached to it.

The church really is well worth a visit. The Norman church stands on the site of an earlier Saxon church.  This in itself sums up Kirkby Stephen.  It’s knee-deep in history  going back to the Stone Age and Bronze Age.  But back to the church.  You enter the church precincts through a cloistered area built in 1810.  Once inside the church, known as ‘the Cathedral of the Dales,’ as well as the mellow smell of wax and polish there’s plenty of evidence of generations of worshippers.  There’re eighteenth century shelves for bread to be given as alms to the poor.

And a Loki stone.  There are only two Loki stones in the whole of Europe and one of them is in Kirkby Stephen.  Loki was the Norse god of mischief.  The other Norse gods chained him up because he was a very naughty god…or words to that effect.  Kirkby Stephen’s Loki stone has been Christianised as he comes from the shaft of a tenth century Anglo-Danish cross shaft.  Loki has been transformed into the devil in chains.

After all that excitement it was time to brave the rain once again and go in search of tea and scones – all of which, I think you will find, are essential to most acts of historical research.

The sun had come out by the time we’d had a nice cup of tea and I was able to explore the town.  It was once on the borders and the inhabitants built it so that the streets were deliberately narrow.  They’ve been widened but it is easy to see how the people of Kirkby Stephen set about protecting themselves from the Scots.

There  was also a fascinating leaflet in the tourist information office about Kirkby Stephen’s secret tunnels.  One of the suggestions made is that there is a tunnel leading to Hartley Castle as part of the defences against the aforementioned Scots- having said that the leaflet also suggests tax avoidance, plague tombs and links with Pendragon Castle which is just down the road.  And yes, Pendragon Castle does have links with King Arthur.  He gets everywhere.

On a more historically viable basis I discovered that Kirkby Stephen was heavily involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536/7 which was the North’s response to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.  James I managed to irritate the citizens of the town when he tried to confiscate some of their land and perhaps unsurprisingly in the light of the previous two facts the town supported Parliament during the English Civil War.  They even managed to get themselves involved with a plot against Charles II in 1663.  The Kaber Rigg Plot failed and its leaders were hung in Appleby.  Who would have thought that such a tranquil little place could have so much fascinating history?


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Filed under Anglo-Scottish history, Border Reivers, Kings of England, Legends

Wakefield Cathedral

wakefield cathedralUntil 1888 the cathedral was a parish church.  At 247 ft, it also has Yorkshire’s tallest church spire which is a marked improvement on the first tower which collapsed in 1320.  It’s a building that has seen change, redevelopment and neglect in its time and lets not forget the plague and the Wars of the Roses.  The Vicar of Wakefield died of the plague in 1349 and the Battle of Wakefield occurring in December 1460 saw the death of Richard, Duke of York along with his second son Edmund Earl of Rutland.  The twelve-year-old lad having pleaded in vain for his life was killed by Lord Clifford on Wakefield’s Bridge in vengeance for the death of Clifford’s father at the First Battle of St Albans.

My favourite part of the cathedral is the quire where the fifteenth century choir stalls are housed.  The carvings range from an owl to a green man. The owl is the emblem of the Savile family and it was placed here when Thomas Savile commissioned the stalls in celebration of his marriage to Margaret Bosworth in 1482.  The green man is more problematic.  The motif first appeared in England in the twelfth century in the form we recognise him today with foliage and tendrils of hawthorn or oak sprouting from his mouth.  However, it was a common motif in Europe before this period and has its roots in a pagan past.   It was replicated down the centuries and as well as the medieval example there are some clean cut Victorian interpretations on display. Other carvings on the misericords – the hinged seats on the stalls to ease tired legs during long church services – include a Victorian pelican which symbolises charity and a cheeky medieval acrobat showing us his bottom although decorum is maintained as a leaf covers his dignity.

It’s odd to think that many of these carvings were made at a time when England was in the throes of a bloody civil war.  Perhaps it was with some relief that the craftsman who created the misericord depicting the tudor rose completed his work.owl

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Filed under Cathedrals, Fifteenth Century, Wars of the Roses

The Tower of London and its Ravens

I learned about the Tower of London ravens as a small child.  Should they ever leave the Tower something terrible would befall the nation.  I’ve always wanted to see them and this week I had my chance.  Even better the sun shone.  On my return home I dug out my London Lore by Steve Roud – an excellent book I might add- and got ready to research this blog post.  To my horror I discovered that the ‘fact’ that I’ve known for as long as I’ve known about the Tower is in actual fact a tall story put around by the Victorians.  I don’t suppose I should grumble too much .  They did considerable restoration work on the tower and launched it as a tourist attraction.

So – I thought they’d been in residence for the last nine hundred or so years.  Certainly, that’s what the nice Beefeater, sorry – Yeoman of the Guard- told the group of assorted tourists during his very entertaining talk. Roud, by contrast, reveals that it may have been Charles II who handed the first pair over into the care of the yeoman raven master but that it is more than likely that there were no ravens in the tower prior to the nineteenth century.

Despite this rather disappointing discovery, a half hour watching a raven who knows how important he- or possibly she- is can only be described as a joy.  This one, having dissected a privet hedge and strutted his- or her- stuff for an admiring audience lavished time and care on a bath in the sunshine.




Roud, Steven. (2008).  London Lore. London:Random House


Filed under Legends