Calder Abbey – or a false start

DSCN3786-2In 1135 twelve monks and a newly minted abbot called Gerold left Furness Abbey to found a daughter house at Calder near Egremont.  The land had been donated by Ranulf Meschin but he doesn’t appear to have endowed the new abbey with an estate sufficient to thrive.  Even more unfortunately for the Savignac monks of the newly founded Calder Abbey, England was just about to erupt into civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda.

King Henry I had twenty-two children of whom twenty were illegitimate.  He had only one legitimate son and he drowned when the White Ship sank in 1120.  Henry made the leading barons swear to accept his daughter Matilda as their queen but they had their fingers crossed. As soon as Henry departed this life Matilda’s cousin Stephen of Blois snaffled the crown.  The next nineteen years when ‘Christ and his apostles slept’ were not a good time to be founding anything far less an abbey a stone’s throw from the Scottish border.  The Scots sensing that the English might be distracted took the opportunity to invade most of Cumberland and claim it for themselves.  This seems to have involved burning large chunks of it to the ground.

Within three years of its foundation, thanks to Scottish raids,  Calder Abbey was on its knees.  The twelve monks and their abbot set off back to Furness.  Now, this is where accounts differ.  In the first version of the story Gerold rather liked being an abbot and refused to stop being one even though he didn’t have an abbey anymore.  In the second version Furness Abbey had founded a daughter house (Calder Abbey)  to rid itself of a little band of trouble makers. It had no intention of letting them back in again even if the Scots had burned their home.

Whatever the truth, Gerold and his twelve footsore monks set off on their travels once more.  Their intent was to go to York and present their case to Archbishop Thurston.  However, on arrival at Thirsk they met the mother of Roger Mowbray who suggested a nice location at Hood where another relation of hers was busy being a hermit (perhaps she hadn’t spotted the fact that hermits like being on their own and that thirteen additions would rather ruin the solitude).

The monks settled down in their new Yorkshire home but as they hadn’t been made to feel very welcome by their brothers back in Cumberland they decided that they wanted to free themselves from the jurisdiction of Furness.  This happened in 1142 but not before Gerold had made a trip to the Savignac head office at Savigny to present his case.

Hood proved to be an unsuitable location for a monastery so in 1143 the brothers moved again, this time to Byland.  Unfortunately they failed to notice that Rievaulx Abbey was right on the doorstep.  The two abbeys were so close that they could hear each other’s bells which would not have been a problem had they been keeping to the same schedule but unfortunately they weren’t.  The refugees from Calder were forced to move for a third time and on this occasion the monastic community we know as Byland Abbey thrived.

The abbey at Furness and later the abbey at Calder continued to try to claim superiority over the monks of Byland despite the fact that Gerold had been released from his allegiance to Furness and that Calder Abbey hadn’t really existed until 1143 when Furness Abbey made a second attempt at building a daughter house on the land given to them by Ranulf Meschin.

(The picture is of Byland Abbey.  Calder Abbey is not currently open to the public.)



William le Meschin

shiled ringRanulf le Meschin, Earl of Chester and his brother William le Meschin were the sons of Ranulf de Briquessart and Matilda. Meschin simply means ‘younger’ so Ranulf the Younger was used to identify the son from the father. William ended up with the same name because he was very much his brother’s man.

Ranulf was given much of Cumberland by William the Conqueror. Cumberland was then divided into eleven baronies in an attempt to control the region. The Cumbrians took to their Lakeland hills and fought a guerrilla war against their invaders.  This meant that the Normans could, initially at least, only secure the coastal and less mountainous regions.  Rosemary Sutcliffe’s excellent  book entitled The Shield Ring explores the history of the region and the role of Ranulf – she was not his greatest fan. There’s also a book entitled The Secret Valley which covers the same period and the battle of Rannerdale. The Scots took advantage of the ensuing difficulties  to extend their boundaries south.  It was no sinecure when Ranulf gave William the baronies of Copeland and Gilsland.  The latter meant he was responsible for guarding the northern approaches to Carlisle.  It proved a task too far.   He built a castle at Egremont but lost Gilsland. He was compensated for the loss of Gilsland by Henry I with land in Allerdale. He also acquired land through his wife Cecily de Rumilly, Lady of Skipton.


As William acquired land he also founded religious houses including St Bee’s Priory in 1120 which was a daughter house of St Mary’s in York. It was founded after the sinking of the White Ship that saw Henry I’s only legitimate son drown on a journey between Normandy and England. Richard, Earl of Chester -William’s cousin- died in the same disaster. The charter for St Bees prays for the souls of the drowned men.  In part he was demonstrating his religious belief and buying ‘time out’ from purgatory but he was also showing support for foundations who enjoyed the patronage of kings.   Thurstan, who was the Archbishop of York would have welcomed an alliance with a strong northern magnate such as le Meschin so perhaps it is not surprising that he came in person to bless St Bees.


In addition to giving land and funding buildings William went on the First Crusade and was at the Siege of Nicaea.


William: soldier, invader, crusader, castle builder, monastery endower- call him what you will,  died sometime between 1130 and 1135. He left a son called Ranulf but he died shortly after his father leaving the great estates that le Meschin had built to be divided between William’s three daughters.