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The Benedictine influence in and around Whitehaven
By Joseph Ritson


Benedictine monks have a long tradition of involvement in the life of West Cumberland, particularly at St Bees and Whitehaven. The Benedictines first arrived at St Bees following the expansion of Norman rule and the establishment of a Priory. Their direct involvement in the area would survive for about 400 years until the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII.

This was not the end of the Benedictine interest in West Cumberland, however. It was the Benedictines who, in 1706, eventually re-established a base at Whitehaven to serve the growing Catholic communities of West Cumberland and the Isle of Man. The many Catholic parishes of the area can trace their origins to this long line of Benedictine influence, including the parish of St Benedict's, Mirehouse whose Patron Saint is Benedict - the founder of the Benedictine Order.

St Begh - the Apostle of Cumberland

At the time of the Norman Conquest of England (1066) the area in and around Whitehaven, and all of what would become the county of Cumberland, lay outside the influence of the English Crown. It was part of the Kingdom of Scotland. In 1092 King William II (Rufus) of England marched north, took Carlisle and built the first part of what is now Carlisle Castle. In the years that followed the Normans proceeded to build fortified castles, monasteries and chapels and extended their influence over the area that would become Cumberland and Cumbria.

What written or archaeological evidence that remains about Christian worship and influence in West Cumberland before the Norman influence suggests a Celtic influence. In particular, at what is now the village of St Bees, tradition has it that a church or chapel was founded by the 'Apostle of Cumberland' - St Begh (or St Bega) who was an Irish Christian. The probable date for the founding of this church was about the year 900 A.D. There are many traditions regarding St Begh. But, unfortunately because of a lack of actual surviving evidence most of these will probably always remain a matter of conjecture. According to the mediaeval legends St Begh was a young Irish woman and devout Christian who escaped across the Irish Sea to escape a forced marriage to a heathen Viking chief. Landing on the Cumbrian coast, St Begh founded a Christian church, probably where the present St Bees Priory church still stands.

Even in the Dark Ages it is likely that this church extended its influence over a fairly wide area of the Cumberland coast and further afield - including Whitehaven. Over the next 200 years or so, Scandinavian (Norse) settlers arrived in West Cumberland and the settlement that grew up around the original chapel near the coast founded by St Begh became known in the Norse language as 'Kirkby Begoc' ('the village near St Begh's Church'). As the language of the people in West Cumberland developed into English, the settlement eventually became known by its present name of 'St Bees'.

The Benedictines arrive in West Cumberland

The Benedictine influence in West Cumberland began about the year 1125 during the reign of King Henry I. Following the building of Carlisle Castle mentioned above, the Normans built another castle at Egremont. The Lord of the Manor of Egremont was Baron William le Meschin, son of the Sheriff of Bayeux, Normandy. It was William le Meschin, probably at the encouragement of Thurstin, Archbishop of York (also originally a native of Bayeux) who founded the small but ultimately influential Benedictine Priory at St Bees.

The initial Benedictine house at St Bees comprised of six monks and a prior, coming from the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary's, York. Rebuilding of the previous church of St Begh probably commenced soon afterwards. The West Door - still the main entrance to the present day St Bees Parish Church (Anglican) - dates from about 1160. There are other stones at the church dating from the Norman period, including a lintel stone in an alcove opposite the West Door which displays the fight between 'Good' and 'Evil' - St Michael the Archangel fighting a dragon with two heads.

As with the earlier church whose building was attributed of St Begh, the Benedictine Priory of St Bees was able to spread its influence along much of the Cumbrian coast and further afield to the Isle of Man and other places around the Irish Sea. Until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 during the reign of King Henry VIII the township of Whitehaven fell within the sphere of influence of the Benedictine monks of St Bees Priory.

In the Middle Ages when the Benedictine monks of St Bees looked after Whitehaven the township was a far different place from what it would become after the Dissolution. It was but a small settlement consisting of only a few houses. During the Middle Ages most Christian burials in the area would have taken place at St Bees, with the bodies of the deceased taken along 'coffin roads' to St Bees. Also seen in the alcove opposite the West Door at St Bees Priory Church is a stone cross which formerly stood at the brow of the hill between Whitehaven and St Bees. This cross is believed to have been a symbolic marker where a funeral procession could rest, and perhaps pray, along the road between Whitehaven and St Bees.

A part of Whitehaven with a strong Benedictine link

When St Bees Priory was dissolved in 1539 it is believed at least some of the monks were 'pensioned off' and - tradition has it - they were allowed to live out what remained of their earthly lives in what had been a 'town house' retreat for the Prior of St Bees on what is now Quay Street, Whitehaven. Among the Benedictine monks from St Bees who, tradition states, retired to this place were Robert Alanby (prior 1523 - 1533) and Robert Paddy, the last prior (1537 - 1538). The grounds and gardens of this building are believed to have covered a fairly extensive area and included at least one well that supplied fresh water.

In 1850, this building was still standing and was known as 'Old Hall'. By then it was believed to have been Whitehaven's oldest building. In that year, its origin and associated traditions were discussed in a series of articles in 'The Whitehaven Herald' newspaper by 'Old John and I' (Isaac Nisbett), republished in booklet form in 2008 by local Whitehaven historian Mr Ray Devlin. According to 'Old John and I' the grounds and gardens of the prior's house had fallen into disrepair after the death of Prior Alanby.

'The Whitehaven Herald' articles discuss a number of traditions about the monks who retired here after the Dissolution. According to local tradition the gardens belonging to the monks had previously extended as far as Albion Street (which had been originally known as "Alanby's Street"). A little further along, access to the grounds of the property had originally been known as "Alanby's Hill". By 1850 this had been corrupted to "Harmless Hill", by which name it is still known.

It is also suggested that Rosemary Lane, leading up the hill from the top of Albion Street towards the High Road leading to St Bees is derived from the "Rosary of Mary". This is where Benedictine monks would have walked while saying their daily prayers - or more specifically saying the Rosary which involves saying decades of "Hail Marys". Another street name in Whitehaven that may well be linked to the last days of the Benedictine monks of St Bees is Swingpump Lane. According to the Old John and Isaac Nisbett articles in 'The Whitehaven Herald' the name of this street was derived from "Saint's-pump-lane". It was where the Benedictine monks had a pump to obtain their source of fresh water. The writer of the newspaper articles believed the monks had constructed a reservoir of fresh water to store the water from a number of nearby springs.

The old town house of the Benedictine monks of St Bees was demolished in 1889, when a new building was constructed in its place. This new building was a school / chapel built for the Catholic community of Whitehaven by a new generation of Benedictine monks. A little over 20 years earlier (in 1868) the Benedictines had built a new 'Mother Church' at Coach Road dedicated to St Begh (the Apostle of Cumberland). Despite several threats of closure in the 1980s, in the early 21st Century the Quay Street chapel is still being used by parishioners of St Begh's, Whitehaven.

The Quay Street school / chapel was dedicated to St Gregory (the Apostle of England) and St Patrick (the Apostle of Ireland). These two saints linked the English and Celtic origins of the Catholic community of the time. In the late 19th Century many of the Catholics would have been first or second generation Irish immigrants and it was St Patrick who had been responsible for converting the Irish to Christianity. There is also a strong local tradition that Patrick had once lived in Whitehaven (in the Celtic language ‘Ban Haven’ or Bawn Haven’). It was from ‘Ban Haven in Tabernia’ that Patrick had been kidnapped by pirates and forcibly transported to Ireland. The kidnap of Patrick was the first step in a train of events that led to him converting the Irish to Christianity. St Gregory the Great was the first Benedictine Pope and it was Pope Gregory who sent St Augustine to England to convert the Angles (English) to Christianity. Only in 1962 would there be a chapel in Whitehaven dedicated to St Benedict - which would eventually become the parish church of St Benedict's, Mirehouse.


The Benedictine influence in West Cumberland can be traced back more than 900 years. This influence has survived the dissolution of the priory at St Bees and the many years of religious persecution that followed.

The selection of St Benedict as the Patron Saint of St Benedict's, Mirehouse pays tribute to the many Benedictines and others who gave up so much to work on behalf of the Catholic community of West Cumberland. In one sense the history of St Benedict's parish at Mirehouse dates only from the mid 20th Century. In another sense its history and traditions can be traced back for many hundreds of years.

J. Ritson
June 2009

St Bees Priory Church, formerly the site of a Benedictine monastery between about 1120 – 1539

Left: Stone cross outside St Bees Church
This cross previously marked a resting place along the ‘coffin road’ between Whitehaven and St Bees

Right: The West Door to St Bees Priory Church, dating from about 1160 in the Benedictine years.

[Photographs by J. Ritson]

Albion Street, Whitehaven – believed to be a derivation of “Alanby’s Street”
(Named after Robert Alanby, Benedictine Prior of St Bees 1523 – 1533)

Harmless Hill, Whitehaven – believed to be a derivation of “Alanby’s Hill”

It is believed that Robert Alanby and some of the other monks from the Benedictine Priory at St Bees were ‘pensioned off’ to this part of Whitehaven after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.

Left: Rosemary Lane, Whitehaven – possibly derived from “Rosary to Mary” Lane
(Where it is believed the monks would have walked while saying the Rosary)
Right: Swingpump Lane, Whitehaven – derived from “Saint’s-pump-lane”
(Where it is believed Benedictine monks had a pump to supply fresh water)

Left: Outside view of Quay Street Chapel dedicated to St Gregory & St Patrick (built 1889)
Right: Inside view of Quay Street Chapel of St Gregory & St Patrick

It is believed that this site at Quay Street, Whitehaven was the site of the former ‘Town House’ of the Benedictine Prior of St Bees, and where Prior Alanby and some other monks were allowed to live out their lives following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 during the reign of King Henry VIII.

[Photographs by J. Ritson]

Matthew Carney, 19/03/2011