Episode 12 – Abbeytown, Cumbria

The western end of the border between England and Scotland is defined by the Solway Firth. This wide stretch of water points like an arrow towards Gretna Green, and it is the end point for a number of Scottish and English rivers. To the south-west of Greta the coast comes around a ninety-degree curve and then goes south towards Liverpool. But this quarter-circle segment is where we find Abbeytown, our next tour stop.

Today the land around Abbeytown is mostly fields, and fairly flat. But a thousand years ago the area was forested, and the small differences in height were enough for a marsh to develop. At high tide the marsh was covered in water and the areas that remained dry became islands, or in Norse ‘holms’ (the ‘l’ is silent and it’s pronounced ‘hohm’). The Norse had settled in this part of the world after they invaded Britain, and it would end up on the Danish side of the treaty line.

That being said, the Norse were long past by 1150, when the story of Abbeytown begins. The only thing that remains are their names. At the time, this area was under the control of Scotland, and for the next several-hundred years this would be the abbey’s biggest problem. Much as I would love to go into great detail about this, I’ll only cover the general picture here and get more in-depth as we navigate around Britain. Back in 1150, however, relations between England and Scotland were good.

Holm Cultram Abbey’s Founding

Holm Cultram Abbey was founded as a Cistercian house, with its parent-house being Melrose Abbey. Melrose is a town in the Scottish borders, towards the east coast of Scotland but actually due north of Carlisle because of the way the island of Great Britain is shaped here. Carlisle is the nearest big town to Abbeytown, and the bishop there would have a lot of interaction with Holm Cultram over the years.

Alan fitzWaldeve (or fitzWaltheof) and his son Waldeve were the initial founders of the abbey. They were Anglo-Saxon nobles. Alan’s father Waltheof had brothers who were the Earl of Dunbar and the Earl of Carlisle, and their father had been Earl of Northumberland. So they were a prominent family on both sides of the border. Not that anyone had drawn a line on a map at this point – the ‘border’ idea was still fairly flexible.

Alan and Waldeve were supported in their founding by Prince Henry of Scotland, who held Carlisle and Cumberland (today Cumberland is part of Cumbria) under the lordship of King Stephen of England. Henry was part of Stephen’s inner-circle and would marry one of his noblemen’s daughters. Henry donated two-thirds of the original abbey land, and Alan one-third. Sadly Alan’s son Waldeve would die just a short time after the abbey was built, and had no heirs. Because Holm Cultram hadn’t been built yet, he was buried at Carlisle.

The first abbot of Holm Cultram was Everard. He remained abbot until 1192, and in his time wrote many books about various saints and also the Norse. Despite this, we have no record of his works today.

Prince Henry died in 1152, and after that his father David I, king of Scotland also died. Henry’s son Malcolm became the new king, and gave Carlisle and Cumberland back into the hands of Henry II of England. The charter was witnessed by Athelwold bishop of Carlisle.

Over the next few decades, the abbey lands grew both north and south of the border. There were fisheries and saltpans both south of Dumfries (pronounced ‘Dum-freece’) at Southerness (a short hop across the Solway to the north-west), and also in the area to the west and south on the Cumberland side – particularly Mawbray and Skinburness. Meanwhile, the abbot was witness to charters for King William of Scotland, and also attended Richard of England’s coronation (he was the king who became known as ‘Lionheart’).

One of the notable landgivers was Robert de Brus, 2nd Lord of Annandale. The ‘de Brus’ family were the first Normans to hold land in Scotland, which was given to them by King David I. The de Brus family fell out with David over the succession to Henry I with the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, but they retained their Scottish lands. Annandale is the eastern part of modern Dumfriesshire.

Another landgiver would be Hugh de Morevill, who gave the abbey the church of Burgh-by-Sands to the north-east along with some fisheries there. Hugh would be one of the men who famously murdered Archbishop Thomas Beckett – a story I’ll tell some other time. Hugh also handed them land at Lazonby on the provision he would be buried at Holm Cultram. However, after his actions against Beckett he would leave England on crusade for a long time and die at Jerusalem. Whether his body was brought back to England for burial I can’t tell.

The abbey was also given permission to trade and fish both in Ulster and on the Isle of Man. These rights show that Holm Cultram was already becoming wealthy, and besides the fish and salt they were producing they would also become one of the biggest sheep-farmers in the north-west. Yes, the Cistercian capitalists were at it again.

After Everard, the new abbot was Gregory. Gregory had previously been the sub-cellarer, which meant he had care for all the ‘everyday’ items of the abbey which the monks would need. In 1193, Gregory oversaw the foundation of Jugum Dei abbey at Strangford Lough, Co Down, Ireland. This would be Holm Cultram’s only daughter-house. The abbey in Irish was called Mainistir Liath, or the Grey Abbey. Today there is still a town there called Greyabbey. The founder was Affreca, the daughter of Godred II of Man. Those trade deals with Ulster and the Isle of Man were already paying off for Holm Cultram.

As the thirteenth century began, England and Scotland began to dispute less peaceably about territory. King William of Scotland wanted the Earldom of Northumbria, but King John refused. They remained amicable until in 1209 a rumour spread that William intended to ally Scotland with France. France and England were enemies so this alliance was something John could not tolerate therefore he invaded Scotland. William was forced to sign a treaty crippling his power, though he and his successor Alexander II of Scotland remained independent from England.

John’s barons rose in rebellion against him in 1215, which would eventually lead to the famous signing of Magna Carta. Alexander supported the barons, so in January 1216 John led an army into Scotland as far north as Edinburgh. In revenge, Alexander raided Cumberland in February of the same year. His troops were not supposed to raid religious houses, but some of them disobeyed. Holm Cultram was ransacked and many precious items were taken.

Over the years, Holm Cultram continued to face raiding Scots, and the king granted them various measures of support such as supplies and armed men to help out. Despite this, they were still close to their Scottish parent-house Melrose, and the abbot there came to visit often when granted safe passage.

The abbots of Holm Cultram were well-respected and sometimes asked by the Pope to arbitrate in disputes between Carlisle priory and the bishop of Carlisle. They are also recorded as having attended the General Chapter of the Cistercians at Citeaux. In particular, Abbot Gilbert was on the way home from the General Chapter in 1237 when he died at Canterbury.

Interestingly despite the Scottish raids land was still granted to the abbey from Dumfries in 1280, and in 1294 some fisheries and salt pans at Rainpatrick were also granted. The latter were a gift from Melrose Abbey.

In England, however, the statute of Mortmain brought to an end the liberal donations of land to abbeys which were taking away the king’s precious tax money. Exceptions for Holm Cultram were granted in 1282, 1283 and 1285 by King Edward I. And of course he soon found another way to get money from the monasteries when the Pope approved the Taxatio Ecclesiastica. When the records were made for the tax, Holm Cultram was worth around £206 annually.

The Wizard” Michael Scot

One of Holm Cultram’s legendary connections is to a man called Michael Scot. Michael Scot was born somewhere in southern Scotland or northern England towards the end of the twelfth century. While my main source for Holm Cultram abbey claims his death is ‘usually dated’ to 1292, modern sources suggest this is incorrect and he has been conflated with a separate person also called Michael Scot. A more accurate date of death would be in the 1230s.

Michael began his education at Durham cathedral school, and then went on to Oxford and Paris. He studied mathematics, astrology, alchemy and medicine. This seems like an odd mix of subjects to study today, but back then natural, religious and superstitious ideas were not considered to be separate. Today he would be considered a scientist, but in those days people misinterpreted him as a wizard. Dante placed him in the eighth circle of hell – reserved for magicians, sorcerers and false prophets – in his Divine Comedy.

In 1217 he was in Toledo, Spain, a region greatly influenced by Arabic and Jewish thought. At the Toledan school of translation, he and several Jewish scholars translated Arabic scientific and philosophical works into Latin. In particular, he translated an alternative view of the planetary system by Nur ad-Din al-Bitruji (in Latin “Alpetragius”) and Aristotle’s Historia animalum (which was not known in Latin before this time) with the associated commentaries from the philosopher Averroes.

His next offer of work came from Ireland, where he was promoted to Archbishop of Cashel before leaving the position a month later. This appears to have partly been due to language skills – the Irish spoke Gaelic and he did not.

Later, Michael found himself alongside the famous mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor. At the court his title was “astrologer”. He and Fibonacci helped to translate many Arabic scientific texts into Latin, which would go on to influence the Italian Renaissance a few hundred years later and change Europe forever. Most notably the influences for Copernicus’s work “on the revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” can be traced back to this time.

Michael’s companion Fibonacci is most famous for his numerical sequence whereby each number is the sum of the two that came before it: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13… It is suggested that Michael might have helped Fibonacci in presenting this. The mathematician also dedicated the second edition of his book Liber Abaci to Michael in 1227.

Michael didn’t only do translation work. He also wrote his own treaties on various scientific, alchemical and astrological issues. For instance, he was one of the first to identify a link between volcanic activity and the presence of gold, and attempted to discover the alchemical reasoning behind this. His most prominent work was called Liber Introductorius maior in astrologiam (“Great Book on the introduction to Astrology”).

Now, whichever Michael Scot was buried at Holm Cultram abbey, William Camden’s Brittania (from 1610) says “David the first King of Scots built the Abbey de Vlmo, commonly called Holme Cultrain; and the Abbots thereof erected Vlstey [Wolsty Castle] a fortresse neere unto it, for a treasury and place of surety to lay up their bookes, charters and evidences against the sodain invasions of the Scottish: wherein the secret workes, they say, of Michael the Scot, lie in conflict with mothes, which Michael professing here a religious life, was so wholly possessed with the study of the mathematikes and other abstruse arts, about the yeere of our Lord 1290, that beeing taken of the common people for a Necromancer, there went a name of him (such was their credulity) that he wrought divers wonders, and miracles.”

Now the accuracy of this whole paragraph is rather in doubt, but there was a treasure house at Wolsty, and maybe Michael ended his days at the abbey, only in 1235 rather than 1290. But who can tell for sure? There are lots of places in the Scottish borders that have legends about a magical man called Michael Scot who terrorised the area. I imagine that many parents used his name as a bogeyman to get their children to behave, and when those children grew up the legend became ‘fact’.

If you want to know more about the translation of Greek and Arabic philosophy into Latin, I highly recommend The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast episode on Arabic-Latin Translations by Peter Adamson.

Robert the Bruce

As time went on, the conflict between England and Scotland only increased. Edward I granted some of the land he had raided in Scotland (worth 300 marks a year) to the abbey. Melrose Abbey granted the house they shared in Boston, Lincolnshire, fully to Holm Cultram since they would no longer be able to make use of it. This house would be used as a residence when they visited the town to trade.

Edward I visited Holm Cultram twice on his way north to raid Scotland. The first was in 1300, and the second was in 1307 just a day before his death at Burgh-by-Sands, which as previous mentioned was a part of the abbey lands.

Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale, died in 1304, and was buried at Holm Cultram abbey. He had resigned his Scottish lands in 1292 to his son Robert, whom we know today as Robert the Bruce. Robert was a descendant of King David I, and therefore had a claim to the Scottish throne. The throne at this time was in a very weak position, having been granted by Edward I on behalf of the guardians of Scotland to a man called John Balliol.

John soon fell out with Edward, and the Bruces sided with the English king. But this alliance wasn’t to last. While Robert the Bruce and his father had sworn an oath of fealty to Edward I at Berwick, the next year Bruce joined a rebellion against the king. Robert de Brus senior, however, went back to Carlisle and his English lands.

Robert the Bruce remained opposed to the English, and eventually after many events not to be covered here he was made King of Scotland. In 1314 he led the Scottish army in crushing the English at Bannockburn, and this left them free to raid into England.

King Edward III gave power to the Bishop of Carlisle, the Abbot of Holm Cultram, Andrew de Hartcla and others to start ‘final’ peace talks with Bruce in 1321, extending an existing truce to Christmas. But the talks did not go well at all.

1322 saw one of Bruce’s Scottish raids reach Holm Cultram. The abbey was desecrated, with food and other items intended to maintain Carlisle carried away. Not nice behaviour anyway, and even worse with it being his father’s burial place.

There was a further truce in 1327, and leave was given for the abbot of Holm Cultram to visit the abbot of Melrose and find out the conditions of their land north of the Solway. It was considered that his being a Cistercian meant he wouldn’t carry any letters with him to oppose the king.

Finally in 1328 Edward was forced to sign the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, recognising Scotland as an independent country with its own king. There would be no more English overlordship, and no more friendship with the Scots for a long time.


The years passed at the abbey. Of course there were still issues with Scotland, and abbots came and went. In 1385 £200 was paid to the Earl of Douglas for the ransom of the church and land, which must have been raided by Scotland again. Holm Cultram was charged with treason against England, but later granted a pardon. And there was still a strong connection with Melrose Abbey, which was able to send its abbot over on regular occasions – the attitude at the time would have allowed a holy man permission to travel where an ordinary Scotsman could not.

But as we have seen at Abbey Dore, Abbeydorney, Abbeyfeale, Abbey Green, Abbeyleix and Abbey St. Bathans, there was only one destiny for Holm Cultram abbey – dissolution. This became the backdrop to a horrific plot of murder for political gain.

Matthew Deveys had been made abbot of Holm Cultram in 1531, apparently with the assistance of his relative Robert Cokett of Bolton Percy, Yorkshire. At the time, one of the abbey monks Gawen Borrodaile objected as he wanted to be abbot. It is reported that he said if Matthew were elected he would not continue one year; and if Gawen were not chosen “the youngest monk in the house within seven years should not covet to be abbot.” He is also rumored to have said that “rather than Matthew were abbot, he would kill him with his own hand.”

Well, he did not continue one year, because he died in 1532 under suspicious circumstances. Gawen was the chief suspect, and so he was arrested for half a year. Thomas Ireby was appointed abbot, and one of his first acts was to order an enquiry.

The main evidence against Gawen apart from his reported dislike of Abbot Matthew was that Gawen had been standing beside the kitchen sideboard close to the cook the night before the abbot had sickened. Some of Matthew’s relatives had been with him, eating and drinking the same food, and also become sick at the same time. Whether they also died or not, I don’t know. The abbot’s mother and another woman who both nursed him in his sickness believed he had been poisoned. The Abbot of Furness who held Gawen in custody claimed that he was a masterful character with secret supporters.

Most of the accusations came against Gawen from Matthew’s family. In the report to Thomas Cromwell – one of Henry VIII’s advisers and the chief architect of the English reformation – Dr Thomas Leigh claimed that Gawen had “done the king good service, but is now kept out of his house by malice and wrong information sent to you.”

The result seems to have been in Gawen’s favour, so perhaps it was all out of malice and the sickness was indeed unfortunate. Today, with more understanding of how disease travels, perhaps we might have seen the events in a different light. Gawen Borrodaile was declared not guilty, and made abbot of Holm Cultram as per his original desire.

Not that the poor man had much time to enjoy this position. Within a short while Ireby was re-appointed as abbot where he remained until 1536. A man called Thomas Carter became the next abbot just on time for the dissolution to begin. Holm Cultram avoided the 1536 first wave due to being worth more than £200 a year.

The people of the area were more attached to Roman Catholicism and their monasteries than elsewhere in England. The people of Yorkshire rose up in rebellion, and the abbot of Holm Cultram helped to incite the Cumbrian people to their cause. He sold the abbey’s plates and jewels to raise money for the rebels. This first rebellion was quickly stopped, and the people forgiven their part in it.

But a second rebellion in 1537 did not yield equal forgiveness. Again the people rose up in their thousands, assaulting the city of Carlisle. Several hundred were taken prisoner, while the rest fled. The abbots of Fountains, Rievaulx and Melrose were captured and executed with the rest of the prisoners. Abbot Thomas of Holm Cultram was involved in the rebellion, but is not listed as being executed so might well have escaped.

After the dissolution, Gawen Borrodaile was back. Re-appointed as abbot, he signed the charter that put an end to Holm Cultram as a Cistercian abbey. On March 18 1538, the monks put on secular clothing, were given money in their purses, and left the abbey forever. Only Gawen remained, being appointed as rector to the transformed abbey, which became the parish church of St Mary’s. It would serve around 1800 people in the area. After he died in 1553, the land went to the University of Oxford. Looking back at this, I wonder if some of the conflict Gawen had with the rest of the abbey might have been related to religion. Perhaps he was more sympathetic towards protestantism than the other monks, which is why he became the rector afterwards. But that’s mere conjecture and I have no proof.

The history of the former abbey is fairly quiet after the reformation. St Mary’s church initially fell into ruin from neglect, but later underwent several restorations, where it was made smaller than its original size – it is claimed that it had once been bigger than Carlisle Cathedral. By 1749 the village at Holm Cultram was referred to as ‘Abbey Town’.

In 2006 on a hot summer’s day in June there was an arson attack on the church. Within an hour the roof had collapsed and the large organ was totally destroyed. Many irreplaceable records from the Middle Ages were lost forever in the fire. We’re lucky that records of the abbey had been published in 1929, or we might not have so much information as we do today.

The arsonist, a seventeen-year-old boy called Shane Walker, was jailed for four years. The judge said “Not only have you destroyed a national treasure – you have also severely damaged an entire community.” In the following years, the abbey has been restored and in 2015 re-opened to the public. It continues to act as Abbeytown’s parish church.

Next time we’re heading back to Lancashire to visit Abbey Village, and then we’ll head south to London and its district Abbey Wood. I hope you’ll join me then.


Register and Records of Holm Cultram, ed. Francis Grainger and W G Collingwood (Kendal, 1929), British History Online

Stewardship: the cellarer of the monastery, Ampleforth Abbey,

Michael Scot, wizard or genius? (c.1175-1235), Diane McIlmoyle 27-10-2010, Esmaralda’s Cumbrian History and Folklore

Michael Scot | Scottish Scholar, Encyclopedia Britannica, 20-7-1998

A REAL SCOTS WIZARD Michael Scot was once bigger than Harry Potter, Herald Scotland, 25-8-2005

Holme Cultram Abbey – destroyed by fire on friday 9th June 2006, Visit Cumbria,


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