Travel Report: Lancaster Priory, England.
There’s a palpable sense of history just about everywhere you go in the English city of Lancaster. Following our guided tour of the castle, Uncle D and I made the short walk (literally one minute) to Lancaster Priory, the city’s oldest and arguably prettiest church.
It was a mercifully warm English afternoon as we approached the priory’s authoritative sandstone facade. Before entering, I found my attention drawn to a peculiar headless statue. Located just a dozen steps from the church entrance, it depicts a robed woman reclining on a grand marble chest tomb. Sadly there’s no name, nor indeed a text of any sort to enlighten the inquisitive visitor.
After a bit of research, I learned that the tomb belongs to a woman by the name of Ann Rothwell. According to local legend she lived in Lancaster in the 1840s, the wife of William Talbot Rothwell. As the story goes, Ann took in a lover, who was eventually sentenced to execution when their affair was discovered.
Distraught, Ann broke into the church, scaled the clock tower and attempted to turn back the clock in order to delay her beloved’s execution. Unfortunately, Ann was in such a state she lost her footing and plunged to her death in the churchyard. In the centuries that followed, a number of locals claimed to have seen Ann roaming the churchyard, dressed in white robes. Thus she became known as The White Lady.
Lancaster Priory, England.
Bidding Anne farewell, we made our way under the entrance arch and into Lancaster Priory Church of St. Mary. Inside, there was a further unexpected surprise with a quite beautiful choral performance.
At the far end of the church, down towards the altar, stood a quintet of singers practicing a gorgeous hymn. Their melodies bouncing merrily off the chandelier-clad ceiling. In fact, it was so beautiful it took me nearly a minute to realise that they were actually singing in German!
Their harmonies were wonderful, especially as Uncle D and I were the only ones there to hear it. However, exploring the church while they were doing their thing seemed somehow intrusive. Hence we decided to leave them to it and a few days later I returned at what proved to be a much more opportune moment.
It was deliciously empty during that second visit. Breathing in the silence, I dropped onto a pew and surfed through some history. It was cool to read how the same dude who built Lancaster Castle, Roger the Poitevin, established the church as a Benedictine priory in 1094. Take a tour of the interior’s stained glass windows and you’ll find ol’ Roger, depicted in happier times before he had to flee England because of his failed rebellion against King Henry I.
Roger the Poitevin.
There are exquisite details throughout the church, including the exceptional choir stalls. Added in 1345, they were carved from oak and stand as the third oldest choir stalls in England. Records state they were damaged by the loutish troops of Oliver Cromwell during The English Civil War. By the time World War II rolled around those in charge of Lancaster Priory decided to take no chances, hiding the stalls away in the dungeons of Lancaster Castle.
In 1539 the church lost its status as a Catholic monastic institution due to Henry VIII’s infamous English Reformation. It subsequently became a parish church before undergoing a huge renovation in 1558.
There are two giant organs in the church, though weirdly they didn’t arrive until 2012! The organ that sits in the chancel, pictured below, was actually built in 1906 by Harrison and Harrison. It had been living in Blackburn Girls’ High School for over a hundred years prior to its relocation to Lancaster.
Today the church holds a range of Anglican services in addition to the civic ceremonies of a parish church. On Wednesdays, there’s an afternoon service at 12:30 featuring the reading of local prayers. Those who want to have their prayers included leave their slips in the Parish Weave.
Basically, churchgoers write out their prayers and pop them into the pouches of this beautiful hand-woven patchwork. I had never seen a prayer slip system like this before and found it thoroughly charming.
On my way out I caught sight of a curious plaque by the entrance door. Immediately, I recognised the name of Terry Waite. An English humanitarian, actor and envoy for the Church of England, Waite became a household name in 1987 when he travelled to Lebanon to secure the release of four hostages.
Despite an assurance of safe passage by the captors, The Islamic Jihad Organisation, Waite was himself kidnapped during his visit. He subsequently spent just under five years in captivity, including a staggering 1,763 days in solitary confinement.
When he was released in 1991, Lancaster Priory marked the happy occasion with a hidden inscription on one of the clock hands in the tower. A slightly odd tribute perhaps, though I suppose it says something about the passing of time, faith in god and so on. In any case it’s nice that the plaque at least informs visitors about the feature, which would otherwise remain unknown.
Lancaster Priory opens daily from 09:15 to 16:00. If you time your visit for a Saturday there’s usually a coffee stall inside serving Fair Trade drinks, soups, sandwiches and cake. In the summer months a corner of the church hosts a bookstore.
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I like the idea of personal prayer slips popped into those pouches ahead of services taking place, I’ve never seen it anywhere either. I noticed the Mothers’ Union banner and recalled reading some time ago that the parish church in our town used to have both Young Wives and MU groups but due to falling numbers they merged and rebranded themselves as Ladies Group! The priory looks beautiful, thanks for sharing!
Thanks Marion, it’s an exceptionally pretty church with a few unique features/ historic stories. Indeed I imagine many churches are coming up with interesting ideas to stay relevant in this modern age with increased disconnect and falling numbers. Thanks for the insight into your own parish.
Blue sky and sun in England at the same time … that calls for a toast! What a lovely church – the interior looks really charming. And I do like the “prayer slip system” – unusual, but beautiful. Thank you for taking me on a tour through this beautiful priory.
Yes, blue sky and sun at the same time, must be the work of a witch! Off to the castle with her! Thanks for visiting Corna!
These are delightful stories about this priory. This idea of leaving prayers is like the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
I hadn’t heard of that, thanks for the heads up. Appreciate you catching up with a few of my recent posts!
The joy of working from home 🙂
Wow, that is a lot of history in one place. Poor Ann had obviously never heard the phrase “You can never go back…” We have been lucky on several of our visits to old stone churches and cathedrals around Europe to hear singers or organists practising. Nothing like the sound in a good stone building. Thanks for sharing Leighton and Happy Wednesday. Allan
Cheers Allan, it’s been a pretty good Wednesday actually with a fresh (and crucially dry) afternoon walk around Hyde Park. Hope you are well and that ever so gradually temperatures are rising.
Lovely building. I enjoyed the video tour of the interior with the choir. Watched it twice. I think I would have sat a bit and listened to them. The prayer slips is unique. It sounds like these are read aloud during the service. Gives new meaning to “be careful what you pray for.” Were you tempted to go back at night to talk with the Woman In White? Would have been a great post.
While I am certainly not one to be shaken by tales of ghouls and ghosts, I’d probably draw the line at messing around in Lancaster Priory graveyard at night! I’m picturing some kind of live blog reporting where, after observing a strange flashing light, the article suddenly ends mid sentence!
Well, we wouldn’t want that. But the idea of a live blog is kind of interesting.
What a beautiful mixture of stunning architecture and charming personal touches. How interesting that Ann was given such a tender statue, or really anything at all, given the beliefs at that time. I love the quilt that people slip their prayers into and that is such a prominent feature. And what a tribute to know that your name is forever helping to mark time over the city. I can’t even imagine what a terrible heart wrenching span of 1163 days must have been for him.
Hey Meg, some great observations. I will always remember the Terry Waite stuff on the news. First he was going to to help release the existing hostages, then he got imprisoned himself. Then there were reports marking 100 days of confinement… 500 days… 1000. Like you say, hard to comprehend what an ordeal he went through.
Not that he would he would know while he was imprisoned, but to learn afterwards that everyone had been marking his time with him and sending out that feeling of support must have meant so much to him
Great Read! Lancaster is such an interesting place, I really enjoyed my visit to here. I didn’t make it inside the priory, it was closed. Looks very charming though
Thanks for dropping by Natty. I’m glad you got to “visit” the priory in the end.
Well that’s a love story deserving to be told. I also really like the tribute to Waite. Looks like a gorgeous building. Maggie.
Thanks Maggie, it’s always fun to find those unique stories that elevate such a priory above the usual “pretty church” status.
This is interesting, wow. I really love your blogs, sir. Would like to travel to all these places and wishfully many more, some day😍
Thank you for reading Suvi and for your kind words! Two more articles from Lancaster coming out over the next week.
Oh, cool…I’m looking forward to read them🙌
A seemingly-unassuming priory that’s home to plenty of interesting and noteworthy characters in history! From unfortunate Ann to the heroic Waite, The Lancaster Priory has seen many come and go: to visit even for a quick gander around would be satisfying (and the tea/cakes afterwards on a Saturday don’t hurt, either!). Thanks for a detailed look into a lesser-known spot. 🙂
Unassuming is about right Rebecca, especially from the outside. I also like your adjectives of Ann and Terry, very apt. In the event I make it back to Lancaster later this year to as part of my catch-up with my uncle, I may just check out that priory cake 😉
Lancaster Priory looks like a beautiful church inside and out. Thanks for sharing some of the interesting stories and history of the things that piqued your interest. I’ve never seen a prayer slip system like that before either.
Glad you enjoyed visiting this little English church. Being next to the castle, that’s pretty much half a day’s sightseeing right there before you even make it into the town centre.
So of course while reading about the demise of the unfortunate Ann, I have Cher’s voice in my head. As a music buff it won’t take you long to work out why. I remember the Terry Waite thing so clearly, it was big news for a lengthy period – I think we all came to believe that he would never be freed. It was warm recently!? I must’ve missed that!
If only she could have turned back time? 😉 Thanks for dropping by, looking forward to discovering your next travel plans!
I was picturing the ending of Hitchcock’s Vertigo as I read your story about Ann. Thanks for the visit and the choir concert.
A great movie! Poor Anne, an archetypal Hitchcock victim if ever there was one. Thanks for catching up Ruth.