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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