Carlisle Diocese: History and Description

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The diocese of Carlisle was created in 1133 by King Henry I to comprehend the territory of the earldom of Carlisle founded by William II (Rufus) in 1092. Prior to this date the territory involved had a long and complicated ecclesiastical history. The early history of christianity in the region is obscure, although it has left its traces in the dedications of parish churches. In the fifth century St Ninian (c.360-c.432) founded ‘Candida Casa’ at Whithorn, and a dedication to the saint at Brougham may be significant (there are also striking numbers of mainly littoral dedications to SS Patrick, Bridget and Bega). Later these lands formed part of the ‘British’ kingdom of Strathclyde which encompassed Galloway and the south-west of Scotland, Cumberland and Westmorland to the Dee, and thus fell within the compass of the see of Glasgow at the time of St Kentigern or Mungo (d. 603), to whom there were eight church dedications extant in the late nineteenth-century diocese. During the seventh century, however, the English kingdom of Northumbria gained pre-eminence in the region, and St Cuthbert was granted a district in the vicinity of Carlisle and this was transferred to his own see of Lindisfarne, which with that of Hexham formed the ecclesiastical expression of Northumbrian authority. The power of Northumbria suffered collapse after the battle of Nechtansmere in 685, and from the late eighth century the region became subject to the attentions of Norwegian and Danish Viking raiders, who dismembered the kingdom during the course of the ninth century. It seems that c. 883 Glasgow once more came to hold ecclesiastical authority over Cumbrian territory, contesting that of Lindisfarne but as the region became a significant site of Norwegian settlement it is unlikely that any authority was truly enforced. English supremacy was once more asserted by Edward the Elder (899-924), and until 945 it is likely that Lindisfarne or York was reckoned the site of ecclesiastical authority. In the latter year, however Cumbria was handed over to King Malcolm of Scotland, and Glasgow was restored as the see. This seems to have remained the case up until 1092, when William Rufus established the long-standing boundary separating England and Scotland with a major Norman base at Carlisle. An earldom of Carlisle was created. The ecclesiastical position of the territory, however, was subject to a number of competing claims reflecting its complicated history: York, Durham (through both its succession to Lindisfarne and to Hexham) and Glasgow could all make a case, and at the accession of Henry I it seems to have been Durham’s claim which was most effectively enforced, bishops of Durham having exercised episcopal rights over the area since the Conquest.

At the accession of Henry I the bishop of Durham was Ralf Flambard, and it was during the latter’s exile that the king sought to curtail the power of the see. The earldom of Carlisle was adjudged to belong to the see of York along with Hexhamshire. In 1133 however, Henry took the decision to create new bishopric at Carlisle for the territory of the earldom alone. The first bishop to be appointed was Aethelwold, prior of the Augustinian priory at Nostell in Yorkshire and possibly of a recent religious foundation at Carlisle, which became the cathedral (see Carlisle Cathedral).

Any suggestion that the secular and ecclesiastical future of the new diocese was now settled was quickly answered when a year after the death of Henry I in 1135 David of Scotland invaded and secured Carlisle, which, it was agreed, should now be held as a fief of England by the Scottish heir apparent. The battle of the Standard in 1137 seems to have removed any prospect of the region returning to the jurisdiction of the bishop of Glasgow, and Aethelwold attended a provincial synod of Scottish bishops held in Carlisle in 1138 at which he was admitted to possession of his see. In 1157 Carlisle was given up to Henry II of England, but its borderland status remained only too apparent with the territory suffering Scots’ invasions on a number of occasions. For long it has been disputed as to whether there was even a successor to Aethelwold as bishop on his death in 1157, with the vacancy not being certainly concluded before Bernard of Ragusa was appointed in 1203 (although he may never have visited his diocese), and the regular succession was only established with the consecration of Bishop Hugh of Beaulieu in 1219. Perhaps surprisingly, in view of the history of the region prior to 1219, the boundaries of the diocese established in 1133 remained unaltered up until the end of the period covered by the CCED. The Valor ecclesiasticus valued the see at £541 4s. 11½d. per annum, and in 1711 Ecton adjudged it worth £531 4s. 9½d. By 1835 the value of the see had risen to some £2,213 net.

The territory of the diocese

In the 1830s the diocese covered some 1,378 square miles with a population of some 128,000. It was thus not, as the diocesan history published in 1889 claimed, ‘the smallest in England’ (Ferguson, 1889, 1): Ely, Oxford and Rochester (384 square miles) were all significantly smaller in geographical area at under 1,000 square miles. It was nearer to being the case in terms of population (only Ely was smaller among the English dioceses at 126,000). Only Rochester had fewer benefices: 94 to Carlisle’s 127.

As already indicated, the territorial limits of the diocese were determined by those of the earldom of Carlisle at the time of its creation. In contrast to many other dioceses, it sat uncomfortably with county geography, including but also excluding significant portions of the two counties of Cumberland and Westmorland. To the north, the boundary followed that between England (Cumberland) and Scotland from Rockliffe on the Solway Firth to the parish of Bewcastle. Here it turned south to follow the eastern boundary of Cumberland, where it bordered Northumberland and the diocese of Durham. However, the Cumberland parish of Alston, where the county abutted County Durham, was not included in the diocese, both its geographical and ecclesiastical ties being to the east and the diocese of Durham, its attachment to Cumberland having originated in a fiscal arrangement concerning the collection of profits from its silver mines through the sherrif of Cumberland. The boundary of the diocese instead proceeded due south from the parish of Croglin to Kirkland and when it reached the parish of Kirby Thore it began to follow the eastern boundary of Westmorland. This it followed until reaching the large parishes of Brough and Kirkby Stephen, at which point it swung west with the county boundary shared with the county and diocese of York as far as the parish of Orton. Here diocesan and county geography once more parted company as those Westmorland parishes south of a line separating the ancient parishes of Orton, Shap and Barton from those of Kendal, Windermere and Grasmere fell under the jurisdiction of the bishopric of Chester. From Barton the diocesan boundary continued to ignore county geography as it crossed into Cumberland and struck north-north-west from Crosthwaite to Isel, before turning westwards to meet the coast at Camerton, leaving those Cumberland parishes south of this line again in the Chester diocese. From Camerton the diocesan boundaries were completed by following the coastline back to Rockcliffe.

The diocese thus took in the remote north-western corner of England. Although to those unfamiliar with the region this calls to mind the English Lakes, in fact much of the Lake District lay outside the diocese: Kendal, Windermere, and the hills west of Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite. It did, however, contain some of the highest Lakeland peaks: Helvellyn, Skiddaw and Blencathra among them. North of these hills lay a significant lowland area drained by the Eden, Caldew and Ellen rivers among others leading down to the Solway Firth. Along the eastern boundary of the diocese there was further high ground as it embraced the western side of the Pennine Hills above Appleby and Brough, notably Milbourn and Lune Forests, and across the portion of the diocese in Westmorland there also stretched from Mallerstang in the east to Mardale in the west a succession of fells which merged eventually into the higher summits of Lakeland once more. In his Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain of 1724-6 Daniel Defoe would describe Westmorland as ‘the wildest, most barren and frightful [country] of any that I have passed over in England’.

In agricultural terms much of this landscape was unrewarding. The lowlands abutting the Solway Firth and the Eden valley supported mixed farming, but most of the rest of the diocese was given over to livestock. The farming regime supported something approaching an English peasantry of smallholders, and there were few great estates. Significant urban centres were also comparatively few in number. In Westmorland Defoe noted the yarn stocking manufactures of Kirkby Stephen and Appleby, which he thought in decline. Penrith, in Cumberland, impressed him more as a lively market town, while Carlisle itself was a ‘small but well-fortified city’ (no irrelevant consideration in the interval between the ’15 and the ’45), and the cathedral ‘a venerable old pile’. By the early nineteenth century it would be rapidly expanding, but in his day Defoe’s attention was more readily drawn by Whitehaven on the coast, a town which had grown rapidly as the export centre for coal from the surrounding coalfield, shipped across the Irish Sea to supply Dublin. In the fells themselves there were other extractive mineral industries (such as quarrying, graphite and copper mining), and farmers might supplement their income by agricultural processing.

Shortly after the end of the period covered by the CCED the diocesan map of Carlisle was altered for the first time since its original constitution. In 1856 the deaneries of Copeland (Cumberland), Furness and Cartmel (Lancashire) and the Westmorland elements of the deaneries of Kirby Lonsdale and Kendal were transferred to the diocese from the diocese of Chester, Westmorland now being constituted as a second archdeaconry for the diocese, to be followed by an archdeaconry of Furness in 1884.

The parishes and structure of the diocese

The absence of peculiar jurisdictions and the powerful body of patronage in episcopal hands made the bishop of Carlisle more unequivocally the focus of ecclesiastical authority in his diocese than was the case with some other bishops. There was a solitary archdeacon, the archdeacon of Carlisle. The diocese was divided into three deaneries, which went under various names at different dates, but mostly commonly Carlisle, Penrith or Allerdale, and Appleby or Westmorland.

The poverty and geography of the region were reflected in the fact that the diocese contained a number of exceptionally large ancient parishes, although these in turn often contained a number of dependent and poorly-endowed chapels (a good example being the parish of Crosthwaite, with its dependent chapelries of Thornthwaite, Newlands, St John Castlerigg, Borrowdale and Wythburn). The smallest parishes in the diocese were to be found along the Eden valley and in the towns.

When the Ecclesiastical Commissioners offered their returns relating to the diocese of Carlisle in 1835, based on a survey covering the years 1829-31, they produced some interesting findings. The 124 benefices they considered (three had failed to make returns) had the lowest average gross and net income per parish of any diocese in England: £181 and £175 per annum respectively; the average figures were £303 and £285. They recorded only 44 curates with an average annual stipend of £83, two pounds above the national average. Such conditions were the background to the famous account of the condition of the clergy of Carlisle and Wales published by William John Conybeare in the Edinburgh Review for 1853, under the title ‘The Church in the Mountains’.

The patronage of these livings in 1831 was as follows: 4 were in the gift of the crown; 20 were in the episcopal hands (all in fact belonging to the bishop of Carlisle); 27 were controlled by ecclesiastical corporations aggregate; 19 by single dignitaries or incumbents; 3 were the property of universities or hospitals; and 54 were in the hands of private patrons.

The bishop of Carlisle himself presented to twenty Carlisle livings: St Michael Appleby, Aspatria, Bromfield, Caldbeck, Cleburn, Clifton, Crosby-on-Eden, Crosthwaite, Dalston, Gilcrux, Lazonby, Musgrave, Newton, Ormside, Ousby, Penrith, Salkeld (annexed to the archdeaconry of Carlisle), Scsaleby, Stanwix, and Torpenhow. He could also appoint the incumbents of West Asby, Horncastle Mareham, Moresby, Tointon and Woodenderby in the diocese of Lincoln; of Chellaston and Melbourne in the diocese of Lichfield and Coventry; and of Newburn, St Nicholas Newcastle and Warkworth in the diocese of Durham. The Lincolnshire livings were a poignant reminder of the long and troubled history of Scottish incursions in the diocese, having been allocated to the indigent Bishop Halton by the pope in 1318 in the wake of Robert Bruce’s attacks.

Peculiar jurisdictions within the diocese

There were no peculiar jurisdictions within the diocese of Carlisle, although there were a number of significant extra-parochial districts.

Extra-diocesan peculiars of the Bishop of Carlisle

The bishop had no extra-diocesan peculiars.

Treatment and coverage of the diocese of Carlisle in the CCED

The diocese of Carlisle contains only one archdeaconry, and parishes divided between the two counties of Westmorland and Cumberland. With no peculiars, it therefore does not present a complex structure requiring careful subdivision. A single CCED region has therefore been created, ‘Carlisle’, coterminous with the archdeaconry. The county division provides a convenient way for users of the CCED to search a smaller unit than the diocese as a whole.

The chapelries of the diocese, however, present some particular difficulties. The date of origin may be difficult to ascertain: in 1889 Ferguson noted that many were consecrated in the sixteenth century but had earlier been licensed for preaching and prayer. The location structure established for the diocese follows that given in Local Administrative Units, but the records of the diocese themselves often record chapels as if subordinate to parishes after the date at which LAU maintains they had been separated. Without much further investigation we cannot establish whether this indicates error in LAU or merely the persistence of traditional nomenclature.

See also Carlisle Cathedral.