Wednesday, 2 June 2010

St Mary and St Michael, Great Urswick

St Mary and St Michael
Great Urswick

The church at Urswick is a Grade I listed structure and officially dates to the 13th century. The earliest parts of the building appear to be the tower and the Chancel. The Nave and the vestry date from a 14th century extension of the church. Steve Dickinson, a local archaeologist claims that there was a church of some sort, possibly even a monastery, on this site long before the current 13th century building. He supports his theory by pointing out that Roman artifacts (dedication stones and masonry) are built into the fabric of the current church. A recently discovered ancient foundation stone adds weight to his theory, as does the Tumwinni stone, displayed on a window sill and shown in this post. Such is Steve's confidence in the age and significance of this whole site, that he claims that the church may be the oldest church in the country....a claim that I'm sure will be challenged by others around the UK. However, I'm sure that these claims need to be treated with caution. It's not uncommon for stones from other buildings, ecclesiastical and non ecclesiastical, to be inserted into walls for decoration and rebuilding purposes. It adds up to an intriguing idea, but more research is obviously required to corroborate his ideas and prove beyond a doubt that Urswick church is indeed one of the oldest in the country.

Above. The 13th century tower on a Norman base.

The base of the West tower dates from before the 13th century, probably the 1100s, when it was added to an earlier church. The tower may have had a typical pre-Norman saddle back roof and the whole structure would have been rather squat. A guide to the church and the parish written by L.Pollitt in 1977 is based on investigative work carried out by the Rev. T.N, Postlethwaite in 1924, and claims that the original tower was built as a place of refuge....he refers to it as a 'pele' tower, but it's unlikely that this is the case as pele towers were not commonly built until much later. There's also no documentary evidence to suggest that a defensive structure was built here at all. 

Above. 11th century Anglo Saxon cross shard and the Tunwinni stone.

Above. Distorted view of the Tunwinni stone.

I've deliberately distorted the image of the Tunwinni stone so that the carved surface area is easily viewable. This is an important pre-Norman artifact, found in 1911 when the plaster was being stripped from the walls of the church. Professor W.G. Collingwood dated the stone to between 850 - 870 AD and pretty much wrote it off as a minor find. However, the stone was re-examined at a later date by Steve Dickinson, who came to a completely different, and more important opinion. Dickinson claims that the stone depicts the 7th century Archbishop of Canterbury Saint Theodore, and a prior named Luigne, and shows the Roman church gaining ascendancy over the Irish important separating of the ways between new and old Christianity. The Tunwinni, whom the stone is named after, is mentioned in a runic inscription over the two characters carved on the stone's surface. He was an important Northern Bishop to the Picts in 681AD. Saint Trumwin\Triumwini\Trumini, was a missionary Bishop to the Pictish nations, and is widely thought to have been the first Bishop of Whithorn in Galloway. His mission to Galloway didn't go to plan however and he returned to England and to Whitby Abbey, where he died in 686. He was present at the Synod of Whitby in 684, where the it was agreed that England would observe the customs of the Roman church and not the Ionan church. So....the stone appears to show Saint Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury and Luigne, with Theodore holding a crosier, a staff signifying high office of an official of the Roman\Catholic church. Both carved characters appear to be sporting Irish\Pictish tonsures, though this could just be down to the imagination of the creator or carver of this artifact. It is thought possible that Tumwinni\Trumwini many have visited Urswick sometime during the 680s. It's also thought possible that Theodore visited Urswick at or around this time, possibly to meet up with Luigne to discuss the church on the Isle of Mann and it's subsequent move towards the Roman church. Whatever the reason, the history, the story or the symbols that this fragment of ancient cross contains, it's an intriguing and special item to find in this church.

Above. Rare surviving Georgian gallery. 

Above. Looking down the Nave into the Chancel.

Above. Weather worn Pieta high up in a niche on the tower.

Above. Possibly an old window.

Above. Looking from the gallery into the Nave.

Above. Beautiful three decker pulpit.

Above. The Chancel and choir stalls.

Above. Two worn niches reset into columns in the Nave.

Above. Looking from the Chancel into the Nave.

I've unfortunately not been able to find a floor plan of the church indicating which portions date from which periods. If one turns up, I'll post it here as they're always useful when visiting churches to help plan your visit. You simply have to check out this web site, Explore Low Furness, it contains a wealth of information about the whole of the Furness area's churches and  religions sites. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. Back in the 80s, Steve Dickinson was our neighbour at Backbarrow. He was working on the Viking settlement at Bryant's Gill in Kentmere at the time.
Tony H