Holm Cultram Abbey

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Holm Cultram Abbey (also called Holme Cultram or Holmcultram) was a Cistercian monastery whose remains stand in the village of Abbeytown in Cumbria in England, about three miles south of the Solway Firth. It was founded in 1150 and dissolved in 1538. After the dissolution it continued to be used as the parish church.


The abbey was founded in 1150 by Cistercian monks from Melrose Abbey on land made over by Allen of Allendale, land held by Scotland at the time. The abbey was built of stone from north of the Solway Firth. In 1157 the area was conclusively united with England by Henry II of England, who confirmed the grant of land. The Scottish connection continued, as the Abbey rented land in Galloway a short time later, and held it for 200 years, disposing of it because, they said, it was no longer possible for Englishmen to hold land in Scotland.[1]

The abbey steadily became prosperous and dominant in north Cumberland, acquiring lands and undertaking reclamation work along the Solway. In 1301 Edward I granted it a market at Skinburness, and it obtained permission to build a church there. Following violent storms which devastated Skinburness, both permissions were transferred to Newton Arlosh, where the abbey built a heavily fortified church as a chapel of ease,[2] the fortifications being a necessary precaution against Scots raiders. The abbey itself found that its Scots origins did not protect it from such attacks which were repeated from 1216 onwards, with a particularly severe attack in 1319, by Robert Bruce, despite his father being buried there.

A daughter house was established at Grey Abbey in Northern Ireland in 1193.

Monastic buildings

The buildings were of red sandstone from the other side of the Solway. Archaeological excavations from 2006 onwards have shown that the monastic buildings extended to the south of the church, and followed the usual Cistercian pattern. The church was along the north side of the cloister, with other buildings on the other three sides, the refectory being opposite the church and the chapter house to the west.[3]


The monastic community was dissolved in 1538, when the parish petitioned for, and (unusually) obtained, the use of the church, with the abbot becoming the first rector. The right of presenting to the living passed to the University of Oxford which did little to maintain the fabric of the building.

The church building

It was the usual fate of former monastic buildings to have their dressed stones used for secular purposes. The church itself was spared this, not only being used for services but also there as a place of refuge in Scottish raids. However, the neglect it suffered resulted in a gradual deterioration with a couple of actual disasters. In 1703 an energetic Bishop of Carlisle made arrangements for restoration work to be carried out. The crossing tower having fallen, the church was reduced to the nave, which in turn was shortened and narrowed by removal of the aisles. This still left a massive building more than adequate to the needs of the parish. The work was completed in 1730, and further work was carried out in 1833 and 1913.

The church was severely damaged by arson on 9 June 2006, when original records of the monastery, including the cartulary, were destroyed. Following this, the opportunity was taken to carry out archaeological investigations beneath the floor, and to use this work to reconstruct the heating.


  1. Brooke, Daphne. Wild Men and Holy Places. Canongate Books. 1994
  2. Salmon, M. A history of St John's Church, Newton Arlosh. Information leaflet. 1991
  3. West Cumbria Archaeological Society. Archaeological Investigations 2006—2010. Information leaflet. 2011