Calder Abbey


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Location Description:
The monument is centred on NY05110640.
Statutory Address:
Calder Abbey, Calder Bridge, Seascale, CA20 1DZ


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Statutory Address:
Calder Abbey, Calder Bridge, Seascale, CA20 1DZ

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
The monument is centred on NY05110640.
Copeland (District Authority)
St. Bridget Beckermet
National Park:
National Grid Reference:


The upstanding remains, earthworks and buried remains of a medieval Cistercian abbey.

Reasons for Designation

Calder Abbey is scheduled for the following principal reasons: * Survival: a substantial proportion of standing medieval fabric survives, including considerable architectural detail of the claustral complex, together with earthworks and below-ground archaeological deposits; * Rarity: the ‘Monk’s Oven’ is considered to be a rare survival of a medieval corn drying kiln and is among the best preserved in the country; * Potential: a large proportion of the site is undisturbed and unexcavated, including much of the claustral complex, and will therefore hold a high degree of potential for further archaeological investigation; * Documentation: Calder Abbey is relatively well documented in historical and archaeological terms, which provide a valuable contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the site.


From the time of Augustine’s mission to re-establish Christianity in England in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated that over 700 monasteries were founded in England. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy: as a result, they vary in the detail of layout and appearance although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation, and work buildings.

Calder Abbey was initially a Savigniac foundation but later became a Cistercian monastery. The Savigniac Order developed in France in the early 12th century as a reaction against the corruption and excesses which characterised established orders. The founding house at Savigny in France was established between 1109 and 1112. Their order was based upon the Rule of St Benedict but included greater simplicity of life and seclusion from the secular world. The order of Savigny established 13 houses in England and Wales before being absorbed into the Cistercian order in 1147. Their monasteries were founded on lands so infertile or exposed that the communities were unable to survive. Several moved sites before eventually becoming Cistercian houses. The Cistercians, known as the ‘White Monks’ from their undyed habits, believed in a life of austerity, prayer and manual labour. They established a total of 62 abbeys in England.

In 1135 a group of twelve monks were sent from Furness Abbey, Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, to found the Savigniac abbey at Calder, under the leadership of Abbot Gerald. The land was granted by Ranulf le Meschin, Lord of Copeland who had his seat at nearby Egremont Castle. Its first possessions, confirmed in a papal bull, included a mill, a house, two saltworks in Whitehaven, fisheries of Derwent and Ehen, and pannage for pigs. In 1138 the monks were driven out by Scottish raids and returned to Furness Abbey with their possessions in a cart pulled by eight oxen. Once they arrived there was a dispute; Abbot Gerald was unwilling to resign his abbacy, and they were not admitted. The monks moved to several sites before settling near Coxwold, North Yorkshire, where they established Byland Abbey. In about 1143 a second group of monks led by Abbot Hardred was sent from Furness to re-found Calder Abbey, this time successfully. It became Cistercian after the Savigniac Order was united with the Cistercians in 1147.

Initially, at least, Calder Abbey was probably constructed in timber but by 1175 a stone church had been built, of which the Norman west door is the main survivor. Between 1215 and 1240 the abbey was rebuilt in the Early English style by Thomas de Multon of Egremont. It was never a wealthy monastic house. A papal taxation survey in 1291 reveals that its income from ‘temporalities’ (i.e. possessions other than churches) was £32. By 1314 income had dropped to just £5, probably due to the wars with Scotland raids and a series of bad harvests. In 1535 it is recorded that there were ‘gardens, small orchards, close and [a] mill within the precincts’, and a survey of the following year shows that its total net income was just over £93 (Thorley 2004, 154).

The Abbey was dissolved in 1536 and purchased by Thomas Leigh who stripped the roofs and sold the contents. The south range of the cloister was altered to form a house, now known as Calder Abbey House. Stone was gradually carted off for use in nearby properties. Eventually the south transept of the church was altered to form a cow-byre and the west gatehouse became a hayloft. The abbey is depicted in a painting of circa 1730 by Matthias Read in Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, which shows the church and east range largely in its current ruinous condition but with gabled ranges on the south and west side of the cloister, and a barn at the north-west angle of the church. Also shown is: a long rectangular gabled range and two smaller buildings north of the claustral complex; a churchyard or walled garden at the east; the west gatehouse; and a fishpond to the south-west. An estate survey plan of 1788 in Whitehaven Archive Centre depicts the abbey and surrounding land.

Calder Abbey House was re-fronted by the Senhouse family in the 1780s, who diverted the road and planted woods. In the 1840s Mary Senhouse married Thomas Irwin, and together they had the north wing of the house rebuilt, a west porch added, and a new riverside walk created to the parish church at Calder Bridge. In the late C19 part of the abbey ruins were restored by the owner Thomas Rymer, including the west doorway and chapterhouse. Further repairs were carried out to the chapterhouse vault at the beginning of the C21 when an asphalt covering was applied.

INVESTIGATION HISTORY In 1881 a small excavation was undertaken on the site by Dr Parker and Rev. Arthur Loftie when the steps to the west door, part of the pulpitum (chancel screen), the chancel and part of the south transept were excavated. In 1947 some trial-pits were dug on the site of the monastic infirmary, to the south-west of the cloister, by Mr Marlow of the Abbey Estate. A measured survey was carried out in 1985-86 by Cumbria County Council, which identified the earthworks of a former fishpond to the east of the abbey, among other features.


PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS The upstanding remains, earthworks and buried remains of a Cistercian abbey, known as Calder Abbey. It is situated on gently sloping ground at the foot of the Calder River valley, 1km north-east of Calder Bridge.

PRECINCT The monastic precinct at Calder Abbey is considered to have covered about 30 acres. There are no known traces of a precinct boundary, although the west gatehouse remains upstanding. Beyond the gatehouse are the monastic church and cloister and further east (in the field now called ‘Abbey Mews’) were several other buildings, now surviving as buried remains; the Infirmary, agricultural buildings and mill, as well as the upstanding remains of a corn-drying kiln. The abbey water-supply was obtained by a stone-lined leat from the river to the north-east, which remains intact for a large part of its course.

THE CLAUSTRAL PLAN The ground plan of the claustral complex consisted of a large abbey church at the north and domestic buildings surrounding a cloister immediately south of the nave. In a clockwise direction these comprised: an east range with a book cupboard, chapter house, slype (covered passage), parlour and monks’ dorter (dormitory); a south range with a warming house, monks frater (refectory), kitchen and probably a reredorter (communal latrine); and a west range with a cellar. To the east of the east range of the cloister was an infirmary hall.

THE CHURCH The monastic church, which is about 45m long and 25m wide across the transepts, survives as upstanding and buried remains. It is cruciform in plan with an aisled nave, a crossing tower, north and south transepts each with two chapels, and a rectangular chancel. This was a typical Cistercian layout except for the unusual provision of the crossing tower. The church is now roofless but the upstanding remains include part of the west front, the north arcade, crossing tower, the north and south transept, and the west end of the chancel. In common with the rest of the claustral complex, it is built of coursed and dressed red sandstone with a rubble stone core. The north part of the west front remains upstanding to nearly 4m high and includes the west doorway into the nave. It was built in about 1175 and has a round-headed arch of three orders springing from water-leaf capitals on colonnettes. The nave is five bays long with foundations of the pulpitum (chancel screen) in the second bay from the crossing. Only the north arcade, built between 1215 and 1240, remains upstanding. The north and south aisle walls are no longer visible but will survive as below-ground foundations. The north arcade is formed of five pointed, chamfered arches carried on alternating octagonal and quatrefoil piers with water-holding bases. The third pier from the west is distinguished by zig-zag leaf decoration, which is also seen on a hoodmould at nearby Egremont Castle.

Further north the crossing tower remains upstanding to about 2m above the level of the arches. The arches are twice chamfered with canted responds at the north and south and semi-circular responds resting on brackets at the east and west. The scar of a steeply pitched roof can be seen on the west side of the tower. Further successive scars indicate downsizing over time. The north transept retains the (now blocked) arch of the north chapel arcade, springings of a vaulted ceiling, and an early C13 north doorway; a pointed arch of two moulded orders.

The chancel is cut short at the west reveals of a pair of tall transomed lancet windows. Partial excavation has recorded the footings of the walls beyond. At the west end, near the crossing tower, are four effigies; three C14 recumbent knights in armour and an abbot under an ogee canopy. In the south wall are three sedilia (seats for the clergy) and a pointed doorway leading to the south transept chapel. These are gathered into one composition under trefoil-headed arches.

The south transept has two bays of pointed arches, supported on a central quatrefoil pier, leading into two chapels at the east. Above these arches is a triforium arcade formed of chamfered and pointed arches with large quatrefoils in the spandrels. In the east and west wall of each bay is a set of two lancet windows, and above the latter is a further set of tall trefoil-headed lights. A pointed doorway 2.7m above floor level in the south wall marks the position of the timber night-stair giving access to the dorter and a newel stair in the tower.

EAST RANGE Abutting the south transept is the chapter house. It is approached from the cloister through a pointed doorway of three moulded orders, set between two similar openings containing Y-tracery. That at the north provides access to a small rib-vaulted book cupboard. The chapterhouse was formed of three rib-vaulted bays although only the eastern vault remains intact. In the east wall is a late C13 window with some remains of geometrical tracery. Immediately south of the chapterhouse is a slype and an undercroft. Above them was the dorter (dormitory), lit by a row of lancet windows. It was linked to the monk’s night-stair by a passage across the chapterhouse.

SOUTH RANGE The south range originally incorporated the warming house, kitchen, frater, and probably the reredorter. However the remains of this range are now largely incorporated into Calder Abbey House (Grade I listed), which is excluded from the scheduling.

WEST RANGE AND CLOISTER The cloister originally incorporated an open courtyard surrounded by an ambulatory (covered walkway), and the west range provided the monks cellarium (cellar). These buildings are no longer standing but will survive as below-ground foundations. Attached to the north-east angle of the church was a barn that was added in the C16 or C17 and will also survive as below-ground remains. It is shown on the 1788 abbey estate plan.

Immediately south-west of the cloister are the buried remains of another building, recorded as earthworks during a measured survey in 1985-6. It is partly covered by building stone from the abbey.

CEMETERY Immediately to the east of the chancel of the abbey church, in the field now known as Abbey Mews, are the buried remains of the cemetery.

INFIRMARY The monastic infirmary survives as below-ground remains immediately south-east of the claustral complex, within Abbey Mews. Partial excavation has indicated that it is L-shaped in plan with a main range, approximately 37m long and 9m wide, and a projecting south wing. The walls are constructed of freestone masonry and rubble to nearly 1m wide, which indicates that they were dwarf walls carrying a timber superstructure. A doorway is situated at the east end and internally the building is partitioned by cross-walls.

WEST GATEHOUSE The west gatehouse, a C14 building that was converted to agricultural use in the C17 or C18, remains upstanding and is Grade II* listed. It is two storeys high and built of coursed and dressed red sandstone with a gabled slate roof. In the east and west elevations are pointed wagon arches of two chamfered orders. The west arch springs from chamfered imposts but the east arch, now blocked by coursed rubble, is continuously moulded. In the north wall are three small splayed windows, now blocked, to the ground floor and an inserted doorway. At first floor level there are C17 two-light mullioned windows in each side. Internally there are two king post roof trusses and a C20 timber gallery at the west end. The former byre range (now a house) attached to the north, the boundary walls at the east and west, and the lean-to at the east, are all excluded from the scheduling. The timber doorways in the east and west elevations of the gatehouse and the C20 timber gallery fitted internally are also excluded but the ground beneath them is included.

MONK’S OVEN, MILL AND DOVECOTE About 115m north-east of the church is a (Grade II* listed) building that is traditionally known as the ‘Monk’s Oven’, although it probably served as a corn-drying kiln. It is shown on the 1788 abbey estate plan. The building is constructed of coursed rubble but much of the exterior stonework has been robbed out leaving an earth-covered mound. At the south is a moulded round-headed arched doorway with large, prominent, voussoirs. Internally it is nearly 4m in diameter and about 1.5m high with a tightly-packed stone rubble floor and domed roof. Adjacent to the oven are the buried remains of a mill that was fed by the stone-lined leat that runs north-east to south-west to the cloistral complex. Approximately 22m south-east of the ‘Monk’s Oven’ are the buried remains of a building with a circular foundation, probably a dovecote.

About 50m WNW of the ‘Monk’s Oven’ are earthworks of possible building foundations, indicating a long rectangular range orientated east-west with internal (north-south) partition walls. It appears as cropmarks on aerial photographs taken in February 1981.

Immediately north-east of the ‘Monk’s Oven’ is a C19 turbine house; a rectangular building with a crow-stepped gabled roof, which is excluded from the scheduling.

FISHPOND Approximately 145m east of the church are the earthworks of a medieval fishpond recorded by measured survey in 1985-6. It is orientated north to south and forms a broadly rectangular depression about 37m long by 15m wide. A bank, about 1m high and 5m wide, delimits the west side.

EXCLUSIONS The monument excludes all modern fences and fence posts, gates and gate posts, railings, garden ornaments, telegraph poles and oil tanks but the ground beneath these features is included. Calder Abbey House and the C19 turbine house to the north-east are completely excluded.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
CU 307
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Cumberland and Westmorland, (1970), 213-217
Thorley, J, 'The Estates of Calder Abbey' in Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological and Antiquarian Society, , Vol. 4, (2004), 133-162
Loftie, A, 'Explorations at Calder Abbey' in Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological and Antiquarian Society, , Vol. 6, (1883), 368-72
Loftie, A, 'Calder Abbey' in Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological and Antiquarian Society, , Vol. 8, (1886), 467-504
Fair, M, 'Calder Abbey' in Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, , Vol. 53, (1954), 81-97
Cumbria County Council HER, Measured Survey Plan of Calder Abbey for Cumbria Historic Parks and Gardens Register Review (1985-86)
English Heritage Archive, Aerial Photographs of Calder Abbey taken 10 Feb 1981, Ref: NY0506_1 CLU1637_30
Gilchrist, R, English Heritage MPP Monument Class Description: Post-Conquest Monasteries for Men, (1989)
Oil Painting entitled 'Prospect of Calder Abbey' by Matthias Read, circa 1730, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria
Whitehaven Archive and Local Studies Centre, May 1788 Survey and Plan of Calder Abbey and Stephney estates of Joseph Tiffin Senhouse, Surveyor R Lawson, Ref:YDX37/5 and YDX37/2/1


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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