Lanercost Priory: Undercroft


Beneath the refectory (dining room) in the south cloister range at Lanercost Priory is the vaulted undercroft. Originally divided in two, the undercroft was built during the mid 13th century and provided plenty of space for storage of food and drink. The last three bays were known as the warming room, the only place the canons were allowed to keep warm in front of a fire. As with the other monastic buildings at the priory, the undercroft is constructed of dressed sandstone and originally lay beneath the refectory which was a victim of the Dissolution.


Providing a practical way for masons to identify which pieces of masonry they have produced, the marks of the masons were used both as a way for masons to ensure they were paid for their work and as a quality control. Many such marks (above and below) can be found on numerous stones around the priory.


The marks of the masons provide us with evidence for the working practices of the highly-skilled and able men who constructed the magnificent stone structures of the past. The marks were put on the stone for entirely practical reasons and in answer to the particular needs of the industry. Most masons only worked on site between the spring and the autumn and work was scaled right down during the winter when it was not possible to build for fear of frost damaging the partially complete structure.


Archaeological excavations in 1994 recorded eighty seven masons marks with tooling marks evident on most of the masonry wall blocks. The position of the marks on the lower courses of the wall above the foundations suggest that they are related to the first phases of construction of the priory church in circa 1200 A.D. We may not be able to identify, or name, all the masons from their marks but we can use them to deepen our understanding of their work and appreciate more the buildings that they helped to create.


The undercroft contains replicas of Roman altars and tombstones found near Lanercost over the last 200 years. The above relief sculpture depicts Hercules on the left and Jupiter on the right. A similar relief was found in 1821 at Birdoswald Roman Fort and a more detailed description can be found in my earlier post entitled Gilsland: Birdoswald Relief Carving (July).


The above altar is dedicated “To Jupiter, Best and Greatest, the First Aelian Cohort of Dacians… willingly and deservedly fulfiled its vow, with (…) rinus, beneficiarius, in charge of the work.” The Province of Dacia was situated in Romania and a beneficiarius was someone who had been seconded for special duties.


The above altar is “To the god Cocidius the soldiers of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix willingly and deservedly fulfiled their vow in the consulship of Apr… and Ruf…” Cocidius was a native god and is identified with the Roman gods Mars and Silvanus. This altar was dedicated in AD 153. On the left hand side is a jug and on the right is a dish for pouring the libation or offering on to the top of the altar. A wild boar, symbol of the Twentieth Legion, is portrayed on the base of the altar. This altar was found in the foundations of Milecastle 52 at Bankshead.


The above altar is “To the god Cocidius the soldiers of the Second Legion Augusta willingly and deservedly fulfiled their vow.” This altar was also found in the foundations of Milecastle 52 at Bankshead.


The above altar is “To the holy god Cocidius, Annius Victor, legionary centurion.” The cult of Cocidius was limited to north Britain and most of the dedications to him come from Hadrian’s Wall or its vicinity.

Gilsland: Genii Cucullati


On display as part of an exhibition at Birdoswald Roman Fort is the above stone figurine. The small figure is of a god called Genius and is of a type called Genii Cucullati (meaning hooded spirit). Wearing a full length hooded robe, such figures were spirits of place and both stone altar pieces and small votive figures in rock and bronze have been found throughout Roman Britain and Gaul. Genii Cucullati sculptures resemble those of the Greco-Roman deity Telesphorus who was the son and hooded attendant of Asclepius. Like many mythological figures, Asclepius was trained by the wise and gentle Chiron (a centaur and tutor of heroes) and became a heroic physician (Illiad). As the son of Apollo, the god of medicine, Asclepius himself was transformed into a god and his birthplace became Epidaurus, the major centre of his worship in ancient Greece. His son Telesphorus was also depicted cloaked and he was the protector of children and deity of fertility with his powers lying in the realms of sleep and dreams. Small carved cucullati have been found on the continent as grave goods which suggests they were viewed as protectors both during life and after death. Ancestors of the Landvættir (spirits of the land in Norse mythology), the Genii Cucullati derived from popular tradition and were a deity connected with the earth, agriculture and healing. The Genius (guardian spirit of a person) also represented the creative power of a man and was associated with the continued well-being of the family. Slaves swore oaths by the Genius of the head of the family and offerings were made to it on his birthday. The equivalent of the male Genius for women was her Juno. These wonderful sculpted figures represent a multitude of religious connotations and often appear in trios.

Gilsland: Birdoswald Farmhouse


West Tower

The west gate of Birdoswald leads straight down the former main street of the Roman fort, the via principalis. The intervallum road ran around the inside of the fort walls and adjacent to the archaeological site stands a 17th century farmhouse. Now providing accommodation for visitors, the earliest section of the farmhouse (east of the porch) dates from the late 17th century. The central part, excluding the tower and porch, was built in the mid 18th century by Anthony and Margaret Bowman. The tower and porch were added in 1858 by the then owner Henry Norman, giving the building its current form. Constructed of coursed rubble masonry, the rendered building features a castellated gabled central porch and a two storey tower with battlements in the form of a tower house.


South west elevation

The 16th century was the age of the reivers, the border robbers and bandits who made cattle rustling and theft a major industry on both the Scottish and English sides. Special Border laws and customs evolved in the area to deal with the common feuds and troubles. By the late 16th century, the Birdoswald farms were tenanted by members of the local Tweedle clan and bastle houses, such as at Birdoswald, were typical of the type of defensive building constructed as protection from such attacks. Steps were taken to suppress the reivers after James I became king. In 1599, Birdoswald received its first known antiquarian visitor, Reginald Bainbrigg, a schoolmaster from Appleby. In 1603 landowner William Howard, 1st Earl of Carlisle and known as Belted Will, commissioned a survey of the Barony of Gilsland which recorded the bastle house at Birdoswald.


By the mid 18th century, the tenant farmers of the Barony of Gilsland had become freeholders. Anthony and Margaret Bowman added the main part of the house in 1745, the year of the Jacobite Rebellion. During the 1840’s, the Birdoswald Estate was purchased by Henry Norman who developed a strong interest in the fort and its history. He was the first person to employ archaeologists to conduct excavations on site. Henry Norman added a tower and a porch to the farmhouse, giving it the appearance of an imposing medieval building as it was fashionable at the time. Norman loved the place so much that he named his son Oswald and in 1901, Oswald auctioned off the estate and sold his father’s collection of sculpture and inscriptions to Tullie House Museum in Carlisle. The farmhouse is Grade II Listed.


Gilsland: Birdoswald Altar


On display as part of an exhibition at Birdoswald Roman Fort is the above altar. Found in 1821, large numbers of inscriptions dating to the 3rd century AD have been discovered. The altar, which also dates to the 3rd century AD, is dedicated to Silvanus by the Venatores Bannienses (Deo Sancto silvano ue natores Banniess). Silvanus was the Roman god of woodland and uncultivated land and the altar contains the only inscription to show the fort’s Roman name Banna. Several inscriptions that date to this period refer to the new garrison which remained until the late 4th century AD – the cohors Aelia Dacorum milaria, an infantry regiment 1000 strong which had originally been raised in Dacia, modern Romania. The unit is recorded on a large number of altars dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Jupiter Best and Greatest) by a succession of commanding officers or tribunes. Almost certainly referring to this garrison, ue natores also corresponds with other late military titles and does not refer to actual hunting although hunters are attested amongst legionary troops. This specialist skill carried with it exemption from normal fatigue duties.


Gilsland: Birdoswald Relief Carving


On display as part of an exhibition at Birdoswald Roman Fort is the above stone relief. Carved in local sandstone, the relief depicts Hercules (left) and Jupiter (right) and was found in 1821. Associated with valour, hardiness and endurance, Hercules was normally depicted holding a club. Symbolising the virtues of justice, good faith and honour, Jupiter became the protector of state and was the god of light and sky responsible for rain, hail, snow and thunder. Jupiter was also a warrior god whose aid was invoked before military undertaking and a portion of the spoils of war were always offered to him. The thunderbolt, which is missing, was raised in his hand to hurl and may have been made of iron or wood. He wears a clock which passes over his chest and hangs down by his left side.