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St. Mary and St. Michael's Church, Great Urswick

This church is part of a group of seven parishes known as the 'Low Furness Group of Parishes'. It has strong links with the United Reformed Church in Urswick, sharing worship and many social events.

In 1123 Stephen de Blois (later King Stephen of England 1135-1154) gave land at Tulketh near Preston to monks of the Order of Savigny. Four years later he gave land on which they built Furness Abbey. In 1148 the Order of Savigny was amalgamated with the Cistercian Order. The monks of Furness Abbey claimed patronage of the church at Urswick before 1148. Tradition has it that the church was founded 200-300 years earlier. Support for this belief is based on the discovery of a Viking cross in 1909 and in 1911 the Tunwinni Cross was found and dated by W.G. Collingwood as 9th Century.

Exterior view The original charter giving land to the monks who built Furness Abbey, refers to an already established church of St. Mary in Urswick. Later, reference was made to St. Mary in the Fields. The church is now known as St Mary the Virgin and St Michael. Rushbearing takes place on the Sunday nearest St. Michael's Day (29 September).

It is thought that an early church covered the area that now forms the Nave. Outside, on the north and south walls can be seen arch holes, these probably supported light timbers which carried a reed roof. The lower part of the tower is probably pre-Norman, the upper part being added in the Tudor period. On the west walls of the tower are three niches, one of which contains a Mater Dolorosa, which is said to have come from Furness Abbey.

Urswick stoneUrswick Church was featured recently in an article in the Evening Mail by Barrow born Steve Dickinson who believes that the parish church rune stone holds the key to a 1600 year-old story that reveals the origins of Christianity in Britain. Steve, an archeologist for more than 20 years, was always fascinated by the rune stone which has stood on the windowsill of the church since before he was born. The stone was found on the site by a turn-of-the-century vicar and was investigated on the site by the respected historian WG Collingwood, who believed that it was a fragment of a Northumbrian cross dated at the earliest to 850 AD.

Scholars did not seem to be able to come up with any explanation for the two carved figures on the stones and after further investigation Steve made a detailed and painstaking analysis of the inscriptions, finding that the runes were imposed on fragments of earlier writing. He believes that he has discovered two names, which point to an historic meeting between a 7th century Irish cleric and the seventh Archbishop of Canterbury, a meeting which changed the balance of power in the early Christian church from Celtic to Roman.

Steve realised that this meeting could have taken place at Great Urswick, putting Furness at the centre of one of the most significant power struggles of the time and demonstrating that there must have been an early monastery at Great Urswick, literally the first monastery of Furness. Cracks in the church wall indicate that there must have been a much earlier church on the site, parts of which remain in traces of earlier arches and part of an earlier gable end, now forming a wall inside the church. Steve believes that part of the church dates back to as early as 1600 years ago, which would make it the earliest bit of any church in the country.

2011 UPDATE

Life in the Church never stands still and again in recent years a significant restoration programme has been successfully completed. A new heating system installed; the tower has been refurbished and the 'bell ringers' floor has been reinstated. On the ground floor a 'display' has been installed celebrating the life and the heritage of both church and community.

The 'display' was donated to the Church by Hidden Light in Partnership with Hidden Britain Centres Projects. Hidden Light was set up to develop Low Furness as a tourism destination, through community led and managed tourism projects. The 'display' depicts the history of Low Furness and its heritage arising from detailed archaelogical, architectural and historic research programmes. The photographs below are of various views of the 'display' taken inside the Church tower:

Tower display

Tower display

Visitors to Urswick Church and its Heritage Display have travelled from all parts of the UK and from Australia, Canada and USA.

Comments from our Display Visitors Book include:

  • G & B Tyldsley, Bolton: Fascinating
  • Joanna & Eric Shaw, Grange-over-Sands: Very interesting
  • Fr John Master, Keswick: Impressive history
  • Ken Eustace, Wagga, Wagga, NSW Australia: The history is amazing Rian Moffat, Ulverston: Taken a long time to visit but will be back
  • Robert Walker, Huddersfield: Love the history
  • Brian Trigg, Newport, Gwent: Brilliant
  • Bridget Davis, USA: Very happy to be here
  • Amy Miller, Canada: Need box for donations
  • Chris Abram, Carnforth: Making a film of the area.
  • Church was gem of historical interest. Display came as a pleasant surprise.
  • Patricia England, Heysham: Hope to bring a party here. Patricia has since made a return visit.
  • Pastors Keith & Kathleen Wall, Australia: Historic heritage splendid to behold. Well done.

Further reading:

Urswick Church and the George Washington connection

Ossick Coots and Collared Doves - The Story of Urswick and its Church

Urswick and its Christian origins explored (PDF)

Further history of Urswick church and support for its claim to be possibly the oldest church in England

Alec Miller, guildsman and sculptor in wood (Urswick Church Commissions) (PDF)