One of the most exciting features of Urswick Church
is that the various building phases, developments and to some extent,
the social history of many generations, can still be clearly seen
in the ‘fabric’ of the building. The claim that it is
probably one of the oldest churches in England to have had continuous
worship is not without foundations.
going archaeological and historical work related to its origins
(see ‘Beacon on the Bay’
by Steve Dickinson) suggests strongly a Christian presence and some
sort of ‘church’ building in the Romano-British period
(Roman artefacts, parts of a dedication stone, and masonry built
into the walls confirms such a claim); a recently uncovered ‘foundation
stone’ again suggests a very old establishment as does the
presence of the ‘Trumwinni Cross’ which has been dated
to about the 7th century at the latest. As time goes on more might
be revealed about the earliest period of its existence although
evidence is hard to come by considering the nature of materials
used in those days.
We have also clear evidence of Christianity here during
the Viking years (again, a cross fragment can be seen in the church
today, having been discovered built into the chancel wall during
renovations in about 1910). The fact that many of these pieces represent
several periods perhaps supports a spell of restoration and rebuilding
using local materials at about the time of the coming of the Normans.
The statement by Thomas Urswick in a book he wrote about the ‘Records
of the Family of Urswyk, Urswick, or Urwick’, edited by Revd.
William Urswick and published in 1898, that ‘on the top of
the hill which overlooks the deep Tarn by the shores of which the
village stands, and peeping from the woods which then clothed its
brow, might be seen the massive ruins of a rude fortress, probably
of ancient British origin; a mere heap of stones had it become,
but it was useful whereupon to raise one of those numerous beacons
so necessary to give warning of the approach of the Scots and other
marauding tribes’ could of course refer to the old hill fort,
but there is no evidence to date to support this. A significant
strengthening of the church and its tower perhaps makes more sense.
What is clear is that when Furness Abbey was founded in 1127 by
the Charter of Stephen, Earl of Bologne, including all of his possessions
in Furness with the exception of those lands owned by Sir Michael
le Fleming; Sir Michael gave to the Abbot two coastal villages (
Ros and Crivelton) in exchange for the manors of Bardsea and Urswick.
Urswick Church was not included in this transaction because the
Abbot had already bestowed it upon his son-in-law, Daniel.
A guide to the Parish Church of Urswick written by
L.Pollitt in 1977 draws much on the work of the Revd. T N Postlethwaite
published in 1924 and gives us several helpful glimpses of the different
phases of building.
He states that ‘outside the church, along both the north and
south walls of the nave, can be seen a series of regularly spaced
holes at a height of about two thirds of that of the present walls.
These holes ( arch-holes) may have supported light timbers which
carried a steep roof, possibly made of reeds. Later the walls were
raised and windows inserted. The masonry below the arch-holes is
if a noticeably crude character’. The church was re-roofed
The Tower was probably an addition to the original
church, ‘the lower part pre-Norman’ and would have been
low and squat and possibly saddle-backed. It would have been a pele
tower used to protect the local settlers and their animals. The
Tower was built higher during Tudor times and the embattlement and
buttresses added. High up on the west front of the Tower are three
niches, the left hand one contains a time-worn Mater Dolorosa, a
depiction in red sandstone of the Virgin Mary with the dead body
of Jesus in her arms.
The porch and the chancel were further additions to
the original structure; their walls are not bonded into the nave
which supports this supposition. Pollitt suggests that the chancel
wall was either pierced in the East wall of the nave or raised from
an existing apse.
In 1751 a ceiling was constructed and the oak beams
covered up and the walls plastered. When renovations took place
early in the 20th century the oak beams were exposed and also some
suggestion of coloured murals on part of the nave walls which had
been covered up by the plaster; they were too poor to retain! A
gallery pew (known as the Gale pew) was erected by Christopher Wilson
of Bardsea in 1759 and the pulpit moved across to the north side
of the church.
The church seems to have survived the Commonwealth
era quite happily although it was recorded in 1650 that one of its
patrons, Mr Anderton of Bardsey, was a ‘papist delinquent’
and that the ‘viccar officiating the cure of the church (Nicholas
Marshall), was both vicar of the church and maister of the Free
School, but that he is scandalous in life and negligent in both
his callings’ (Lambeth MSS)
In 1828 drastic renovations took place, the chancel
being in a ruinous state; consequently the top portion of the walls
were rebuilt and timber put into the roof. The chancel flooring
was also relaid with Hutton Roof (near Kendal) flagstones. The West
Gallery was inserted and the old irregular oak seats replaced with
uniform pews. The Three- decker pulpit, of Georgian origin, was
moved to the north side of the chancel arch (and to its current
position in 1907). The tiled reredos which had been made in 1840
was removed from the east wall in 1907 and the present oak panelling
For some reason the original font (now restored) was
removed from the church and ‘stored’ in the garden of
William Cranke, being returned at the beginning of the 20th century,
Its oak cover in memory of Henry Richmond Houghton Gale and his
wife Emma, has the heads of their four daughters depicted in the
centre; this is dated 1921.
A very distinctive feature of the reordering at the
beginning of the 20th century is the wonderful craftsmanship in
wood, much of it executed by Alec Miller of the Chipping Campden
Guild of Craftsmen and donated by Miss Petty of Ulverston in memory
of Thomas Shaw Petty of Well House, Bardsea.
Revd. Thomas Edmund Petty, formerly of London
(hence perhaps the link with the Chipping Campden Guild which originated
in London) had purchased and had been responsible for completing
the building of Holy Trinity church, Bardsea. He was its first curate-in-charge.
His sister endowed Bardsea School in 1852.
Life in a church never stands still and again in recent years a
significant restoration programme has been successfully carried
out and a new heating system installed; currently plans are in place
to refurbish the Tower, to reinstate the ‘bell ringers floor’
and to provide space in the Tower well for a permanent exhibition
celebrating the life and the heritage of both church and community.