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West Door and Courtyard.

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West door and courtyardThe magnificent West Door is one of the finest in Cumbria, and dates from about 1160. It is richly carved, with successive arcades of chevrons, in which are several 'Beakheads' of birds and beasts. The arcades spring from intricately carved capitals, beneath which there would have been sandstone pillars, but only one of these survives. Apart from some obvious modern restoration work to the right of the door, you are looking at a doorway that is unchanged in 850 years.

The Priory was founded sometime after 1120 by William de Meschines who had just been made Lord of Copeland by Henry 1. The Normans, who had only just conquered Cumberland in 1092, needed to establish their authority against the King of Scotland who still claimed to be overlord of Cumberland and the Scottish, Angle and Norse lords who had ruled it.

The Church was seen by the Normans as a crucial part of the Government - its clergy were literate and were used as ministers and clerks and its bishops at Durham and York exercised regal powers over the north of England. Hence the Priory had to be large and impressive to instil in the local population a sense of awe of both William and the Church itself.

William picked St Bees for his priory rather than Egremont where he built his castle, probably because there already was a Christian church here. We know from the Priory's foundation charter that the site is referred to as "Kirkby" - the settlement by the church. Because Bega is also mentioned, it was presumably already associated with her.
"I, William, son of Ranulf to all ... greetings ...I have given to God and to St Mary and to the holy virgin Bega for the salvation of myself and of my wife and of my sons and of my parents, six carucates of land in Kirkby and ... the manor which William the Bowman had...."

Dragon Stone at St BeesOpposite the door is an alcove with a Norman lintel stone showing a fight between St. Michael and a dragon. This is a fine example of Romanesque (Norman) art. The dragon has a head at its tail - to show the eternal fight of good and evil - and towers over St. Michael threateningly. The dragon is flanked by interlace and a dove of peace with Scandinavian and Celtic influences. The stone is dated about 1120 and may have been over the entrance to an early church or chapel. (Look at the back, you will see the rebate for the door). It was found in the 1860's when the south aisle wall was rebuilt.

Coffin StoneIn the alcove beneath the lintel is a cross which stood at the breast of the hill on the main road to Whitehaven. It is variously thought to be a "sanctuary" cross, marking the boundary of the parish, or a resting cross on a coffin road. The "coffin roads" date from medieval times when many West Cumbrian parishes did not have the licence to bury, and bodies were brought to St. Bees. These crosses served as symbolic resting-places en route.

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