Great Urswick – St Mary and St Michael’s Church
St Mary and St Michael’s Church is the oldest church in the Furness area. Tradition says a church has existed on this site since the 10th Century. 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. These cross fragments are on view inside the Church.
As you enter the knave, the oldest part of the Church, is a hexagonal font which dates from the Medieval period. It has a splendid carved cover, showing dolphins encircling the heads of children. The chancel arch has a an oak rood beam with a cross bearing a dove supported by angels. There are various stained glass windows worth looking at. The East window is unusual in that it contains various Coats of Arms. In the centre are the Arms of Queen Mary (1554).
Lovers of good carving will find much to admire. Much of it was done by Alec Miller, of the Guild of Handicrafts, Chipping Camden in the early 20th Century. The figure on the North side of the chancel is St James the pilgrim, bearing the scallop shell motif. This motif is repeated in many parts of the Church.
The altar painting of the Last Supper is by local artist James Cranke, who did much to inspire the Dalton born artist George Romney, in his early years. (Work by Romney may be seen at Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal.)
The walls of the tower are of considerable thickness, and the lower part was probably used as a pele tower to protect animals and inhabitants from marauders. The tower contains four bells, the oldest of which came from Conishead Priory after the dissolution.
Every year on the Sunday nearest St Michael’s day (Sep 29th), Great Urswick celebrates its Rushbearing Festival. This custom dates back to the days when the earthen floor of the church was strewn with rushes for warmth and cleanliness. Although the floor is now flagged, the ceremony still continues.
From the east side of the Church is a view over Urswick Tarn, with its abundance of water birds.
The stone was found on the site by a turn-of-the-century vicar and was investigated on the site by the respected historian W.G. Collingwood, who believed that it was a fragment of a Northumbrian cross dated at the earliest to 850 AD. However Steve Dickinson, a Barrow born archaeologist, believes that the parish church rune stone holds the key to a fascinating 1600 year-old story that reveals the origins of Christianity in Britain.
The stone was revealed when the church was under-going restoration. It had been used as a lintel over one of the windows. It is beautifully carved, with a panel of runic writing, and a carving of two figures at the bottom. Within these two panels lies a mystery, and the intriguing glimpse of our past, when the Roman Church strived to over-come the Celtic Church.
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