Gilcrux St Mary’s Church

Gilcrux, St Mary’s Church

St Mary’s Church, Gilcrux, dates to around AD 1100 and is believed to be Norman, although there are aspects of Anglo-Saxon architecture that suggest it might be slightly earlier. Christian worship at this site predates the church, evidenced by the remnants of an ancient cross dating to around AD 980.

Gilcrux - St Mary's Church. Pic N3073.

A building of great antiquity, and simple serenity, Grade II* listed St Mary’s Church has been the heart of Gilcrux village for nearly one thousand years.

Services are held at 11 am on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.
Everyone is most welcome, locals and visitors alike.
St Mary’s Church is in the Benefice of Aspatria with Hayton and Gilcrux. The current Vicar is the the Revd Canon Tim Herbert.

St Mary’s today

Recently St Mary’s Church has had a difficult and unsettled time as a result of the discovery of major problems with the building due to damp, and the need for the roof to be replaced. However, there have been have been real signs of hope and the village has rallied round. It is hoped that, through grant-aid and fund-raising, these problems will be addressed to ensure the ongoing life of the Church at the heart of the village.

image of an aerial view of St Mary's church, Gilcrux

Sunday lunch

There are two friendly pubs in the village, the Barn Bistro and the Mason’s Arms, within easy walking distance of St Mary’s Church. In both establishments you can enjoy excellent food and friendly company after the service.

The History of Gilcrux, St Mary’s Church

Text edited from “Some Notes for Visitors” by Mr F L Price.
Photos by Jan Fialkowski, unless otherwise indicated.

Gilcrux is a very ancient settlement. Its name is probably a corruption of the old Welsh “Cilcruc” which means ‘a nook by a little hill’, the hill being the mound on which the Parish church of St Mary, Gilcrux stands. This mound, which has a number of springs issuing from it, is typical of Celtic pre-Christian religious sites.

A stone head projecting externally from the east wall of the chancel is perhaps older than the church, and could have been connected with the pagan cult of the head.
image of a stone head, possibly pagan, on St Mary's Church, Gilcrux

The name of the village, and the site of the church, remind us that the district known as Cumbria, or Cumberland, remained in the hands of the Celtic people called Cymri, or Cumbri, long after the rest of England and much of southern Scotland had been occupied by the Anglo-Saxons. The latter began to move into Cumbria westwards from Northumbria, and northwards from Lancashire about AD 600.

Three hundred years later there was a second invasion, this time of Vikings, who earlier had settled in Ireland and the Isle of Man. The dialect of Cumbria bears many marks of their influence, as do its place names. Though the arrival of each wave of invaders was attended by some conflict it did not result in the complete destruction of the previous inhabitants. Celtic, Saxon and Viking settlements existed side-by-side, as the names of Cumbrian villages, rivers and mountains still bear witness.

Early Christianity

Christianity was established in Cumbria in Celtic times, and both Anglo-Saxons and Vikings were Christianized before they began to settle in the area. We cannot say, however, whether any place of Christian worship stood on this site before the present church. A Viking cross, of which two fragments are preserved, was certainly erected here about AD 980, and Christian burials could have taken place here then, and earlier.
Fragments of the Viking cross inside the church
image of the remnants of a Viking cross in St Mary's church in Gilcrux in Cumbria

St Mary’s Church, the Early Years

The church was built in the late eleventh, or early in the twelth, century. It is one of only five churches of such antiquity in the Solway Deanery and the architectural evidence suggests that it could be the oldest of the five.

The chancel arch is narrow, like Anglo-Saxon work, and unlike Norman chancel-arches, which were usually wide. However the thickness of the walls, three feet, is typical of Norman practice. An inspection of the exterior of the church shows white jointed masonry of small square(ish) stones, of the kind usually found in work of the early Norman period. If we say that St Mary’s was built about AD 1100, we shall not be exaggerating its age.
image of the interior of St Mary's church in Gilcrux

The church has a nave, chancel and south aisle, all erected before the end of the twelfth century. Small rural churches such as this usually consisted at first of nave and chancel only, with any side aisle being added later. That may have been the case here, but there are indications that the outer walls of the aisle formed part of the original structure.

The arcade of the aisle certainly belongs to the late twelfth century (AD 1175 – 1200), when the Norman style was developing into the Gothic, but the eastern arch springs from a respond which seems to be of the same date as the chancel arch.

The western respond of the arcade was designed to be a free standing column. This indicates that there was an intention to extend this south-aisle to the full length of the nave. Had this been done, the wall of the nave to the west of the arcade would have been replaced by a third arch, and the present west wall of the aisle would have been demolished. It was not done, however, and the arcade at its western end has an awkward junction, hidden by plaster, with the adjoining walls.

There are small differences of design between the arches of the arcade. These suggest that the eastern arch was built first, and the western arch a few years later. It is probable that the work was undertaken in stages, as funds became available, and that there was never enough money to build the third arch.


The Font

The font belongs to the earliest period of the building’s history. As is usual in fonts of such age, it has a bowl big enough to permit the immersion of an infant. It is in the form of a Norman ‘cushion’ capital, but there is no reason to believe what has been suggested, that it was fashioned from such a capital.

Bishop Nicholson (1703) described it as “broken and lumpish”. That criticism is perhaps just. The front is roughly executed, the diagonal striations on it indicating that the mason used a toothed axe, not a chisel, and it has suffered damage in its long history. The front rim has been cut away, and the other rims, where staples once used to secure the lid have been removed, have been crudely repaired with cement.

The covering and locking of fonts, to prevent the theft of the baptismal water, were ordered in AD 1236.

The 13th and 14th centuries

St Mary’s Windows

The windows of the church were at first narrow, round-headed loopholes set in splayed embrasures, one of which can still be seen in the north-east corner of the chancel. The window within it has been enlarged. The provision of bigger windows was commonly one of the first alterations made to Norman churches.

In the case of this building, we know that about AD 1220 the two windows in the south wall of the chancel were enlarged as ‘lancets’ in the early English Gothic style, and it is probable that the east window was similarly treated. One of these ‘lancets’ remains in the south-west corner of the chancel. Originally, the pointed head of this window would have been carried through the thickness of the wall, but at some time long ago it was changed to a flat lintel.
Visitor photo of St Mary’s, Gilcrux
image of Gilcrux church in the snow

In the sixteenth century, say about AD 1550, the lancet windows at the east and the south-east of the chancel were replaced by the present two-light windows of late Perpendicular, or Tudor, design.

Lintels and Tombstones

The lintel in the south-west corner of the chancel is formed from a fourteenth century tombstone, which was once the lid of a stone coffin.

On this lintel can be seen a partially concealed cross. The long, narrow shaft of this cross rises from a mound and ends in a floriated head, of which one arm, terminating in a fleur-de-lys, is just visible. Beside the shaft is a pair of shears, of a type commonly found on such tombstones.

It was long assumed that these were sheep-shears, and there was uncertainty as to their significance. It is more likely, however, that they are the similar, but smaller, domestic scissors of the Middle Ages, and indicate that the tombstone was that of a lady.

Part of another tombstone of the same age is kept within the church. From this fragment, it can be seen that the memorial bore a cross rising from steps, and beside it a sword. This indicates that it most probably covered the grave of a knight or gentleman.

The yeat-stoop (gate-post) of the small churchyard gate has had a chequered career. A careful examination will show that it was also once a tombstone, bearing a cross on steps and a sword.

Doorways and The Squint

There are doorways, now blocked, in the north wall of the nave and the south wall of the chancel. These were not part of the original fabric, but were made later, probably during the 14th century. The doorway in the chancel was the priest’s door, giving him access to what was considered his part of the church.
image of the squint in St Mary's church in Gilcrux
Another addition in the Middle Ages was the ‘squint’, the large hole cut through the wall from the nave to the chancel. Such squints, usually more elegant than this one, are common, The purpose of them, however, despite much speculation, is still not clear.

The Scottish Wars

There seems no doubt that St Mary’s, like many other churches on both sides of the border, was severely damaged during the Scottish Wars of AD 1296 to AD 1323. The building was valued at £2 6s 8d in AD 1291 and at just 10s in AD 1318.

Churches, being built of stone, were not easily destroyed. However they had roofs of timber and thatch which could burn. In this church the stonework above the font shows damage, which could have been caused by fire. The clearest evidence that the St Mary’s suffered at that time, however, is afforded by the signs of extensive repairs to the fabric of the church early in the 14th century.
image of Gilcrux church
The west wall of the nave and the south wall of the aisle was strengthened with buttresses. (The church, when first built, had no buttresses). A new south doorway was built, and two new windows, each of two lights, were placed in the south aisle.

There are signs that the repairs to the aisle came close to a rebuilding. The buttresses at the corner of the nave and the aisle were placed diagonally. This was something not done before AD 1300. If we suppose, as is reasonable, that the restoration of the church had to await the return of peace, and a measure of financial recovery, we can give an approximate date of AD 1330 to the buttresses, the south doorway, and the aisle windows.

The 17th century

At some time in the seventeenth century the roofs were reduced in pitch and the thatch was replaced with stone slabs. The principle roof timbers were retained but reworked. The original steep pitch of the roofs is revealed by the angle of the upper surfaces of the topstones at the corner of nave and chancel. The stone slabs were later replaced by slates, but when we do not know, save that it was before the plaster ceilings were put in. Bishop Nicholson, in AD 1703, noted that the church had then recently been reslated.

The window by the pulpit is of seventeenth century date.

The 18th century

The Royal Arms of George II were put up in the nave in AD 1759. The present bell and bell-cote were erected in AD 1794. It is probable that the plaster ceilings were also put in about that time.

The 19th century

In 1878, the two windows at the west end of the nave were put in. They were certainly enlargements, or replacements, of earlier windows. At the same date, the single-light window was put in the south aisle, and the present furniture of the nave was installed.

In 1888 the vestry was built, and the chancel was provided with choir stalls.
image of choir stalls in St Mary's church in Gilcrux

The boards bearing the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments were put up in 1832.


The sundial over the door was, when erected in 1836, the only means of regulating Gilcrux village’s clocks.

image of the sundial on St Mary's Church in Gilcrux

Faces of St Mary’s, Gilcrux

2 ancient faces, much eroded, can be seen on the capstone supporting the nave gable-cross. One on the south and the other on the north. A third, mentioned earlier, projects from the wall outside and above the east window.
The Revd Canon Tim Herbert. Tel: 016973 22712. Email: [email protected]

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Grid Ref NY 117328

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