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St Leonard’s Church

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St Leonard’s Church was built around 1100, in the reign of King Henry I. The church has undergone several changes during its 900 year history. The chancel is dated to the 12th Century. The nave was rebuilt in 1841 by G. Webster, and then further altered in 1900 by J. H. Martindale. The western baptistry, north porch, and vestry were added C1903.

The Chancel is built of sandstone blocks on a chamfered plinth, with pilaster buttresses and blocking. The rest of the church is in rubble with stepped buttresses and castellated parapets, and the roofs are slated with coped gables and apex crosses. Windows are early C20 copies of C16 windows (traceried to west end and south side). The church consists of a west baptistry, a nave with a north porch, and a chancel with a vestry. At the west end, over the porch, is a gabled double bellcote.

The walls and the plinths of the lych gate are in sandstone, built C1903 by J.H. Martindale. On the plinths is a wooden braced superstructure carrying a slate roof with gablets. On each side the walls, which are about 3 feet (0.91 m) high, are form quadrants that are ramped at the ends. On the walls are wrought iron scrolled railings 18 inches (460 mm) high, and on the ends are cast iron lamp supports.

A fine small Harrison organ was built in 1903 for St Leonard's Church by Francis J. Livesey, Organist of St. Bees Priory Church.

Old Parish Church of Cleator 1792 - 1841
Old Parish Church of Cleator 1792 - 1841
The Dissolution came into effect for St Leonard's church C1539. In 1541, the parish was brought into the diocese of Chester, but in 1856 this was changed to the diocese of Carlisle. The original parish was later divided, in 1870, with the creation of a church at Cleator Moor, which grew up as a result of the iron industry. Only the chancel of St Leonard’s Church is medieval, the nave having been rebuilt and enlarged in 1841. In the late C18, the walls of the chancel were raised about two feet, new pews were installed and the church was repainted, along with other changes.

Little is known about the early cross at Cleator, except that it was found in the walling around the churchyard (this cross should not to be confused with the so-called Fawn Cross). In the North wall one Norman window survives, though at a later date it was partially opened out on the exterior to let in more light. The church was largely restored in 1900-1903, when a new vestry, baptistry and porch were built. At the same time remains of a piscina were found in the S wall of the chancel. A carved animal also survives on a corbel stone on the SE exterior corner of the chancel.

Medieval Piscina, St Leonard's Church, Cleator
Medieval Piscina
Cleator’s overlord was the baron of Copeland/Egremont, which was given by Ranulph de Machines to his brother William in about 1120. Richard of Cleator (‘Ricardo de Cleterche’) is the earliest known lord of the manor of Cleator, mentioned for the first time in the late 12C. Richard appears to have been the son of Anketell. The latter's father was Durand, who seems to be the same knight recorded with King David I of Scotland at Lamplugh when that king granted a charter to St Bees (the charter must date to the period 1136-1153).

King Henry II took back control of these lands from Scotland in 1157. Richard of Cleator’s brother, Nicholas, is recorded as ‘Nicholao persona’, and this has been interpreted as the first reference to the church at Cleator, ‘persona’ seemingly meaning ‘parson’.

The rectory of the church at Cleator was held by Calder Abbey, founded 1134/5 as an offshoot of Furness Abbey. It is uncertain when the church at Cleator came into the possession of the monks of the abbey, as the chartulary for Calder Abbey no longer exists, but it was recorded at the Reformation as being in their possession. The first monks of Calder Abbey stayed for only four years, being forced out when the abbey was sacked by invading Scots. These monks then moved to several places, eventually settling at Byland. Only in 1142/3 was there a re-foundation of the abbey at Calder, when a new group  of monks from Furness moved back to the site. The Savigniac order merged with the Cistercians in 1147 (though at Calder, as at Furness, this may not have taken effect until 1148). In the Papal Tax Roll of 1291-2, the church at Cleator was assessed at £4. 13s. 4d. It is listed there as ‘Ecclesia de Cleter’, within the deaconry of ‘Couplandie’ (i.e. Copeland/Allerdale-above-Derwent).

In or around 1315, James Douglas attacked and burned the manor of Cleator during the fight for Scottish Independence, but there is no mention of an attack on the church. Further work on the church was carried out in the 15C, as evidenced by the surviving S windows of the chancel and by the discovery, in 1900-1903, of earlier sections of an E window. There is a variety of medieval spellings for Cleator, including ‘Cletergh’, ‘Cleterche’, ‘Cleterne’, ‘Cletour’ and ‘Cleter’.

The Old Parish Church Of Cleator, 1841 - 1900
The Old Parish Church Of Cleator, 1841 - 1900
  • The piscina was discovered in the 1900-1903 restorations when the walls were stripped back. It was formed from two carved stones, an upper one with recess and a lower one with bowl, the projection of which has been cut away. As a result of the cutting back of the latter stone, part of the original drainage hole can be seen at the centre of the present front surface. No decorative features, if there were any, survive on either stone. 
  • The surviving window on the N wall of the chancel has no carved decoration. The outer face was widened at some point in the past, presumably to let in more light. On the interior, there is a wide splay.
  • There is an animal carved on the SE corner of the chancel. It is weather-worn and sculpted from the same red sandstone as the surrounding stonework. The figure seems to be legless and has a humanoid face. There is a curved section at the animal's back, suggesting a kind of tail.
  • The loose fragment of a cross, now kept inside the church, is carved similarly on both sides (though one side is in better condition than the other). The four arms splay outwards in straight lines from a carved central ring, the centre of which is pierced, forming a circular hole through the stone. At least two of the sides have been cut back, presumably for reuse. From the surviving original edges, however, it appears that the head of the cross was set against a recessed circular area of stone. The base of the cross, formed by an extension of the lower arm, is broken off. There are no further decorative features carved into the stone.
In 1916, the Reverend Caesar Caine wrote that the section of cross had been built into one of the churchyard walls and suggested it originally formed part of a grave cover. Caine also listed it as 13C. In 1988 Rosemary Cramp suggested a date of late 11C to mid 12C for the cross. Cramp suggested that the cross was originally used as a head stone.

When the piscina was discovered in the restorations of 1900-3, it was proposed that it was contemporary with the walls, which appear to be part of the Norman church, and therefore contemporary with the north window of the chancel. Martindale suggested a date for this part of the church as early 12C. During the 20C restorations, it was discovered that the interior walling at the lower level was built of 'round cobbles' above which was dressed stone. The exterior of the chancel shows numerous changes, including a difference in stonework at various levels. The carved animal on the SE corner is enigmatic and its date uncertain. It has been suggested that it was one of the early corbels before the walls of the chancel were heightened in the 18C.

11th Century Cross built into the wall of St Leonards Church
11th Century Cross built into the wall of St Leonards Church

Saint Leonard

Leonard of Noblac (or of Limoges or Noblet; also known as Lienard, Linhart, Leonhard, Léonard, Leonardo, Annard) (died 559 AD), is a Frankish saint closely associated with the town and abbey of Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, in Haute-Vienne, in the Limousin (region) of France.

According to the romance that accrued to his name, recorded in an 11th-century vita, Leonard was a Frankish noble in the court of Clovis I, founder of the Merovingian dynasty. He was converted to Christianity along with the king, at Christmas 496, by Saint Remigius, Bishop of Reims. Leonard asked Clovis to grant him personally the right to liberate prisoners whom he would find worthy of it, at any time.

Leonard secured the release of a number of prisoners, for whom he has become a patron saint, then, declining the offer of a bishopric - a prerogative of Merovingian nobles - he entered the monastery at Micy near Orléans, under the direction of Saint Mesmin and Saint Lie. Then, according to his legend, Leonard became a hermit in the forest of Limousin, where he gathered a number of followers. Through his prayers the queen of the Franks safely bore a male child, and in recompense Leonard was given royal lands at Noblac, 21 km (13 mi) from Limoges. It is likely that the toponym was derived from the Latin family name Nobilius and the common Celtic element -ac, simply denoting a place. There he founded the abbey of Noblac, around which a village grew, named in his honour Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat.

According to legend, prisoners who invoked him from their cells saw their chains break before their eyes. Many came to him afterwards, bringing their heavy chains and irons to offer them in homage. A considerable number remained with him, and he often gave them part of his vast forest to clear and make ready for the labours of the fields, that they might have the means to live an honest life.
  • The bones of Saint Leonard, lie in the Romanesque collegial church of Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, Haute-Vienne, France.
St Leonard's Church, Cleator, as it is today
St Leonard's Church, Cleator, as it is today

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Cleator Moor | Cumbria: Little Ireland: St Leonard’s Church
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Cleator Moor | Cumbria: Little Ireland
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