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St Michael and All Angels, Torpenhow, Cumberland

(54°44′48″N, 3°14′11″W)
NY 205 398
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Cumberland
now Cumbria
medieval Carlisle
now Carlisle
  • James King
  • Jo Campbell-Mackenzie
08 Aug 2015

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Torpenhow is a village about 10 miles NE of Cockermouth, in the Lake District National Park. Parts of an early church survive within the present structure, including the W end of the chancel and the upper stonework of the nave arcades. The church was altered again in the 12thc, which included an E extension to the chancel and at least one of the two nave aisles. Further alterations were carried out in the 13thc, in the 15thc and in the 17thc. In 1882 and 1913, restoration works were undertaken. Carved stonework survives from the 12th-c church, such as the chancel arch, the S doorway, the W responds of both nave aisles and the baptismal font. There are also three Norman windows on the N side of the chancel, and evidence of similar, previous windows existing in the E and S walls of the chancel. Two colours of sandstone are used for many of the carved Romanesque features.


Domesday Book did not cover this part of England. The name 'Torpenhow' has been thought to be the combination of three different words for a hill. The parish once included four townships: Bewaldeth and Snittlegarth; Blennerhasset and Kirkland; Bothel and Threapland; and Torpenhow and Whitrigg. The dedication to St Michael probably belonged to the Norman church, but the first surviving references are in the will of a John Corom of Bothel, dated 1319, and in a will of Adam de Bassenthwaite dated 1358. Torpenhow was in the barony of Allerdale. Between 1161 and 1174 (most likely 1163) Alan, son of Waltheof, lord of Allerdale, gave the manor of Torpenhow with the advowson of the church to his brother-in-law, Ughtred, son of Fergus, lord of Galloway. The vill of Torpenhow with the church was later granted by Philip de Valognes to Robert de Stuteville and his wife Sybella, the charter of which dates to between 1192 and 1205. This grant was confirmed by their son Eustace, benefactor of Rosedale Priory, founded in the last decade of the twelfth century by Robert de Stuteville. In 1290, Bishop Irton made an award of the tithes to the vicar for the maintenance of three priests and one sub-deacon. In the 1291/92 taxatio, the church of Torpenhow (‘Torpennon’) was valued at £30.0s.0d. In 1543, Henry Knevet and his wife, Anne, held the manor of Torpenhow, but Anne’s third husband, Vaughan, conveyed it to James Salkeld and John Appleby. In 1562, Queen Elizabeth I granted some of these tithes to Cicely Pickrell. The remainder was given in 1574 to Percival Gunson.


Exterior Features



Interior Features






Piscinae/Pillar Piscinae


It has been suggested that some stone from a Roman site may have been re-used in the building, including the upper stone of the piscina in the chancel, but this is not certain. This stone does appear to have been cut off at the bottom and seems likely, therefore, to have been reused.

Among the various carved forms, certain features can be compared with other churches in Cumbria, such as:

1) triangular wedges on a bulbous base: Bridekirk (S doorway and re-used chancel arch), and Isel (S doorway and chancel arch);

2) parallel, rope-decorated roll mouldings: Ulverston (S doorway);

3) roll moulding with spaced torus rolls: Holm Cultram Abbey (W doorway);

4) chequer-board motif: Bromfield (S doorway), Plumbland (re-used voussoirs in vestry), Brigham (loose stone), and Kirkbampton (chancel arch capital);

A similar capital form with heads/head-like features on small veritcal 'shafts' can be found on the S doorway of the ruined Whithorn Priory/cathedral church (Dumfries and Galloway).

The capitals, imposts and base found at the W ends of the nave arcades do not fit the arch above and are awkwardly fitted into the wall. This suggests that they may have been re-used from elsewhere in the church or that the arcading was subsequently changed. The main piers and bases of both the N and S arcades appear to be post-Romanesque. The S arcade respond is also different from the N arcade respond in having no lower wall shaft.

Unusually, the N face of at least the 1st order of the S doorway is decorated. Does this also mean that some/all of its stones have been re-used from elsewhere in the church?

The baptismal font at Torpenhow has strong similarities with that in St Oswald’s Church, Dean (Cumberland) and is likely to be of roughly similar date.

The 12th-c sculpture at Torpenhow is original in both style and iconography. Its date is uncertain, with suggestions ranging from the early 12thc to 1170. This can probably be narrowed to the period between about 1140 and 1170.


F. Arnold-Forster, Studies in Church Dedications: or, England’s Patron Saints, 3, London 1899, 284.

J. Campbell, A Study of Stone Sculpture in Cumberland and Westmorland c.1092-1153 within a historical context, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2008.

C. Travis Clay and W. Farrer (eds.), Early Yorkshire Charters, 9: The Stuteville Fee, Cambridge 2013, 125-126: nos. 54 and 55 and fns.

J. Cox, County Churches: Cumberland and Westmorland , London 1913, 124-5.

C. Gem, ‘Torpenhow Church’, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 3, Kendal 1878, 34-42.

W. Hutchinson, The History of the County of Cumberland, 2, Carlisle 1794, 353-8.

M. Hyde and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Cumbria , New Haven and London 2010, 639-40.

H. Maule, Registrum de Panmure, 2, Edinburgh 1874, 124.

J. Nicolson and R. Burn, The History and Antiquities of the Counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, 2, London 1777, 70, 122 and 124-7.

J. Prescott (ed.), The Register of the Priory of Wetherhal, London 1897, 386: no. 245.

T. Tanner, Notitia Monastica, London 1744, 678.

Taxatio Ecclesiastica Angliae et Walliae Auctorite P. Nicholai IV. circa A.D. 1291, London 1802.

M. Thurlby, “Romanesque Architecture and Architectural Sculpture in the Diocese of Carlisle”, British Archaeological Transactions: Carlisle and Cumbria, 27, Leeds 2004, 269-84.

W. Whellan, The History and Topography of the Counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, Pontefract 1860, 255-6.

J. Wilson (ed.), The Register of the Priory of St Bees, The Surtees Society, Durham 1915, IX and 493: no. 498.