Eccles Parish Church

Eccles Nunnery, possible south wall of church, from north west

Summary description

The parish was probably housed in the church of the Cistercian nunnery founded in 1156, of which a section of the south nave wall appears to survive. It was replaced by a new church on a nearby site in 1601, which was in turn replaced in 1774. 

Historical outline

Dedication: St Cuthbert

A convent of Cistercian nuns was established at Eccles in 1156(1) and it is likely that the parish church was annexed to the priory from the time of its foundation.  There is, however, no record of the parish church before 1248 when Bishop David de Bernham of St Andrews dedicated it on 4 October.(2)  A charter of 1250 in the lost Great Register of the priory at St Andrews apparently recorded the grant of the church of St Cuthbert of Eccles, together with its three dependent chapels, by Bishop David to the nuns of Eccles.(3)  This may have been a confirmation to the nuns of a grant in proprios usus, which presumably annexed both parsonage and vicarage revenues to the nunnery and permitted the convent to serve the cure through a chaplain or curate, for there is no reference to the parish church in the rolls of the papal tax-collector in Scotland in the mid-1270s.  It remained so annexed at the Reformation, when the parish of St Cuthbert’s of Eccles, with its dependent chapels of St Magdalene at Birgham, St John at Mersington, and Our Lady at Leitholm, and the vicarage, were identified as part of the patrimony of the nunnery.(4)

Notes

1. I B Cowan and D E Easson, Medieval Religious Houses: Scotland (London, 1976), 146.

2. A O Anderson (ed), Early Sources of Scottish History, ii (Edinburgh, 1922), 526 [Pontifical Offices of St Andrews].

3. Liber Cartarum Prioratus Sancti Andree in Scotia (Bannatyne Club, 1841), xxix, no.59.

4. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benfices (Oxford, 1995), 183.

Summary of relevant documentation

Medieval

Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: Church, with chapels of Birgham, Leithholm and Mersington, confirmed to nunnery of Eccles by David de Bernham in 1250. Probably originally granted by founder of nunnery, Gospatrick, in 1156. Parsonage and vicarage with the nunnery, served by a chaplain.(1)

1232 According to Bower, Patrick, the earl of Dunbar was buried in the church of Eccles in that year.(2)

Post-medieval

Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: The Parish church parsonage and vicarage with nunnery, St Cuthbert’s church valued at 100 marks.(3)

1601 (19 April) Contract between parishioners of Ekallis and John Fall, mason, whereby the latter is to build a cross Kirk, 3 score feet long, with 2 doors and 5 windows etc., using materials of old Kirk as far as they will serve, for 1000 merks scots (400 merks at beginning, 300 at the middle and 300 at completing the work).(4)

1675 (17 May) Visitation of the church of Eccles by the Presbytery of Duns finds John Bald, mason, employed to repair the fabric of the kirk and as to how seats might be accommodated. Itemised bill mention £36 for mending the west gabill of the church. Overall cost is £209 16s, heritors to organise the stent. A loft is to be built in the body of the kirk.(5)

1676 (21 Aug) Discussion over the placing of seats in the church mentions those sited in the ‘ile called St John’s ile’.(6)

1692 (14 Apr) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Duns. George Faa, mason, Andrew Brown, wright and slater and James Williamson, glasier, employed by the session. Costs of repairs to bell house (plastering), the kirk windows and roof in total £98.(7)

1708 (10 Aug) Visitation notes that anent the fabric of the church and manse-the heritors replied that ‘all will be made right and sufficient’.(8)

1716 (21 June) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Duns (at the request of the minister who noted that the church was ruinous) includes a report from Robert Wilson, James Williamson and James Dikwillie, masons, Robert Hume and William Steel, wrights and David Brown, slater, anent whether the church is so ruinous that it needs to be taken down or whether it can be repaired. They report that the pends need taking down and as they cannot tell whether the walls will stand if taken down. The heritors agree that the pends be taken down and a slate roof put atop the walls to see if it should be sufficient to take the weight. The slaters are to set the timber roof on the church with slates, £436. The total work on the church is to cost £1651 Scots in total.(9)

1775 (9 Nov) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Duns notes that the minister has an insufficient office houses [new church appears to have been built].(10) [no references to the new church in the kirk session or presbytery records]

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev Adam Murray, 1793): ‘The old church was a gothic building, in the form of a cross…ornamented with a cross and a very elegant steeple… the proprietors took it down 20 years ago and built a handsome church on the same spot’.(11)

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev James Thomson, 1834): ‘New church built in 1774’(12) [no remains of the old church]

Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches: (George Hay): 1774; additions and interior recast 1930, 1659 bell, 1715 mort bell. A smaller example of wide rectangular type of kirk, with Georgian windows gradually being invaded by stained glass and an elegant little tower with concave top in the same position.(13)

Notes

1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 58.

2. Chron. Bower, v, 147.

3. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices?

4. NRS Miscellaneous Ecclesiastical Records, CH8/51.

5. NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1659-1688, CH2/113/1, fols. 143-144.

6. NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1659-1688, CH2/113/1, fol. 161.

7. NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1690-1698, CH2/113/2, fols. 35-36.

8. NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1707-1716, CH2/113/4, fols. 22-23.

9. NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1707-1716, CH2/113/4, fols. 223-225.

10. NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1770-1810, CH2/113/8, fol. 31.

11. Statistical Account of Scotland, (1793), xi, 239.

12. New Statistical Account of Scotland, (1834), ii, 61.

13. Hay, The Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches, pp. 83, 175 & 251.

Bibliography

NRS Miscellaneous Ecclesiastical Records, CH8/51.

NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1659-1688, CH2/113/1.

NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1690-1698, CH2/113/2.

NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1707-1716, CH2/113/4.

NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1770-1810, CH2/113/8.

Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh.

Hay, G., 1957, The Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches, 1560-1843, Oxford.

Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford.

New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45, Edinburgh and London.

Scotichronicon by Walter Bower in Latin and English, 1987-99, D. E. R. Watt, Aberdeen.

Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-9, ed. J. Sinclair, Edinburgh.

Architectural description

The parish church of Eccles stands to the east of the fragmentary remains of Eccles Cistercian nunnery. That nunnery was founded in about 1156, probably by Gospatrick (III) earl of Dunbar and his wife countess Derdere. Little is known of the nunnery’s medieval history, and it is uncertain how far the community remained viable as a consequence of English attacks in the 1540s. Following a period of rivalry between the Hume and Hamilton families for leadership of the house, after the Reformation it came under the dominance of the former, and in 1609 was erected into a temporal lordship for Sir George Hume.(1)

It appears likely that the church of the nunnery would also have served the parochial needs of the local population. The parochial income, together with those of the chapels of Birgham, Leitholm and Mersington, were confirmed to the uses of the nunnery by Bishop David de Bernham in 1250; this was perhaps a confirmation of an initial grant that had been made by its founder in 1156. The cure appears to have been subsequently served by a chaplain.(2) Bishop de Bernham carried out a dedication of the church on 4 October 1248.(3)

The structural remains of the priory are fragmentary and highly enigmatic. A wall running east-west, and forming a boundary between the narrower west part of the churchyard and Eccles House has stretches of mid-twelfth-century cubical masonry embodying the blocked rear-arch of a doorway, and there is a well-detailed double-chamfered string course with alternating billet decoration. With work of such quality on this alignment, and taking account of what survives of what appear to be the claustral buildings to its south, it should be seen as likely that this was the eastern part of the south wall of the nunnery church.

Seen from the garden of Eccles house this wall has a corresponding stretch of string course, while the blocked doorway can be seen to have a continuous quirked angle roll which is likely to represent a late medieval remodelling. The westward extension of this wall is of nineteenth-century date, belonging to the outbuildings associated with the house preceding the present Eccles House.

As seen from the churchyard side, running southwards at right angles from this wall is another wall that is currently entirely hidden from view by vegetation, but which from the Eccles House side can be seen to form the east side of a line of structures that is likely to have been the northern part of the east conventual range. Immediately next to the east end of what it has been suggested was the south wall of the church are two barrel-vaulted compartments entered through widely-arched openings, with a curving stair leading to an upper floor at the west end of the cross wall between the two compartments.

Blocked openings within those compartments indicate that there have been a number of modifications in the course of their history, but in their present form they are likely to be late medieval. At the upper level the wall above the south side of these two compartments appears to have the lower parts of window embrasures set down below the apex of the vault extrados.

Further south in this range, work of apparently mid-twelfth-century date is to be seen. After a short section of wall with cubical masonry and a string course, the west wall of the range steps forward, as a broad pilaster buttress. The truncated wall running east behind this point is now partly masked by a modern summer house, behind which is an ashlar-faced wall with what appears to be a bench at its base and with a carefully-cut pavement to its south, all of which it is attractive to interpret as a fragment of the chapter house.

It is possible that the junction of the east and south sides of the cloister is indicated by an arch springing some distance to the south of the structures discussed above, and that the internal mural articulation of a passage is preserved in a series of decorated pilasters south of that arch. Although it must be conceded that there has been much nineteenth-century rebuilding that incorporated medieval fragments in this area, it may also be a possibility that a well to the south-west of the buildings originally served the lavatorium at the entrance to the refectory, and that the approximate position of the south-west corner of the cloister is thus indicated.

A number of architectural fragments of twelfth and thirteenth-century date are located around the gardens in the vicinity of the priory remains. These include a capital that appears to be of scalloped form, a nook-shaft capital of water-leaf type, and what appears to be a corbel fragment with spear-shaped leaves. There are also a number of thirteenth-century moulded fragments.

Assuming that the nunnery church had indeed also served the parish, and that it continued in parochial use after the Reformation, in the early seventeenth century it was decided to build a new church, for which a contract was signed with the mason John Fall on 19 April 1601. It was to be in the form of a cross, with a length of 60 feet (18.3 metres), and was to cost 1000 merks. It was to have two doors and five windows and was to use the materials of the old church as far as possible.(4)

It appears that the church of 1601 was wholly or partly covered with stone vaults. This is because on 21 June 1716 a report presented to presbytery by the masons Robert Wilson, James Williamson and James Dilwillie, the wrights Robert Hume and William Steel and the slater David Brown recommended taking down the ‘pends’ and putting a slate roof on the walls. The works to which the heritors agreed had an estimated cost of £1,651.(5)

The existence of vaults was confirmed in what was said about the church in the Statistical Account:

The old church was a Gothic building, in the form of a cross, vaulted and covered with large flagstones...and ornamented with a cross, and a very elegant steeple. The building might have stood for many centuries, and it was with the greatest difficulty it was taken down. But as it was too small to accommodate the inhabitants, the proprietors of the parish took it down about 20 years ago, and built a very handsome modern church on the same ground.(6)

The north aisle of the old church is said to have been retained as the burial aisle of the Purves family of Purves Hall, on the north side of the present church, though there must be some doubt about this.(7)

The present church was built at a cost of £999.15s.7d in 1774 (that date is elegantly inscribed on a tablet within the porch at the base of the tower),(8) and was said to have been modelled on St Cuthbert’s Church in Edinburgh.(9) It is a large rectangular building with a slightly under-scaled axial tower at the east end; the main body is constructed of droved squared rubble with ashlar dressings, margins and gable coping.

The tower rises two ashlar-built storeys above the roof apex of the main body of the church, the lower of those storeys being plain and the upper storey having arched belfry openings to each stage below a modillioned cornice; it has a pyramidal concave-sided spirelet of square plan topped by a prominent finial. Flanking each side of the tower are two windows lighting the east end of the church, the lower ones rectangular and the upper ones arched. The symmetry of this front was marred by the addition of a low gabled vestry block to the north of the tower, designed in 1862 by I. Noble.

The original internal arrangements were reflected in the disposition of windows. At the centre of the south front are three tall and widely-spaced arched windows, the central one apparently having had a doorway at its base, presumably for access to the pulpit. At each end of the face the original provision of galleries is indicated by a doorway (now converted into a window) below a circular window. The arched windows have intersecting glazing bars at their head, except in the central window, and there are attractive rose patterns of glazing bars in the circlet windows.

The north front has a simple succession of three arched windows, with a modern rectangular window towards the west end. The west face has a central rectangular doorway flanked on each side by a rectangular window and with three arched windows at the upper level; within the gable is a small circlet, and the gable itself terminates with a cross final.

Internally the church underwent major remodelling in 1930, with the pulpit and communion table being removed from the south side to the west end. A slight intake along the north wall shows where the gallery there was seated, but there is now only a reduced gallery at the east end to perpetuate the memory of the original horse-shoe arrangement. This gallery is supported by Tuscan columns and has a front with raised-and-fielded panelling.

The area at the west end of the church has been partitioned off to provide space for vestries and kitchens at the lower level and a hall above. A shallow recess was formed in the new partition wall for the communion table, which is framed by the gallery columns re-set in-antis.

Notes

1. Ian B. Cowan and David E. Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, Scotland, 2nd ed., London and New York, 1976, p. 146.

2. Ian B. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society), 1967, p. 58.

3. Alan Orr Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, Edinburgh, 1922, vol. 2, p. 526.

4. National Records of Scotland, Miscellaneous Ecclesiastical Records, CH8/51.

5. National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, CH2/113/4, fols 223-225.

6. Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-99, vol. 11, p. 239.

7. G.A.C. Binnie, The Churches and Churchyards of Berwickshire, Ladykirk, 1995, p. 190-91.

8. New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45, vol. 2, p. 61.

9. The account of the eighteenth-century church is based on that in Kitty Cruft, John Dunbar and Richard Fawcett, The Buildings of Scotland, Borders, New Haven and London, 2006, p. 247.

Map

Images

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  • 1. Eccles Nunnery, possible south wall of church, from north west

  • 2. Eccles Nunnery, possible east claustral range, day stair

  • 3. Eccles Nunnery, possible east claustral range, door to slype

  • 4. Eccles Nunnery, possible east claustral range, doors into slype and day stair

  • 5. Eccles Nunnery, possible east claustral range, slype

  • 6. Eccles Nunnery, possible east claustral range, day stair

  • 7. Eccles Nunnery, east range from west

  • 8. Eccles churchyard, burial enclosure to north of church

  • 9. Eccles Church, exterior, from south east 1

  • 10. Eccles Church, exterior, from south east, 2

  • 11. Eccles Church, exterior, from south

  • 12. Eccles Church, interior, foundation inscription in vestibule

  • 13. Eccles Church, interior, looking west

  • 14. Eccles Church, interior, looking east