Near the sea, and in the vicinity of the abbey ruins, the land is more fertile. At low water the estuary that separates this portion of the county from the rest is continually crossed by horses and carriages.
About seven centuries ago an abbey was built in this singular situation; it lies near Dalton-in-Furness, on the banks of a rivulet in a narrow and fertile vale. It rose after its foundation to great rank and power, and the ruins of its architectural splendour are, to this day, entitled to a first place among the antiquities of our country.
Furness Abbey was founded by Stephen, Count of Boulogne, afterwards king of England. It was endowed with rich domains; the foundation being afterwards secured by the charters of twelve successive kings, and the bulls of several popes.
The Abbot of Furness had great privileges conferred on him; he exercised jurisdiction over the whole district; and even the soldiers of the Crown were in some degree dependent on him.
A singular custom in this abbey was to register the names of only those abbots who had ruled the community for ten years, and died abbots there. This register of dead abbots was called the Abbots' mortuary. If an abbot died before he had ruled ten years, or was translated to another house, or deposed for any fault, he was not entered in this register. Thus, in the space of 277 years, the names of only ten abbots are recorded, though there were, of course, many more.
The commanding position of the abbey gave it great importance in time of war, and the monks erected a watch-tower on the summit of a hill which rises near the walls of the monastery, and commands a view of all Low Furness, and the arm of the sea immediatly below the monastery. Thus they could prevent surprise from foes, by alarming the adjacent coast with signals at the approach of an enemy.
The abbey was dedicated to St. Mary, and the monks for some time conformed to the regulations of their order, and wore grey habits; but after a time they embraced St. Bernard's rigid rules, and became Cistercians.
The entrance to the romantic ruins of Furness Abbey is through a light pointed arch. They are of Norman and Early English character. The church is 287 feet tong, and the walls are in some places fifty-four feet high and five feet thick. The windows and arches are unusually lofty. The east window had fine painted glass in it, but this has been removed to preserve it, and is now in the east window of Bowness Church, in Westmoreland. On it are depicted St. George and the Virgin Mary; beneath are the figures of a knight and lady surrounded by monks; at the top are the arms of England quartered with those of France.
In the south wall of the chancel are four canopied stalls for the priests; in the middle space the first barons of Kendal were buried.
Along the nave of the church are the bases of circular columns which were of great size; in other parts are the remains of clustered Columns. Two immense masses of stonework - the fallen sides of the great tower - are seen towards the west end of the church. With its cloisters it was encompassed with a wall; and beyond that was a space of ground of eighty-five acres, surrounded by another wall which enclosed the Abbey Mills, with the kilns and ovens, and stews for receiving fish.
The ruins are of a pale red stone, dug in the neighbourhood, but now changed by time to a dusky brown. They are everywhere covered with climbing plants and richly tinted leaves, and the sound of a gurgling brook near adds to the romantic charms of the place.
At the dissolution of the monasteries Roger Pyke, then Abbot of Furness, surrendered it to Henry VIII., and, in return for his ready submission, received the Rectory of Dalton, while the twenty-nine monks under his sway received among them a grant of £300 per annum - a great sum in those days.
The loss of the abbey sadly affected the neighbourhood. The abundant hospitality of the wealthy abbots, and the frequent concourse of visitors to the abbey, had been a great benefit to the farmers and the poor; boons and rents were no longer paid, and agriculture became depressed. We are too apt in the present day to forget how greatly the monastic institutions benefited the neighbourhoods where they were placed, and how terribly they must have been missed by the poor, whom they fed at the abbey or monastery gate.
"Three different tracts of sands interpose between Lancaster and the south-eastern part of Cumberland - namely, Lancaster Sands, Leven Sands, and the Sands of Duddon. All these are famous for the production of cockles, and those collected on Duddon sands are the largest and best flavoured in the kingdom." Plaice and flounders, of exceptional excellence, are taken here, and no doubt the monks of Furness appreciated the advantage of the fisheries. The distance over the first of these ocean-washed, most dangerous sands is nine miles, over the second four miles, and over the third three miles. It is not wonderful, therefore, that many lives were lost in crossing the sands at ebb-tide, since the slightest mistake in time might bring the tidal flood on them. In the nineteenth year of Edward II's reign, the Abbot of Furness petitioned that he might have a view of frank pledge and a coroner of his own, for at one time sixteen lives had been lost, and at another six, at a different time in one year, crossing the sands to or from Furness. A somewhat similar petition was presented by the abbot to Henry IV.
It is pleasant to know that now the railway from Carnforth to Ulverston and Barrow makes this loss of life no longer likely to occur, as few would prefer risking crossing the sands on foot when they can cross them by rail.
The mines and quarries of Furness are very important, and the finest iron ore is found in this district. Dalton-in-Furness parish abounds in objects of interest to the historian.
In it are Furness Abbey, the Castle of the Peel of Fouldry, and the ancient town of Dalton.
Adjacent to the town of Dalton are two wells; one probably dedicated to the Virgin, as it is called Mary Bank Well, and the other the Church Well.
There is only one rivulet or beck, called Dalton Butts Beck, and lower down the abbey Beck, as it passes the ruins of the abbey, and falls into the sea below Loose; naturally, therefore, wells were here of great importance.
The frequent irruptions of the Scots during the fourteenth century, and the exposed situation of the north of Lancashire, rendered frontier fortresses absulutely necessary, and the Tower of Dalton and the Peel of Fouldry are supposed to have been built by the monks of Furness for the security of their vassals, who by ancient custom were bound to furnish a man and horse to the abbot "for the service of the king," i.e. for the protection of the country. Nothing remains now of the Castle of Dalton but a plain square tower, built in the reign of Edward III., but doubtless it was a strong refuge for the people when their wild northern neighbours descended to harry and plunder the land. In the district of Furness, also, a number of beacons were erected, and when these ominous points of fire gleamed on the hills of Coniston, the richer inhabitants and their dependants flocked to their castles and removed their effects out of the way of the Moss troopers.
In more peaceful times the castle was at once the abbot's court, and used as a prison and common jail for the whole lordship of Furness. The castle fell into decay before the Reformation, probably through the waning power of Furness Abbey, but in 1544 the tower was repaired.
Dalton Castle - this tower is locally called the Castle - was modernised and put into a thorough state of repair in 1856, and is now used not only for the courts still held there, but as an armoury for the Rifle Volunteers.
The Wars of the Roses never came as far north as Furness; but it was here that Lambert Simnel landed when he came from Ireland to claim the English throne, and the monks were suspected of secretly favouring his claim.
"In later times the parish was disturbed by the civil wars between Charles and his Parliament," Colonel Rigby came with five hundred foot soldiers, two small cannon, and three small troops of horse from the temporarily abandoned siege of Thurland Castle, and by a forced march reached Furness in a single day. After a prayer meeting of all the troops upon Swart Moor, the Roundheads marched on to Lyndal, where they encountered a body of Royalist troops, and fought with such resolution that the Cavaliers were put to flight, and Colonel Huddleston, Mr. Stanley, and Mr. Burton, were taken prisoners.
In the '15 and '45, the Scots, headed by Prince Charles Stuart, skirted Furness in their advance into the country, but did not enter it. Dalton, the ancient capital of Furness, is pleasantly and prettily situated on a gentle declivity inclining to the east. in the midst of a tract of country unparalleled for fertility of soil and great cultivation. Its principal street, ascending to the west, and crossed by other streets, opens into a large market place, from the upper end of which the old grey tower of Dalton Castle looks down on the town, Dalton was the market town of Furness Abbey in the old days.
George Romney, the artist, the rival of Sir Joshua Reynolds, was born in this parish in 1734.