By R.A. Curphey
THE BISHOP has his residence in the parish of Kirk Michael, where he has a good house and chapel (if not stately, yet convenient enough), large gardens and pleasant walks, sheltered with groves of fruit and forest trees ... and so well situated, that from thence it is easy to visit any part of his diocese and return the same day.1 Bishop Wilson was clearly well content with his house and its situation, but unfortunately his description affords no solution to the problems of when and why the Bishop's residence was fixed in the parish of Kirk Michael, seven miles from the Cathedral, the official seat of the diocese.
The location appears to have been made by the early thirteenth century. Before that the Bishop may not have had a permanent residence but merely a lodging in the King's court wherever he happened to be. However the Chronicle of Man records in 1247 the death of Bishop Simon 'apud ecclestam Sancti .Michaelis '.2 The parish church was then evidently on the bishop's demesne, or a reference of 1291 refers to the parish church as the church of St. Michael of Ballachurry'.3 Ballachurry, the marsh estate, was the name used for the Bishop's demesne down to the eighteenth century.
Ballachurry had some advantages as a site for the Bishop's house.
It was reasonably central in Man, as Wilson observed: it was also
about midway between the two ancient centres of Celtic Christianity,
Maughold and St. Patrick's Isle, and it lay on the north-west coast
of the Island facing the Western Isles of Scotland, which then
comprised the rest of the diocese. Further, the marsh would
constitute a natural defence against hostile intruders, and yet the
site did not have the inaccessibility of St. Patrick's Isle. St.
Patrick's Isle had also the disadvantage of its military importance.
Even when it was given to the Church by Magnus in 1257 the Church
seems to have had difficulty in maintaining possession. This was
certainly the case in 1365 when the Bishop was trying to recover 'his
Cathedral Church and precincts' from the Lord of Man, and eleven
years later the Bishop had still not succeeded.4 This
dispute probably arose out of the Lord's determination to hold the
strong point of St. Patrick's Isle, for Man had become of strategic
importance in the Anglo-Scottish wars.5 Both combatants
needed to control this base in the Irish Sea, so that between 1296
and 1334 it changed hands five times, and even after Edward III had
secured English control it was subject to devastating raids. In 1388
a large-scale Scottish plundering expedition struck the Island.
Such attacks compelled the inhabitants to look to their defences. In the late fourteenth century the curtain wall and outer gatehouse were added to Castle Rushen and just after 1339 the gatehouse of Peel Castle was rebuilt. To this period the stone tower at Bishopscourt must belong. It is similar in style to the gatehouse of Peel Castle, and both were clearly based on the fortified homestead, the 'Peele Towers', of the Anglo-Scottish borders where the inhabitants had to contend with the same dangers of raids and firing. The tower was probably built by Bishop Duncan(1374/1392) to replace Bishop Simon's house, perhaps of wood of which there is now no trace.
Although the tower has been restored and altered. much of the original structure still remains so that, in conjunction with Daniel King's drawings of the seventeenth century, it is possible to see how closely it conformed to the characteristic fourteenth-century Peel tower. These rectangular towers normally consisted of a vaulted basement with two or three storeys above: the walls range from tour and a half to ten feet in thickness. The entrance, usually at the north-east corner and protected by a cross-barred door of hammered iron, was on ground level and beneath a low and slightly pointed arch. This entrance led into the basement which was used for storage and lit only by slit windows. Just inside the entrance another doorway opened into a newel staircase. The first storey was the main living room for all the residents; oratory, fireplace, cupboards, lavatories and staircase were built into the thickness of the walls. The room usually had two large windows on the east and south sides. The upper storeys were reserved as more private apartments. The walls were crenellated so the roof could be used as a fighting platform. Some of the border towers were situated on the south bank of a river so that the water provided a further defence against the northern enemy. The tower of Bishopscourt is rectangular, forty feet by thirty-two feet, with walls four and a half feet thick, and comprised a basement and two upper storeys. The entrance appears to have been on the south-west side. the present arched doorway leading from the modem hall into the library and passage to the chapel. 'Above this passage on the second storey is a cupboard under a later staircase. The corner of this cupboard is rounded as is the wall of the staircase immediately above. Between the floor of the cupboard and the ceiling of the first storey below is a cavity of about four feet in depth'. This would suggest that this passage and space contained the original staircase, the wall at this point being almost ten feet thick. The position of the two largest windows on the north-west wall and two very small ones, one on the south-west comer and the other on the south-east corner indicate that this ten-foot wall also contained the other necessary apartments. Renewal of the roof in the 1950s revealed on the south-west wall the original corbelling which earned the roof and fighting platform. The window spaces on the northwest wall as depicted by Daniel King have survived as cupboards, doorways and alcoves, but the chimney and large window in the south-east wall disappeared in the restoration of 1785-8. The stream, although now diverted, is liable in flood to wash round the base of the tower. That it did so originally is clear from the seventeenth-century record of the perambulations of the parish boundary, which here follows the course of the stream down the glen. A small chapel was built in the late medieval period against the north-east wall of the tower: it lay half in Ballaugh and half in Michael, for in it the 'respective Parsons and Vicars severally officiate divine service, the one at the one side or end of the said chapel, and the other at the other '.6
In addition to the chapel on the north-east of the tower, King's sketches show a typical medieval hall of four bays built on to the south-west wall. This type of hall was constructed to meet the demands for greater comfort and privacy; it also indicates a decrease in the need for safety. Cooks and other retainers would be transferred from the first storey of the tower to the new hall. This would be heated by a central fireplace, the kitchen, buttery and pantry being located at the west end. The tower would then be free for the principals of the household; entry to the chapel would be through the basement of the tower so that this too would be available for some other use than storage. King also shows that the first storey of the tower could be reached by an external staircase on the south-east side of the hall and thus through a new door in the south-west wall of the tower. The present staircase in the modern hall probably follows the same line as that which gave internal access to the tower. There were two gardens: on the south-east side of the house the walled gardens consisted simply of lawns and walks, but that on the north-west was a very formal garden of geometric shapes, the paths edged with a low shrub. By the mid seventeenth century the 'Peele' tower had thus become an attractive country house.
The Civil War in England provided the occasion for the refortification of Bishopscourt. The Earl of Derby had hastened to the Island in 1643 to suppress the danger of rebellion and hold the Island for the Crown. When Bishop Parr died in the same year no new appointment was made. The Earl used the Bishop's income to compensate for the losses of his own estates in Lancashire, and the 'byshop's house at Bala-curi' the Earl kept 'for his retiring house in the summer season'.7 But this was not safe enough in a hostile community, and with the experience of Charlotte's successful defence of Lathom House, he had constructed round Bishopscourt, probably between 1648 and 1651, a large rectangular earth fort or rampart, ditch and glacis with bastions at each of the corners. The gateway must have been in the middle of the south-west side and protected against artillery by an earth bulwark or horn work. The fort is about 500 feet long by 300 feet wide, much larger than the Andreas fort which measures 144 feet long by 120 feet wide. In conjunction with problematical supplementary works at the foot and head of the glen and on the Orrisdale road, it more nearly conforms to Chaloner's description and account of the Earl's purpose: a fort in the middest of the Island for the better corresponding with the other places of strength in times of service'.8 Certainly in 1651 Bishopscourt was regarded as one of the main strong points in the Island, for in the plan to seize control of the Island from the Countess it was agreed that the castles and all the other forts should be taken at the same time. 'It was concluded upon yt Philip Cannel and ye said John Cavne should seize upon and take ye Bopps Court', and with the company of Kirk Michael, they did.9 The house was then occupied first by the Parliamentary Commissioners and later by the Govemors appointed by Fairfax, until it reverted to the Bishop after the Restoration.
The next major alteration and improvement was made by Bishop Wilson. Bishopscourt seems rarely to have been occupied after 1660, and before Wilson arrived in 1698 the house had been uninhabited for about eight years. In consequence the new bishop found the 'house in ruins nothing but an sentient tower and chapel remaining entire'. As a result he was obliged to 'interrupt [his] charity to the poor in some measure'. From an annual money income of £300 Wilson found £1,200, the Earl providing £200,to 'rebuild the dwelling house and almost all the out-offices, from the ground. He stocked the garden with fruit trees, fenced in the demesnes, planted many thousand timber trees, and laid out a farm10 The form of the rebuilding is shown in a print published in 1872. The external staircase to the hall was removed, and a new door opened-into the basement of the tower on the south-east. The roof of the old hall was raised, and another new doorway built into it on the south-east side. The house was also extended by the building of a new block at rightangles to the hall at its south-west end. The structure, ice-house or wine-cellar, built into the ditch of the fort on the south-west may also be part of the rebuilding of the out-offices. Its original entrance has been blocked by the nineteenth-century levelling of the glacis. The gardens were altered from the formality of the seventeenth century to contain 'pleasant walks sheltered with groves of fruit and forest trees'. A limestone tablet, commemorates Wilson's restoration: now set in the nineteenth-century porch, this was probably placed above the former entrance on the south-east front of the house in Wilson's time.
Bishop Wilson's restoration work had been concentrated on the old
hall and the new west block and the out-offices. By 1780 the tower
needed urgent attention from 'the badness of the roof, floor and
joists'. Bishop Mason liked the house, was determined to repair it,
and it is unfortunate that he did not manage to secure 'Mr. Steuart's
opinion about it'. 1l In 1785 the dilapidation jurors
reported that 'the front wall of the tower is in a very ruinous and
dilapidated condition unfit for any person to inhabit until that part
be taken down to the foundation'.12 By August 1788 Bishop
Crigan was preparing 'to reside at Bishopscourt, to repair and even
rebuild the ruins of which as all was ruins has cost a very severe
expense - but it will not only be a convenient but even a comfortable
place - the lands and offices about the House were equally in need of
revisal'. 13 The improvements were concentrated on the
tower. The roof was replaced on a new line, the crenellations removed
or hidden, the defective south-east wall was rebuilt, enabling six
new sash windows to be provided on the three main floors. The
interior was divided by lathe and plaster partitions into smaller
rooms with fire-places served by a central brick flue. Some
fireplaces, doors and panelling of this period survive in the first
floor rooms. It is probable that the original staircase was removed
in the reconstruction, although the present passage to the chapel
would not be needed until after 1814. By these alterations the tower
lost its stark, martial appearance, and the building became the
comfortable country house as depicted in Jametta Crigan's book of
However, Bishop Murray, whose taste was described as 'a very hungry and expensive one' 14, found Bishopscourt 'uninhabitable'.15 At first he considered 'removing the site of the house at Bishopscourt' 15, but he found it difficult to find the necessary money. A scheme to sell a portion of the tithes aroused opposition in the Keys; he was also in dispute with the relatives of Bishop Crigan concerning the cost of dilapidations. Eventually he concluded that neglect 'rendered it more wretched in appearance than it really is ', that from the violence of the storms it would 'not do to leave the trees', and that he could 'render it with some additions, a comfortable residence'.16 By February 1814 the architect, Thomas Brine, had the plans ready, and a start was made 'on the most wretched part of it viz the kitchens'. Bishop Murray's aim was to reverse the trend towards domesticity and restore in the fashionable Gothic style. The roof was again hidden behind battlements, and the windows were remodelled with mullions and arched transoms. Two new rooms were added on the south-east of the hall to fill the space between the tower and Bishop Wilson's new wing. This addition necessitated the removal of the main entrance to the north-west of the hall. The medieval chapel was pulled down, and a new Georgian Gothic chapel was built flanking the north-west of the tower. The garden was also drastically altered. Bishop Murray found the house placed in a hollow a 'great degree artificial', and in remaking the garden to his taste he destroyed about half of the seventeenth century fortifications. Oswald, writing in 1860, re-called that 'Bishopscourt, about forty years ago, wore more the aspect of a place of military strength than it does now, the ditches and mounds of earth about it having been levelled'...16 But two bastions and enough of the ditch, glacis and rampart on the north-west side of the house survived the levelling to make clear the original nature of the fortifications.17
Since Bishop Murray's restoration there has been one major change and a renovation. The change occurred in 1858 when Bishop Powys had the Georgian chapel replaced on the same side by a Victorian Gothic chapel. The renovation followed the destruction by fire in 1893 of the hall section of the house. This was then rebuilt in its present form and probably in the previous style. In the course of the rebuilding some fragments of old stained glass windows were found in a built-up recess, and these together with more modern fragments possibly from the old chapel demolished circa 1815 were re-set in the stairs window. Emphasising the antiquity and nature of the site, part of an eleventh-century cross-slab was also found, serving as a door lintel.
Thus in spite of the hazards of neglect, fire and restoration, the medieval tower and hall still remain the basis of the present house. This has evolved in almost six hundred years from a fortified Peel tower to a pleasant country house, reflecting in its development the changing social and architectural standards of six centuries and the history of the Island.
1. Bishop Wilson's History, 'The Old Historians of the Isle of
Man,' The Manx Society,
XVIII (1871) pp.106, 123.
2. Ibid., p.123.
3; BR.S Megaw in M M.Mss. 5695C, whose advice is gratefully acknowledged.
4. D. Craine Peel Castle, (1958), p.5.
5. W.R. Serjeant, 'The IOM and the Anglo-Scottish Wars 1296 - 1328', Journal of the Manx Museum, VI, 7(1960-1).
6. Keble, Life of Bishop Wilson (Oxford 1863) I, p.98.
Quotation from Mss.in Registry at Kirk Michael, 1678
7. William Blundell, 'A History of the Isle of Man', II Manx Society, XXVII (1877), p.152 - 3
8. J. Chaloner, 'A Short Treatise of the Isle of Man', Manx Society, X (1864) p.56 - 57.
9. 'Illiam Dhone and the Manx Rebellion, 1651', Manx Society, XXVI (1877) p.16.
10. Cruttwell, Works of Thomas Wilson (1784) I, p.40.
11. Atholl Papers. 122 (2nd) - 7.
12. Bridge House Papers 518C(c).
13. AP 117 - 10
14. AP 109 - 8
15. AP 117 - 10
16. 'Oswald's Vestigia', Manx Society, V(1860) p.97.
17. R.A. Curphey, 'The Fort at Bishopscourt, Isle of Man', Post Mediaval Archaeology, 8 (1974).
see also Bishopscourt