The Gresgarth Estate and Gresgarth Hall

My thanks to Phil Hudson, Settle publisher of Lancashire History Quarterly for his permission to present this history.


England and Scotland were at peace during the thirteenth' century. Both sides of the border were prosperous and unfortified country houses were built, such as Middleton hall near Kirkby Lonsdale. During the centuries of raiding and strife which followed the Scottish Wars of Independence houses such as Middleton were defended with walls and gatehouses but the more easily defended tower house was developed on both sides of the border. Documentary evidence of the dates of construction of these buildings is rare but indirect evidence suggests that Gresgarth hall, Caton, 3 miles east of Lancaster was founded about 1330. In the thirteenth century Caton manor was a single estate held by a branch of the Gurnet family, who still survive at Quernmore. By the year 1297 the Caton branch had adopted the surname de Caton to distinguish themselves from the senior line who lived at Halton. When Thomas Caton, the last of his line, died in 1317 the original estate was divided between his two daughters. Alice married a Lancaster and inherited one third of the estate centred on Old Hall Brookhouse, while Agnes married one John Curwen or Culwen and inherited two thirds of the Caton estate. The Curwens possessed Gresgarth Hall for the following 300 years. The Gresgarth estate almost certainly originated in the division of the Caton-Gurnet inheritance.

The manor house in England is usually close to the parish church, both for convenience and because the church often began as the estate chapel. The name "Old Hall" in Brookhouse, Caton, and its proximity to the parish church suggests that this was the original site of the manor though the present house dates from the seventeenth century.

Curwen Genealogy

The name Gresgarth is Norse, "boar yard". There may have been an earlier house but a garth or enclosure does not require a habitation. The John Culwen who married Agnes was a younger son of Sir Gilbert Culwen of Workington. The Culwens, now Curwens, are one of the oldest families in England. At the time of the Norman conquest Cumberland was under Scottish control and when William Rufus reclaimed it the ancient pre-Norman aristocracy survived largely intact. The Curwens are descended in the male line from Orme, son of Ketel, son of 'Elftred the Englishman' who must have been born in the middle of the eleventh century. The family owned extensive estates in west Cumberland and were related to the royal families of England and Scotland and the Earls of Northumberland and Galloway. Orme married Gunilda, a daughter of Cospatric, the last English Earl of Northumbria. Gostpatic was descended on his mothers side from Ethelred and Alfred the Great and the royal line of Wessex and he was also a nephew of the King Duncan who was slain by MacBeth. Some time before 1185, Orme's grandson, Thomas, who died in 1200, married Amabilis, granddaughter of Uchtred Earl of Galloway, through whom the family acquired large estates in Galloway including Culwen, now Culvend, in Kirkcudbright. The Earls of Galloway were also descended from Gospatric so Amabilis and Thomas were cousins.

Scottish or English?

At this stage the distinction between Scots and English was slight and the family, like the Bruces and the Baliols, held lands in both countries and their names appear on both English and Scottish charters. Patric the son of Thomas adapted the surname Culwen which has remained the family name ever since. Sir Gilbert II of Culwen, -Patric's grandson, took the English side during the Scottish wars of Independence. According to the family legend the family motto 'Si Je Nestoy' , "If I had not been there" arose from an incident in the battle of Falkirk when Gilbert saved King Edward from capture or death and remarked "Where would you have been if I had not been there"?

After Scotland had recovered its independence the Galloway estate of Culwen was granted by Bruce's son David to the MacDougalls. The Culwens were evidently dispossessed either because they had supported Edward or because of their kinship with the Baliols through their descent from Amabilis and the Earls of Galloway. The Culwens retained their name but it rapidly changed in English lips from the Gaelic (Cul back, wen mutated ben mountain) to Curwen. It is possible that John Culwen, who was a younger son of Sir Gilbert II, received the Caton estate as compensation to the family for their loyalty to the English crown and for the consequent loss of their Scottish estates. Wealthy heiresses were generally wards of the crown, the marriage may have been arranged as a reward. The Scottish War of Independence only came to an end with the Treaty of Northampton which was signed in 1328. Under the treaty the Scots paid 20,000 to the dispossessed for the loss of their Scottish estates. John Curwen and Agnes Caton were married some time between 1329 and 1331 (Vict Hist. of Lancashire Vol 8, p80, note 25) and the Galloway estates were granted to the MacDougalls shortly after (History of the lands of Galloway and their owners P.H. Mackenzie p291).

In 1316 a Scottish raid devastated the country as far south as Furness and in 1322 Bruce himself led a raid which ravaged Lonsdale and sacked Lancaster. The Gresgarth tower may have been begun in 1330 following Curwens arrival. John Curwen would have felt particularly vulnerable in view of the families participation in the Scottish wars. He would also have been familiar with the architecture of the tower house whose evolution began in the border region with the troubles of the early fourteenth century.

When John Curwen of Caton, fourth in line of descent from the John who married Agnes, died without issue some time after 1457, the estate passed to a relative, Gilbert Curwen and his descendants. When the last Curwen died in 1633 it passed to the Morleys who sold it to the Girlingtons of Therland. (Thurland).

Gresgarth Hall - today

The oldest surviving portions of Gresgarth Hall consist of a two storey building, 48' long and 27' , wide, with a tunnel vault on the ground floor. This building is embedded in later additions but the end walls can be recognised externally by their massive, rougher masonry. It is not to be confused with the Gothick Revival tower visible from the road. The side walls which carry the vault are 4' thick and the end walls 3W'. The central portion of the vault has been removed, probably when Gresgarth was remodeled early in the nineteenth century and various doorways and windows have been inserted on the ground floor in later, more secure, times. Such tunnel vaulted ground floors were usually lit only with a small window.
Ex Thesis
Hudson, P. J. Landscape and Economic Development of Quernmore Forest, Lancaster: An Upland Marginal Area in North West Lancashire. Unpublished M. Phil. University of Lancaster Short Reks sites are part of the Gresgarth Hall Estate lands. These were the old Curwen family lands who held half the moiety of Caton with Littledale, and who occupied the estate from 1330 to the early seventeenth century. The estate then changed hands several times after the last in the male Curwen line died about 1633,

C of L 42/18 1-18 Hen VI, f.20.
A Waultier Corwayn (Curwen) enclosed 300 acres of Whermore (Quernmore) common in 1432, and the burgesses of Lancaster petitioned the King for loss of common pasture;

C of L 42/18 1-18 Hen VI, f.20. (c1432).

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Created: 22 January 1999
Last Updated: 15 May 2002
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