Man’s settlement in this valley goes back at least to Neolithic times, around 5,000 years ago.
The Stone Circle at Castlerigg and the ancient settlement below Threlkeld Knotts are witness to this.As the fellside forests were cleared and the valley morass drained, thought to have begun about the time of Christ, did small, scattered valley communities appear. Threlkeld probably grew from such a community. The name “Threlkeld” is Norse in origin: “The spring of the thralls”. A thrall was a serf, in lifetime bondage to a lord or master. Possibly the Norse invaders took over an existing settlement or founded a new one in the ninth century.
The foundation of the Threlkeld church, St Mary’s, is unknown but it is probable that there has been a place of Christian worship in Threlkeld since the Dark Ages.
It is recorded that the Celtic Saint Kentigern, also known as St Mungo, erected a cross and preached in this area in 553, either on this site or in the Knotts settlement.
What is certain is that there was a church in Threlkeld in the early Middle Ages.
It would have been a simple structure with a thatched roof. The first documented evidence (held at the British Museum) refers to a priest at Threlkeld called Randulf in 1220.
Threlkeld is said to be the oldest chapelry in the Diocese of Carlisle. It was in its early years part of the parish of Greystoke that served 10 hamlets, 4 of which had chapels, Matterdale, Mungrisdale, Threlkeld and Watermillock.
In 1382, the parishioners of Threlkeld and Watermillock refused to pay their share of the repair costs of the dilapidated Greystoke church. The Bishop of Carlisle ordered them to pay or be excommunicated.
The priest’s annual salary mainly comprised a tithe, 10% of the hay and corn produced by the inhabitants of Threlkeld, and the produce from the glebe lands, thought to be about 5 acres. At some time between 1430 and 1450, possibly 1431, Bishop Marmaduke Lumley of Carlisle was called upon by the Minister of Threlkeld and Sir Henry Threlkeld of Threlkeld Hall to settle a dispute with the parishioners as to the manner of tithing corn and hay. The Bishop commuted the corn and hay tithe to an annual payment of £3 17s (£3.85) payable in two instalments at Lammas and Michaelmas.
The two bells are more than 600 years old. The smaller is a York bell from the foundry of Johannes de Kurkham, inscribed “Ave Maria gratia plena” (Hail Mary full of grace). The larger bell is thought to be much older.
Registers date from 1572. These early registers indicate that contracts of marriage were formally made. It was the custom in Threlkeld that five shillings were paid to the poor by the party who failed in the contract.
The church chest is very old. It is thought to be from Stuart or Elizabethan times or even earlier. It has three different locks. Each key was separately held by the priest and the two churchwardens - as a precaution against a corrupt church officer or priest.
In about 1602, the Threlkeld priest, Edward Wilson, had the “mansion” built, now called the Old Manse. The current rectory was built in Millet Field in 1860.
In 1634, Thomas Gaskarth, churchwarden, gave the church an inscribed chalice, now known as the Gaskarth Chalice.
Through the centuries, the church served as a school. The priest or an assistant would teach the children. In 1659, Anthony Gilbanke of Gardesse (Guardhouse) gave in his will £20 “towards a free school, and the use to be given yearly to the schoolmaster at Threlkeld Church.” Probably this meant the children from poor families could attend school. A contemporary of Anthony Gilbanke was Thomas Crosthwaite. Born probably at Setmabanning in the reign of Charles I, he went to school at St Mary’s and ended up being Principal of St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford. Remembering his humble origin, he bequeathed £15 for the use of the curate of Threlkeld and his successors.
In 1662, the “quire-part” of St Mary’s was rebuilt.
St Mary’s was always a humble church, serving shepherds, farmers, miners, quarrymen and their families. In 1703, Bishop Nicholson’s Report on Churches in Cumberland states that in St Mary’s, “the seats are mostly unbacked. There are no communion rails, nor any letter’d monument.”
Each priest from earliest times to the modern day has imposed his own individuality on church life. Stories, if they were known, could be told about each one. One Threlkeld priest, Alexander Naughley, stands out. He came to Threlkeld as a boy when his father Andrew Naughley, a Scot, became parish priest. He succeeded his father and ministered and taught here for 51 years from 1705 to 1756. He was famed for learning and eccentricity. Pupils came from far and wide to be taught by him in the classics, “astronomy, navigation….and… mathematics.”
He lived alone in the Manse, “in the most homely and slovenly manner, never tasting any food better than brown bread or oatmeal, which he seasoned with a little salt and boiled in his only pan which he never washed. His hearth was seldom cleared of embers, whilst his whole apartment was strewed over with books and papers, intermingled with his household implements. His dress was the meanest in the parish; he wore wooden clogs, and never indulged his neck with a handkerchief, or any kind of covering.” Towards the end of his life, he mutilated himself and took to drink. Nevertheless, the parishioners thought the world of him: when he died, they joined together to make and erect a tombstone on his grave outside the east window.
In 1776, the church was rebuilt although the bell-tower is a remnant of an older church. The old church was taken down on 8th April and the new one was ready on 3rd August. Rebuilding cost £260 10s.
A separate school was built in Bleasegill.
Local farmers and tenants were responsible for maintaining the churchyard wall. Each was responsible for 4½ yards except for one 4½ yard stretch shared between three. Changes in building style can be detected from one stretch to another.
In the late eighteenth century, there were two Threlkeld brothers, John and Christopher Howe. Christopher was for a time a curate at Threlkeld and taught at the school before he left to become the long-time vicar of Glossop in Derbyshire.
In 1807, when brother John was churchwarden, he gave to St Mary’s the brass chandelier “as a tribute of respect” to his native parish. (Stolen 2nd November 2002)
In 1844, Christopher Cockbain, a priest who had come home in retirement, bequeathed £50 to form a fund for supplying prayer books and bibles to the pupils of Threlkeld school - a tradition that continues to this day.
In 1911, the church was restored, notably the flooring and interior woodwork. Local materials from Threlkeld Quarry were used for the floor tiles and steps. The pulpit was donated. The font was made of Threlkeld granite by a local man, Mr Knight, who hand carved it in his spare time.
On restoration in 1911, oak boards were found under the wooden floor with scripture texts and the Ten Commandments painted on them in black letters.
These were restored and fixed to the west wall.
It is thought that the Hanoverian royal coat of arms over the doorway indicated that St Mary’s patron was the Lord Chancellor of England. Nowadays, the Earl of Lonsdale is the patron.
In 1921, the lower churchyard was opened. Quite of a number of graves down there are of patients of the Sanatorium, including two young Latvians here as German prisoners of war in the Second World War.
The stained glass in the east window was given in the 1950s by Captain Apall Olsen in memory of his wife.
The communion rail kneelers were made by village people in the 1970s under the guidance of a Mrs. Mansfield.
In 1998, the parish of St Mary’s was combined with St John’s in the Vale and Wythburn to form a joint benefice.St Mary’s continues to play a significant role in village life and welcomes local people and visitors alike to worship and pray where fellfolk have met in the presence of Christ for over eight hundred years.