Explore the graves and the poems they inspired Wordsworth to write:
Hawkshead: St. Michael and All Angels Church
Some uncertainty looms around the foundation of the Priory Church of St Mary and St Michael, but scholars believe it was founded around 1189 AD. The church is marked by a “broad, rectangular building with a square somewhat massive tower at its western end” made of “undressed local stone.” Situated centrally in the market square, the church “stands in” a commanding position on the crown of an oval-shaped hillock of glacial origin,” standing prominently at around 30 to 40 feet.
The earliest mention of the building’s oldest component, the tower, traces its origins to the start of the 13th century, indicating it was likely built toward the end of the 12th century. In this mention, the church was referenced as the chapel at Hawkshead or “capella de Hawkeset.’
For Wordsworth, the church’s exterior was “roughcast” and “whitewashed,” which is how The Prelude renders the church in the passage recounting his return to Hawkshead at the end of his first year at Cambridge, in summer 1788.
Interior Images of St. Michael and All Angels Church
Allusions to Hawkhead’s churchyard abound in Wordsworth’s poems:
In the Fifth Book of The Excursion, William describes the church’s interior as:
“Admonitory texts inscribed the walls,
Each in its ornamental scroll, enclosed; Each also crowned with winge’d head – pair
of rudely painted cherubim.”
William published “There was a Boy” in 1800 but later folded the passage into The Prelude. The original standalone poem and the passage from The Prelude reference a grave reportedly in the churchyard, that of “a boy born and bred in the vale…’taken from his mates and died…ere he was full twelve years old’ in the yard.”
Wordsworth describes the situation of the church as
“‘Upon a Slope above the Village School. And there, along that bank, when I have pass’d At evening, I believe that oftentimes A full half-hour together I have stood Mute – looking at the grave in which he lies.”
“Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” also mentions the church:
“Northing was more difficult for me in childhood[…] than the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being. I have said elsewhere, ‘A simple child That lightly draws its breath And feels its life in every limb, What should it know of death?”
In Guide to the Lakes, Wordsworth references the churchyard again,
“I recollect frequently seeing, when a boy, bunches of unfledged ravens suspended in the churchyard of H–, for which a reward of so much a head was given to the adventurous destroyer.”
Exterior Images of St. Michael and All Angels Church
Reportedly, an elderly William Wordsworth recalled for Miss Mary Hodgson of Green End that while at Hawkshead School he frequented the churchyard on summer evenings. There, he encountered elderly gentlemen sitting in the churchyard invited who Wordsworth to sit on a long stone bench set on the church’s east wall.
However, besides colloquial chats, the bench’s original function was for Parish officers to conduct “secular business” and to read notices after services on Sundays Holy Days and Market Days.
Penrith: St. Andrew’s Church
St. Andrew’s Church in Penrith has had a church on the site sine 1133AD, but the church William Wordsworth would have known was built in 1720.
Born in Cockermouth, William Wordsworth has a number of connections to Penrith and the church itself, beginning before his birth even as his parents married in St. Andrews Church.
William spent much of his young life in Penrith as he and Dorothy came to live in Penrith with their maternal grandparents from 1767-1777.
His mother is buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard, and his wife’s, Mary, John and Mary Hutchinson, are also buried in the churchyard at St. Andrew’s Church.
A visit to Ullswater in 1802 with his sister inspired William Wordsworth’s poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud”
I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Passages from the Prelude also reference the area. One notable passage that mentions Penrith is one in which William conjures a memory of riding (around the age of five) with a family servant on Beacon Hill. Momentarily lost, William encountered a set of initials cut into the turf, which he initially assumed to be the murderer’s initials but turned out to the be the victim’s:
and, through fear Dismounting, down the rough and stony moor I led my horse, and, stumbling on, at length Came to a bottom, where in former times A murderer had been hung in iron chains. The gibbet-mast had mouldered down, the bones And iron case were gone; but on the turf, Hard by, soon after that fell deed was wrought, Some unknown hand had carved the murderer's name. The monumental letters were inscribed In times long past; but still, from year to year By superstition of the neighbourhood, The grass is cleared away, and to this hour The characters are fresh and visible: A casual glance had shown them, and I fled, Faltering and faint, and ignorant of the road: Then, reascending the bare common, saw A naked pool that lay beneath the hills, The beacon on the summit, and, more near, A girl, who bore a pitcher on her head, And seemed with difficult steps to force her way Against the blowing wind. It was, in truth, An ordinary sight; but I should need Colours and words that are unknown to man, To paint the visionary dreariness Which, while I looked all round for my lost guide, Invested moorland waste and naked pool, The beacon crowning the lone eminence, The female and her garments vexed and tossed By the strong wind…
Exterior and Interior of St. Andrew’s Church
Another notable passage that references Penrith resides in Book Eleventh in the 1805 version (lines 345-436) and Book Twelfth in the 1850 version. This passage captures the trauma of William learning of his father’s death:
One Christmas-time, On the glad eve of its dear holidays, Feverish, and tired, and restless, I went forth Into the fields, impatient for the sight Of those led palfreys that should bear us home; My brothers and myself. There rose a crag, That, from the meeting-point of two highways Ascending, overlooked them both, far stretched; Thither, uncertain on which road to fix My expectation, thither I repaired, Scout-like, and gained the summit; 'twas a day Tempestuous, dark, and wild, and on the grass I sate half-sheltered by a naked wall; Upon my right hand couched a single sheep, Upon my left a blasted hawthorn stood; With those companions at my side, I watched, Straining my eyes intensely, as the mist Gave intermitting prospect of the copse And plain beneath. Ere we to school returned,— That dreary time,—ere we had been ten days Sojourners in my father's house, he died, And I and my three brothers, orphans then, Followed his body to the grave. The event, With all the sorrow that it brought, appeared A chastisement; and when I called to mind That day so lately past, when from the crag I looked in such anxiety of hope; With trite reflections of morality, Yet in the deepest passion, I bowed low To God, Who thus corrected my desires; And, afterwards, the wind and sleety rain, And all the business of the elements, The single sheep, and the one blasted tree, And the bleak music from that old stone wall, The noise of wood and water, and the mist That on the line of each of those two roads Advanced in such indisputable shapes; All these were kindred spectacles and sounds To which I oft repaired, and thence would drink, As at a fountain; and on winter nights, Down to this very time, when storm and rain Beat on my roof, or, haply, at noon-day, While in a grove I walk, whose lofty trees, Laden with summer's thickest foliage, rock In a strong wind, some working of the spirit, Some inward agitations thence are brought.
St. Mary’s Church: Ennerdale
Located in the village of Ennerdale Bridge, the church Wordsworth encountered at this site was completed in 1858. Designed in the Romanesque style by architect Charles Eaglesfield of Maryport, replaced the St Bees Abbey medieval chapel of 1534. In the parish, the church is the southernmost with a narrow Church Lane separating its two graveyards. The River Ehen flows beside the old churchyard’s northwall. The graves in this portion of the yard date from 1741 to 1900. The new churchyard lies to the south of the older set of graves.
This church has made its way into British cultural consciousness thanks to both William Wordsworth’s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s frequenting of the church, even discussing the graves with the priest. William captures the church in his epic poem “The Brothers:”
Thus spake the homely Priest of Ennerdale. It was a July evening; and he sate Upon the long stone seat beneath the eaves Of his old cottage …. Towards the field In which the Parish Chapel stood alone, Girt round with a bare ring of mossy wall…
In 2021, the fame Wordsworth’s poem brought to the church started a campaign to hire tree surgeons to help preserve the “mossy wall” from tree roots threatening damage. The price tag to repair the wall approaches £60,000, which the congregation and local community could not afford.
Poems Relevant to Hawkshead, Penrith, and Ennerdale:
Crack, Cumbria. “Appeal Launched to Save Wall Written About by William Wordsworth – cumbriacrack.com.” cumbriacrack.com, 23 Apr. 2021, cumbriacrack.com/2021/04/23/urgent-appeal-launched-to-save-wall-mentioned-in-wordsworth-poem.
“Ennerdale Bridge St Mary.” National Churches Trust, www.nationalchurchestrust.org/church/st-mary-ennerdale-bridge.
Ennerdale: St Mary – CHR Church. facultyonline.churchofengland.org/church-heritage-record-ennerdale-st-mary-607293.
Rothwell, Reverend Canon Eric. The Priory Church of St Mary and St Michael, RJL Smith & Associates, Much Wenlock Shropshire, 2000.
Rydal Mount House & Gardens, www.rydalmount.co.uk.
Thompson, TW. Hawkshead Church: Chapelry & Parish, Reed’s Limited, Penrith.
Visit Cumbria. “Ennerdale St Mary’s Church – Visit Cumbria.” Visit Cumbria, 20 May 2013, www.visitcumbria.com/wc/ennerdale-st-marys-church.
—. “Penrith St Andrew’s Church – Visit Cumbria.” Visit Cumbria, 4 Mar. 2013, www.visitcumbria.com/pen/penrith-st-andrews-church. Accessed 7 May 2023.
Wordsworth Connections – Explore Penrith. www.explorepenrith.org.uk/cg/panel12.