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Furness Abbey’s poisoned chalice.

In the year 1351 a certain abbot lived at Furness Abbey in the Vale of the Deadly Nightshade. He was the head of the monastery and was called Abbot Lawrence. Most of the monks under his charge were holy and kept their vows and the rule to pray and work. However there were three monks who were jealous of the abbot’s great power. They each wanted to be abbot and decided the only way to fulfil this ambition was to remove him from his great office and dispatch him into eternity  -  in other words to murder him. They therefore concocted a lethal mixture of poisons including deadly nightshade that was growing wild at that time in the monastery garden.

The plan was as follows: - Brother Andrew was to assist Abbot Lawrence at Mass. When the time came to refill the chalice (the communion cup), after  receiving the sacred host -  the body of Christ, he was to put part of the poison mixed with the wine into the cup, hoping that the abbot would immediately die. If the abbot was to suspect he was being poisoned, Brother Wilfred should be ready to suddenly stab him with a sword at the altar, and so put him to death. Just in case the abbot did not wish to celebrate Mass on that day, Brother John should go to the abbot’s kitchen at meal time with poison hidden under his cloak and should then offer broth containing part of the poison.

This is what actually happened. Abbot Lawrence on that fateful day, clothed himself in his priestly vestments ready to celebrate Mass. He was assisted by Brother Andrew who placed poison in the chalice and mixed it with communion wine. The abbot drank of the poisoned chalice and became extremely ill. In incredible pain he left the church and made his way to his own room. Brother John then brought him some poisoned porridge and more poisoned wine.

The poor abbot was a saintly man and was of course not expecting to be poisoned by any of his own monks, and he innocently ate the food and drank the wine. In the throes of horrendous agony he suffered a terrible death.

Following this crime the three murderers fled never to be seen or heard of again. Their ambition for one of them to become abbot was never going to happen and their abbot was dead.

The body of the abbot was discovered and an inquest was held at Furness Abbey. Twelve jurors declared under oath that Abbot Lawrence had been murdered by poison and that his three murderers were Brother Andrew, Brother Wilfred and Brother John – monks who had lived at the abbey in the Vale of the Deadly Nightshade.  

Based on the account from the Furness Abbey Coucher Book Volume 2 part 3

A longer version of the story by Alice Leach is stored in Cumbria Record Office.