This is like something out of Tolkien. Hexhamshire was a county of Northern England. It existed for several hundred years until it was incorporated into Northumberland in 1572. The county probably originated as one of the districts of the Kingdom of Northumbria, the town of Hexham then being the seat of a bishopric. It later lost its privileges, and became considered part of County Durham. In the early 12th century, Henry I of England decided to weaken the power of the prince bishops of Durham by removing parts of their realm. In doing so, he elevated Hexhamshire to county status, with Hexham as its county town. Hexhamshire remained a county until 1572, when it was incorporated into Northumberland by Act of Parliament, by 14 Eliz. 1 c. 13 ("An Act for the annexing of Hexhamshire to the Countye of Northumberland"). At the same time, the district was transferred from the see of Durham to the see of York, where it remained until 1837. During this era, the Border Reivers were raiders that attacked local residents. There were both English and Scottish clans in these groups, and they would attack regardless of nationality. Local farmers would often need to make payments to the various clans as a form of protection money to ensure they are not attacked. These agreements were called "Black mal", where mal was an Old Norse word meaning agreement. The word blackmail entered the English language in 1530 as a result.
In June 1330 orders were issued to construct a gaol in Hexham making it the oldest purpose-built prison in England. Prisoners from around Hexhamshire were held, before their trial in the Moothall Court Room nearby, within its walls - the area ruled over by the powerful Archbishop of York - and it was his Bailiff and officials who ran the Shire on his behalf from the nearby Moothall. Prisoners were kept in the Gaol until the 1820s, when a new county gaol was built at Morpeth. By 1828 however, most prisoners were held in Morpeth Gaol, and the Hexham House of Correction was used for petty thieves. The gaol currently houses a museum, covering: archaeology, archives, costume and textiles, law and order, music, photography, social history, weapons and war. The collections include 15th and 16th century arms and armour, and objects of local historical interest. Descend into the dungeon, peer into the gloom and imagine confinement in the dark awaiting trial in the nearby Moothall. Meet the gaoler to learn about the treatment of criminals then put yourself in the prisoners’ shoes and try the stocks for size – if you dare! The Border Library holds the Butler Collection, books, recordings and music relating to the culture of the Borders. The museum is fully wheelchair accessible.
Location : Hallgate, Hexham, Northumberland NE46 1XD
Transport: Hexham (National Rail) 1/2 mile. Bus routes 83, 683, 685 and 688 stop nearby
Opening Times: Tuesday to Saturday 11:00 to 16:30
Tickets: Adults £3.95 Concessions £3.50 Children £2.50
Tel: 01670 624523
Hexham Abbey is a Grade I listed place of Christian worship dedicated to St Andrew, in the town of Hexham, Northumberland, in northeast England. Originally built in AD 674, the Abbey was built up during the 12th century into its current form, with additions around the turn of the 20th century. Since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537, the Abbey has been the parish church of Hexham. In 2014 the Abbey regained ownership of its former monastic buildings, which had been used as Hexham magistrates' court, and subsequently developed them into a permanent exhibition and visitor centre, telling the story of the Abbey's history.
There has been a church on the site for over 1300 years since Etheldreda, Queen of Northumbria made a grant of lands to St Wilfrid, Bishop of York c.674. Of Wilfrid's Benedictine abbey, which was constructed almost entirely of material salvaged from nearby Roman ruins, the Saxon crypt still remains; as does a frith stool, a 7th/8th century cathedra or throne. For a little while around that time it was the seat of a bishopric.
In the year 875, Halfdene (Halfdan Ragnarsson) the Dane ravaged the whole of Tyneside and Hexham Church was plundered and burnt to the ground. About 1050, one Eilaf was put in charge of Hexham, although as treasurer of Durham, he probably never went there. Eilaf was instructed to rebuild Hexham Church which then lay in utter ruin. His son Eilaf II completed the work, probably building in the Norman style.
In Norman times, Wilfrid's abbey was replaced by an Augustinian priory. The current church largely dates from c.1170 –1250, built in the Early English style of architecture. The choir, north and south transepts and the cloisters, where canons studied and meditated, date from this period.
The east end was rebuilt in 1858. The Abbey was largely rebuilt during the incumbency of Canon Edwin Sidney Savage who came to Hexham in 1898 and remained until 1919. This mammoth project involved re-building the nave, whose walls incorporate some of the earlier church and the restoration of the choir. The nave was re-consecrated on 8 August 1908.
The church was recorded as Grade 1 listed in 1951. In 1996 an additional chapel was created at the east end of the north choir aisle; named St Wilfrid's Chapel, it offers a place for prayer or quiet reflection.
** – Stained Glass – **
Some of the brightest and most colourful parts of Hexham Abbey, the stained glass windows date mainly from Victorian times and later. They depict a number of religious and local scenes, as well as paying tribute to armed forces and charitable organisations.
Subjects in the six lancet windows include New Testament themes, and the Apostles and their emblems. St Andrew, Hexham Abbey's patron saint, is in the dominant position. Other subjects featured in the North Transept include the Resurrection, St Paul and Mary Magdalene, Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and St Peter and St Anne.
The west wall of the Nave Aisle contains the Baptistry, or Children's, Window. It shows three scenes from the history of English Christianity. Some of the cherubs in the upper lights were modelled on Awdrey Savage, one of the daughters of the Reverend E S Savage, the rector of the Abbey who was instrumental in having the nave rebuilt 1907-1908.
The north wall of the Nave Aisle contains two windows commemorating the contribution of local people to the achievement of the Royal British Legion and the Royal Air Force. The third window celebrates the life of Queen Etheldreda. It was commissioned to mark the rebuilding of the Nave, and incorporates three fragments of Roman glass found at Corbridge - the only pre-Reformation glass in the Abbey.
Four of the stained glass windows in the Abbey are the work of Jersey-born stained glass artist Henry Thomas Bosdet who was commissioned by the Abbey. The east window was the first project and was installed about 1907. Two smaller windows followed and the large west window was installed in 1918.
** – Saxon Crypt – **
Wilfrid was so inspired by a visit to Rome that he returned to Northumbria determined to build stone churches like the ones he had seen on the Continent. Northumbrian craftsmen lacked the skills to work with stone, but a ready supply of building material was close at hand. A few miles down the river, at Corbridge, were the remains of a major Roman fort and town, and Wilfrid's church was probably built entirely from stones taken from this site.
You can see the results of Wilfrid’s impressive recycling project everywhere you look in the crypt: there are well-defined frieze patterns in some areas of wall, as well as an attractive leaf and berry design on some of the stones, indicating that they were originally from an important house. There are also two inscribed stones in the roof, one dedicating a granary, the other a fragment of an altar to Maponus Apollo, a merging of a Celtic god with a Roman one.
In taking the steep stone steps down to the crypt, you are taking a journey back in time to the earliest days of Christianity in England. Entry to the Crypt is free of charge. It is open to visitors daily, when services and events allow. Please speak to a steward or verger if you would like access.
The crypt is a plain structure of four chambers. Here were exhibited the relics which were a feature of Wilfred's church. It consists of a chapel with an ante-chapel at the west end, two side passages with enlarged vestibules and three stairways. The chapel and ante-chapel are barrel-vaulted.
All the stones used are of Roman workmanship and many are carved or with inscriptions. One inscription on a slab, partially erased, when translated reads: 'The Emperor Lucius Septimus Severus Pius Pertinax and his sons the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius Pius Augustus and Publius Geta Caesar the cohorts and detachments made this under the command of ….'. The words erased are of great interest. After the Emperor Geta was murdered by his brother Caracalla, an edict was made at Rome ordering that whenever the two names appeared in combination that of Geta was to be erased. This so-called damnatio memoriae was carried out, but so poorly that the name can still be read.
** – Bishopric of Hexham – **
The first diocese of Lindisfarne was merged into the Diocese of York in 664. York diocese was then divided in 678 by Theodore of Tarsus, forming a bishopric for the country between the Rivers Aln and Tees, with a seat at Hexham and/or Lindisfarne. This gradually and erratically merged back into the bishopric of Lindisfarne. Eleven bishops of Hexham followed St. Eata, of which six were saints.
No successor was appointed in 821, the condition of the country being too unsettled. A period of disorder followed the Danish devastations, after which Hexham monastery was reconstituted in 1113 as a priory of Austin Canons, which flourished until its dissolution under Henry VIII. Meantime the bishopric had been merged in that of Lindisfarne, which latter see was removed to Chester-le-Street in 883, and thence to Durham in 995.
** – Night Stair – **
Thirty-five stone steps rise from the south transept of Hexham Abbey, worn by constant use since the 13th century. A rare surviving example of its type, the Night Stair is an atmospheric reminder of the Abbey’s history as a monastic church.
The Night Stair is a vivid reminder of the time when the canons lived, worked and worshipped in the Priory. Before dawn each day, the Priory bell would summon them to Matins, their first service of the day. They would descend from their dormitory, which no longer survives, down the Night Stair, on their way to the service in the Choir.
When the Priory was dissolved in 1537, the canons were pensioned off and the dormitory fell into decay. It was eventually demolished, and the Song School now inhabits the site where it once stood. But the Night Stair at Hexham survived, unlike those at other abbeys such as Fountains, Rievaulx and Finchale.
The Night Stair is still in frequent use today. The choir uses it regularly, and it is adorned with candles or flowers on festive occasions. The gallery at the top of the Night Stair is the perfect place for a fine view of the transepts, the organ and the screen, and the jewel-like Victorian stained glass that fills the 13th century lancet windows.
** – Sculpture – **
Hexham Abbey is rich with fragments of sculptured stone that span centuries of history in the region. Some of them date from long before Wilfrid built his church, whilst others show how he was influenced by the carved stonework he saw during his travels on the Continent.
Over the years, many fragments of sculptured stone have been found in and around Hexham Abbey, buried under floors or built into walls and staircases. When the present Nave was added to the Abbey in the early 20th century, some of these fragments were built into its new walls or set in purpose-built niches. One of the most interesting examples is that of the 7th century ‘Hexham Lion’, which can be seen in the north side of the west wall of the Nave. It is believed to have been part of a capital from Wilfrid’s original church, and was evidently created by a skilled craftsman.
To the left of the High Altar is the Leschman Chantry Chapel, containing the tomb of Rowland Leschman, Prior of the Abbey from 1480 to 1491. The tomb is decorated with two rows of carvings. The upper row consists of traditional devotional scenes, including St George and the Dragon, St Peter and St Paul, and a lily, the symbol of purity. The lower row, in dramatic contrast, includes more playful and irreverent scenes. These feature a man playing the bagpipes, a jester, a three-headed figure, and a fox preaching to geese, a satirical comment on the clergy popular at the time.
Many of the Abbey’s pieces of sculpture are now collected together in The Big Story exhibition. One of the earliest carvings here dates from the 3rd century and depicts the god Jupiter draped in a toga. It was probably once a tombstone or part of a frieze, and is likely to have been brought from the old settlement at Corbridge. Another of the carvings on display here is the Spital Cross. Dating from the 8th century, it is one of the earliest crucifixion scenes in Anglo-Saxon sculpture.
Also to be found in The Big Story are several fragments of 7th century animal carvings, which show the influence of Continental craftsmanship. They include a pair of carvings depicting a boar and a cow, which still contain traces of plaster, indicating that they would originally have been coloured.
** – Rood Screen + Painted Panels – **
Hexham Abbey is home to a fascinating and beautifully-preserved collection of medieval paintings in the form of screens and panels, these are rare survivors of the destruction suffered by so much church imagery during the Commonwealth period in England.
The Choir side of the screen features paintings of saints, including St Oswald, St Etheldreda and St Andrew. A passageway that links the Choir to the Nave has richly painted ribbed roofwork. It also contains two of the most beautiful paintings in the Abbey: the Annunciation, and the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. On the Nave side are sixteen delicately canopied niches with paintings of the bishops of Hexham and Lindisfarne. They combine exquisite woodwork and fine painting, and were obviously made by highly skilled craftsmen.
Above this set of panels is another, featuring four scenes of the Dance of Death. They show Death as a gruesome skeleton wielding a sickle. He dances, in turn, before a cardinal, a king, an emperor and a pope. This was a common medieval theme, emphasising the irrelevance of rank and power in the face of universal human mortality.
The top row of panels makes up the Reredos, which would once have hung over the altar. It shows seven of the canonised Saxon bishops of Hexham. Each of them is set in a niche with a decorative carved canopy above it. The Big Story exhibition also contains a collection of 15th century wood-panel paintings. This series, protected behind glass, movingly depicts Christ's Passion.
** – The Banners – **
The nave aisle of Hexham Abbey is home to an impressive and moving collection of banners, marking some of the most important events, regiments and people in the history of Northumberland.
The banner on display is a replica presented to the Abbey in 1972 by the Provost of Hawick, as a token of the friendship established between the two communities. The same colours are carried in the ‘Common Riding of the Marches’, an annual event in Hawick which marks the raid of 1514.
The Scots Guards Colours were presented to the 2nd Battalion by Edward VII in 1903. Colonel Gerald Cuthbert of Beaufront, as colonel of the regiment, chose Hexham Abbey - ‘where he had worshipped as a boy and his father before him’ - as their resting place.The colours of the 4th Battalion the Northumberland Fusiliers were presented in 1920. The Regimental Colour includes an attractive wreath of roses, shamrock and thistles. Below is a garland of red and white ribbon. The King’s Colour has the Union Flag with the regiment’s name round the Roman numeral IV in the centre. The colours were laid up in the Abbey in 1979.
** – Frith Stool – **
In the middle of the Choir at Hexham Abbey stands a seat, made from a solid block of sandstone. The ‘Frith Stool’ dates back to the beginnings of the Abbey, and has played an important part in the Abbey’s history, as well as the turbulent history of Hexham itself.
It is possible that Wilfrid had this stone seat made when he first founded the monastery here in 674. He had travelled through France on his way to Rome, and it is possible that he took his inspiration for the Frith Stool from examples on the continent, where they were used by bishops presiding over their teams of clergy. Hexham was a cathedral, at the centre of a diocese, from about 678 to about 821, and this seat may have been the bishop’s 'cathedra', or official seat.
The word 'frith' is of Anglo-Saxon origin, and means 'peace, security and freedom from molestation'. In medieval England, it was possible for those fleeing conflict and persecution, and even justice, to claim sanctuary in a church. The frith stool, traditionally located near the high altar, was considered to be the safest and most protected place in the church for such refugees.
Hexham's Frith Stool has occupied its present position in the Abbey Choir since 1908, when the present nave was completed. This spot was chosen because, at the time, this was believed to have been the east end of Wilfrid’s early church, and therefore the original site of his throne. The apse of the east end of a Saxon building still exists under the spot where the chair now rests.
** – Acca's Cross – **
Acca's Cross is a moving memorial to one of the most important people in Hexham Abbey's early history. Now standing in the south transept, near the main entrance, it is thought that the cross once marked the final resting place of one of Hexham's best-loved saints.
Acca was Bishop of Hexham between 709 and 732. He had been Wilfrid's loyal companion, and succeeded him as Abbot and Bishop. He devoted his time to building the faith in Northumbria, continuing Wilfrid's work to create a great centre of Christian worship and learning in Hexham. The vibrant musical life of the Abbey today can trace its roots back to Acca: he was an accomplished musician as well as an outstanding theologian, and he was determined that music and liturgy in Hexham should be as fine as anywhere in Europe.
The Cross that we see today is not complete, and what remains has been re-assembled from several fragments. The two top pieces of the Cross were rescued from the foundations of a warehouse near the site of St Mary's Church in the Market Place, adjacent to the Abbey; and the lower section spent some time serving as the lintel over a farmhouse door in nearby Dilston! Centuries of exposure have eroded the carved decoration of the cross, and the colour that originally enriched it has long since disappeared. But it is still possible to appreciate the dedication of the craftsmen who created it, and who employed their new-found skills to adorn it with the vine scroll, leaves and fruit that we can still see today.
** – Tombstone of Flavinus – **
At the bottom of the Night Stair, stands a sandstone memorial to a Roman standard bearer. Dating from the 1st century, this stone may seem incongruous in the Abbey, but it is a reminder of the Roman domination of this part of England, centuries before Wilfrid arrived.
This memorial slab, which stands nearly nine feet high, was found in 1881 under part of the floor of the Abbey. It is the largest example of its kind to have been found in England. The tombstone is dedicated to Flavinus, and the carved inscription translates as:
The scene carved on the stone represents a mounted soldier riding over a prostrate barbarian. The soldier is wearing a helmet with a high crest and plume; round his neck is a torque, which indicates his high rank. He is carrying a standard, which displays the sun god in a circle. The barbarian, by contrast, is naked and carries a large oval shield and a short, leaf-shaped sword. It is not known where this memorial stone originated, but it is likely that it came from the remains of the Roman settlement at Corbridge, as did most of the stone used to build Wilfrid’s original church.
** – Organ – **
In 1865 the Abbey acquired a second-hand organ from Carlisle Cathedral dating from 1804. It was installed in Hexham by Nicholson of Newcastle and opened on 19 October 1865. In 1905 this was rebuilt by Norman and Beard with Sir Frederick Bridge of Westminster Abbey as the consultant. In 1974 a new instrument by Lawrence Phelps of Pennsylvania was installed. It is a two manual 34-stop mechanical action instrument.
** – Choirs – **
There are three choirs at the Abbey.
** – The Big Story – **
If you're interested in the history of the Abbey, and the lives of the people who used to live here, you'll love their impressive interactive exhibition, The Big Story. With state-of-the-art touch screens, models and displays, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
The Big Story brings Hexham Abbey's 1,300 year history alive, for adults and children alike. Children can have a go at dressing up as one of Hexham’s Augustinian Canons, building their own Gothic arch, or finding out what it took to be able to join Wilfrid’s monks in the scriptorium. What did the naughty choir boys post through the floorboards? And what was the smelliest job in the world?
For adults, fascinating information panels and videos examine the work of the stonemasons who built and decorated the Abbey. And a touch screen display enables you to follow the development of the Abbey and the monastic buildings from their beginnings to the present day. Finally, take a moment to enjoy our detailed coin-operated scale model of the Abbey, where you can switch on the lights and listen to the bells ringing!
Entry to The Big Story is free of charge.
There is full wheelchair access to both the exhibition and all other parts of the abbey, except for the towers. Guide dogs are welcome.
Location : The Parish Centre, Hexham Abbey, Hexham, Northumberland NE46 3NB
Transport: Hexham (National Rail) 6 minutes. Bus routes 680, 683, 684 and 688 (all Tynesdale Links) and 685 (Cross Pennines) stop nearby
Opening Times: see above or contact.
Tickets: Free. Group Tours from £5.40 per adult.
Tel: 01434 602031