Monarchs, marauders, monks and mackerels – A short history of Tynemouth Priory.

The foundation of Tynemouh Priory in the 7th century on the cold and windswept coast of north east England is lost to history. Not even the father of history, the venerable Bede writing only a century later is sure of its origins, mentioning the monastery as being in the charge of Heribald the Abbot during Bedes own lifetime. It has been suggested the Edwin, King of Northumbria gave it the go-ahead but also that Oswald, in his role as the Northumbrian Royal head had a part to play in establishing the monastic site. What is clear is that the building of Tynemouth,  a House of Benedictine rule, became hugely important to both Church and Crown alike.

At least three kings have been preported as being buried within the precincts of Tynemouth. Oswin, King of Deria who died in 651 is said to have been the first King to be buried there less than twenty years after the possible foundation date of 633. However no written records of the foundation or the burial have been found and strangely, Bede makes no mention of such a burial either and to date certainly no grave has been found by archaeologists. It is possible therefore that the burial of Oswin at Tunemouth is a story suggested at a later date, 1065 in fact, and will be discussed below.

Another king, the Northumbrian Osred II was also said to have been buried the monastery. Osred was ambushed and murdered in792 on his way back to Northumberland having reigned only one year and being exiled to the Isle of Man after being deposed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that Osred was “apprehended and slain on the eighteenth day before the calends of October. His body is deposited at Tynemouth” although once again no grave has been uncovered.

The fact that the graves of these two kings have not come to light does not mean they are not there. Tynemouth has suffered greatly from the ravages of time, the weather and invasion and its landscape altered and altered again by later building work – first the later Norman priory and castle of which there are the remains that can be seen today and by the gun battlements placed at the eastern end of the site in World War Two.  The graves may have mean covered over, mis-placed or indeed removed altogether during thetime period involved. After all the original resting place of two of the greatest north east saints, Cuthbert and Bede are no longer in their original resting places either.

One source that may hint at the fact Oswin (who was killed by n battle near Catterick in North Yorkshire) in 651, had been interred at Tynemouth, stems from a story reported in 1085 by the monks of St Albans Abbey under whose control Tynemouth had by then fallen. The story tells that in 1065, a year before Tostig the shunned Earl of Northumberland met with the forces of Harald Hardradha of Norway at Tynemouth in an alliance to try and wrestle power from his brother King Harold Godwinson shortly before the ill fated clash with William Duke of Normandy, a priest in the church which is all that remclaimed to have had the spirit of King Oswin visit him and state that he was “King Oswin, buried out of sight and knowledge of all under the floor of this place”.  The priest, Edmund , under further instruction from Oswin, alerted  Ageleine the Bishop of Durham under whose jurisdiction Tynemouth still lay at that time, and upon digging up the floor, bones were said to have been found along with a sweet scent that filled the air.  The vision of the priest along with the discovery of the bones meant that they were declared those of Oswin and a cult was supposedly founded that put Tynemouth on the map of Holy places to visit , in direct competition to the “white church” at Durhsm where the body of St Cuthbert has lane since 995. This status which saw visitors and therefore income flow into the priory, was enjoyed until  Tynemouth was somewhat eclipsed by the burial of St Goderic at Finchale Priory in the 1170’s which meant the (by then) Durham Priory and Catherdral  – of which Finchale was a dependency- had two saints to attract the faithful.

One King who it was certain was buried at Tynemouth, was Malcolm III of Scotland. Malcolm was killed at Alnwick in 1093 and his body brought back to the newly founded Norman monastery for burial. It was requested soon afterwards that the Kings body was returned to Scotland, however it was reported by Mathhew Paris the famous medieval historian in the 13th century that the Scots were actually sent the body of a local farmer instead. This report may have some credence as in 1257 bones matching the size of a man said to match that of Malcolm were discovered at the monastery in Tynemouth in 1257. The fact that Malcolm was interred at a monastery in the north east of England is rather ironic as he was well know to have tormented Tynemouths neighbouring monastic cells of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth during his 35 year reign.

If King Malcom Scotland was feared amongst the monks of the north east of England then this must have been as nothing compared to the terror that they felt for the Danes in the form of marauding Vikings. The scourge of the coastal regions of England started in 793 with the raid on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne which saw the monetary there sacked. The monastic communities at the likes of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow and indeed Tynemouth must have been on constant alert looking for the sight of an unknown sail on the horizon. Sure enough in 800 Tynemouth (along with Jarrow and Monkwearmouth having been attacked in 794 being the second monasteries looted after Lindisfarne) became victims to Viking raids led by their famous units know as Berserkers who took everything of wealth and destroyed much else. The determined Monks devastated by the attack fortified the monastery and managed to repel a further attack  this time by the Danes in 832 and were not threatened again until 865 when once again the site fell victim to the Danes (5 years after Jarrow and Monkwearmouth were hit again) and this time the raid was horrific. Nuns from St Hilds in Hartlepool who had sought safety from the raids on their own house, were brutally butchered. A final assault took place in 875 and the monks were burned alive inside the monastic church. This effectively put an end to the monastery in the Anglo Saxon period with only the church of St Mary remaining inside the precincts.

Therefore after 875 the site at Tynemouth lay in a ruinous state, (likewise nearby Jarrow and Monkwearmouth suffering a similar final destruction in 860 ending in their abandonment spear the end of the 9th century). It was not until nearly two hundred years later that Tynemouth was brought back to life once more under the Normans. For once an invasionary force intent on building and not destroying ecclesiastical properties as they at least shared the same faith as their new overlords and therefore same fate as one another as under the ttheir unwelcome Scandanavian visitors. After their initial push for control of the north as well as the rest of England which resulted in the church of St Mary at Tynemouth being razed to the ground, the Normans began extensive building works including that of religious house that, although being clearly intended to show their status, power and wealth, at least had the benefit of reinstating the monks to their vocations.

Attempts had been made to rebuild the monasteries at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth only ten or fifteen years after the conquest, but were unfinished when they were returned to the mother house of Durham where thereafter they were only inhabited by one or two monks until before being dissolved in the 1530’s.

Tynemouth however fared much better than their nearby neighbours and did eventually see a full rebuilding of the Priory. Before the Norman Conquest Earl Tostig had billeted himself at Tynemouth making it his fortress during the reign of Edward the Confessor. He intended to re-dedicate the monastery but was killed in 1066 before carrying out his intention.

The re-foundation of the monastery was again suggested in 1080’s when a monk, Aldwin of  Winchombe arrived via Monkchester (later known as Newcastle) with the intent of rebuilding Jarrow and Monwearmouth as mentioned above. With the support of  Walcher, the Bishop of Durham at the time, Tynemouth was given to Jarrow as a monastic cell with only a solitary monk often in residence – an isolated existence indeed!

Despite these early inroads into refounding Tynemouth, it was done so certainly in the shadow of Jarrow as described with the bones of Oswin being regularly removed across the river Tyne emphasising the dominance of Jarrow in the eyes of the Bishop of Durham. It was only after the death of Walcher by a mob at Gateshead in 1080 in a rebellion over his political mis governance of the area, which resulted in William of Calais becoming Bishop of Durham and Robert de Mowbray becoming the new  Earl of Northumberland that the rebalance favour was gradually restored after a further period of political turmoil.

The monks of Jarrow were moved to Durham by Bishop William with the intention they were to remain there as the new Catherdral was established in 1093 and further developed. However in 1087, the Bishop was forced to flee to Normandy after being implicated in s plot to overthrow the new King, William Rufus, who had ascended to the throne following the death of his father William. Robert Curthose the elder brother of Rufus had been supported to take the throne as the rightful heir under the law of primogeniture, from the new monarch and William of Calais was accused of being party to the plan. The plot was foiled and grudges (at least by Rufus) not held long however and William was allowed to return to Durham three years later and resume his former position of Bishop.

One quarrel that did not abate was that between Bishop St Calais and Robert De Mobray. As a result, rather like the boy who, supplying a football for a kick about and not receiving touch of it during the game, takes it home again in a huff, Mowbray threw out the monks from Durham who had began to populate the site in more numbers again while Calais was in Normandy.  To compound this demonstration of displeasure at the Bishop,  Mowbray held negotiations with the Abbot Paul of St Albans who was the nephew of Archbishop Lanfranc of Caterbury, to transfer Tynemouth under it’s jurisdiction in 1090. With the Archbishop of Canterbury trumping any other Bishop in all matters it was a formality that Tynemouth was added to the list of priorities  under the control of the larger Abbey of St Albans. Despite the Bishop of Durhsm intercepting the party at York whilst they  coming north to formally take over at Tynemouth, his plea to think again about the situation were not heeded. The protests of several monks of Durham even in the presence of the Arch Bishop of Canterbury which put them at much risk of admonishment, such was the strong feeling about the arrangement, went unnoticed. Tynemouth was remain under the control of St Albans and not Durham until a decade or so before being disbanded by its last prior in 1539.

The  physical geographic distance between the two monasteries did not mean  that Tynemouth was treated as an afterthought by St Albans. The church was re-roofed almost as soon as St Albans took possession and expansion began to occur. However although administrative power over Tynemouth was now seated at St Albans not Durham, things did not go completely smoothly during the takeover. For example , Abbot Paul died unexpectedly soon after taking over the reigns- something seen as some sort of Devine intervention by those in Durham.  An attempt was made by Prior Thurgot of Durham to limit St Albans power at Tynemouth and when he met the Prior of the southern Benedictine House, he a least managed to prevent the complete loss of rights that Durham had once held although govern ship was not wrestled back north. Possibly thinking they had a chance to siege control of Tynemouth again now the Archbishop of Canterbury’s nephew was no longer Prior at St Albans, the idea fell short of the mark. In addition to expanding and improving the priory, recalcitrant  monks, guilty of some offence against their Order were at times sent to Tynemouth which acted as a sort of  an early version of a correctional centre. And judging from what some of them wrote in letters home, the monks hated it!

One letter dated from the 1200’s sees its author in awe of the Priory which was being expanded from its original fairly modest beginnings after being rebounded. The monk describes it thus:

‘De mirabili decore nuper peracta ecclesiae – intra iacet corpus beatissimi martyris Oswine in argenteo magnifice ornatam monilibus auro. ‘

The lately completed church is of wonderous beauty – within it lies the body of the blessed martyr Oswine, in a silver shrine, magnificently decorated with gold and jewels.”

The monk however is not so complementary about the rest of his surroundings and daily existence as he complains:

‘ Nostra domus est, determinatur ad verticem excelsum petra, et cingitur mari in omni parte, sed una. Hic est accessus ad monasterium per portam interficiam de petra, ita angusta est, quod plaustrum, quod vix transeunt per. Die ac nocte, fluctibus confractus et fremitu et labefactare rumpem prior a vitia mare volumen in ligatura omnia in caligine. Caligaverunt oculi, laboravi  clamans raucae factae voces, ulcus iugula sunt consequentia.”

Our house is confined to the top of a high rock and is surrounded by sea on every side but one. Here is the approach to the monastery through a gate cut out of the rock so narrow that a cart can hardly pass through. Day and night the waves break and roar and undermine the cliff. Thick sea frets roll in wrapping everything in gloom. Dim eyes, hoarse voices, sore throats are the consequence.”

Nor was the monk a lover of seabirds or the sea:

quantisque naufragiis sunt frequentes. Magna est misericordia videre numbed turba, cui nulla potentia in terra potest, nisi, cuius vas, praecipitentur versatum et timbers dividitur, ruit super petram, aut scopulum. Nulla  palumbus vel philomela est hic, nisi cinereo aves, quae nidum in saxa et greedily praedam super suffocatus est, cuius murmurationis clamor est signum venire tempestas.

Shipwrecks are frequent. It is a great pity to see the numbed crew, whom no power on earth can save, whose vessel, mast swaying and timbers parted, rushes upon the rock or reef. No ringdove or nightingale is here, only grey birds which nest in rocks and greedily prey upon the drowned, whose screaming cry is a token of a coming storm.”

Finally the disgruntled monk found the food that was available to be rather uninspired:

Nos multum cibum, gratias abundans copia piscium, quae nos fatigant.”

We are well off for food, thanks to the abundance of fish, of which we tire”

Fish? at the seaside? Never! Oh for a taste of an gooses’ innards!

During the rebuilding of the monastery between 1090 and 1140, many new permanent and temporary structures were added to beautify and increase its appeal both aesthetically and influentially. However if it hadn’t reported been for King Oswin – by now St Oswin (again!) things could have gone badly wrong for Tynemouth (again!). In 1091 just a year into the building project, the priory was plundered by sailors on board the ships of King William Rufus. It was only a direct appeal to Oswin to intercede and the subsequent unexplainable wreck of the sailors ships on nearby coquet island in clear weather, that made Rufus hold Tynemouth in general and Oswin in particular in high reverence there after that prevented further looting. Oswin supposedly came to the rescue of the priory again ten years after the major rebuilding work was completed. In 1150 a fire started in one of the ranges swept through the priory and its thatched roofed buildings. An appeal to the relics of St Oswin that had been housed in the east end of the church from around 1110, was made and “miraculously” according to the monks the fire was managed to be extinguished.

In addition to the Priory receiving attention from the builders, there is evidence that a castle – wooden in structure – was in place on the site by 1095. Permission was granted in 1296 to make it a more durable building of stone with similar stone walls and a gatehouse being added later  also.  The Priory itself began to be expanded once again in 1195 witha reorganisation of the east end of the church and the building of a presbretary (the remains of the  east end Can be seen towering into the sky today), with the expansion of the nave occurring  in 1230’s and 40’s  and the  development of west end of the church.  During the 1250’s and 60’s work was done on the ranges around the cloister while a new chapter house was also built. The last major structural changes to the priory took place in 1336 when a new lady chapel was erected at the northern end of the presbretary while in the 1400’s a chapel, known today as the Percy Chantry was introduced at the east end and it is the only fully intact part of the monastery still standing today with its beautiful stained glass windows and decorations on display inside.

As the Priory continued to become bigger and richer a last attempt was made by the Bishop of Durham to win it back from St Albans – to no avail.  Richard I granted  the Priory quite considerable rights to estates in the surrounding area in 1189, known as the Liberty of Tynemouth – the Priory was becoming dominant in landscape and life once more. There was a disputed between the Priory and the city of Newcastle over the establishment of a market and port  at South  Shields. Newcastle accused Tynemouth of stealing their trade by setting up a rival market to sell fish and the like. The powers that be in Newcastle saw fit to complain to the abbot of St Albans that they felt the Prior at zTynemouth had over stepped the ecclesiastical mark by venturing into secular life in such a way and asked that the situation be rectified. The abbot who was also aware that Tynemouth had for a while being petioning the King to gain independence from St Albans, evidently listened to the complaints being and perhaps with his own agenda in mind regarding the independence issue and , much to the delight of the Newcastle contingent , he turned up at Tynemouth during the night in 1294 and physically removed the prior  and the monks that supported him in the venture from the Priory and its precincts, installing a new more obidient Prior. There are several tales of the tense relationship often experienced between the religious houses of Tynemouth and St Albans. Perhaps the most well known and most amusing to those hearing it in modern times is that of the visit of one abbot by the name of Simon. On visiting Tynemouth he proceeded to eat the Priory almost out of house and home, whittling down the provisions for a period of time that evidently made him far outstay his welcome (if indeed he was ever welcome in the first place). The story has it that to demonstrate that he had virtually emptied the cupboards so to speak, Simin was offered s meal of an oxen – still alive and attached to its plough. The abbot apparently got the message and returned south!

Kings were again leaving their mark on Tynemouth Priory as they had in earlier times.  In 1312 Edward II and his companion and favourite Piers Gaveston obtained refuge in the now fortified castle adjacent to the priory before escaping by sea to Scarborough castle while evading the clutches of disgruntled batons and lords unhappy at the way the land was being governed by an apparently infatuated ruler.  In 1095 the castle had also played host to Robert De Mowbray who along with falling out with the Bishop of Durhsm had also revelled against King William Rufus. He fled from Tynemouth to Bamburgh but was captured and taken back to Tynemouth before being imprisoned for life for treason. The Priory also saw the illegitimate son of Edward  buried there in 1322 having fallen in battle against the Scots.

The Priory finally gained its independence from St Albans in the early years of the 16th century yet less than forty years later it fell into the hands of Henry VIII who had been eying it and the riches it held for much of the 1530’s. Accusations of  irreligious behaviour were made against the Prior and 7 of the 15 monks in residence in 1536 and finally on 15th January amidst unbearing pressure to o give way to pensions and other bribes to step aside, the keys to the Priory were finally surrendered to Henry’s representatives by Prior Robert  Blakeney the last Prior to hold office. The shrine of St zoos win was destroyed and bones disgsrded and Henry ordered the Priory to be handed over to Sir Thomas Hilton. The Prior was given lands in Benwell and became a farmer and the fifteen monks and three novices or apprenticed monks also left the Priory. Much of the monastic buildings were destroyed only the church and Priors house being left in tact. The castle remained in the hands of the King and was heavily fortified against the threat of the Scots, French and Spanish all of whom Henry had much to fear.  This heavy fortification continued later in history as gun placements were built at the east end of the site to defend against  from German air and sea attacks.

Thr Priory has had both  a mysterious varied history and left a deep impression on the lives of those that lived through its existence. It has left deep impression on the minds of those who have lived since its dissolution and subsequent abandoning for a second time and continues for many, to do so.

















The Chivalrous Knight – a medieval myth?

As children we are often told tales of knights in armour being courteous to ladies and other knights and performing heroic deeds on the battlefield for the honour of their liege. Most boys at least, along with that of the cowboy or the commando in the Second World War, played the role of a knight at times in the playground. While these ideas of noble acts by proud noble men make fantastic stories and films starring Errol Flynn,  the reality of what it was like to be a knight in the high Middle Ages was often completely at odds with our more modern understanding.

Since the 12th century the Chivalric Code emerged as rule book to which any knight follow  throughout his chosen way of life.  The list of instructions that should be followed included:

To fear God and maintain His Church
To serve the liege lord in valour and faith
To protect the weak and defenceless
To give succour to widows and orphans
To refrain from the wanton giving of offence
To live by honour and for glory
To despise pecuniary reward
To fight for the welfare of all
To obey those placed in authority
To guard the honour of fellow knights
To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit
To keep faith
At all times to speak the truth
To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun
To respect the honour of women
Never to refuse a challenge from an equal
Never to turn the back upon a foe

Such ideals could almost be seen as additional commandments to those handed down by God to Moses in the Old Testament and would appeal greatly to those living at a time when the Church dominated the lives of everyone on an almost equal footing to that of the Crown. To obey the Church was to obey the King – in particular the King of Kings – God himself.

However, if we turn our eyes away from the  “boys own”  stories of  the knightly ideal and focus our attention on the records of the day in the 1100’s onwards, we will see the relationship between Knight and Church and Kinght and Crown was often a fraught and tense one which frequently spiller over into violence and death. To discover the origins of such relationships we need to look at the era of the Crusades. Especially that of the disastrous second crusade of 1147-1149.  For a knight to even consider going on a journey to reclaim the holy land from that of the Muslim Infidel, meant that he had to have money behind him – and lots of it. He needed to own a horse, be able to feed and care for it, and needed at least a basic array of armour and a weapon. None of this was ever cheap and many Knights, although from noted family backgrounds had often fallen on harder times buy the 1100’s as estates and property  that had perhaps been owned by their grandparents who had come over the channel with William of Normandy, had lost value or changed hands into those of more powerful or wealthy in status.

In order therefore to get finances together to go on crusade (which in itself was seen often as much as a way to gain the rewards of earth as well as heaven by those tempted to make the journey to Jersusalem), a knight must consider how to get enough coin to fund their venture. One avenue to go down for those who needed this sort of money from those who had it. The hundreds of Monasteries scattered throughout the land in the Middle Ages had plenty of both money and land and if the records of the time are to believed, they were seen as easy targets. The records for East Anglia for example show Monastries   In and around Norwich being repeatedly attacked and looted by those of the Knightly classes in the years before the second crusade much to the horror of the monks in residence. This often meant that the population at large suffered as the Priories would often struggle to be able to provide for the needy after a particular ransacking by the very people that were meant according -to the Chivalric Code – be protecting them. Instead many of the people were also attacked, land stolen and women raped by Knights eager to gain power and influence as well as money before going abroad.

If attacking the local monastery failed to secure enough money, land or property to secure passage to the Middle East then the Knight may have to resort to borrowing from the local – usually Jewish- money lenders. The Jews were settled and well established members of society in  places like London and Norwich by the 1100’s and the age of Chivalry. They had been in the money lending business very successfully and were the acknowledged “go to” people for anyone wishing to bolster the contents of their purse. The trouble was that the terms of repayment of monies borrowed was seen to be far too high for many people , rich and poor alike to repay. Many Knights going on crusade gambled on the fact that they would return home after a couple of years of swinging the sword abroad, brining home not just a clean soul but also spoils of war which meant a comfortable existence for the rest of their lives and the ability to pay back the lenders that initially funded such a lucrative return.

Numbers of Knights did return from fighting abroad having the means and desire to fund the foundation of religious houses – often as an attempt to atone fore their past sins and treatment of existing ones before they went on crusade. However, the second crusade was such a disaster that many of those fighting for the survival of Christendom did not in fact survive themselves and those that did came back in a much poorer condition both in health and finance then when they went. This didn’t mean the Jewish financiers forgot about their arrangements with those now more hard-up then ever. Despite the hopes that all loans be cancelled after several years between issue and repayment, this was not the case. Even appeals to the Crown fell on deaf ears and the Knights were disappointed to learn that not only were the loans upheld, copies of the agreements began to be made and held in “arciva” or chests in Royal strongholds where those eager to see them destroyed or mis laid could not reach them. This arrangement with the Jewish moneylenders was to ensure the Crown who were often regular customers themselves met with favourable terms. The safeguarding of loan aggrements by the Crosn could not however insure the safeguarding of the lender themselves and as many borrowers – including Knights returning from Crusade – became ever more desperate to avoid or delay repayments – increasing numbers of assaults by a Knights associates or even the Knights themselves began to occur. Ambushes in forests or attacks sometimes resulting in the deaths of Jewish moneylenders are recorded more frequently after the second crusade in the 1150’s. One such incid not led to the arrest and trial of a knight in Norwich by the name of Simon de Nevair. Having fallen on hard times and being forced to borrow from a Jewish moneylender to fund his place on the second crusade, he returned home after two years and having found himself unable to pay his debts decided to take matters into his own hands and murder his debtor thud removing his obligation to pay. This ultimate solution to the problem of  being in debt became more and more popular in the years immediately following the failure of the second crusade. More about the case of Simon de Novair and the resultant accusation of  the medieval “blood libel” against the Jewish community in defence of killing Jews for their supposed killing of Christians in mock crucifixions in parodying that of Christ Himself, is given in the book ” the murder of William of Nowich” by E.M. Rose.

In conclusion it could be argued that the Chivalric Code was a romanticised ideal of how a knight should live and carry out his duty to society or it could be that it was a set of rules, the purpose of which was to ensure the unruly, unGodly and often unlawful behaviour of many numbers of Knights were tamed. The main rules of the code seem to counter everything a knight had done in the lead up to the second crusade – and even the first where Jews as well as Muslims were killed under the banner of Christisnity. What is certain is that the Code of Chivalry  has coloured our modern understanding and idea of who and what a knight was and his approach to life in the Middle Ages – an idea that many at that time would simply not recognise as being a true reflection of that class of society.


Finchale Priory – a medieval holiday camp?

When Finchale Priory was founded in 1196 on a bend of the river Wear in the north east of England, there had already been a holy man living on the site for decades. Godric (later St Godric) had died in 1170 when at the then chapel of St John the Baptist he had been bedridden for the last years of his life, being cared for by monks of the nearby Priory of Durham (now Durham Cathedral). Godric was initially buried in Durham but later taken back to Finchale where he lies to this day.

After the death of Godric two monks from the Benedictine House at Durham moved to Finchale which, in addition to the hermit Godric’s chapel, housed a mill, fish pond and dam and so was seen as an ideal base near the river to found a base for possible expansion of monastic lands. Finchale, which had been associated with Durham Priory following Godric’s grant of the land by Bishop Ranulf Flambard to establish his hermitage and settle their after an early life of wandering and adventure following his birth in Norfolk in 1065. An early biographer of Godric stated that he spent some fifty years at Finchale living sparsely, sleeping outside on stones having no more than “branches as furniture”.  Godric had initially settled in an area a little further along the river before discovering the site where he founded his final residence. Finchale became a permanent home in 1196 for eight monks of Durham and a prior (named Thomas a the sacrist of Durham Priory) when Hugh Pudsey, then Bishop of Durham and his son Henry endowed the settlement in order to help sustain them. The site was only large enough for two monks and their attendants when Pudsey granted the land to settle the larger community, although a salmon fishery on the river and a working farm was seen as sufficient to support it. Initially the monks, erected temporary buildings around the site and remarkably  evidence some of these can still be seen today.

The Priory itself began to develop fully in the thirteenth century to resemble what can be seen in the shape of its remains today. Over the following century the Priory was continually expanded following its initial completion and was altered, most noticeably in the 1360’s and 70’s when the nave was made narrower by the removal of the aisles within. It is clear then that significant attention was paid to the Priory itself during its lifetime with alterations and construction carrying on until around the 1450’s but can the same attention be said to have been given to the spiritual side of life at the Priory as the centuries went on? Certain evidence found in the records of endowment inventories and account roles of the Priory seems to paint a picture of gradual decline of moral and spiritual values of its encumbants.

There is little doubt that when the Priory was founded in 1196 monasticism in England was at its height. It is estimated that during this period a person was living never more than six to eight miles from a religious house. Couple that with the significant numbers of Friars- a sort of travelling religious salesman that brought the salvation of your soul to you should you be unable to attend a place of worship, then religion permiated into every facet of a persons life. The Church told people when they could work, when they should pray, what they could eat, what they could (and couldn’t wear) – something accepted with very little questioning (in the early  and high Middle Ages at least) but that most, in a largely secular society today cannot comprehend in the slightest.

It was not only spiritual wellbeing that was provided by the monastic communities in areas all across the country. Physical assistance was given to the poor, sick and infirm by way of food supply and medical assistance. The secular authorities were none existent in this regard – the nobles, who were the only other class outside of the royal Court with the finances to support social care by and large looked after themselves. So it was left to the representatives of God on earth to lend a helping hand to strangers and friends alike. This assistance to the community worked well for the monasteries too with labour supplies being readily available to help sow and reap the fields on the lands that were increasingly being acquired by the Church to feed an ever expanding populous meaning many were struggling to feed themselves.In turn for sustenance a portion of a persons time was often expected to help monasteries achieve that aim.

As the Status Quo of this arrangement rumbled on in medieval society, seeds were not only being sown into the ground but also in the minds of some who saw the Church in general of monasteries in particular and taking advantage of this social inequality and spiritual dominance exercised by those wearing habits rather than hose. It is generally been the accepted view that when Thomas Cromwell encouraged Henry VIII to look at reforming the monasteries in the 1530’s (although a number had felt the axe earlier then that), it was because they had grown bloated with land, money and property becoming lazy and lecherous with it, while the country’s own king struggled to finance a desired war against the French to win back territory lost by the ineffective rule of Henry VI that saw only the Cinq Portes around Calias remain with in English hands in France. This could never be allowed. How could Henry hope to fund a campaign and relive the glory of his namesake Henry V if the monasteries had all the loot.

One such monastic site that Henry and Cromwell could think as being typical of demonstrating their view point, had they been able to look at it in earlier times than their own, in theory at least, was Finchale. While never a rich house, it certainly became the wealthiest of Durham Priory’s subsidiaries. The records that exist from between 1303-1535 reveal that during much of its existence the Priory acted as a sort of holiday retreat for monks normally resident at nearby Durham. The numbers of monks in regular residence fluctuated between As few as three and and many as fourteen at any one time with the average numbering around four. In 1319 for example there were nine monks in full time residence and in 1408 their were eight.  The arrangement seems to be that four monks from Durham would travel to Finchale for a period of three weeks for rest and recouperation, perhaps from illness or physical weariness. While religious duties and observances still had to be carried out other less formal and less religious activities were allowed – even being permitted to leaving the monasteries precincts a privilege not usually enjoyed.

Having a more seemingly relaxed attitude may have led to the monks becoming too found of their new found freedom however. The records show that on two separate occasions they faced admonishment from their Mother House at Durham for behaviour and customs not befitting their Benedictine Order. In the middle of the 1300’s for example, the monks at Finchale were reprimanded for keeping “a pack of hounds” and around a century later, rather like being sent to the headmaster for not adhering to the rules of school uniform, it was found that the occupants had cast aside the linsey-woolsey garment of the Benedictines, instead having the audacity to wear linen shirts instead! While in medieval terms such outrageous acts might have led those who still attempted to run  a tight ship to think that standards were slipping, it was not all decadence however. Finchale had not become an early version of Las Vegas. There was still evidence that the care of the inhabitants around them was being demonstrated. The records show that the Priory fed and clothed a boy in their charge and “sents him to the Priory School for six or ten years, as his case may require”.

There were fifty-two Priors at Finchale between its foundation in 1196 and its suppression in 1538. Like all establishments perhaps the character and reputation of the Priory was reflective of those in charge. The Priors themselves had some noted personalities. Adam de Boyville was Prior at Finchale and a Bull exists dated 1303 mentions that he and two other monks were in hot water after “carrying away two horses” from the Priory before becoming encumbant their. Presumably some explanation was given or repentance was shown as it didn’t stop him taking charge there soon after. Boyvilles successor Henry de Stamford didn’t seem to avoid being entered in the Black Books of Durham either. He became Prior at Finchale in 1312 having being among 3 monks who who had previously fled from the cloister before having a change of heart and being reinstated to monastic orders.

One final tale that makes it into the records of Finchale concerns the last Prior there before it was suppressed by men under the charge of Thomas Cromwell in 1538. Upon its doors closing the Priory William Bennett as soon as he was “discharged of his vow, took to himself a wife” thus abandoning the life altogether.

Not all of the Priors or monks at Finchale led lives unworthy of the name – indeed it is almost certain that most led wholly good and holy lives as much as any man of flesh and blood can.  For example at least one Prior fought hard to establish himself  as at least to be in contention to be Prior at Finchale. John Oll who was appointed on the 16th of September 1450, having previously being Priory at Coldinghsm Priory from 1442, was accused of being born to the wrong class in a “servile” condition and therefore should not and could not be eligible to take up the office. A dispute followed whereupon it was proven that his father had been born a free-man and had a silver knife – proof also of his standing in society, enabling his son to carry on in the Church. Sadly for Oll it seems his tenure at Finchale after all that was short-lived as he died before 1452, serving less than two years there while Robert Werdell or Wardell was in charge for eleven years from 1479 to 1491.

Other Priors must have shown good governance of Finchale as a few were placed in charge at least twice in their lifetime, with one Prior, William Cathorne or Cawthorn in command four separate times between 1506 and 1520 having been Prior at Lindisfarne or Holy Island in 1501 as a number of others had also been or were to become. Some Priors of Finchale went on to bigger and better things; Richard Bell for example, Prior from 1457 to 1464 went on to become Bishop of Carlisle. Quite clearly a career minded member of the clergy as it were, Finchale proving a well worn stepping stone to greater things so cannot surely have been completely out of hand at any time during its existence. It may have been a case at Finchale at certain points of its life and that of its inhabitants of “while the cats away the mice will play” rather than any  co plate break down of morals and values. Like in so many of the monasteries that were dissolved in the 1530’s some had become as vice-ridden and debauch d and greedy as suspected by the Crown, others had no evidence of wrong doing uncovered against them whatsoever and such evidence (sometimes but not always) had to be completely fabricated by the Kings men to justify why they had been sent in the first place, while others had room for improvement. Being in its rather isolated and hidden spot as it the latter  may have been the case at Finchale, whether any real evidence was uncovered or not. The fact that it was suppressed rather late in the day, five years after the assault on the major Houses had begun in 1533 meant that by the time the inspectors arrived many had lost heart or interest in the task and were often rather shoddy in their approach (for example some illustrations on the walls of the Gallilee Chapel at Durham Priory/Cathedral suppressed in 1539 and left open to the elements for a few years hints that the job to close it down was done quite quickly and without due process). After all, their masters were in London, who other then themselves was going to come to the North East of England five years into the Dissolution strategy to see the job had been done right? A case of who was checking the checkers perhaps. No wrong doing of Sodom proportions  was  found at Durham – or Finchale but perhaps a bit of “Carry on Camping” may have occasionally broken out among its guests.

In conclusion it has to be pointed out that looking back in at the past at any time, especially several centuries can be fraught with danger for those of us in the present. We have the benefit of hindsight about events that obviously those caught up in those events or who had yet to encounter them could never have. And hindsight, as always,has twenty-twenty vision. It is easy for us to say “they should have not done that” or should have lived this way”. We were not there, did not of course personally know them and have to rely on official records written down in such a way that deliberately represents the individuals involved in a very official way. The full personality of those involved is not  mentioned. I tend to say that if you want to know about a person in history then read a biography about them and and auto biography and the truth will usually be somewhere between the two. Thus with the records of Finchale or indeed any other Priory. They only provide a part of the story. But what a story it often is.

Acknowledgements are gladly given to the Surtees Society and English Heritage as a basis of sources and references used in the writing this article, especially records of Durham Cathedral and the accounts rolls of Finchale.