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.