Hexham

It is the most beautiful and one of the oldest of Northumbrian towns. Its situation bears some resemblance to that of Melrose. The Tyne, broad and rippling, flows past the one just as the Tweed flows past the other. The appearance of the place at a first glance impresses on one the feeling of a sheltered land and a fertile soil. Trees of every kind grow freely and happily in the town and fine plantations surround it. Although raised considerably above the banks of the river, Hexham reminds one of a cradle. Cultivated land swelling on every side gently gives place to brown upland pasture and heather. The situation seems to have recommended itself to each successive race that inhabited Britain. Neolithic and Roman remains have been discovered all round it. Hexham does not seem to have been at any time a Roman station. But that was probably because Corbridge, the Roman Corstopitum, in Roman times the most important town north of Eboracum, lies within three miles of it. No Roman name has been found for Hexham. Bede calls it Hagustald, and Bates made a shrewd guess when he said that originally it was in all likelihood ” a petty State that some forgotten Hagustald had probably conquered from the Britons.” Its ascertained history begins in the seventh century, when Wilfrid chose it for the site of his magnificent church. The town and land had been given him by Queen Etheldrida so that he might build a monastery and make it an ecclesiastical centre. Etheldrida may have proposed to retire to it herself. She was a devout woman who after being twice married, first to Tunbert, a Chief of the South Gervii, and afterwards to Ecgfrid, ultimately retired to lead a religious life at Ely.

Wilfrid was the first of a type of churchman soon to become numerous and powerful. He had been educated at Lindisfarne, and magnificent as his ideas became in many respects, he retained to the last the simple, frugal habits which distinguished Aidan and his successors. But once in early life and twice subsequently he made a journey to Rome and brought back with him a taste for the noble ecclesiastical buildings that had begun to arise in Italy. He was a man of great ambition, whose love of power brought him into conflict with the highest dignitaries of Church and State. He built the original church at Hexham, but was not its first bishop owing to his being out of favour. There were twelve bishops altogether, of which one, St. Cuthbert, never assumed office, preferring Lindisfarne. Among the others were many whose names became familiar – Eata, John (who was later to attain to fame as John of Beverley), Wilfrid himself, Acca, Frithbert, Alchmund, Tilbert, Ethelbert, Eadred, Eanbert, and Tidfrith. In ” The’ Chronicle of Lanercost ” there is a reference to the Abbey as having been built by ” that illustrious bishop of the Lord, St. Wilfrid,” and having of old several shrines enclosing relics of the holy fathers. The chronicler proceeds to say ” that very church carved with Roman work was dedicated by the ministry of St. Wilfrid to the honour of Saint Andrew, the meekest of the apostles and the spiritual patron of the Scots.” In building the church the workmen had a quarry close at hand in Corstopitum, the Roman town, now Corbridge. In Saxon times it was easier to take the stones from some existing and perhaps ruinous building near at hand than to quarry them at a distance. Of the many proofs that the stones were brought from Corstopitum it is difficult to select the most interesting. One or two may be mentioned, however. The first is that in doing so a common custom was followed. Hodges and Gibson give the following list of churches which contain large quantities of Roman worked stones : Alwinton, Gosforth, Heddon-on-the-Wall, Haydon, Chollerton, Warden, Newbrough, Bywell, Corbridge, Ovingham, Lanchester, Ebchester, Escomb, and the Abbeys of Jedburgh and Lanercost. In 1887 three Roman stones were discovered in the bed of the Tyne at a point known as an ancient ford. One was the upper half of a very large altar which had evidently been cut in two for convenience in transport. It was obvious from their water-worn surfaces that they had been submerged for many centuries. The conclusion is drawn that they constituted a cartload on its way to St. Wilfrid’s buildings. It had been overturned in the ford and left there, as the labour of recovering and reloading would have been greater than that of going back for another load. The nature of the stone shows it to have come from quarries on the north bank of the Tyne nearer to Corbridge than Hexham. Then there are the sculptured stones actually found in the abbey ruins, of which something must be said hereafter.

Hexham had a very troubled history, the early portion of which culminated in 875, when the Danes, under Haldane, landed and pillaged and destroyed Hexham along with many other churches. The church was not reconstituted until 1113, when it was made into a priory of the Austin Canons. The buildings were never completed because of the Scottish raids which culminated towards the end of the thirteenth century. As we have already seen, very troublous times occurred in the north after the Norman Conquest, and Hexham, close to the Border, was for centuries subjected to the incursions of the Scots. A very vivid account of these raids is given by the chronicler of Lanercost, who writes with an intense hatred of the Scot that was no doubt reciprocated. On Friday of Passion Week, 1297, a detachment of the Scottish army made an incursion into England, burning and slaying among the country villages as far as the monastery of Carham. In April of the same year a band of young knights and fighting men forced their way through Redesdale under the leadership of the Earl of Buchan. The Lanercost chronicler says :

In this raid they surpassed in cruelty all the fury of the heathen when they could not catch the strong and young people who took flight, they imbrued their arms, hitherto unfleshed, with the blood of infirm people, old women, women in child-bed, and even children two or three years old, proving themselves apt scholars in atrocity, in so much so that they raised aloft little span-long children pierced on pikes, to expire thus and fly away to the heavens. They burnt consecrated churches; both in the sanctuary and elsewhere they violated women dedicated to God, as well as married women and girls, either murdering them or robbing them after gratifying their lust. Also they herded together a crowd of little scholars in the schools of Hexham, and, having blocked the doors, set fire to that pile (so) fair (in the sight) of God. Three monasteries of holy collegiates were destroyed by them – Lanercost, of the Canons Regular ; and Hexham of the same order, and (that) of the nuns of Lambley ; of all these the devastation can by no means be attributed to the valour of warriors, but to the dastardly combat of thieves, who attacked a weaker community where they would not be likely to meet with any resistance. (” The Chronicle of Lanercost,” Sir Herbert Maxwell’s translation.)

The attack on the church was described as follows :

And although both the dignity of the saints and respect for the pious friars ought to have been a defence against the irreverent, yet these madmen aforesaid neither had any regard for these things nor felt any dread of all-seeing God, but with barbarous ferocity committed the consecrated buildings to the flames, plundering the church property stored therein, even violating the women in that very place and afterwards butchering them, sparing neither age, rank nor sex. At last they reached such a pitch of iniquity as to fling contemptuously into the flames the relics of the saints preserved in shrines, tearing off them the gold or silver plates and gems. Also, roaring with laughter, they cut the head off the image of St. Andrew, a conspicuous figure, declaring he must leave that place and return to his own soil to be trodden under foot.

Hexham never fully recovered from these misfortunes. The priory and convent were impoverished, though they still retained possession of the church at Hexham and the land belonging to it until the dissolution of the monasteries. A number of them rebelled and took part in the Pilgrimage of Grace, but want of combination ruined their chance of success and Henry VIII took stern measures with them. He ordered Norfolk ” without pity or circumstance ” to see that ” all the monkes and chanons, that be in anywise faultie, to be tyed uppe, without further delaye or ceremony, to the terrible example of others ; wherein we thinke you shall doo unto us highe service.”

In 1571 Sir J. Forster, later Warden of the Middle Marches, purchased the manor of Hexham from the Crown, to which it had been sold by the Archbishop of York, and it subsequently devolved on his son-in-law, Sir John Fenwick, who was killed in the battle of Marston Moor. The other Sir John Fenwick, who was beheaded for high treason in 1697, had previously sold the manor to Sir William Blackett. The present owner of the property is Viscount Allendale.

The abbey church has been beautifully restored now and claims to be the finest English church in Great Britain.

The feature most interesting to a visitor is the unequalled number of historical objects that have been preserved from early times. Some of these stir the imagination to an extraordinary degree. First in romantic interest one would place the Fridstool, or Seat of Peace. Wilfrid brought it from Italy and it is probably of Pagan origin. Here, it marks the centre of the sanctuary. Wilfrid obtained the privilege of sanctuary for the church. Its extent was a mile all round the building, and the limits were marked by stone crosses, the names of some of which still remain, as Maiden’s Cross in the west, White Cross Field in the east, and Lady Cross Bank on the north bank of the river. There is a room called the Sanctuary Chamber. It is over the internal porch at the east end of the slype and seems to have been used by him who watched for those who fled from the avenger of blood.

The Night Stair is another prominent though not peculiar feature of the abbey. Of old we can fancy the cowled monks ascending it to their dormitory. Nowadays the original steps have been replaced in position and the effect is very remarkable when the red-clad choir go up or down. It seems to recall in a very striking way the pomp and ceremony of the medieval church.

Of the Roman stones two stand out beyond all the others. One is the gravestone of a Roman soldier, of the rank of standard-bearer, who was killed at the age of twenty-five and buried at Corstopitum. I cannot do better than quote the description of it by Hodges and Gibson.

” It is a stock design used largely all over the Roman Empire, and represents a mounted soldier riding over a prostrate barbarian. In this instance the details of the figures are of great interest. The soldier is well armed, he wears a helmet with high crest and plume, and round his neck is a torque, which indicates his high rank. In his right hand he carries the standard which displays the sun god in a circle. The long sword is sheathed, and no other weapon is seen. The horse is amply harnessed, furnished with martingales, covered with a square-cut saddle-cloth, and shod. The barbarian is naked, and carries a large oval shield by a strap with his left arm, while his right hand grasps a short leaf-shaped sword of strikingly different form to that worn by his conqueror. Below the sculpture is a sunk panel with ansated ends, in which is the inscription :

DIS. MANIBVS. FLAVINVS EQ. ALAE. PETR. SIGNIFER TFR. CANDIDI. AN. XXV STIP. VII. H. S.

” To the gods the shades Flavinus standard-bearer of the cavalry of Petriana of the white troop twenty-five years of age and seven years’ service is laid here.”

Of almost greater interest is a stone found in the crypt which in itself constitutes a most interesting feature of the abbey. The crypt of an early church might serve two purposes. This one has served as a burial place and also as a place of worship where the sacred relics of saints were exhibited and adored.

One of the many interesting features of the Hexham crypt is that it was built of Roman stones, one of them of great historical importance. The original stone was broken in two and for long the inscription was curtailed. Even now it is deficient, but as far as it remains it reads :

IMP . CAES . L SEP . SEVERVS . PI PERTINAX . ET . IMP . CAES M . AVR . ANTONINVS . PIVS . AVG VSTI . ET . PVB . SEPTIM CAES . COHORTES M VEXILLATION . M FECERVNT . SVB

This may be expanded into :

Imp(erator) Caes(ar) L. Sep(timius) Severus Pi(us) Pertinax et imp(erator) Caesar M. Aur(elius) Antonmus Pius, Augusti et Publius Septimius Geta Caesar (erased), Cohortes M. Vexillation fecerunt sub (a general’s name lost)

or: The Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax and his sons the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Augustus and Publius Septimius Geta Caesar (reigning) the cohorts and detachments made this under the command of ……………………………..

Nothing could more strikingly illustrate the organised power of the Roman Empire. After the Emperor Geta was murdered by his brother an edict was issued from Rome commanding that wherever the two names appeared in combination that of Geta was to be erased. This has been done on the stone at Hexham, but not so effectually as to make it impossible to read the name. There have been found only two other instances of the survival of this inscription. One was discovered at Cairo and another in Rome. The reason why many inscriptions have been preserved on the stones of the crypt is that the Saxon builders always put the lettering outside so that it might be a key to a plaster that they used. When the crypt was dried and ventilated by modern methods this plaster fell off and the inscription became readable. In the early destruction of the abbey the crypt appears to have been missed altogether, and it was only discovered accidentally in the eighteenth century. Fairless contributed the first modern account of it to the ” Archæological Journal,” in the course of which he said: ” There have been three approaches to this solemn and drear retreat one of them at present reaching nearly into the body of the church : another to the south leading to the cloisters : the third rising into the nave.”

It is tempting to go on describing the rude pictures of which the Dance of Death is the most arresting, the old almsbox and a thousand other things that are calculated to beguile the antiquarian into spending the sunniest hours within the building. But enough has been said to whet an appetite that can only be properly gratified by a personal visit to the beautiful abbey which is the pride and glory of Hexham.

The Hexham of to-day is a country town with an air of peace and content. ” Formerly ample and magnificent as the vestiges of antiquity testify,” wrote Prior Richard in the twelfth century. Something of that ancient state it has regained. The reconstructed abbey stands beautifully in the centre of a town of well-built houses and shady gardens ; down below, the Tyne gurgles over a broad shallow channel causing a thousand little whirls and eddies.

In its tranquil security the terrible adventures of its past seem far away, even though antiquity has left many remembrances in the shape of old houses, the most interesting and important being The Moot Hall and the Manor office. The country people who bring their wares to the Market, with its picturesque roof supported on pillars, and recommend them in the broadest Northumbrian, probably differ little externally from those who timidly looked on when the Duke of Somerset was beheaded here after the battle of Hexham. The raiding Scot has settled down into a friendly neighbour. In the Seal, the Abbey Grounds, and Tyne Green there is provided an abundance of open spaces where age can talk and youth play. Hexham is the birthplace of the well-known poet, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, the son of a distinguished citizen and one of a clever family which includes the lady who is best known by her maiden name, Elizabeth Gibson. As the poet of Northumberland, Gibson is at his best in the volumes” Whin,”" Stonefolds,” and ” Borderlands.” The lines at the opening of ” Stonefolds ” give a faithful, vivid picture of moor and fell :

The ragged heather-ridge is black Against the sunset’s frosty rose ; With rustling breath, down syke and slack, The icy, eager north-wind blows.

It shivers through my hair, and flicks The blood into my tingling cheek.

There are in ” Whin ” many thumb-nail sketches that are in literature what Bewick’s tailpieces are in drawing. Here are a few of them picked at random :

Just to see the rain Sweeping over Yeavering Bell Once again Soldier, what do you see Lying so cold and still ? Fallowfield Fell at night And the stars above the hill.

The heather’s black on Hareshaw When Redesdale’s lying white ; When grass is green in Redesdale Dark Hareshaw blossoms bright.

I came by Raw from Hungry Law, When who should pass me by But Pedlar Jack, with a pack on his back And a patch across his eye.

Thirlwall is the subject of the following :

In the last gleam of winter sun A hundred starlings scream and screel Among the ragged firs that stand About the ruined Pele.

But Mr. Gibson is much more than a local poet, as is shown by such a piece as that called ” Blind ” :

Blow, blow, O wind, the clouds aside That I may see the stars !

In heaven glimmers far and wide The burnished shield of Mars ; And Jupiter and Venus ride The night in glittering cars !

Blow, blow, O wind, the clouds aside That I may see the stars ! Nay ! God has flung his darkness wide And set the unyielding bars ; And day and night, unheeded, ride The world in glittering cars !