Tynemouth Priory

SEVENTY miles stretches the changing, picturesque, historic coast from Lamberton to the mouth of the Tyne, where, on a high cliff, stands the last goodly tower of Northumberland. The Magnesian Limestone which forms the headland here rises a hundred feet. The arrangement by which castle and priory adjoin speaks to-day of ancient invasion, the wild pillaging Norseman, the frightened Saxon monks, and the joy with which after much tribulation they saw rising the embattled walls of warrior protectors. Their thankful praises may also have risen many times when another potent ally, the sea, pounced in wrath on the pirates’ galleys. Between them and the fisher-men’s spiels (now the black coal district, North Shields) lay the treacherous reef of the Black Middens, where many a brave ship has met its doom.

It was in 627 that Edwin selected this bold promontory for a site for a timber chapel, and his daughter, who had the sweet name of Rosella, took the veil. Oswald rebuilt it with stone about ten years later, and here was buried the body of King Oswyn, who became the patron saint in 651. The Danish marauders burnt it in the reign of Egfrid, who restored it. Then in 865 they appeared again. The terrible rumours of their doings drove hither the poor nuns from St. Hilda’s Convent at Hartlepool in a panic, hoping for refuge. They, alas ! were ” translated by martyrdom to Heaven.” But the monks clung to the sacred spot.

It proves no common test of courage to live defenceless in such a conspicuous position, for it was devastated again in 870 and 876. During the next two centuries it was probably unused. In 1075 it was given by Earl Waltheof to the monks of Jarrow, and the monastery was rebuilt some years later. How-ever, Robert de Mowbray, the succeeding Earl, quarrelled with them and travelled to St. Albans for monks to fill it, a signal proof of the high-handed methods of the Norman barons. Until the Dissolution in 1539 the Priory of St. Mary remained a cell of St. Albans monastery, which caused much dispute and annoyance to the great Durham establishment. The principal ruins now are of the church, for, after the dismantling, the monastic buildings perished with the exception of a part that was either the prior’s or the guest house. Apparently the church was allowed to decay, and this neglect has deprived us of one of the finest examples of ecclesiastical architecture in Northumberland. It was used for service as late as 1668. In it was buried, in 1093, Malcolm Canmore and his son Edward, killed at the siege of Alnwick.

In a previous raid into Northumberland, in 1091, Malcolm so reduced the country that, even when he was driven over the border, the lack of provisions continued acute, and the victorious force had to hasten to Tynemouth, which was the storehouse for the unfortunate Northumbrians, as it enjoyed the Peace of St. Oswin. The monks went out to meet their countrymen bearing the shrine of St. Oswin and praying them to respect his Peace. One of the knights, piously conscientious, called Nigel de Wast, was in the act of vowing he would not eat of the rich store till he was assured of the saint’s forgiveness, when another, annoyed at his scrupulousness, cannoned into his horse, and both it and the rider vanished over the steep cliff. But St. Oswin was watching, for they both miraculously escaped unhurt. That he was a dangerous saint to trespass against had been also proved in the previous year, when the Conqueror was returning from Scotland, where he had forced Malcolm to do him homage. The new castle was not then built further up the Tyne, but he stopped at Pons Aelii, the old Roman fort where now Newcastle hums. The river was in flood. There was little food, for Malcolm never left much behind him. Fodder was urgently required, and a band of warriors was sent to pillage Tynemouth, to which, as usual, the stores had been removed. But by the time the leader saw the church on the cliff he had discovered that a miserable fate stalked those who violated St. Oswin’s patrimony. In spite of warnings, some of the soldiers took the forage, and madness attacked the horses who ate it. Even the knight’s charger had unwittingly brought the curse on itself. But its master offering his best cloak at St. Oswin’s shrine, the faithful quadruped recovered its reason.

Robert de Mowbray was glad to seek sanctuary in St. Mary’s after his futile rebellion against Rufus. Here also Edward II’s favourite Piers Gaveston sought sanctuary from the triumphant barons. To Tynemouth, when Herebald, the friend of Bede, was Abbot, we owe the early portion of Symeon of Durham’s history of the kingdom. A notable scholar was the monk John of Tynemouth, who lived during Edward III’s reign and was vicar of the parish church. The treasures of the library which he had probably helped to collect were scattered at the Dissolution, and only one fragment of it is authenticated now, a Latin psalter in the British Museum, known as the ” Book of S. Oswyn.” There were also sixty-two ounces of gold plate, and 1,827 ounces of silver in the monastery when it was closed and Robert Blakeney, the Prior, and his eighteen monks left it for ever. Its importance can be judged by the yearly value, returned as ‘309 15s. q d., a great income when Henry VIII ruled.

Leading from the ruined Priory at the east end of the presbytery is the Oratory or Percy Chapel, built early in the fifteenth century, and the only part that is in complete preservation. It has an image of the Virgin over the west doorway and an extremely complicated ribbing on the vaulted roof, with decorations of a circle of angels blowing trumpets and the Saviour in the midst, and also figures ‘of the Apostles. There are sculptured heraldic bearings of the Percies in this chapel, which was probably built as a memorial to a Percy. The castle had been vested in the Priory for the latter’s protection since the fourteenth century, the gatehouse being built by John of Wheathampstead, the well-known Abbot of St. Albans. During the Civil War it was visited by Charles, and was then well fortified. The Royalist garrison had to surrender to the Scots in 1644 and Colonel Lilburn was left in charge. He, however, declared for Charles, and a force was sent to capture it. Lilburn was slain and the castle was carried by storm. In 1681 it was in a ruinous state with a small garrison. The defence of the Tyne is a different matter now. At Tynemouth during the war one wondered what Haldane the Viking would have done had he come up against the wire-netting erected to stop the landing of Germans.

Old Tynemouth with its wide old-fashioned street is a pleasant countrified village and in great contrast to the towns with which it is surrounded. It looks like the cool green spaces amidst the roar of London. Over seventy years ago Harriet Martineau lived and wrote there for a time. Behind the Spanish Battery and looking across the terrible Black Middens is a monument to Lord Collingwood with four guns of the Royal Sovereign, one of Northumberland’s great sons and Nelson’s friend. There is also the fine monument to him in St. Paul’s and in St. Nicholas’s Cathedral in Newcastle.

There are two magnificent piers, four hundred yards apart, with two lighthouses. One hundred and fifty years ago a coal fire burned in Tynemouth’s old lighthouse instead of a lamp. The north pier is nearly a mile long and the south pier rather longer. There are three other lighthouses, the Groyne on the Herd Sands, visible for seven miles, and the High and Low Lights of North Shields, visible for thirteen miles. They show the danger to shipping at the Tyne entrance. It is related that St. Cuthbert, as a lad, had wandered to North Shields (in early times a collection of fishing shiels, hence the modern name) and had the courage to rebuke the heartless heathen dwellers there who were hilarious at the spectacle of five boats manned by monks who had almost got to the opposite bank of Tyne being swept to sea by a sudden westerly gale. Opposite Tynemouth, where stood a small oratory belonging to the priory, is St. Mary’s Island. There is now a magnificent lighthouse, 120 feet high, built on the site of the old chapel, from which it is said the monks showed a light to guide mariners. We can fancy the offerings made at the shrine of St. Oswin by the grateful seamen who had navigated in bad weather this dangerous river mouth. Whilst the rude population that dwelt on these shores even entreated the Deity with raised hands to send them wrecks, the monks ceaselessly preached love and mercy. On this bitter coast they must have led a hard, toiling life in the days before riches and ease came to enervate them. The population would be apt to be hostile, and they were defenceless against alien foes. On that cliff those noble walls must often have sheltered the wet, exhausted sailors escaped from the icy sea that beats against the last massive cliff of Northumberland’s changeful coast.

The legend of the Monks’ Stone near the Priory would give scoffers another picture of monkish life. This is a sandstone pillar, the remains of an ancient cross, at the base of which used to be the words so familiar in the neighbourhood :

O horrid dede To kill a man for a pigg’s hede.

The explanation is as follows. A monk from Tynemouth went once to Seaton Delaval, and in the kitchen a pig was roasting, the favourite food apparently of the master. The monk wanted the head and the cook represented the impossibility of his desire.

When his back was turned the monk cut off the head – was not the smell and crackling irresistible, as Ho-ti found out when he had to burn his house to get it ? He ran off with it, hoping to get to the monastery, six miles away, before the theft was known to the master. At Monkseaton a house is still shown where he rested. Delaval came home from the hunt and was furious at the loss of his titbit. He mounted his horse, and, galloping, came up to the monk, whom he belaboured so hard that he could not reach the monastery. The brethren going in search found him half dead. He was carried, poor lover of good things, to the Priory, and his death taking place within a year and a day, it was asserted that the beating caused it. Delaval was charged by the monks with the murder, and before he could receive absolution, was obliged to make over certain lands to the monastery and to set up this cross, always known as the Rode Stane, in expiation of his violence. Thus the holy men got their own back, and this curious stone remains for posterity to ponder on the frailties that linge1 in the dedicated soul.