Churches and Monasteries

Churches and Monasteries

In 1074, eight years after the Norman Conquest, three monks arrived at the banks of the Tyne, and a revival of monasticism in the North began. They were Aidwin, a monk from Winchcombe in Gloucëstershire, with two companions from the Evesham monastery, and they had travelled on foot with a donkey to carry their vestments and books. They found the old monastery at Tynemouth to be uninhabitable, and were persuaded by the Bishop of Durham to settle at Jarrow.

In the succeeding years, other monastic communities were established: at Lindisfarne in 1082, as a cell of Durham; at Tynemouth in 1083; the Augustinians at Hexham in 1113,  and at Brinkburn on the Coquet in 1135;  the Cistercian order at Newminster in 1139, and the Premonstratensians at Alnwick in 1147,  and Blanchland, on the Durham border, in 1165. Nunneries were set up at Holystone, during the reign of Alexander I of Scotland (1107-1124), and at Guyzance before 1 147. There was also a major rebuilding of churches. One of the finest and most complete is St. Lawrence’s at Warkworth, built on the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon church.

Monastic Northumberland
Monastic Northumberland

The foundation of the monasteries was only made possible because of large grants of land and money by the Norman nobility, and many of the monks were themselves men of rank and wealth. Brinkburn, for example, was established by William Bertram of Mitford, who gave the abbey large grants of land in mid-Coquetdale. Ralph de Gaugy, baron of Ellingham, gave the convent of Durham the endowment of Ellingham church, and this charter has survived intact. These grants established the monasteries as major landowners and economic forces. In addition, there were many smaller gifts: amongst hundreds of grants, Brinkburn received the wood on Rimside moor, a marl-pit at Weldon, a marsh below the spring in Old Felton, licence to buy and sell in Alnwick, a shop in Corbridge, and a saltpan in Warkworth.

The Church grew to wield great political power. In the North-east the Bishopric of Durham was very powerful, especially under Bishops like Antony Bek (Bishop 1283-1311) and Thomas Langley (1406-1437), both of whom were high officials of the King. At the beginning of the Scottish troubles, Bishop Bek, a close adviser of Edward I, acquired control of Tynedale, Penrith in Cumberland, the Isle of Man, the Vesci barony of Ainwick and its related estates, and the barony of Langley in Allendale. These lands, together with the traditional Bishopric lands in Durham and Northumberland, created a virtual cordon across the North. Bek, however, fell foul of his patron, and the new acquisitions were either confiscated or sold off.

The increasing wealth and political power of the Church caused many to consider the Church was being corrupted from Christ’s teaching, and from this belief arose the various orders of friars, vowed to live in poverty and to help the poor. They lived mainly in the towns. The Carmelites founded friaries at Hulne (Alnwick) in 1242, and at Berwick and Newcastle. The Dominicans settled at Bamburgh and Newcastle, and the Franciscans at Berwick and Newcastle. Over the years these groups also tended to acquire wealth. Hospitals were also established, some as hostels for travellers. At Bolton, near Edlingham, Robert de Ros founded a leper hospital in 1225 for a master, three chaplains and 13 lepers, and at nearby Harehope another leper hospital, run by the order of St. Lazarus, was started in 1247.

The monasteries were major contributors to the medieval expansion of cultivation and land use. The Cistercians of Newminster, as was typical of their order, were particularly active in this, running outlying farms or granges right across mid-Northumberland from Sturton Grange on Warkworth Moor to Wreighill in upper Coquetdale. They brought extensive upland areas into use as sheep-grazing, particularly in Kidland and Cheviot. They first got a lease of Kidland from Odinell de Umfraville in 1181,  though he kept his hunting rights and insisted that the monks’ dogs had one foot cut off to prevent their chasing the game. By 1 270 the abbey was able to sell Jehan  Boinebroke 72 sacks of its own wool and 20 sacks of collected wool, which add up to at least 18,000 fleeces. Other monasteries, such as Tynemouth and Lindisfarne, also had granges for pasture or grain-production. On Lindisfarne the Prior’s accounts reveal the careful farming. The oxen were muzzled as they led the corn from the harvested field, in case the animals should chew the bound sheaves. Women were hired to weed the thistles from the wheat fields, and these thitles, after softening in the sun, then provided fodder for the horses. The expanding margin of cultivation can be seen in numerous examples: about 1225 Roger Bertram gave the Holystone nuns his wood of Baldwineswood, which they ‘ridded’ or assarted, creating Nunriding, west of Mitford, still held by the nuns at the Dissolution of the monasteries and rented out at £1 6s. 8d. (£1.33p) a year. In 1234 the brethren of Bolton hospital got a grant to enclose the 120 acres they had broken in from the moor and the 150 acres they had cleared from wood.

The disasters of the 14th century seriously affected the religious houses. The Scottish Wars took their toll, both on the lands and income of the monasteries and churches, and also on life and limb in frontier areas. The nunnery of Holystone, high up in the lower folds of the Cheviots, had to be abandoned during the summer raids of the Scots in 1322, and in August Edward II, as he passed through Newcastle, gave alms to the nuns who had fled there. Ten years later the nuns were granted 10 quarters of wheat from the royal stores at Newcastle because their corn and granges had been burnt. and their cattle driven off by the Scots. The Black Death of 1349 also struck communal institutions hard, and many smaller foundations became extinct during the century. The nunnery of Guyzance is not heard of after 1313.

The religious life never fully recovered from these disasters. Numbers fell: Holystone had 27 nuns in 1313, but only eight in 1432. Society became less well disposed towards them, and gifts declined during the 15th century. Tynemouth received no lands after 1404. The small legacies to all the religious houses in the North-east given in Roger Thornton’s will in 1429, which brought Holystone one fother of lead, were amongst the last of their type. The worldly preoccupation of the religious houses became more obvious: the major priors and abbots were border lords, and the abbeys regarded as sources of food and supplies by the military and political leaders.

The decline continued in the first half of the 16th century. At Alnwick there were 25 canons in 1500, but only 17 on the pension list after the Dissolution. At Blanchiand at the beginning of the century, the abbot could not even find a barber and washerwoman for the community. Henry VIII’s decision to suppress the monasteries did not therefore destroy a thriving institution. In 1536 his Commis­sioners dissolved all houses with less than £200 income, and in 1538 and 1539 the larger monasteries. After the first suppressions, there were desperate attempts by the larger houses to prolong their lives. At Tynemouth they tried to get the support of influential landowners by granting them long leases on monastic lands: in September 1536 Thomas Lawson of Cramlington was granted a 41-year lease on Hartford, and in October Robert Collingwood got a 61-year lease of Bewick. But it was to no avail.

The only attempts at resistance were at Newminster (where a mob from Morpeth razed the abbey to the ground) and Hexham. Although its income was slightly over £200 Hexham was included in the 1536 suppressions, but the canons refused to open the gates and when the Commissioners arrived in September, the Master of the cell of Ovingham appeared above the gateway in armour. The canons were encouraged by some of the local gentry, and the resistance became a very minor part of the Pilgrimage of Grace, a general revolt by northern leaders against not just religious reform, but also the growing centralisation of power in royal hands. When the movement collapsed (in  Northumberland it had been mainly an occasion for inter-family feuding), the canons ceased their resistance.

The impact of the Dissolution was felt in several ways. Effects on the land market are explored later. The religious were dispossessed. It is important to get their numbers in proportion. Despite the vast estates they controlled, the total number of religious in Northumber­land and Newcastle affected was only about 230 people. These were pensioned and most were absorbed into the parish church system. Some, such as the Premonstratensians at Alnwick, had already been sending monks into parishes for some time. After 1538 William Hudson became master of Ainwick grammar school, Robert Blake was a chantry priest at St. Nicholas’, Newcastle, and Robert Forster a curate at Alnmouth. The former prior of Tynemouth, Robert Blakeney, farmed his manor of Benwell, and John Gray of the Austin friars at Newcastle became vicar of Chillingham. The nuns, mostly from wealthy families, ‘returned to them. In the case of Agnes Lawson, prioress of the Benedictine nunnery in Newcastle, her family bought up the nunnery and lands.