With lockdown restrictions easing evermore in England, it has become possible to start history exploring again – thank goodness! Some heritage sites are starting to open, although one has to book a timeslot in advance. This is exactly what I did, so I was one of the first (post-lockdown) visitors to Tynemouth Priory and Castle.
The thing with having to book in advance, is that the weather doesn’t necessarily play along on the day! And so, we arrived in Tynemouth under thick, dark clouds with a strong wind coming in from the North Sea. But, none of that was going to stop me from exploring this magnificent site.
The Priory is located on a headland with a narrow neck of rock connecting it to the mainland. High cliffs on three sides makes this the perfect defensive site, to guard the entrance to the River Tyne. Walking along the pathway, leading to the Gatehouse (and only entrance) one gets a windswept and isolated feeling. It is as if the Priory sits all alone, away from the rest of Tynemouth village (even though it is only separated by 30 meters or so). I can understand why being sent here in the 13th century would have been seen as punishment. In a letter written in Latin (around the 1340’s), a monk laments: “Day and night the waves break and roar and undermine the cliff. Thick sea frets roll in wrapping everything in gloom. See to it, dear brother, that you do not come to this comfortless place.”
It may have been a comfortless place for its inhabitants in the middle ages but exploring the site today is an exhilarating experience for the history lover.
The Gatehouse at Tynemouth Priory and Castle
Walking into the Gatehouse, one’s eyes take a moment to adjust to the dark interior. A cool wind funnels through and I have to pull my jacket closed. The cobbles underfoot are smooth from centuries of traffic. I can imagine medieval monks coming in and out of the gatehouse, busily going about their business – maybe pulling a cart carrying supplies into the Priory. One thing is sure, if one came into the Priory, past this Gatehouse, one would have felt safe. The walls are thick and strong (even today is seems formidable).
Building of the Gatehouse started in 1390. It was heavily fortified and is rather large, as far as Gatehouses goes. It lies in the centre of the earth rampart that protects the landward approach to the headland. It would be almost impossible to enter the Priory without having to pass through the Gatehouse. And passing through the Gatehouse, if you were an enemy, would have been very difficult indeed. The main tower once had angle turrets and battlements, and these were protected to the front (West) by a fortified courtyard (Barbican). Further to the rear is a smaller walled enclosure. This was a clever design feature – if someone managed to get through the outer gate and portcullis, they would find themselves trapped here, below the main tower where they would be exposed to fire from above.
The upper levels were even further protected. These could only be reached through a raised doorway which stood level with the ramparts. This entrance was protected by a drawbridge that could be raised flush with the wall within the recessed panel around it. So even if an enemy could make it into the Gatehouse, they could still not reach the upper levels where inhabitants could retreat to.
The ground-level rooms (all vaulted) were used for storage. The upper levels had many grand rooms where guests were received, food cooked and consumed etc. After the suppression of the Priory, the castle passed under control of a governor. The governor and officials of the castle lived in the Gatehouse. Apparently, the walls of the Gatehouse were richly adorned with brightly coloured cloths (according to an inventory in 1585). These cloth hangings came from ships, as the bailiff of North Shields boarded every ship in the haven at the castle and “did take up, for the furnytur of her majestie’s castle, whatsoever she had in lodinge, a parcel of everything for the service of the castle at the queen’s majestie’s price.”
Today of course, none of these rich wall hangings can be seen. And the Gatehouse has deteriorated over the past several centuries. But there is still a lot of it standing – the giftshop is located in one of the ground floor rooms, some of the upper levels can be reached and explored and one can still walk out onto the walls.
Walking out from underneath the vaulted passageway of the barbican, into the Priory grounds, the sight is breath-taking. Right there, in the centre of the grounds, stands the ruins of the Priory Church. It is magnificent! One can imagine how spectacular the sight must have been during the middle ages.
At this point in my visit, I decided to take a few moments, sit on a bench and just drink in the grandeur of the place. I thought about how people lived here, how they defended themselves during times of attack and how they had to battle the weather of the North Sea. The history of Tynemouth Priory and Castle runs deep.
Early History of the Priory
It is believed that this headland was inhabited by the Votadini tribe during the Iron Age. The remains of circular wooden huts have been found, pre-dating the Roman occupation. Other structural remains have been found, dating from the second century AD. So, this area has been inhabited for a very long time before a monastery was founded here.
The exact date of the establishment of the monastery is unknown, but it is believed to have been done under the protection of the Anglian Kings of Northumbria. Certainly, by the year 792, the monastery was in existence (and already of high importance), as it was chosen as the burial place for King Osred II of Northumbria.
Located where it is, it was often under attack from Vikings. In 875, the Saxon monastery was destroyed during one such raid and the Vikings took up residence for a short period of time.
The next time Tynemouth is mentioned in documentation, is in the mid-11th century. Tostig, Earl of Northumberland, was entertained here. Now, this is a character in history that I personally don’t much like. The people of Northumberland at the time, didn’t like him much either. They had their own reasons (which is a story for another day), but my personal dislike of him comes from the fact that he conspired with King Harald III Hardrada of Norway, against his brother, King Harold of England. This led to the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. Even though King Harold was victorious on that date, he and his army were exhausted (as can be expected after such an intense battle). But his fighting was not over. King Harold then had to force-march his troops South to defend the kingdom against an invasion from the Normans. Only 19 days after the Battle of Stamford Bridge, King Harold met William the Bastard in battle at Hastings. This, of course, was the end of Saxon rule in England. So, for me, Tostig not only stabbed his brother in the back (so to speak) but played a large part in bringing about the end of Saxon rule and the start of Norman rule in England.
But I digress. Back to the history of Tynemouth Priory.
Tynemouth Under Norman Rule
The North of England resisted Norman Rule. This led directly to the destruction of Tynemouth in 1074. By 1083, a small community of monks was living in Tynemouth again. They re-roofed the church and did other repairs. During the 1090s work began on new buildings at Tynemouth. A new church was built, as well as dormitories and cloister.
By 1189, further development took place. A new east end was built on the church (to house the shrine of St Oswine). Around 1220-1250, the nave was extended and provided with a new west front.
At this time, the Scots frequently raided the north of England, so in 1296, King Edward I gave a royal licence to Tynemouth, to erect fortifications. These fortifications enclosed the headland and priory buildings, making it a strong defensive position.
In 1320, the monks houses were re-roofed and in 1320, the Lady Chapel was completed. By 1390, the defences were repaired. The money for these repairs and development came from King Richard II (500 marks) as well as John of Gaunt and the powerful Henry Percy. It was this development project that led to the building of the great gatehouse.
In early 1536, as a prelude to his assault on the wealth of the Church, Henry VIII brought serious (but false) charges of misconduct against the prior and monks of Tynemouth. On 12 January 1539, Prior Blakeney and his community signed the deed which surrendered Tynemouth monastery and all its possessions, to the king. This was the end of monastic life in Tynemouth.
Tynemouth as a Defensive Base
Immediately after Henry VIII’s commissioners took over the priory, they turned the place into a defensive post to guard the River Tyne. Major building works took place in the 1540’s with a new line of fortification, West of the castle walls. This enclosed the headland to its South, with Prior’s Haven in between. There were plans to build more gun platforms and walls, but not all of it was completed.
Only in the 1640s were Tynemouth’s defences tested, when Civil War broke out between King and Parliament. Tynemouth was again fortified – ramparts were heightened and provided with casements for heavy guns. The castle itself was well equipped with 29 guns and 500 muskets. But the enemy was an invisible one, where guns and muskets played no role in defence. The plague struck Tynemouth. Many died and fell ill. Royalist forces collapsed shortly after the Battle of Marston Moor in July 1644. The Scots were now in charge in the North.
The importance as a defensive base lived on. In the 1660s, new barracks, a lighthouse and a governor’s house were built. In the 1750s, a battery of six guns in the castle defended ships at anchor in the approaches. During all this time, a small garrison was always stationed at Tynemouth.
In 1758, new gun batteries were built, with temporary barracks for 1000 men. By the 1780s, the castle gatehouse was adapted as a barracks and the Royal Artillery marching company maintained the guns. By 1805, there were 32 18-pounder guns, eight 12-pounders and 11 9-pounders.
Tynemouth was transformed into a modern coastal fortress during the last 20 years of the 19th century. In 1888, a submarine minefield was laid to protect the river mouth. In 1891, work started on two powerful 6-inch BL guns and gun mountings. By 1905, Tynemouth headland had a massive defensive power, with two 6-inch guns, two 12-pounder QF guns as well as a 9.2-inch gun. These formed part of the North’s defences during WWI and WWII.
The Priory Church
From my bench along the North walls, I took in the glorious sight of the Priory Church. Even in its ruinous state, it is still awesome. Walking towards the church, the richly detailed central doorway (13th century) draws one in. To the right of the doorway are niches where statues once stood.
The church was built to a cross-shaped plan. The nave (on the West) was open to all visitors but the remainder of the church were open to monks only. After 1538 (until the 17th century), the local residents of Tynemouth used the nave as their parish church. They built a wall to block off the nave from the disused monastic church. This wall was a blessing in disguise as it protected the stone rood screen from the elements (even though the rest of the church fell into disrepair). Just to the left of this rood screen, is the only surviving bay of the 1090s church.
At the far end of the presbytery (East end), the high altar once stood. There are very interesting features surviving still today. Richly carved window openings can be seen in the South wall, along with five niches (two being seats for priests). In the East wall, is a doorway leading to the Percy Chantry. Sadly, I could not explore the interior of this as it is closed due to Covid19 restrictions. I have been told that it is beautiful inside.
Exploring the Monastic Ruins
To the South of the church, are the ruins of many other buildings used by monks during the middle ages.
There are remains of the chapter house, monk’s dormitory and refectory still to be seen. All of these buildings have been built over several centuries, the oldest being the Cloister (late 11th to early 12th centuries). During the 12th century, further development took place when the Refectory was added.
The 13th century Chapter House abuts the Choir of the church. Further South, near the cliff, are the ruins of the Prior’s Chambers, Latrine and several smaller structures. These were all constructed during the 13thcentury. In this area are quite substantial ruins to explore, including the Prior’s Chapel where numerous carved stones are on display. These stones have been collected from the priory area over many years and many excavations.
Along the wall towards the West, are the remains of the 14th century kitchen and New Hall. The use of the latter is uncertain, but it may have been the priory’s guest house. With the importance of Tynemouth Priory unquestionable, it would have been vital to have an impressive guest house.
The churchyard at Tynemouth Priory is really beautiful. There are many table-style gravestones (more than I had ever seen in any other churchyard I have visited). I must say, this is a beautiful final resting place – on high ground, with the North Sea just below and surrounded by the magnificence of the Priory.
I love walking through graveyards, reading inscriptions and wondering about the lives these people lived. Here at Tynemouth, there is much to explore and ponder. Three kings found their final resting place at the Priory. Oswin, King of Deria (651), Osred, King of Northumbria (792) and Malcolm III, King of Scotland (1093) all rest here. The Tynemouth coat of arms have three crowns in remembrance.
What Not to Miss at Tynemouth Priory
- Take a walk up the steep slope on the South side of the Gatehouse. This leads to the upper floors of the building and to excellent views from the walls.
- Visit the Prior’s Chapel to view the display of carved stones
- There is a 6-inch WWII gun located on the Eastern side of the Priory, overlooking the sea
- Look at the Monk Stone in the graveyard. It is the base of a 9th century cross shaft
Historical Sites Nearby
- The ruins of the Camera of Adam (medieval fortified house) is located in Jesmond, only 9 miles West.
- St Mary’s Chapel in Jesmond is a hugely important historical site. The ruins can be explored, only 9 miles away.
- St Andrew’s Church, the oldest church in Newcastle, is located 10 miles away, in the centre of Newcastle.
- St John the Baptist Church in Newcastle is a beautiful medieval building (10 miles West).
- Newcastle’s Town walls (medieval fortifications) can be explored (10 miles to the West).
- Newcastle’s Castle Keep is in the Newcastle City centre.
- Site visit, observation and site information boards
- English Heritage guidebook – Tynemouth Priory and Castle
- Wikipedia website