I have several hundred photos of Hexham Abbey. Our son Gareth was verger there, we enjoyed worship there, we own a house in Hexham. They have a daily pattern of worship and a choral tradition, places to pray, a website, an excellent guidebook, a Visitors’ Centre, a cafe, and lots of lovely things to photograph. Here is a selection.
One of the oldest things in the Abbey must be this Roman tombstone for Flavinus. He was only 25 when he died, but had served in Britain for seven years. It dates to the end of C1, and may well have come from Corbridge.
The church was built in 674-8 as a Benedictine monastery, by Wilfrid, Bishop of York. It almost immediately became a Cathedral and Hexham became a bishopric. Wilfrid’s follower and biographer, Eddius Stephanus, described its “crypts of beautifully dressed stone, the vast structure supported by columns of various styles and numerous side-aisles, the walls of remarkable height and length … we have never heard of its like this side of the Alps.” The crypt is very atmospheric – look at the Roman stones, how many were originally part of Corbridge bridge? It is worth looking at the photos of the crypt at Ripon Cathedral too.
Other ancient lumps of stone can be found if you lift the boards in the floor and look down on foundations. Others are displayed in the walls and the Centre. The Frith stool is a Saxon cathedra or Bishop’s throne, one pf only two surviving examples. (I’m told the other one is in Beverley Minster, which was founded by John who ordained Bede and was bishop of Hexham. He also founded the school of my friend Gareth H in 721). Acca’s cross is an C8 stone cross, traditionally held to be the headstone marking Bishop Acca’s grave – Acca was Wilfrid’s successor. Bede says he enriched the church with paintings, sculpture and rich hangings, created a “very complete and excellent library”, and introduced a skilled music teacher to ensure that the music and liturgy of the church were as fine as any in Europe. I love the little chalice – I think this is the replica I photoed. Whenever I take Communion to someone at home, I feel I am following in the footsteps of a Saxon bishop.
As the power of the Northumbrian kingdom waned, and Norse raiders became increasingly bold, Hexham ceased to serve as a Cathedral and at some point the monastery was abandoned. The church survived and in about 1083 the priest Eilaf obtained a grant to rebuild the church from the Norman archbishop of York and by the early 1100s a body of canons had been established here. One of the monks was Aelred, who went on to become abbot of Rievaulx Abbey and a spiritual writer. The church remembers him on 12 January – indeed he is first in the alphabet. Between 1180 and 1250 the canons constructed a substantial church in the new Early English style. The aisles rectangular chancel was built first, then the south transept, north transept, and the crossing under a solid tower. Not the Nave, please note. The night stairs lead down the west side of the south transept – it is rather lovely that today they lead down from the Song School, so musicians still process down the stairs the monks used. I went to a wonderful concert by Voces 8 – website – which includes our lovely friend Andrea. They sang “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan from the top – it was one of those moments where music says so much. The Tyrrell Window was installed in 2012. According to the Abbey website, “The window reflects upon the theme of hospitality, at the centre of which is the chalice and bread of communion.” It is by Alan Davis of Whitby, North Yorkshire – he too has a website. Good views down into the chapel and across the church – nice angels too.
Outside the church you can see some original work, but not a lot.
Life was not always easy. In 1296 the priory and much of the town was set alight by raiding Scots led by William Wallace – the fact the church was dedicated to their patron saint did not stop them. But there is some beautiful work that dates from these centuries. A couple of soldiers rest in peace – Sir Gilbert de Umfreville, 1245-1307, and Thomas of Tyndale from the early C14.
I love the Leschman chantry chapel and its figures. It stands to the left of the High Altar. Rowland Leschman was prior 1480-91. “The lower part of the chapel walls is stonework, carved with a series of crude, vigorous, almost barbaric images, some of them surprisingly satirical for the tomb of a prior. This inner wall is decorated with a series of comical or grotesque faces, while the scenes on the outer wall … include a fox preaching to geese, … a sheep stealer and a jester. Above these on the outer wall are niches containing a series of more traditionally devotional scenes, including St George and the dragon, the Virgin with the crucified Christ, St Peter and St Paul, and a lily, symbol of purity. … The figure who guards the entrance to the tomb, thought to be St Christopher with his staff. … Inside the chapel, the stone altar has five inscribed consecration crosses, … while above it the reredos, a painted wooden screen, show’s Christ’s Resurrection, with the prior himself kneeling in prayer before it. He appears in an unusual effigy on his tomb, with his cowl drawn down over his eyes.”
Next to the Leschman chapel is some beautifully painted woodwork, dating from the C15. They were originally separate items. We have images of Christ, the Virgin and the Apostles. Above them is the Dance of Death – Death, a gruesome skeletal figure, dancing before cardinal, king, emperor and pope. Above them, in what was originally a reredos, is a panel showing seven of the eight canonised Saxon bishops of Hexham. (One of the more recent Vicars of Hexham commented it puts you in your place when you realise how many of your predecessors have been canonised (Sainted)).
There are more painted images on the chancel screen, which also supports the lovely Phelps Organ of 1974.
Here is the High Altar. I have failed to get any general photos of the Chancel and the stalls. The choir stalls in the chancel have wonderful misericords, and I have photoed five of them. Lovely wooden chest and chair too.
In 1536 Henry VIII’s commissioners arrived to close the Priory down. The monks resisted, but the end came in February 1537. “The younger canons were simply thrown out; the older ones were given a gown and forty shillings each.” The church was left with a single curate, using the Chancel as the parish church. The remnants of the Nave were abandoned, by the C18 the area had become a burial ground. The church has some memorials and a Breeches Bible – Adam and Eve sewed their fig leaves together to make themselves breeches.
In 1858 the East End was demolished and rebuilt and then, at the end of the C18, the Reverend E.S. Savage persuaded the Newcastle steel magnate Thomas Spencer to pledge a £12,000 donation to rebuild the Nave on the C12 plan. The architect was Thomas Moore, a pupil of George Gilbert Scott. It was finished in 1906. There is some Victorian stained glass, the top two are William Wailes with C20 added backgrounds, and a couple of Evetts windows. I also like this modern altar and reredos.
And a final reminder – which is rather appropriate since this is my final Northumbrian blog with photos taken as a Northumbrian resident – that our churches are people first and foremost. Here is my Gareth, verger at Hexham from 2009 to 2011, and his Henry, one of the tools of his trade.