Hexham Abbey

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The massive bulk of the Abbey dominates one side of the Market Place in Hexham.

Around AD 670, Queen Etheldreda granted land in Hexham to Wilfrid, Bishop of York. Wilfrid built a Benedictine abbey at Hexham using stones from the Roman Settlement at nearby Corbridge. This was believed to be one of the grandest churches north and west of the Alps and was a major centre for pilgrimage as Wilfrid had brought back relicts from Rome. The abbey was burnt by the Danes in the C9th Only the crypt and the Frith stone remain from Wilfrid’s Church. In the C11th the abbey was rebuilt and became became an Augustinian priory. The priory church was built between 1170-1250 and much of that building survives today. The priory was dissolved by Henry VIII but the church survived as the parish church of Hexham. The transepts and choir continued in use but the nave was left to fall into ruin and was even used as a burial ground. The east end of the chancel was in a poor state of repair and rebuilt in the C19th. The nave was eventually rebuilt in 1908. In 1996 a small chapel, St Wilfrid’s Chapel was created at the east end of the north choir aisle for private prayer.

The monastic buildings confiscated by Henry VIII have recently been re-acquired and have been restored as a new Heritage Centre explaining the history of the site.

The Abbey is an impressive Early English cruciform building with square central tower, clerestoried nave and chancel and very tall transepts. The chancel is wider than the nave as it has side aisles which would originally have formed an ambulatory around the choir and high altar.

Entry is through a doorway next to the Abbey Shop. This leads into a small porch and then into the south transept. The view across to the north transept is inspiring.

The night stairs on the south wall were built in the C13th and led from the canons dormitory into the church. The dormitory is no longer there, but the stairs survived as they gave access to a spiral staircase to the clerestory, tower and bell chamber. Now the stairs are used by the choir on festive occasions like the Christmas carol services. At the bottom is the Flavinus stone, a massive carved memorial to a first century Roman standard bearer, who died aged 25 after seven years of military service. The stone was found in the foundations of the cloister in 1881 and moved into the church.

Immediately inside the doorway on the right is the tiny chapel dedicated to St Etheldreda. This is surrounded by a wooden screen and is used for private prayer. Above the altar is a painting of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ.

Next to the chapel is the beautifully carved St Acca’s cross. Acca succeeded St Wilfrid as Bishop of Hexham in the C8th and it is thought this cross shaft may have stood at the foot of his grave.

Moving into the centre of the church, a lovely wooden screen or pulpitum, dating from around 1500 and closes off the choir from the rest of the church. Standing in front of of it is a gloriously painted pulpit. One of the panels has a painting of Christ on the cross. The other has two angels holding a shield with the Instruments of the Passion.

The north transept is a massive open space with blind arcading round the base of the walls and an arcade of multiple round pillars and pointed arches on the east side. There are two altars on the east wall. The first is a memorial to those killed in wars. The second is the Lady Chapel. Above these is a walkway with round arches and more pillars. The very tall lancet windows contain C19th stained glass.

The nave feels small compared with the rest of the church. Hatchments hang on the south wall. An arcade of tall multiple pillars with pointed arches separate the nave from the narrow north aisle. Above are clerestory windows. Old flags hang from the walls of the north aisle. At the east end is a display case with examples of religious embroidery, stoles, burses and a chalice veil. There is also a copy of a 1611 “Beeches Bible’ where in Genesis “Adam and Eve sewed themselves into beeches”. At the back of the nave is a round stone font which may be of Roman origin. The crocketted pinnacle canopy includes wood rescued from the C15th lid.

In the centre of the nave, very steep steps lead down to the crypt, the only part of Wilfrid’s Church to survive. The only other comparable crypt is in Ripon Minster. This was built using Roman stones and many have carvings on them. The steps lead to an antechamber and a narrow round topped doorway leads into the chapel with its low barrel stone roof. Originally this would have contained holy relics. At one end is a small stone altar. Niches in the walls would originally have contained oil lamps but now have electric light bulbs. On either side are two narrow passageways which are now blocked but originally had steps which provided access to the crypt from outside the church. One allowed pilgrims to enter the crypt, the other canons.

Returning to the choir, the screen deserves closer inspection. On the base panels are paintings of bishops set under elaborately carved ogee arches. The fan vaulted roof is painted in shades of deep red and dark green. Above is the organ, which fills the rest of the space and is reached by a spiral staircase. Central doors leads into a passage through to the choir. On either side are doorways which gave access to the loft above. These have paintings above them. On the right is the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, just before she gave birth to John the Baptist. To the left is the Annunciation.

Immediately inside is the Frith Stool which dates from the C7th and may have been used by St Wilfrid. This is only one of two in the country, the other being at Beverley Minster, where it is still in its original position close to the high altar. The stool is carved out of a solid block of grey sandstone with interlaced carving on the top of the arms and straight lines emphasising the shape of the front. The red cushion provides a splash of colour. In the C19th it was moved, broke in two and had to be cemented together again. The word Frith in old English means peace or sanctuary. As well as being the bishop’s chair it also provided sanctuary. Refugees during the troubled times along the border or wrongdoers fleeing from the law could claim the protection of the church. If they reached the Frith Stool, they could not be touched until guaranteed a full and fair trial.

The heavily carved choir stalls on the back walls of the choir have misericords and large arm rests. In front are pews with carved backs, fronts and poppyheads. Steps lead up to the high altar with a deep red frontispiece and tall candle sticks. Behind is a low wood reredos with a row of carving across the top. Above set in a gilded frame is a C16th painting of Mary and Elizabeth with the young Jesus and John the Baptist.

To the left of the high altar is a magnificent painted panel screen with a pulpit dating from the the end of the C15th/beginning of the C16th. At the top set under pinnacled arches are paintings of seven Bishops of Hexham, who were later sanctified. Below this are four smaller panels representing the Dance of Death. Below are large panels with pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Twelve Apostles.

On either side of the chancel are narrow side aisles leading to small chantry chapels, surrounded by an open carved wooden screen.

In the north choir aisle is Prior Leschman’s Chantry chapel, dating from around 1500 which stands high above the aisle with a stone wall with carved stone figures of bishops, saints and animals. Beyond it is the small St Wilfrid’s Chapel, consecrated in 1996 and used for private prayer. There are assorted bits of carved masonry on the floor of the chapel and C14th effigies of two unknown women against the wall of the choir.

In the south choir aisle, up three stone steps is the Chantry Chapel of Sir Robert Ogle who died around 1409. The painted wooden triptych above the altar has Christ rising from the tomb in the centre with the nail wounds in his hands. On either side are St John and the Virgin Mary. This was removed from the chapel in the C19th and passed through several different owners before being returned here in the 1960s.

On the side of the choir are two effigies of Norman knights both wearing armour. To the east is the C13th Bishop Gilbert of Umfraville, now without his feet and holding a shield with a flower and the Durham cross. Near the crossing is Thomas of Tyndale, a C14th knight, with three sheaves on his shield and his feet resting on a lion.

Set in a recess in the south wall is a beautiful Anglo-Saxon chalice, one of the treasures of the Abbey.

This is a magnificent building with the Saxon crypt and Frith stool providing a direct link back to St Wilfrid it’s founder. It is understandably a popular with visitors. It has a good shop next to the entrance and the Refectory Tea Room round the back of the Abbey is recommended.

The Church is open daily from 9.30-5pm. There is good disabled access to the abbey and a ramp in the north aisle gives access to the nave. The crypt is down very steep steps and not accessible.

There is two hours free disc parking on Beaumont Street by the Abbey. Discs cast £1 from a dispenser on Beaumont Street or from local shops.

There are more pictures here.


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