There has been a church on the site of Hexham Abbey for over 1300 years since Etheldreda, Queen of Northumbria made a grant of lands to Wilfrid, Bishop of York c.674. Of Wilfrid’s Benedictine abbey, which was constructed almost entirely of material salvaged from nearby Roman ruins, the Saxon crypt and apse still remain. For a little while around that time it was the seat of a bishopric.
Hexham Abbey dates from 1180 but it was re-founded as an Augustinian Priory in 1113. It has undergone some unsympathetic restoration over the years but has some wonderful features and artifacts inside.
The choir of Hexham Abbey has been described as a very text book of the early English period of pointed church architecture. It’s elegant arcade has pointed arches. The triforium has rounded arches and there is a unique clerestory above. Huge blocks of oak with ornate bosses hold up the roof.
The transepts at Hexham Abbey are extremely long and imposing. The north transept was built between 1230 and 1240. Its eastern wall aisle is vaulted in stone and its western wall is elaborately pierced and arcaded. The south trancept, built in 1220, has richly arcaded upper walls and against the west side is one of the most famous features of Hexham Abbey, the stone staircase which formerly led to the dormitory of the canons, and now called the Night-stair; it was used by the canons when they came into the church for Matins. At the top of the staircase is a door leading to a small room, in former times used by the man who watched during stated hours for any one fleeing to the church for sanctuary.
Hexham Abbey has many rare monuments and carved woodwork. The north aisle in the choir is the location of Prior Leschman’s chapel. The chapel has occupied various positions over the years but was relocated to its original location in 1908. Within is a stone effigy of the Prior.
In the north of the chancel is a wonderful painted screen of oak. Beneath carved canopies are medieval paintings of the seven Hexham bishops who became saints. The Dance Of Death is represented in four smaller panels below; from left to right, a Cardinal, King, Emperor and Pope. A lower screen is to be found below. It is thought to have been for use in the refectory. It projects in the middle to form a pulpit. In the traceried panels are faded paintings of Our Lord, The Blessed Virgin and The Twelve Apostles.
The Rood Screen, a magnificent piece of woodwork, is one of the finest in England. Thomas Smithson, the Prior from 1491 to 1524 is responsible for it’s construction. The paintings depict The Annunciation and The Visitation, 16 portraits of the Bishops of Hexham and Lindisfarne, and other prelates.
Robert Ogle erected the Ogle Chantry. It was largely knocked down in the nineteenth century, however a lot of the woodwork survived and has been restored.
The small Saxon chalice was found in a stone coffin in the north transept. Only two other Anglo-Saxon chalices are known. It was likely a small chalice like those used by St. Cuthbert in the library of Durham Cathedral.
I hope that has given you an informative brief overview of the wonderful Hexham Abbey in Northumberland.
Images: ©2009 Andrew McCann