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Hexham Abbey

History

Cloister garth & new entrance porchThere has been a church on this site over for 1300 years since Queen Etheldreda made a grant of lands to Wilfrid, Bishop of York c.674.

The Saxon crypt and apse of Wilfrid’s Benedictine abbey still remain. In Norman times Wilfrid’s abbey was replaced by an Augustinian priory, and the church you see today is mainly that building of about 1180–1250, in the Early English style of architecture. The choir, north and south transepts and the cloisters, where canons studied and meditated, date from this period.

The east end was rebuilt in 1860 and the nave, whose walls incorporate some of the earlier church, was built in 1908.

In 1996 an additional chapel was created at the east end of the north choir aisle. Named “St Wilfrid’s Chapel”, it offers a place for prayer or quiet reflection.

In 1537 Henry VIII took away the Abbey’s monastic buildings, but in 2012 these came back into the possession of the Abbey. They are now the home of our permanent exhibition, “The Big Story”, bringing the history of the Abbey to life through the inspiring characters who shaped its development over the ages.

 

Architecture

The east end, viewed from the Market Place, is a reconstruction designed by John Dobson in 1858, and based on Whitby Abbey. The rest of the late-12th-century chancel is Early English in style with lancet windows in the aisle and in the clerestory.

The tower over the crossing is low in height with bell openings and blind arcading, typical of the late 13th century, and a battlemented parapet.

The south transept has an eastern aisle with large lancet windows, with lancets again in the clerestory, but the semi-octagonal buttresses are later in style than the flat buttresses of the chancel. The southern bay is unusually taken up by the slype, now the main entrance to the Abbey, but originally a passage between the south transept and the chapter house that led from the cloisters to the canons’ cemetery. To the south of the transept lay the vestibule to the chapter house, now the Abbey Gift Shop.

The nave was rebuilt in 1907–1908 on the plan of the 12th-century priory nave, i.e. with a single aisle on the north side. The design, by Temple Moore FRIBA, was in the 14th-century Decorated style. The doorway at the west end is on the site of the priory doorway that, in turn, may have been rebuilt on the line of the original Saxon church.

The north transept is similar to the south except for the three very long lancet windows in the north end, that are wider than usual for this position and are very well proportioned. The west side of this transept is arguably the finest part of the whole exterior. There is a single aisle in the east side. Until 1870 a large 17th-century “Mercers” doorway formed the principal entrance to the Abbey.

Attractions

Anglo-Saxon Crypt, the oldest part of Hexham Abbey. Here lie rooms and passageways left intact from Wilfrid’s original church.

Frith Stool which stands in the middle of the Choir, a Saxon bishop’s throne dating from the 7th Century. Perhaps Saint Wilfrid had it made after he founded the first monastery here in about 674.

Dark-Age cross commemorating Acca, Hexham’s second Bishop.

Medieval Night Stair: 35 age-worn stone steps that rise from the south transept, leading to a broad gallery behind a stone parapet. The monks’ dormitory used to be beyond the gallery, and they would use these stairs to access to the church for their nightly prayers. This is the only remaining Night Stair still in daily use.

Stained glass windows. When the sun is shining, the light plays wonderful jewelled patterns on the Abbey pillars and walls.

Painted 15th-Century screen showing the images of seven Bishops as well as macabre scenes from “The Dance of Death”.

The Hexham Chalice: a tiny copper-gilt goblet used by Anglo-Saxon missionaries to celebrate Holy Communion, which is now the centrepiece of our exhibition, “The Big Story”.

Local Interest

The Moot Hall, built in the 15th Century, stands tall across the Market Place. It once formed the gateway to the Archbishop of York's buildings and provided the courtrooms in which prisoners from the nearby Old Gaol were tried.

The Old Gaol, behind the Moot Hall, was one of the first purpose built jails in England. It was built 1330-1333, on the order of the Archbishop of York, and is a Grade I listed Scheduled Monument. It now houses a museum about the Border Reivers.

The Queen's Hall arts centre houses Hexham Library which contains the Brough Local Studies Collection, the second largest local history collection in the county.