You would think, wouldn’t you, that the rocky headland overlooking the mouth of the River Tyne would have been a natural place for the Romans to build a fort to guard the main sea route to Hadrian’s Wall, but they didn’t: Instead, they chose to build one on the opposite side of the river at South Shields which they called Arbeia. What their reasons were I’m not sure, but although remains of an Iron Age settlement have been found on Pen Bal Crag, the first written records didn’t appear until the 8th century when monks established a community here on the north side of the river.
The precise date when this first monastery was built isn’t known for sure, but history detectives have pinned it down to around the mid-700s. It seems as though Tynemouth was one of four monasteries in this part of the country at the time, the other three being Wearmouth, Lindisfarne and Jarrow, which was located just across the river.
One of Jarrow’s monks was the Venerable Bede (c673-735) who, in around 731, wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, considered by most experts to be the first ever historical account of the people who lived in the land we now call England. Those in the know will tell you that he never mentioned a monastery at Tynemouth, so it’s assumed that there wasn’t one here during his lifetime. By 792, there was definitely a monastery here because this became King Osred II of Northumbria’s final resting place.
The 9th and 10th centuries saw the Vikings being attracted to the riches of the monasteries of the North-East, and Tynemouth’s monastery was on their list of targets. Around 875 they raided and destroyed the (wooden) buildings, after which it seems, they were content to stay put for a while.
The picture below shows the remains of Jarrow’s monastery which was rebuilt during medieval times. Part of the old Anglo-Saxon monastery still survives in the chancel of the adjacent St. Paul’s church.
It was nigh on another two hundred years before any records shed any light about what was happening at Tynemouth, and even then, there wasn’t any conclusive evidence as to what really happened here in 1065. I’ve often found that anything to do with saints involve some quite dodgy claims, and it’s no different here with two dubious stories about how the body of King Oswine, a former king of Deira, was found.
The history of the Kingdom of Northumbria and its kings are maybe a story for another day, but suffice it to say that King Oswine, who was highly regarded by many, including Bede, was murdered by King Oswiu of Bernicia in AD 651. Like many conflicts over the years, the two kings were related, and the killing of Oswine was over who should succeed King Oswald of Northumbria. If all this sounds a bit confusing, it’s because at the time, Northumbria stretched from the Humber to the Forth, but was a combination of two separate kingdoms – Bernicia in the north and Deira in the south: Now you see why the history of Northumbria needs a completely separate post.
As far as Oswine and Tynemouth are concerned, his body was supposedly found at the tower of the parish church of St. Mary, which was on the site of the former monastery. What I don’t quite understand though is why a king who was murdered in Yorkshire four hundred years earlier should turn up out of the blue in a place eighty miles away in what would have been his murderer’s kingdom.
Of course, it doesn’t matter what I think, because plenty of people at the time saw him as a martyr and someone who was also able to perform miracles – all the ingredients needed to make him a saint – and he’s been revered in Tynemouth ever since.
A year later, as we all know, William the Conqueror arrived, and although the north of England offered some resistance, it didn’t take long for William’s men to show who was now the boss, and amongst the subsequent widespread devastation, was the destruction of the church at Tynemouth.
In 1074, a monk from the south of England called Alduin, was so inspired by the accounts of the religious houses of the north-east, that he travelled north to re-establish Bede’s former monastery at Jarrow. A few years later Waltheof, the last English Earl of Northumberland, granted the ruined church and its land at Tynemouth – including the body of St. Oswine – to Alduin and the monks at Jarrow.
The church was repaired and the headland was once again occupied; but things once again took a turn for the worse when William Rufus succeeded his father as king and made Robert de Mowbray Earl of Northumberland. It wasn’t long however, before the new earl was starting to annoy the Bishop of Durham, under whose jurisdiction Jarrow now fell. The Bishop obviously made his feelings known about what he thought of Mowbray, and before he knew it, the monks at Jarrow and Tynemouth were kicked out, and the monastery handed over to the Benedictine Abbey of St. Albans in Hertfordshire.
The Abbey almost immediately set about building a brand-new priory church at Tynemouth dedicated to St Mary and St Oswine, and in 1093 there was another royal burial at Tynemouth – this time it was a Scottish King, Malcolm III. This was contested land between England and Scotland back then, and Malcolm III came to grief at the First Battle of Alnwick when Earl Robert caught him by surprise. Some reports say that his body was exhumed in 1115 and reburied in Dunfermline Abbey – but what about St. Oswine?
I think I’m beginning to see why his body suddenly appeared at Tynemouth in 1065 now: It seems that what was left of him had been shifted about from pillar to post while all this upheaval was going on, but on 20th August 1110 his remains were finally translated (moved) to a shrine within the new church.
In 1174 the long-running disagreement between Durham and St. Albans over the control of Tynemouth was settled in favour of St. Albans, but in 1189 King Richard I granted Tynemouth Priory a form of semi-independence when he granted it the title of ‘Liberty of Tynemouth’. In practical terms, this meant a time of some much-needed stability and led to a range of improvements including a new setting for St. Oswine’s shrine in the presbytery at the east end of the priory.
The 13th century saw the expansion of the priory, but it sounds as though some of that expansion was going to be at the expense of Newcastle. Plans to develop a port at North Shields was met with resistance from its neighbour upstream, who up until this point had the monopoly on trade right up to the mouth of the river.
It might have seemed a good idea at the time, but the plan to build the port backfired, because in 1270 the mayor of Newcastle cobbled together an army of men and proceeded to burn down North Shields: Twenty years later King Edward I added fuel to the fire when he forced the priory to suspend trade from the port altogether.
It came at a bad time because Tynemouth’s attempts at independence from St. Albans was met by a joint mission from St Albans and Newcastle to the king telling him that the priory was getting too big for its boots and was infringing on royal authority. The king agreed and the priory was put back in its place: Its status as the ‘Liberty of Tynemouth’ was whisked away, and in 1294 the abbot made a midnight raid and arrested the prior and his partners in crime.
So far, I’ve only talked about the Priory, so where does the castle fit into the equation? Well, its location was always going to mean that it would be easy to defend if necessary, and the site took on more importance when Edward started to meddle in the succession of the Scottish crown.
With the Borders turning into a battleground, Tynemouth was given a licence by the king to build fortifications: That sounds more like a demand if you ask me, but I don’t suppose the monks were going to argue, even if they wanted to, and it probably won’t come as any surprise to learn that both Edward and his second wife, Margaret of France, stayed here on several occasions.
Having robbed Tynemouth of its port and ‘Liberty’ the unexpected support from the king during this time must have been welcome, but the appearance of his successor, Edward II, probably wasn’t. His incompetence as a king was exacerbated by his close friendship with Piers Gaveston, and with his barons in revolt, he came to Tynemouth to seek refuge.
The 14th century saw more improvements to the site as a fortress, and the oldest survivor is the magnificent Gatehouse. This entrance to the headland would have looked even more impressive when it was built in 1390 during the reign of Richard II, but it still gives an idea of how important the Priory/Castle had become.
The 15th and 16th centuries saw Tynemouth prosper, but its increasing importance was a double-edged sword. On the one hand it was able to curry favour with those involved in the Battle of the Roses, but it also attracted the attention of Henry VIII.
Edward IV, after deposing Henry VI, confirmed the 1189 charter issued by Richard I giving the incumbent prior, John Langton, the funds to enhance the priory even more. The small but beautiful Percy Chantry was probably built around this time and is the only part of the priory to survive complete.
The early 1500s saw Tynemouth finally gain independence from St. Albans, but it was all a bit late because on 12th January 1539 the priory had little choice but to surrender to Henry VIII who now regarded himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The priory was plundered, St. Oswine’s shrine destroyed, and the saint’s bones scattered. Monastic life at Tynemouth was over.
Henry wasted no time in turning the headland into a fortress to ward off any threat of attack from France and Spain, and it continued to be reinforced throughout the Civil War (when Newcastle was on the side of the king). During the 17th century a governor’s house, barracks and a lighthouse were added but they’ve all gone now.
The importance of the headland as a fortress depended on who England was at war with at the time, but the building of Clifford Fort in 1672 at North Shields also had a fair bit of impact. It became the main defence of the river throughout the 18th century, although the Spanish Battery underneath the headland next to Prior’s Haven also had a part to play.
The threat of attack from Napoleon saw an increase in deployment of both men and artillery, and although there was no invasion from Napoleon, the French continued to be a threat throughout the 19th century and the defences at Tynemouth were continually being strengthened.
No sooner as the threat from France diminished, then there was another threat – this time from Germany. The possibilities of Germany attacking the north-east during the First World War were high due to the fact that the Tyne shipyards were building a third of the country’s naval ships. The shipyards escaped, but attacks on Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough showed how vulnerable they would be if the defensive guard was let down.
The batteries and gun emplacements that were built at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth were also in use during World War II when the threat was from the skies rather than the sea; and this continued right through to the 1950s when the UK’s coastal artillery was abandoned altogether. During the 1960s many of the military buildings, some going back to the 1600s, were demolished to return the site to its medieval appearance. Something that probably wouldn’t happen today.
I’ve covered the history of this remarkable site in as short a space as possible, so there are bound to be gaps which can be filled in by reading more in-depth articles elsewhere. Much of the information has come from the official English Heritage guide which sometimes differs from information elsewhere, particularly where dates are concerned. When this has been the case, I’ve omitted those dates purposely to avoid confusion. The problem with cross-referencing is that sometimes you can go round in circles trying to find the perfect answer which often doesn’t exist.
A visit to Tynemouth Priory and Castle is more than just a lesson in history though. It’s worth coming for the views alone, and many people come just to sit on the beach at King Edward’s Bay. There’s one thing that still puzzles me though: The early monks thought it was a great place to build a priory, and Edward I, Henry VIII and many others saw it as the idea place for defending the River Tyne, so why wasn’t it good enough for the Romans?