Tynemouth Priory

On a bold bluff rock, looking out upon the German Ocean, stand the ruins of the Priory of Tynemouth. We pass into the consecrated ground, which is still used as a burial-place, through a barrack, the buildings of which have been partly erected out of the materials of the Priory. When we are within the Priory inclosure we see artillery pointing seaward and landward,—sentinels pacing their constant walk, and in the midst the old grey ruin, looking almost reproachfully upon these odd associations. There is one living within constant view of this ruin—a writer who has won an enduring reputation—to whom the solitude of a sick-room has brought as many soothing and holy aspirations as to the most pure and spiritual of the recluses, who, century after century, looked out from this rock upon a raging sea, and thought of a world where all was peace. The scene which is now presented by the view from Tynemouth is thus described by the writer to whom we allude, in ‘Life in the Sick-room.’ What a contrast to the scene upon which the old monks were wont to look! (Fig. 710.)

Between my window and the sea is a green down, as green as any field in Ireland, and on the nearer half of this down hay-making goes forward in its season. It slopes down to a hollow, where the Prior of old preserved his fish, there being sluices formerly at either end, the one opening upon the river, and the other upon the little haven below the Priory, whose ruins still crown the rock. From the Prior’s fish-pond, the green down slopes upwards again to a ridge; and on the slope are cows grazing all summer, and half way into the winter. Over the ridge, I survey the harbour and all its traffic, the view extending from the lighthouses far to the right, to a horizon of sea to the left. Beyond the harbour lies another county, with, first, its sandy beach, where there are frequent wrecks—too interesting to an invalid—and a fine stretch of rocky shore to the left; and above the rocks, a spreading heath, where I watch troops of boys flying their kites; lovers and friends taking their breezy walk on Sundays; the sportsman with his gun and dog; and the washerwomen converging from the farm-houses on Saturday evenings, to carry their loads in company, to the village on the yet farther height. I see them, now talking in a cluster, as they walk each with her white burden on her head, and now in file, as they pass through the narrow lane; and finally they part off on the village green, each to some neighbouring house of the gentry. Behind the village and the heath stretches the railroad; and I watch the train triumphantly careering along the level road, and puffing forth its steam above hedges and groups of trees, and then labouring and panting up the ascent, till it is lost between two heights, which at last bound my view. But on these heights are more objects; a windmill, now in motion and now at rest; a limekiln, in a picturesque rocky field; an ancient church tower, barely visible in the morning, but conspicuous when the setting sun shines upon it; a colliery with its lofty wagon-way, and the self-moving wagons running hither and thither, as if in pure wilfulness.

The original choice of the situation for the Priory appears to have been dictated by that benevolence which was characteristic of the early religious foundations. Tynemouth Priory was a beacon to the sailor, and when he looked upon its towers he thought of the Virgin and Saint Oswin, who were to shield him from the dangers of the great waters. That the situation, at the mouth of a river, and on an elevated site, early recommended the place as suitable both for military defence and religious purposes, is evident from the fact that Robert de Mowbray, about the year 1090, fled hither, and defended himself within its walls against William Rufus (against whom he had conspired); but, after a time, finding that he could hold out no longer, he sought “sanctuary” at the altar of the church, from which, however, he was taken by force, and, after suffering a tedious imprisonment, was put to death. The monastery at one time enjoyed considerable wealth. It possessed twenty-seven manors in Northumberland, with their royalties, besides other valuable lands and tenements. At the dissolution, in 1539, there was a prior, with fifteen prebendaries and three novices. The annual revenues of the priory were then estimated (separate from the Abbey of St. Alban’s, on which it depended) at 397l. 10s. 5d. by Dugdale, and at 511l. 4s. 1d. by Speed. The prior, on the surrender of the monastery, received a pension of 80/. per annum. The site and most of the lands were granted in the 5th of Edward VI. to John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland; but by his attainder in the next year it reverted to the Crown, in which it remained till the 10th of Elizabeth. During the reign of Elizabeth the place was occupied as a fortress. Camden says, “It is now called Tinemouth Castle, and glories in a stately and strong castle.

The following description of the remains is from a small work published at North Shields in 1806. There is very slight alteration at the present time, for the ruins are now carefully preserved.

“The approach to the priory is from the west, by a gateway tower of a square form, having a circular exploratory turret on each corner; from this gateway, on each hand, a strong double wall has been extended to the rocks on the sea-shore, which from their great height have been esteemed in former times inaccessible. The gate, with its walls, was fortified by a deep outward ditch, over which there was a drawbridge, defended by moles on each side. The tower comprehends an outward and interior gateway, the outward gateway having two gates, at the distance of about six feet from each other, the inner of which is defended by a portcullis and an open gallery; the interior gateway is, in like manner, strengthened by a double gate. The space between the gateways, being a square of about six paces, is open above to allow those on the top of the tower and battlements to annoy assailants who had gained the first gate.

On passing the gateway, the scene is strikingly noble and venerable; the whole enclosed area may contain about six acres; the walls seem as well calculated for defence as the gateway tower; the view is crowded with august ruins; many fine arches of the priory are standing. The most beautiful part of these remains is the eastern limb of the church, of elegant workmanship. The ruins are so disunited, that it would be very difficult to determine to what particular office each belongs. The ruins which present themselves in front, on entering the gateway, appear to be the remains of the cloister, access to which was afforded by a gateway of circular arches, comprehending several members inclining inwards, and arising from pilasters. After passing this gate, in the area many modern tombs appear, the ground being still used for sepulture. The west gate entering into the abbey is still entire, of the same architecture as that leading to the cloister. The ground, from the cloister to the south wall, is almost covered with foundations, which, it is presumed, are the remains of the Priory. Two walls of the church are standing: the end wall to the east contains three long windows; the centre window, the loftiest, is near twenty feet high, richly ornamented with mouldings. Beneath the centre window at the east end is a doorway of excellent workmanship, conducting to a small but elegant apartment, which is supposed to have contained the shrine and tomb of St. Oswin.” (Fig. 709.)