Hexham Abbey stands in the heart of the town of Hexham on a ridge on the south bank of the River Tyne, some two miles downstream from the confluence of the River North Tyne and the River South Tyne. There has been a religious foundation of one form or another on this site, and probably in continuous use, for over thirteen centuries, so it seems fair to conclude that Hexham Abbey was the seed around which Hexham came into being and subsequently grew.
The Pevsner Architectural Guide to Northumberland notes, with just a hint of disapproval, that the term "Abbey" is a "misnomer" and that "the present church was that of a medieval priory". This seems to slightly miss the point. We've not heard anyone suggesting that what you see today is actually an abbey: simply that "Hexham Abbey" is the fitting name by which the building that now serves as Hexham's parish church has become known.
The story of Hexham Abbey begins in about 674 when Etheldreda, Queen of Northumbria, granted a large estate to Wilfrid, the first native Saxon to serve as Bishop of York. The land was intended to provide the income needed to support the foundation of a Benedictine monastery, and the location chosen for the monastery church is now occupied by the nave of the building you see today. Queen Etheldreda's extremely generous gift was not viewed positively by King Ecgfrith, who appears to have felt that Wilfred exercised too much influence over his wife. Wilfred was subsequently expelled from Northumbria and spent the next two decades in a series of disputes that were only settled by repeated appeals to the Pope in Rome.
In the meantime, building got under way at Hexham, and by 680 an imposing stone church dominated the surrounding landscape. This is believed to have been some 100ft long and may have been built by continental masons to a design borrowed from a Roman basilica. According to Wilfrid's contemporary biographer, the church that emerged was a "vast structure supported by columns of various styles and numerous side aisles" and it had "walls of remarkable height and length". All in all it was believed to be the finest and grandest church then standing north or west of the Alps. Virtually all of the building stone was apparently reused from the remains of the Roman town at Corbridge, some three miles to the east.
Almost nothing remains of this first church today, beyond the remarkably well preserved crypt beneath the nave and the Frith stool, a Saxon cathedra or bishop's throne, which could have been in use as far back as Wilfrid's day.
Wilfrid's grand new church was made a cathedral during his time away in Rome, and it seems likely that he returned with one or more relics of St Andrew, to whom the church was dedicated. The cathedral subsequently became a major centre for pilgrimage, with all that implied for the generation of income. By the end of the 700s, however, Viking raids were being experienced along the coast of Northumbria, and over time they ventured further and further inland. Hexham ceased to be a cathedral in 821, and in 876 a major Viking raid resulted in the sacking of the monastery and much of the settlement that had grown up around it.
The monastery ceased to exist, but it is thought that a church of some sort survived on the site to serve the local community, run by a single hereditary priest. In the 1080s the priest of the day, Eilaf, gained the agreement of the Norman Archbishop of York to the rebuilding of the church in Hexham. Building of a nave, aisled on the north side only, seems to have got under way in the 1090s, and then in 1113 Hexham became an Augustinian priory, which led to the addition of a precinct wall. A major building program between 1180 and 1250 added north and south transepts and a chancel, and greatly expanded the domestic ranges around the cloister to the south.
Having suffered from the attention of Viking raiders in the 800s, Hexham found itself ideally placed to suffer from the attention of Scots during the Wars of Independence from the late 1200s. In 1296 the priory and town of Hexham were attacked by William Wallace and much of it set alight. It is said that traces of the molten lead from the priory roof can still be seen on the floor of the church today.
Repairs followed fairly swiftly, and the nave was largely rebuilt in the 1400s thanks to a bequest left by Newcastle merchant Roger Thornton. Many of the fixtures and fittings found within the church date back to this period, including a series of painted wooden panels. The last major enhancement was the installation of a rood screen to separate the choir from the nave in the early 1500s.
The commissioners charged with implementing Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries arrived on the doorstep of Hexham priory in 1536. Despite local opposition, dissolution took place in February 1537. Hexham still needed a parish church, however, and the priory church was ideal for the purpose. Parts of it, anyway. The nave had always been out of step in building phases with the other three arms of the church, and while the transepts and choir continued in use, the nave fell into disrepair. It was eventually left open to the elements and used as a burial ground.
Other parts of the church were also suffering from the ravages of time. In 1858 the east end of the chancel was in such a poor state that it was dismantled and rebuilt using a design based on Whitby Abbey. This is now the face seen most clearly from Hexham's market place. At the end of the 1800s the Newcastle industrialist Thomas Spencer donated £12,000 to rebuild the nave on the plan originally used in the 1100s. The new nave was completed in 1908, making it both the newest and (if you count the crypt) oldest part of the church and, for the moment at least, bringing to an end a process of near continuous building, repair, rebuilding or expansion that had seen work taking place on the church for some 1,230 years.
The exterior of Hexham Abbey looks at first glance to be more homogeneous than its history suggests it should. The fact that every phase of building has been done in the same light honey coloured stone helps give the whole building a unity of form: though once you begin to look in more detail it is possible to see a number of the different phases of its construction. A tour of the exterior also reveals fascinating traces of other monastic buildings which once stood to the south of the church, including some fine detailing in what was originally the cloister.
The church is entered via a lobby which in monastic times formed a "slype", a passage which gave access to the now largely removed cloister and which has been inserted into the structure of the south transept. The vista that opens up as you enter the south transept itself is breathtaking. The view ahead along the length of both transepts encompasses the largest single open space in the church and has all the soaring grandeur you could possible wish for.
Like most churches, Hexham Abbey is longer on its east-west axis than on its north-south axis, but that's not immediately obvious when you are inside it. The single aisle design of the nave makes it appear narrower than it actually is (and it is significantly narrower than the chancel). Meanwhile the choir is divided from the crossing by the rood screen inserted in the early 1500s, and by the organ, added as recently as 1974. The choir itself, complete with wooden furnishings and decorative features which in many cases date back to the 1400s, is glorious.
In many ways, however, it is the fine detail which makes a visit to Hexham Abbey such an enjoyable experience, especially where it brings to the fore the sheer depth of the building's historical heritage. We've already talked about the Saxon origins of the building, and these are reinforced by a number of carved stones on view. The most important of these are the crosses believe to have marked the head and foot of the grave of Saint Acca, who died in 732.
But while the Saxon heritage takes us back thirteen centuries, it is worth remembering that the early builders of the church recycled worked stone which had already been in use for a further six centuries, thanks to the area's rich Roman past. There are a number of stones on view around the abbey which reflect this. By far the most spectacular is the extremely imposing memorial to a Roman standard bearer found in the south transept.
The Romans are famed for their military might, for their engineering, and for their ability to build to last, but we do not tend to think of them as the most artistically accomplished of civilisations. The sheer beauty of the carving on Flavinus's memorial is therefore doubly breathtaking, showing him riding down a presumably British enemy warrior. The stone states that Flavinus had served for seven years at the time of his death at the age of 25. It's a sobering reminder that society's tendency to send its young men (and, today, women) abroad to risk and sometimes lose their lives is nothing new.