The substantial ruins of Tynemouth Priory stand on the rocky headland that guards the north side of the mouth of the River Tyne. Today's visitor to the headland gains admission to "Tynemouth Priory and Castle", as the headland has also had a very significant defensive role over the centuries. On this page we look at the story of Tynemouth Priory itself, and the remains of the priory church and the monastic buildings to its south. The story of the defensive structures on the headland, both during the active life of the priory and since, are covered on our separate Tynemouth Castle page.
The origins of the first religious community to settle on the headland at Tynemouth are very vague. Evidence of settlement has been found from the pre-Roman and Roman eras, but the first monastery to be established here was probably built in the mid 700s. By the end of that century it was sufficiently important to be chosen, in preference to other Northumbrian monasteries such as Jarrow, Wearmouth and Lindisfarne, to be the burial place of King Osred II, who died in 792.
This first Anglo-Saxon monastery appears to have been destroyed by Vikings, whose raids on the Northumbrian coast began at the very end of the 700s. Its location probably allowed the monastery at Tynemouth to be more easily defended than some, but it appears to have been destroyed in 875, when the raiders themselves seem to have occupied the headland for a short time. Excavations in 1980 uncovered traces of rectangular wooden buildings from the Anglo-Saxon era to the north of the priory church, one of which had a semicircular end wall. This may indicate it was built as a church: or it may not.
By the years around 1050 there is are records of a high status settlement on the headland at Tynemouth, which was served by the Parish Church of St Mary, a building with a tower large enough to provide accommodation for the chaplain of Earl Tostig of Northumberland. In 1065 an event took place here that provide highly significant for the later Tynemouth Priory. There is more than one version of what happened. The most attractive is that a monk at Durham, Aelfred Westou, who had made a name for himself as a suspiciously successful collector of relics (the bones and other physical remains of saints) discovered the perfectly preserved body of St Oswine buried on the headland at Tynemouth. Miraculous indeed, as King Oswine of Deira as he then was, had been killed in Yorkshire in 651, four centuries earlier, and there was no reason to suppose he had been taken out of Deira (Yorkshire) for burial.
In the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of 1066, much of northern England was laid waste by the Normans, and the settlement at Tynemouth appears to have been destroyed. In 1074, monks from southern England re-established the Venerable Bede's monastery at Jarrow, on the south bank of the River Tyne. Some time around 1080 Waltheof, the last English Earl of Northumberland, granted the ruined church at Tynemouth, including the body of St Oswine and all the lands belonging to the church, to the monks at Jarrow.
By 1083 a small religious community had been established on the headland, based on the Church of St Mary, which they had repaired and re-roofed. In 1090, William II installed his Norman supporter, Robert de Mowbray, as Earl of Northumberland. De Mowbray rapidly fell out with the Bishop of Durham, and subsequently granted Tynemouth to the Benedictine Abbey of St Albans. The monks in residence at Tynemouth were forced to leave, to be replaced by Benedictines who had made the long journey from southern England. This caused anger in Durham, where the subsequent death of the Abbot of St Albans was regarded as divine retribution.
St Albans Abbey wasted no time securing its grip on Tynemouth, and almost immediately began work on a large new priory church dedicated to St Mary and St Oswine. In 1093, Malcolm III of Scotland was buried at Tynemouth after his death at the First Battle of Alnwick. He was exhumed in 1115 and reburied in Dunfermline Abbey. The new church, or at least its east end, was probably completed by 1110, when the remains of St Oswine were moved to a shrine housed within it.
The priory built between 1090 and about 1140 was considerably smaller than the building whose remains you can see today, as becomes clear from the changes that were to take place subsequently. A fire in the domestic ranges in about 1150 was miraculously quelled after an appeal to the relics of St Oswine, and the description of this miracle reveals that with the exception of the priory church itself, the priory buildings had thatched roofs.
Durham tried again to gain control of Tynemouth Priory from St Albans Abbey in 1174, but lost their case. In 1189, King Richard I made a grant to the priory of extensive estates that became known as "The Liberty of Tynemouth". The priory embarked on a major expansion in the years from 1195. The original choir had a rounded east end. This was extended significantly further east, and a magnificent new presbytery was built. The first Norman church had transepts at the meeting of nave and choir. With the later extension, new transepts were added at the meeting of the presbytery and the choir giving an overall plan that was a little reminiscent of a Cross of Lorraine: albeit a slightly blurred one as the newly widened choir almost matched the original transepts.
The best guess is that the priory church had a square tower rising from the crossing between the original nave and chancel, though there is also a hint of a free-standing bell tower originally constructed to the west of the end of the nave. The new choir and presbytery were far taller than the original buildings and their roof line was probably not greatly below that of the top of the original tower. Their height and grandeur is obvious from the standing remains of the east end of the presbytery. In the 1230s and 1240s the nave, previously rather short, was extended to two bays to the west, and a new west face was built for the priory church. Work was undertaken on the domestic ranges around the cloister in the 1250s and 1260s, and a new chapter house was built.
A posting to Tynemouth appears not to have been welcomed by at least some monks at St Albans Abbey, and it has been suggested that some were sent here by the abbot as punishment. A letter has survived written in Latin by one monk, presumably in the mid 1200s when work on expanding the priory church had "been lately completed." The unknown monk talks of the church as "of wondrous beauty... Within it lies the body of the blessed martyr Oswine, in a silver shrine, magnificently decorated with gold and jewels."
The monk is less flattering about other aspects of the life at Tynemouth Priory. He says that: "Our house is confined to the top of a high rock and is surrounded by sea on every side but one. Here is the approach to the monastery through a gate cut out of the rock so narrow that a cart can hardly pass through. Day and night the waves break and roar and undermine the cliff. Thick sea frets roll in wrapping everything in gloom. Dim eyes, hoarse voices, sore throats are the consequence."
He continues: "Shipwrecks are frequent. It is a great pity to see the numbed crew, whom no power on earth can save, whose vessel, mast swaying and timbers parted, rushes upon the rock or reef. No ringdove or nightingale is here, only grey birds which nest in rocks and greedily prey upon the drowned, whose screaming cry is a token of a coming storm." But then, our unknown monk definitely had a "glass half empty" outlook on life. He goes on to say: We are well off for food, thanks to an abundant supply of fish, of which we tire."
Tynemouth's efforts to establish a port at South Shields led to conflict with Newcastle, whose trade it threatened to take away. Newcastle responded by working with St Albans Abbey to have Tynemouth's efforts to gain independence curbed by the king. Matters reached a head when in 1294 the abbot of St Albans turned up at Tynemouth in the middle of the night and removed the prior and his supporters.
A new Lady Chapel was built to the north of the presbytery in 1336, and in the 1400s what is now known as the Percy Chantry was added to the east end of the presbytery. This is the only complete part of the church, and though small is sublimely beautiful.
In the early 1500s Tynemouth finally gained its independence from St Albans Abbey, but it was all too late. The priory's wealth made it a prime target for Henry VIII's commissioners, who in 1536 brought trumped up charges of misconduct against the prior and 7 of the 15 monks. On 15 January 1539 the community surrendered the priory to the king, in return for personal pensions and other bribes. The shrine of St Oswine was destroyed, and the saint's bones were scattered.
The nave of the priory church went on be used as the parish church for some time, until replaced by a purpose built church in the town. The story of subsequent developments at Tynemouth is told on our Tynemouth Castle page.