Brinkburn Priory is a wonderful place. Almost hidden from the surrounding world in a steep sided valley formed by a loop of the River Coquet, what you find is a stunningly restored Augustinian priory church looking much as it would after it was originally built in the years between 1190 and 1220, accompanied by a fine mansion, now in a poor state of internal repair, adapted from and rebuilt on the site of the monastic buildings that originally stood to the south of the church.
Brinkburn really is one of the hidden gems of Northumberland and should be on the "must see" list of anyone visiting the county, or simply passing through it. It is reached by a drive leading off the B6344 a little under a mile and a half west of that road's junction with the A697. Looking more widely, this places Brinkburn Priory abut two miles south-west of Longframlington, and about four miles south-east of Rothbury.
The drive leads to a car park, from which it is a beautiful 400 yard walk down a wooded track to the priory itself. As you descend you can hear the river below you and to your right, but the surrounding trees obscure everything from view until you reach the foot of the track, at which point the north-western corner of the church comes into view, drawing you on to see it more fully.
Disabled parking is available near the building housing the reception and shop close to the priory, and it is here that your visit begins. We'd always recommend buying the guidebook to a property such as Brinkburn Priory, but here it is doubly helpful, both in terms of the plan showing you what there is to see, and in order to enhance your understanding of what you have seen when reading the guidebook afterwards.
The priory church and the nearby mansion have stories that are closely linked, and it greatly helps appreciate both if you know a little of why they are here, and what has led to the amazing state of repair of the church on the one hand, and the very contrasting condition of the mansion on the other.
It actually took the Normans some time to secure their grip on the whole of England. Their means of doing so was to divide the countryside up into baronies, each of which was awarded to a follower of the king. Northumberland was carved up into 21 feudal baronies, one of which was focused on Mitford, now a small village just to the west of Morpeth.
The barony of Mitford extended as far north as Brinkburn, and it was William Bertram (or Bertrum), Baron of Mitford, who invited the Augustinian order to establish a priory here between 1130 and 1135. It was common for the nobility of the age to found religious institutions. In part this was a matter of status: when you had founded your own abbey or priory you could really say you had arrived. In part it was also a form of spiritual insurance.
Brinkburn Priory in the mid 1100s (and later) was probably home to 12 Augustinian canons, who would worship here and act as priests to the wider community. The priory also acted as the administrative centre of a large estate, amounting to some 3,500 acres, which was let out to tenant farmers or woodsmen or charcoal burners. Very little is actually known of the buildings that stood here in the middle of the 1100s. It is possible that a stone church may have existed before the arrival of the Augustinians, and if so they either reused or rebuilt it, and established domestic buildings, probably made of wood, that would ensure that the canons and other members of the community had places to live, eat, and, when necessary, be healed.
The Barony of Mitford appears to have done well during the latter half or the 1100s, and in about 1190, William Bertram, Baron of Mitford (presumably the grandson of the William who founded the priory in 1135), decided on a major rebuild. To this end he engaged a master mason called Osbert Colutarius to build a much grander priory church, and new ranges of domestic buildings to accompany it. Work on the church took about 30 years, and the building that emerged looked very like the one you see at Brinkburn today. It is worth noting in passing that Osbert Colutarius is known to have worked on many other Northumberland churches, and similarities in detail suggest that one of these was St Mary's in nearby Longframlington, which was built or rebuilt in 1190.
Once the church was built, work would have begun to add three ranges of stone monastic buildings to the south, forming (with the church) an enclosed cloister. The effect is a little more obvious at Lanercost Priory, an Augustinian priory of the same era in Cumbria where more of the monastic buildings remain.
Brinkburn Priory appears to have fared very poorly in the 1300s and 1400s. It was attacked and severely damaged by Scots under King Robert the Bruce in 1315, and later efforts to gain compensation appear to have been unsuccessful. Then the Black Death arrived in 1349. Thefts of livestock during the 1400s meant that the priory never regained its early wealth, and it even became the subject of a property dispute with a local landowner in the early 1500s that led to the murder of one of the canons. When Henry VIII had the value of the monasteries assessed in the 1530s, Brinkburn's total value, including all its estates, came out at just £69. It was closed in 1536, and the canons, whose number had reduced to six, pensioned off.
The remains of Brinkburn Priory and the land it stood on changed hands frequently over the following century or so. The priory church remained in use as a parish church, but by 1600 it was in need of repair, and by the end of that century it was just a roofless ruin. Parts of the monastic buildings were demolished, but the south range, once housing the priory's refectory, plus parts of the west range, were converted into a family home for the owners of the estate. In 1626 Brinkburn Priory was purchased by George Fenwick, and the Fenwick family lived here until 1747.
By 1766 the house was in ruins, and efforts led by the Archdeacon of Northumberland to restore the priory church came to nothing. The estate was sold to the Hetherington family in 1792, and John Hetherington began work on repairing the house. He died in 1808 before much could be achieved, and the work was left to his son-in-law, Richard Hodgson. From 1810 he built what is now the eastern part of the manor house, apparently on the end of the ruin of the much older house.
His son, Major William Hodgson demolished the older manor house in about 1831, and over the following six years replaced it with a Tudor Gothic manor house with, for its day, all mod cons. This in effect formed a western continuation of the parts of the house his father had built.
It was in the 1850s that the then owner of the estate, Cadogan Hodgson Cadogan, decided to restore the priory church to its original splendour. The architect he chose was Thomas Austin and the decision was taken to try to return the church to the way it would have looked at the end of the original building campaign in about 1230. Enough of the structure had survived to give a very good idea of what needed to be done, with the only area of doubt surrounding the south-west corner of the nave, which had been very badly damaged. The result was pretty much what you see today.
The family moved out of the manor house in 1953, and both manor and priory church were placed in state care in 1962. The manor house had suffered very badly from dry rot by this time, and evidence of the damage this caused remains on view. It is very much a building of two halves. The east end of 1810, which features in the header photo on this page can be looked on as being built around a core which retains much of the original south range of the monastic buildings built between 1190 and 1230. It is fascinating spotting evidence of the older structure, such as the arch of the monastic lavatorium in the internal wall of the hall of the later house.
The west end, built from 1831, did a much more effective job of sweeping away all trace of the previous monastic buildings, which from an old drawing appear to have included a tower house used as prior's lodgings. Today, parts of this end of the house are little more than outer walls forming a shell, some of it three storeys in height. Today the ground floor and basement of the manor house can be explored, with no access possible to the surviving areas of the first floor, for reasons that are very obvious as you wander around.
If the experience of visiting the mansion house is a little sad, a tour of the priory church is nothing short of glorious. What is most remarkable is that an impression of great size and bulk can be conveyed by a building that is only about 130ft long. The fact that the building is so uncluttered helps accentuate the sheer scale of the place and, as much as anywhere else we know, perhaps gives an insight into just how magnificent the great churches of the period must have seemed to a population unused to interior spaces of any significant size.
The original building work took place during a period when architectural fashions were in transition from rounded Norman arches to pointed Gothic or "Early English " arches, and both have been used at Brinkburn. Among the many details worth looking out for is the beautifully preserved grave slab of Prior William, who died in 1484. The east gable of the presbytery of the church, above the altar, is also worth taking time to admire, especially from the outside. The narrow buttresses separating one "stack" of windows from the next change shape at each tier in a way that seems to be purely decorative in intent, and serve as a fitting memorial to the original master mason, Osbert Colutarius, a man who apparently added features simply because his ability allowed him to do so.