Hexham : Abbey Town

Despite the important status of Hexham as the largest town and capital of Tynedale and its role as a centre for touring Hadrian’s Wall, Hexham surprisingly does not seem to have Roman origins.

Hexham Abbey
Hexham Abbey © David Simpson

One suggestion is the town was once the site of a number of Roman villas belonging to prominent Roman officers but this has never been proved. Hexham’s recorded history does not in fact begin until AD 674, three centuries after the Roman departure, when in Anglo-Saxon times, an abbey was founded here by the Northumbrian saint and bishop, Wilfrid.

Hexham Abbey
Hexham Abbey © David Simpson

Early spellings and records of Hexham’s name are curiously complex in explaining the roots and meaning of the name Hexham. In the earliest records of the late seventh and early eighth century in reference to the activities of Wilfrid, Hexham is variously referred to as Hagustaldensis ecclesia; Heagostaldes and Agostaldes ea. The ‘ecclesia’ of course refers to the church and ‘ea’ to a river or stream.

It is not certain but Hextild or Hextol is said to have become the name for a stream at Hexham – the Cowgarth Burn – and Halgut is said to have been the name of the adjoining Cockshaw Burn before it enters the Tyne. However, this is likely an example of popular etymology.

Hexham Abbey
Hexham Abbey © David Simpson

The modern form of the name Hexham seems to have developed in the twelfth century. In 1154 it is recorded as Hestaldesige and then in 1187 as Hextoldesham. There is a record of the simplified name Hexham in 1351 but it is still recorded as Hextildesham in 1535.

The Heagostaldes of the early recorded name is said to refer to a young warrior of some kind, possibly a reference to a young man who did not inherit land that went to an older sibling. Of course this poses all sorts of questions about why this should become the name of such a prominent place. Perhaps we will never know the answer.

The prior's house, part of the monastic buildings at the west end of Hexham Abbey were mostly destroyed by a fire in 1819 and rebuilt. However remnants of a sixteenth century block of the prior's house range can be seen here
The prior’s house, part of the monastic buildings at the west end of Hexham Abbey were mostly destroyed by a fire in 1819 and rebuilt. However remnants of a sixteenth century block of the prior’s house range can be seen here © David Simpson

As we have said, the recorded story of Hexham begins with St Wilfrid who established the first monastery here. Educated on the holy Northumbrian Island of Lindisfarne, St Wilfrid (AD 634 – 709) had travelled to Rome and was impressed by the lifestyle and magnificence of European churches. He decided that something of a similar nature needed to be built in Northumbria.

Plaque, Hexham Priory gatehouse marking the site of St Wilfrid's cathedral
Plaque, Hexham Priory gatehouse marking the site of St Wilfrid’s cathedral © David Simpson

The results were the great churches at Hexham and Ripon. Hexham Abbey was one of the first buildings in Anglo-Saxon Britain to make full use of stone. Wilfrid’s abbey at Hexham was regarded as one of the finest in the country and its beauty was particularly enhanced by the use of Roman stones taken from the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall and the nearby Roman fort at Corbridge.

Priory gatehouse, Hexham
The Priory gatehouse of the later Augustinian abbey of Hexham stands on the site of part of Wilfrid’s original priory © David Simpson

Wilfrid was a flamboyant, highly educated and persuasive man but his talents brought him into inevitable conflict with the King of Northumbria, who threw him into prison for nine months. On release, Wilfrid was banished from Northumbria and fled to Sussex, where he played a very important part in converting the South Saxons to Christianity.

For a time Wilfrid’s abbey at Hexham held the status of a cathedral as it was the centre of a see stretching from the River Tees to the River Aln. The see of Hexham was later superseded by Lindisfarne and Chester-le-Street.

Hexham Abbey
Hexham Abbey © David Simpson

By the time of the Norman Conquest Hexham and its abbey were part of the see of Durham Cathedral but in the reign of Henry I it regained a degree of independence, when the town and its surrounding district known as ‘Hexhamshire’, were confiscated from the Prince Bishops of Durham and given to the Archbishops of York, to whom it belonged until 1837.

Hey for the buff and the blue,
Hey for the cap and the feather
Hey for the bonny lass true,
That lives in Hexhamshire

The above verse is from The Hexhamshire Lass, a traditional Northumbrian folk song.

Hexham Abbey
Hexham Abbey © David Simpson

In AD 875, Hexham and its abbey were severely destroyed by the Vikings, under the leadership of Halfdene the Dane but historically Hexham is better known as a long suffering target for Scottish raids.

Fore Street, Hexham
Fore Street, Hexham © David Simpson 202

A most notable raid was that of 1296, when the Scots laid the town to waste, burning the abbey and the Hexham Grammar school. Another great raid took place in 1346 when King David of Scotland plundered and burned the abbey prior to the Battle of Neville’s Cross, near Durham.

Hexham abbey suffered badly at the hands of many Scottish raids, but centuries of continuous rebuilding, have ensured that a complete historic abbey, or more accurately, a priory church of an Augustinian abbey, still stand at Hexham today.

Some features of interest around Hexham
Some features of interest around Hexham © David Simpson

Sadly, of the work of St Wilfrid, only the Saxon crypt remains beneath the abbey floor. There is however one other reminder of St Wilfrid’s time, namely a thirteen-hundred-year-old Anglo-Saxon ‘Frith’ or ‘Frid’ stool, which is found in the abbey choir.

Priory Gatehouse, Hexham
Priory gatehouse on part of the site of St Wilfrid’s original priory © David Simpson

Carved from a block of stone, it was at one time used as a symbol of the sanctuary provided for criminals and refugees at Hexham. The ‘stool’ or ‘stol’, is said to have been the throne on which Northumbrian kings were once crowned but is more likely to be a primitive example of a bishop’s throne.

Some Hexham street-names © David Simpson
Some Hexham street-names © David Simpson

Around Hexham

Hexham Abbey overlooks Hexham’s busy market place, which has witnessed much of the town’s turbulent past. Street-names of the old town include Market Place, Market Street, Gilesgate, Hallgate, Priestpopple, Halstile Bank, Beaumont Street, Hencotes, Battle Hill, Eastgate, Broadgates, Fore Street, Old Church Chare and St Marys Chare.

The south end of Hexham leading to Priestpopple (Left) and Cattle Market (right)
Bank at south end of Fore Street in Hexham leading to Priestpopple (Left) and Cattle Market (right) © David Simpson

The market place is the heart of Hexham town where we find the Temperley Fountain pant which dates from 1901. It commemorates William A Temperley (1819-98) a leading  figure of the Hexham Congregational Church who was a corn merchant in both Newcastle and Hexham.

The Shambles in front of Hexham Moot Hall
The Shambles in front of Hexham Moot Hall © David Simpson

There are a number of Georgian town houses throughout the centre of historic Hexham but there are other features of medieval note too. Most prominent in the market place is the imposing Moot Hall, a former tower house that dates from the fourteenth or early fifteenth century with two towers and a passageway leading through to Hallgate.

Moot Hall, Hexham
The Moot Hall, Hexham, a former courthouse of the Archbishops of York in Hexham © David Simpson

The Moot Hall once served as the court house of the Archbishops of York who were the lords of the Liberty of Hexhamshire. In front of the Moot Hall is the open Shambles building which dates from 1766 and was founded Sir Walter Blackett to house booths for market traders.

Hexham Old Gaol
Hexham Old Gaol © David Simpson

In Hallgate, which we reach through the Moot Hall passageway, we find another prominent medieval stone building. This is the Hexham Old Gaol, a former purpose built prison that dates from the 1330s.

Hallgate (bottom) and the adjoining Wentworth Place (top), Hexham
Hallgate (bottom) and the adjoining Wentworth Place (top), Hexham © David Simpson

The gaol houses a museum dedicated to Hexham and border history including features relating to the Border Reivers. Nearby, is an attractive whitewashed building that is the former Hexham Grammar School. It dates from 1684.

Former grammar school at Hexham
Former grammar school at Hexham © David Simpson

Near the Shambles on the south side of the market place is an arched passageway that forms a ‘chare’ or lane alongside an antique clock shop. The arched passageway is the entrance to ‘Old Church Chare’ or St Mary’s Chare as it is known at its south end.

Old Church Chare, Hexham
Old Church Chare, Hexham © David Simpson

The shop and passageway incorporate the remains of part of a thirteenth century medieval church dedicated to St Mary. It is a surprising remnant of Hexham’s past incorporated into the wall of the passage and is easy to miss.

Remnants of medieval church incorporated into the wall of the passageway just within the entrance to Old Chare (St Mary's Chare) in Hexham
Remnants of medieval church incorporated into the wall of the passageway just within the entrance to Old Chare (St Mary’s Chare) in Hexham © David Simpson

What we are seeing is part of the north arcade of the church with other scant remains of the church encased within the neighbouring shops on the south side of the market place. St Mary’s was the parish church for the town of Hexham and second only to the abbey in importance within the town. It built on the site of an earlier Saxon church established by St Wilfrid.

St Mary's Chare, Hexham
St Mary’s Chare © David Simpson

Through the passageway, Old Church Chare becomes St Mary’s Chare at its south end before joining Battle Hill, which is another of Hexham’s principal old streets. The eastern end of Battle Hill becomes the street of Priestpopple.

Old Church Chare, Hexham
Old Church Chare, Hexham © David Simpson

On the west side of the market place leading to the abbey is Beaumont Street, perhaps the most stately of Hexham’s streets. It is home to Queen’s Hall of 1865-6, designed by the architect John Johnstone and built as a town hall and corn exchange.

Queens Hall, Hexham
Queens Hall, Hexham © David Simpson

It now serves as an arts centre. Nearby, another building in the street is the headquarters for the Hexham Courant newspaper that serves the Tynedale area. The newspaper was first published in 1864.

Offices of the Hexham Courant
Offices of the Hexham Courant © David Simpson

Hexham Massacre

Although Hexham saw more than its share of troubles in times past it is somewhat surprising to discover that one of the bloodiest events of Hexham’s history took place in the town’s market place as late as the eighteenth century, long after the days of the border warfare.

Market Street, Hexham from the Market Square
Market Street, Hexham from the Market Square © David Simpson

The incident occurred on the 9th March 1761, during a protest against methods of conscription into the local militia. Objection was to the election of men to the militia by balloting, instead of the selection of recruits by landowners, as had previously been the case. The introduction of this new system met fierce resistance in other parts of Northumberland and in Durham so there was a large military presence for the balloting of men at Hexham.

Halstile Bank which joins Hexham market place near the Moot Hall
Halstile Bank which joins Hexham market place near the Moot Hall © David Simpson

The military presence at Hexham seemed to be justified as around 5000 men attended the meeting, mostly to protest. As their anger began to increase, the Riot Act was read and they were asked to disperse. The protesters made it clear they would not give in, so magistrates ordered soldiers from the North Yorkshire Militia to open fire on the crowd.

At least forty people were killed and over three hundred injured in the resulting chaos. The event became known as the ‘Hexham Massacre’ and for many years later the North York Militia were labelled the ‘Hexham Butchers’

An old postcard showing Hexham and its abbey

The story has a rather sad and gruesome ending – on the 17th August of the same year, a seventy four year old man called Patterson was arrested for his alleged involvement in the Hexham ‘riot’. He was sentenced to be hung, cut down alive, to be disembowelled, have his entrails burnt (in front of his eyes !) and then to be beheaded and quartered. In the event it was decided that the old man’s sentence be reduced to a straight forward hanging.

Straight forward it was not, Patterson’s rope snapped before he died and in the tradition of a martyr, he was able to utter his last words ‘innocent blood is hard to spill’. It was later discovered that Patterson had not been in Hexham on the day of the riot!

Hexham Abbey tower
Hexham Abbey tower © David Simpson

Cockshaw and Cowgarth

There are two burns that pass through the old town of Hexham. One is the Cowgarth Burn that used to pass through the abbey grounds but its course through Hexham is now culverted. Just to the west of the abbey grounds is a small park called the Sele which is bounded on its west side by the wooded valley of the Cockshaw Burn.

Cowgart, Hexham
Cowgarth is the name of a street in Hexham from an ‘enclosure for cows’ © David Simpson

The Cockshaw Burn flows north east alongside a street also called Cockshaw and then heads north towards the Tyne near Tanners Row and Glovers Place. These two street-names recall Hexham’s important historic leather trade and glove making industry – the gloves known as ‘Hexham Tans’.

Gilesgate, Hexham
Gilesgate, Hexham © David Simpson

Nearby, close to here the Cockshaw Burn is joined by the culverted Cowgarth Burn near the western end of Gilesgate. If you head back east along Gilesgate towards Hexham Market Place there is a large and attractive Georgian house called Hexham House in lovely grounds which are open to the public. The earliest parts of the house date to 1723 with later wings added and it now serves as a wedding venue. In 1928 its grounds became a public park.

Hexham House
Hexham House © David Simpson

Now culverted like its companion, the Cockshaw Burn joins the River Tyne near the Tynedale Golf Club which occupies the riverside land to the north west of Hexham. To the east of the golf course is the Tyne Green play area, along with a large animal feed warehouse shop and the Hexham Mart. To their east is Hexham Bridge which crosses the River Tyne here and dates to the 1780s.

Hexham street scenes
Hexham street scenes © David Simpson

North of the Tyne

Near the south side of the bridge at Hexham is Hexham railway station on the Newcastle to Carlisle line and nearby, a small neighbouring trading estate. There is a larger trading and industrial estate over on the north side of the river near the A69. It hosts the prominent factory and chimneys of the Egger chipboard plant and the neighbouring headquarters of the Fentimans soft drinks manufacturer.

Across the A69 to the north west is the large village of Acomb not far from the ‘meeting of the waters’ where the River North Tyne and River South Tyne merge together to become the River Tyne itself. To the east of Acomb is the little village of Oakwood (in truth a modern housing development) and to its east the older village of Anick which of course has the potential to be confused with Alnwick.

Anick is the site of a noted eating establishment called the Rat Inn. It is a very little village and was historically one of the estates of the priory at Hexham and being the former site of a grange farmed by its lay brothers.

To the east of Anick we find Beaufront Castle, built by John Dobson in the 1830s on the site of an eaerlier castle or mansion that belonged to the Carnaby family in Elizabethan times and later the Erringtons. The name Beaufront means ‘fine brow’.

To its east is another little hamlet called  Sandhoe (the sandy hill spur) where a hall built in Jacobean style by John Dobson is screened by a thick layer of trees on the roadside. To the east is Stagshaw and Stagshaw Bank, the site of a famed medieval fair near Dere Street (the A68). Here, however we have drifted into the realms of Corbridge which nestles nearby on the north bank of the Tyne less than three miles east of Hexham.

Scenery in the valley of the Devil's Water
Scenery in the valley of the Devil’s Water © David Simpson

South of Hexham : Devil’s Water

At High Yarridge, about a mile south of Hexham we find Hexham racecourse where horse racing has been held since about 1720. A little to the south of the racecourse, flowing from west to east is the West Dipton Burn which rises initially as Stublick Sike on Stublick Moor near Langley Castle in the South Tyne valley to the west. 

On the south side of the West Dipton Burn, opposite Black Hill Farm to the south of the racecourse is a spot called the Queen’s Cave where according to legend Queen Margaret of Anjou, the queen of King Henry VI was kept safe by a local outlaw after she had become detached from the Lancastrian army during the Wars of the Roses battle at Hexham in 1464.

The burn passes a spot called Dipton Mill, further downstream before joining the west bank of the large stream or small river called the Devil’s Water about a mile south west of Hexham. The Devil’s Water, along with Dipton Wood and Slaley Forest to its west are the principal features of this sparsely populated Hexhamshire area of Northumberland. 

The Devil’s Water is about nine miles long, rising near Bulbeck Common, a little to the north west of the beautiful village of Blanchland (on the River Derwent). Here, to the west is Hexhamshire Common separating the Devil’s Water from the East Allen valley in the Allendales to the west. 

A few miles downstream from its source the Devil’s Water passes to the west of Slaley Forest and then is joined from the west by the Rowley Burn where there are little nearby hamlets called Dalton, Whitley Chapel and Dye House.

Whitley Chapel
Whitley Chapel © David Simpson

The Rowley Burn has been tentatively identified as the ‘Deniseburn’, the site at which the Welsh-British king, Cadwallon was pursued, captured and slain by the Northumbrians under King Oswald following the Battle or Heavenfield in AD 634. This battle was fought near Hadrian’s Wall to the east of the North Tyne, about three miles north of Hexham.

Battles of Hexham

This district around the Devil’s Water was the site of two much later battles, during the long-running conflict known as Wars of the Roses and the Yorkists were victorious on both occasions.

The first battle took place on April 3, 1463 in which the Lancastrians commanded by Queen Margaret and supported by French and Scottish forces attacked a Yorkist army encamped to the east of the Devil’s Water. However, the Yorkists fought back fiercely and the Lancastrian supporters gradually fled the field.

Another Wars of the Roses battle was fought in April the following year in Northumberland at Hedgeley Moor near Powburn and again the Lancastrians were defeated. The second Battle of Hexham also took place in 1464, on the 5 May and this was the most decisive and important of the three.

This time it was the Lancastrian forces that had gathered on the east bank at a spot called Hexham Levels or at least somewhere in the Linnels Bridge area near the Devil’s Water. Again the Lancastrians were defeated putting an end to a period of four years of struggle between the supporters of the deposed and feeble-minded Lancastrian king, Henry VI under Margaret and men fighting for the Yorkist usurper, Edward IV.

Scenery in the valley of the Devil's Water
Scenery in the valley of the Devil’s Water south of Hexham © David Simpson


Less than a mile before the Devil’s Water enters the Tyne at Dilston Haughs, its western banks touch the little village of Dilston which is the home to Dilston Castle. Here, the A695 crosses the little river. Dilston Castle, in private grounds, seems to be primarily a tower house of the Elizabethan period and was once the home to the Earls of Derwentwater.

Dilston had originally been called Dyvelston and is thought to derive from a family of that name who lived here in the twelfth century and were earlier called De Eivill. The stream or river of the Devil’s Water also seems to bear their name.

One member of the Dyvelston family was a Sheriff of Northumberland in the reign of Edward III. Later owners included the Tyndales, Claxtons and then the Cartingtons from whom it passed through marriage to the Radcliffes in the reign of Henry VIII.

Dilston and the Jacobite Rebellion

The Radcliffes (or Radclyffes), were a Roman Catholic family whose senior members held the title, Earl of Derwentwater. The third Earl, James Radcliffe, is often lamented as something of a Northumbrian hero and was a famous Jacobite rebel. Jacobitism in the early years of the eighteenth century gained momentum in 1714 with the crowing of the German Protestant Hanoverian king, George I, as king of Great Britain and Ireland. Jacobites wanted to restore the Catholic Stuarts to the crown in the shape of James Stuart ‘the Old Pretender’ who they regarded as James III.

Dilston Castle
Dilston Castle © David Simpson

The third Earl of Derwentwater was secretive in his support for the Jacobite cause but his sympathies were well-known. He was under suspicion, particularly because of his family connections. His mother was Lady Mary Tudor (1673-1726) an actress, who was the natural daughter of King Charles II and a mistress. Furthermore, Derwentwater had been brought up abroad in the exiled court of the Stuart king, James II.

When James III was declared king by Jacobite rebels in August 1715 warrants for the arrests of prominent Jacobites including Dewentwater were made. Derwentwater went into hiding, possibly at the home of one of his tenants at Linnels near the banks of the Devil’s Water or in a secret priest hole at Beaufront Castle.

After much plotting and secret meetings, Derwentwater joined the forces of the Jacobite rebel army of General Thomas Forster of Adderstone Hall near Lucker in north Northumberland. Forster, who was in fact a Protestant, was a Northumberland MP and member of the Forster family of Bamburgh but a staunch Jacobite in his allegiance.

Other prominent Northumbrian supporters of the Jacobite cause included Lord Widdrington; Thomas Errington of Beaufront; Phlip Hodgson of Sandhoe; Edward and James Swinburn of Capheaton; Charleton of Redesmouth; John Hunter of ‘North Tindale’ and William Shaftoe of Bavington.

Supported by Northumbrians and Scots, Forster’s army rallied troops in the Northumbrian towns of Morpeth, Alnwick, Hexham and Rothbury, though Newcastle closed its gates to the rebels in an apparent support for King George that is sometimes given, though not convincingly, as the reason the town’s residents came to be known as ‘Geordies’.

Hexham © David Simpson

For a time the army encamped near Corbridge awaiting an opportunity to seize Newcastle that never materialised. Instead, they headed to Scotland where at Kelso their forces were increased by thousands of Scots although upon reaching Hawick around 600 Highlanders refused the plan to cross the Border into England. With this slight depletion in numbers the Jacobites began their march on England via Penrith.

Ultimately, a battle was fought at Preston in Lancashire on 9-14 November 1715, though it might be better described as a siege as the Jacobites had barricaded the town. The British Government forces were victorious and Forster unconditionally surrendered. More than 1,400 Jacobites were taken prisoner of which more than 400 were English.

For his part in the rebellion, Derwentwater was beheaded on Tower Hill, London on 24 February, 1716. His son, John continued to make the titular claim as the 4th Earl until his death in 1731 when Charles Radcliffe (1693-1746), a younger brother of James became the claimant to the title as the 5th earl.

Scenery at Dilston
Scenery at Dilston © David Simpson

Charles had been involved in the 1715 rebellion but had escaped to France after breaking free from Newgate Prison in 1716. However in 1745, his luck ran out. On return from exile and heading to Scotland to support the new Jacobite Rising, he was captured at sea and executed for treason on 8 December 1746.

It is the story of the 3rd earl that is fondly remembered in Northumberland and commemorated in a ballad, attributed to Robert Surtees of Mainsforth, entitled Lord Derwentwater’s Farewell which recounts his feelings in the days before his execution. The verses are given below. Part of the ballad alludes to a tradition that the earl’s wife, the Countess Derwentwater had forced his hand to openly commit to the rebellion with an accusation of cowardice.

Farewell to pleasant Dilston,
My father’s ancient seat,
A stranger must now call thee his,
Which gars my heart to greet;
Farewell each friendly well known face
My heart has held so dear,
My tenants now must leave their lands,
Or hold their lives in fear.

No more along the banks of Tyne
I’ll rove in autumn grey,
No more I’ll hear at early dawn
The lav’rocks wake the day;
And who shall deck the hawthorn bower
Where my fond children strayed?
And who, when spring shall bid it flower,
Shall sit beneath the shade?

And fare thee well, George Collingwood,
Since fate has put us down,
If thou and I have lost our lives,
Our King has lost his crown;
But when the head that wears the crown
Shall be laid low like mine,
Some honest hearts may then lament
For Radcliffe’s fallen line.

Farewell, farewell, my lady dear,
Ill, ill, thou councell’dst me,
I never more may see the babe
That smiles at your knee;
Then fare ye well brave Widdrington
And Foster ever true;
Dear Shaftsbury and Errington
Receive my last adieu.

And fare thee well my bonny grey steed
That carried me aye so free,
I wish I’d been asleep in my bed
Last time I mounted thee;
The warning bell now bids me cease,
My trouble’s nearly oer,
Yon sun that rises from the sea
Shall rise on me no more.

And when the head that wears a crown
Shall be laid low like mine,
Some honest hearts may then lament
For Radcliffe’s fallen line
Farewell to pleasant Dilston hall
My father’s ancient seat
A stranger now must call thee his,
Which gars my heart to greet.

 Corbridge South Tynedale | Allendale

Blanchland and Derwentdale

Hadrian’s Wall | Hadrian’s Wall Country

Kielder North Tynedale | Redesdale

Newcastle upon Tyne | North Tyneside

Shotley Bridge, Ebchester and Hamsterley 

Alnwick Morpeth Area | Rothbury and Coquetdale



North East England History and Culture