Tynemouth’s Coastal Headland
Situated on a headland overlooking the sea at the mouth of the Tyne is Tynemouth Castle with the extensive ruins of Tynemouth Priory set within. They form one of the most visually impressive sites of the region. Now in the Borough of North Tyneside, Tynemouth was historically the capital of Tynemouthshire, a liberty within the county of Northumberland.
The creamy-yellow rocks of the coastal headland that is variously known as the Heugh, Pen Bal Crag or Benebal Crag are the same coastal rocks found across the Tyne to the south. The geologically unique stretch of coastline from Hartlepool to South Shields is formed by magnesian limestone and the outcrop at Tynemouth on the north side of the river is an isolated example outcrop of this familiar yellow stone. It is the same stone that forms the coastal rocks of Marsden near South Shields and those rocks can be clearly seen on the horizon from the crag.
The view from Tynemouth Castle and Priory is superb, particularly for those with a passion for the region’s history. Below the walls and towering cliffs is a beautiful, if tiny beach tucked into a cove, while further north are the longer sweeping beaches of Cullercoats and Whitley Bay with the lovely St Mary’s Lighthouse and its island close by. Further north still towards Blyth is an offshore wind farm. To the east are panoramic views of the sea and sky and to the south, the mouth of the Tyne itself with its entrance marked by the north pier and its more southerly counterpart across the river.
Ships can be seen coming and going, watched over by the knowledgeable guiding eye of Admiral Collingwood, the hero of Trafalgar, from his commanding monument. Across the river the view from Tynemouth encompasses South Shields with the winding Tyne disappearing into the distance as it twists and turns creating the illusion of riverside cranes stranded inland. On distant hill tops we see Penshaw Monument, the water tower at Cleadon and along the coast the white and red coastal landmark of Souter lighthouse.
Much closer at hand and along the river to the east is North Shields, a port first developed by the monks of Tynemouth Priory and now a docking point for freight ships and passenger liners bound for Amsterdam. Finally on the immediate east side of the lofty headland crag is the charming little town of Tynemouth itself, with its elegant Georgian and Victorian street leading up to the gateway of the castle on the edge of its moat-like embankment.
In Anglo-Saxon times Tynemouth’s headland played host to a monastery that was later destroyed by Viking raids. It was superseded after a two hundred year gap by the later Norman priory. The castle defended the priory from the Scots, becoming a border stronghold as well as an important defence against sea-borne attacks. Later defences, including cannons and a gun battery that served in the two world wars war are testament to the site’s important defensive role far beyond medieval times.
Anglo-Saxon and Viking Tynemouth
In early times the site on which Tynemouth Castle and Priory stand were home to a defended Iron Age settlement, perhaps associated with the tribe called the Votadini. Despite the obvious defensive attributes there does not seem to have been any Roman activity at the site. Roman stones have been found but may have been brought from elsewhere as building material but the evidence is inconclusive. A Roman fort called Arbeia did guard the mouth of the Tyne but this was across the river in South Shields.
The Anglo-Saxon monastery at Tynemouth was established in the seventh century. Later monks attributed its founding to King Edwin sometime before 633AD but it may have been after this time, perhaps in the reign of King Oswald. Precisely when and who established the first monastery is not known. Bede makes mention of it in relation to a story concerning Heribald who was the abbot of the monastery during Bede’s lifetime. Heribald died around 745AD and had been a disciple of St John of Beverley, the former Bishop of Hexham.
In later times it was said that Tynemouth became the burial place of King Oswin of Deira. Oswin, who died in 651AD, was a Northumbrian king but no mention of his supposed burial at Tynemouth was made by Bede or in any other historical record of Anglo-Saxon times. The link with Oswin was quite possibly a later invention. Another claim is that a Northumbrian king, Osred II was buried at Tynemouth in 792AD. Osred, who only ruled for a year had been exiled to the Isle of Man and was murdered on the Cumbrian coast on his return to Northumbria.
In 800AD Tynemouth was sacked by the Vikings along with the monasteries at Jarrow and Wearmouth. The Vikings returned again in 875AD when the monks of the monastery perished in the flames of the monastery church. Tynemouth, like the similar headland of Scarborough in Yorkshire is thought to have become a Danish stronghold and there are records of Scandinavian-type personal names prevailing in Tynemouth parish into later medieval times.
Whether it was a Viking colony or not, the Vikings may have continued to be trouble in later times and according to a local legend a Norman lord called Delaval fended off a Viking raid at Tynemouth by a certain Red Eric. The supposed events may recall some earlier pre-Norman raid that probably didn’t involve Lord Delaval at all. They are recorded in an undated verse:
Their bucklers were splintered, their helmets were riven,
In their flesh the sharp edge of the fragments were driven
Till a heart splitting stab caused Red Eric to fall
With a howl of despair before brave Delaval.
He has hacked off the head ere the blood ceased to flow,
He has hied to the horde who were feasting below,
He flung it among them, his war cry he raised;
The Norsemen all rushed to their galleys amazed.
Nor yet they escaped, for a tempest arose,
And wrecked on the beach fair Northumbria’s foes.
Some perished engulfed in the depths of the waves,
And some to the serfs they had mocked became slaves.
King Oswin’s Bones 1065-1085
In the years following the Viking raids Tynemouth came into the hands of the Earls of Northumbria, who inherited their regional political powers from the earlier Northumbrian kings. In 1066, Tostig Godwinson of Wessex, the deposed Earl of Northumbria – who had been unpopular in the north – rebelled against his brother, Harold Godwinson, the new King of England.
The combined forces headed south and entered Yorkshire via the Humber. Both Tostig and Hardrada lost their lives in defeat to King Harold Godwinson’s forces at the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York on September 25, 1066. The following month, the English king Harold Godwinson would himself lose his life to an invading Norman army at the Battle of Hastings.
According to tradition, it was in the previous year, 1065, that an event took place that sealed the fame and fortune of Tynemouth. Though the Anglo-Saxon monastery had long since perished, a church on the site had continued to be occupied in the era following the Viking raids. In 1065, its priest, one Edmund, is said to have been visited by a spirit at the church. The ghost was none other than St. Oswin of Deira, the former Northumbrian king.
St. Oswin (or Oswine) had died in the year 651AD. He had been murdered after his hiding place was discovered at Gilling in North Yorkshire following a battle near Catterick against the rival king, Oswy of Bernicia.
On appearing to the Tynemouth priest Oswin’s spirit apparently made the grand announcement that: “I am king Oswin, I live in this church unknown to all” and then asked Edmund to inform Aegelwine, the Bishop of Durham, that his body would be found by digging beneath the floor of the church at Tynemouth.
Bishop Aegelwine arrived, accompanied by Judith the wife of Earl Tostig and several helpers but the men found nothing. The priest, Edmund, who received further spiritual guidance then undertook the digging himself in the presence of the others. His digging revealed a body accompanied by a pleasant aroma that filled the air. This was on March 11, 1065.
Whatever the truth about St. Oswin and his bones, his association with Tynemouth meant potential riches for the monastery in the shape of gift-bearing pilgrims who were the medieval equivalent of wealth-bringing tourists but much more lucrative than that. Durham, the burial place of Saints Cuthbert, Oswald and Bede was already attracting such visitors and Tynemouth was now an alternative centre of pilgrimage.
A cult developed at Tynemouth surrounding Saint Oswin and he was for a time one of the best-known saints in the region. Tynemouth would never be as big a draw as Durham but the place became associated with several miracles associated with Saint Oswin and became very wealthy. It was a major place of pilgrimage, though Oswin’s popularity was later eclipsed by the buried bones of St Godric at Finchale near Durham after 1170.
Whatever the truth behind St. Oswin’s connection with Tynemouth the re-founding of the monastery certainly began in Norman times. At first the aggressive Normans burned down the church at Tynemouth during a devastating raid upon the north as they asserted control. By the 1080s things were different and under the northern leadership of Waltheof, the new Earl of Northumbria and William Walcher, the Bishop of Durham, Tynemouth was revived.
The revival came when a monk from Winchombe called Aldwin, arrived at Monkchester (Newcastle) with the intention of bringing about a kind of revival of the monastic age of Northumbria. With Walcher’s support, Aldwin re-founded Jarrow and Wearmouth. Earl Waltheof then granted the church and surrounding lands at Tynemouth to the Jarrow monks. Tynemouth became an outpost of Jarrow and the Jarrow monks regularly collected Oswin’s bones from Tynemouth and brought them to Jarrow.
Waltheof, the Anglo-Saxon Earl of Northumbria who hailed from Northamptonshire had been appointed by the Normans but he was executed following a rebellion against King William in 1075. Bishop William Walcher, a Frenchman from Lorraine then took on the role of earl as well as being the Bishop of Durham. As a political leader Walcher proved ineffective and in 1080 he was murdered by a mob at Gateshead. His successor as Bishop was William of St Carileph and a new Earl of Northumbria, Robert De Mowbray, was appointed.
Mowbray confirmed Jarrow’s possession of Tynemouth and its surrounding lands but in 1085 Bishop St Carileph moved the Jarrow monks to Durham. Jarrow became an outlying cell of Durham leaving Tynemouth, where at least one monk was stationed, rather isolated.
In 1087 Carileph was implicated in a plot against King William Rufus, hoping to replace the king with Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror. Carileph fled to Normandy but within three years he was back in favour and allowed to return.
In 1091 the Scots under King Malcolm Canmore invaded the north reaching as far south as Chester-le-Street. They were seen off but a fleet of Norman ships employed in the counter attack was wrecked at Tynemouth.
In the meantime a quarrel arose between Mowbray and Carileph. Mowbray evicted the Durham monks from Tynemouth and entered into negotiations with Paul, abbot of St Albans in Hertfordshire. Paul was a nephew of Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Mowbray made an agreement to bring Tynemouth Monastery under the control of St. Albans.
The order of events is not clear but in 1091-1092 Mowbray had sold, seemingly under pressure from the king, his virtually regal political rights in that part of Northumbria between the Tees and the Tyne (which became County Durham) to Bishop Carileph. The Bishop already held extensive land here and now became a Prince Bishop within that locality. The earl retained his regal rights in Northumberland north of the Tyne as well as in a district along the north bank of the River Tees called Sadberge that remained in Northumberland and was not acquired by Durham until a later date.
Despite profiting from the sale, the loss of such powers must have seemed a humiliation for the powerful earl and his annexation of the wealthy monastery of Tynemouth from the monks of Durham may have been an attempt to compensate for this. In 1093 the St. Albans abbot, Paul, headed north with new monks for Tynemouth and despite protests at York from the monks of Durham in the presence of the Archbishop, Mowbray and Abbot Paul were defiant and persisted with their plan. On his journey home to St Albans, abbot Paul died and the Durham monks probably considered it some kind of divine justice. It did not change Tynemouth Priory’s new status as a cell of St Albans and Tynemouth Priory would remain under St Albans’s control for the rest of its active history.
On November 13, 1093, the same day Abbot Paul passed away, Malcolm Canmore, King of the Scots was slain at Alnwick after he was tricked by Mowbray’s nephew, Arkil Morel. The king’s body was brought to Tynemouth and buried in a newly established Norman church. Alexander, Malcolm’s son requested that the body be returned to Dunfermline in Scotland.
Mowbray agreed but later, the famed medieval historian Matthew Paris (c1200-1259) claimed that the Scots were actually sent the body of a farmer from Monkseaton. Malcolm was remembered as a man of considerable stature so it is interesting that in 1257 the bones of a man fitting his description were discovered at Tynemouth monastery.
Priory and Castle
In 1095 Earl Robert Mowbray became involved in a plot against King William Rufus and the king sent north troops to quash the rebellion.
Mowbray’s castles at Newcastle, Morpeth and Bamburgh were besieged and the earl was captured. For a time Mowbray was imprisoned at Windsor but his life was spared and it is thought that he ultimately became a monk at St. Albans.
Tynemouth Priory generated much wealth for its owners in the far away Hertfordshire monastery of St. Albans and it was considered their most valuable possession. Money came from pilgrims and significantly from the extensive managed farm lands that Tynemouth Priory owned. The lands included estates given by the Earl of Northumberland.
At one time or another Tynemouth Priory lands included neighbouring North Shields, Preston, Whitley (Whitley Bay), Monkseaton, Earsdon, Hauxley, Woodhorn, Amble and Monkseaton. Slightly further afield were lands in Benwell, Woolsington, Wylam, Elswick and Coquet Island. Tithes were received from Northumbrian lands as far away as Wooler, Warkworth, Corbridge, Newburn and Rothbury.
The monastery was a rival to the powerful Priory of Durham Cathedral which still hoped to reclaim Tynemouth, citing the charter of Earl Waltheof. Durham finally relinquished its claim in 1174 though Tynemouth remained within the diocese of the Bishop of Durham.
There were other conflicts for the Tynemouth priors. Tensions relating to Tynemouth’s autonomy often arose between Tynemouth and the abbot of St. Albans. One abbot of St. Albans called Simon came to visit and outstayed his welcome after virtually consuming the monks’ entire provisions. It is said that with little else left, the monks offered him a meal of a live oxen that was still harnessed to a plough. Simon acknowledged the hint and left.
Another problem for Tynemouth was that anti-social, misbehaving or disliked monks from St Albans were often transferred to Tynemouth. In such a situation there were naturally attempts by Tynemouth’s priors to assert their independence. Conflict arose when one Tynemouth Prior attempted to go his own way with complete disregard for St Albans. The St Albans abbot headed north, secretly colluding with a Newcastle merchant for assistance – the merchant had been promised land. The abbot tricked the priory gatekeeper into gaining entry to Tynemouth, and Tynemouth’s sleeping prior was seized and arrested along with several monks. A new prior was installed.
Being a centre of wealth at the mouth of the Tyne with the potential to develop river trade and port facilities brought inevitable conflicts with the corporation of Newcastle over rights to the River Tyne, particularly with regard to the establishment of a port at North Shields by the Tynemouth monks and much of the early history of North Shields is dominated by this conflict.
Defence against the Scots
Today most of the remaining ruins of Tynemouth Priory belong to the period of around 1090 when the Norman Priory was begun or to the later period of 1190-1210. The gateway from which the priory is entered belongs to the slightly later Tynemouth castle which surrounds the monastery.
Northumberland was under constant threat from Scottish raids during the medieval era with wealthy priories and abbeys being particularly vulnerable to Scottish attacks. This was emphasised in 1296 with a raid on Northumberland in which Hexham Abbey was sacked by the Scots. Edward I granted the priors of Tynemouth a licence to build a castle around their priory, though there were presumably already defences at the site. Today the medieval gatehouse with its projecting barbican is the most notable remnant of this castle situated on the edge of a defensive ditch that marks the entry into the priory grounds from the town of Tynemouth.
King Edward I had stayed at Tynemouth on more than one occasion during the 1290s while he meddled in the appointment of the Scottish king at Berwick. The name of the cove – King Edward’s Bay – beneath the Tynemouth rock may derive from this time. Edward’s Queen, Margaret also came to Tynemouth on more than one occasion and on her last visit in 1304, the townsmen of Tynemouth stole the silver and gilt trumpet from her official trumpeter. Edward and Margaret’s son, King Edward II visited Tynemouth too, with his widely disliked ‘favourite’ Piers Gaveston before setting sail for Scarborough where Gaveston met his end.
In 1314 Robert the Bruce attacked Tynemouth Priory but Tynemouth was successfully defended. The priory came under attack again in 1318, this time from a Northumbrian called Gilbert Middleton. The Middletons were shavaldores, a noted family who been forced to live like marauders in the years after Northumberland was devastated by Scottish raids. Shavaldores were the fourteenth century equivalent of the Border Reivers. Tynemouth Priory and Castle were successfully defended under the leadership of Sir Robert Delaval and Middleton was subsequently captured and executed.
Despite the occasional threat from raiders, Tynemouth Priory continued to prosper until its ultimate closure in 1539 during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Prior Blakeney, the last prior, received a pension and retired as a farmer to Benwell west of Newcastle, one of the former possessions of Tynemouth Priory.
Following the closure of the priory, the defensive role of the castle that had enclosed it gained even greater importance with King Henry VIII ordering that its walls be strengthened to meet the threat of potential attacks from Spanish, French or Scottish forces.
The commanders of Tynemouth Castle were titled ‘captains’ and from 1561 one such captain was Sir Henry Percy (1532-1585) who was the brother of Thomas Percy the 7th Earl of Northumberland. Thomas was the leader of the Rising of the North, a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth II in 1569, but Henry distanced himself from the events and the garrison at Tynemouth supported the Queen. The rising failed and in 1572 the earl was executed at York and Sir Henry became the 8th earl. However Sir Henry also came to be involved in various plots and was locked in the Tower of London on three occasions. It was there that he died in 1585.
A succession of Percy Earls of Northumberland held Tynemouth Castle a number of whom were involved in plots against reigning monarchs. The 9th Earl was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot (1605) and imprisoned for 17 years. His kinsman, Thomas Percy was one of the chief organisers of the plot but it is thought that the Earl may have been innocent of the charge.
Tynemouth was confiscated from the earl and its defence was left to other men, notably the Selbys and Fenwick family but the castle was increasingly falling into disrepair.
In the Civil War, though initially Royalist, the castle at Tynemouth was captured and garrisoned by Scottish soldiers sympathetic to Parliament. The captured king, Charles I was held prisoner by the Scots at Newcastle from 1645 following his defeat in the war and he was brought to Tynemouth during negotiations over his future. During the king’s imprisonment in Newcastle, a Dutch vessel arrived at Tynemouth with a secret mission to rescue Charles on Christmas night 1646, but Charles could not get to Tynemouth. In January 1647 he was finally handed over to the Parliamentary Commissioners and the Scots departed from Newcastle and Tynemouth.
In the interests of security a Parliamentarian garrison was kept on at Tynemouth by Sir Arthur Haselrig who was now in command of the North. The castle was under the governorship of the staunch Parliamentarian, Henry Lilburn who then made the surprising choice of switching allegiance to King Charles. In 1648 Tynemouth castle was besieged by Haselrig’s army and Lilburn was captured. His head was cut off and displayed outside the castle walls.
The Civil War was the last military engagement for the castle but the castle continued to play an important role in the country’s defences in later centuries. It was garrisoned by gunners during the Dutch War of the 1650s and a new barracks was built in the 1660s. The castle’s defences were superseded by a new fort, Clifford’s Fort at North Shields in 1672 but a battery remained in place at Tynemouth Castle.
Additional men were drafted in during the Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745 and also during the American War of Independence and Napoleonic Wars. In the 1880s breech loading guns were installed to protect coal exports in the face of the ever present threat from Germany. Tynemouth’s ‘Fire Command’ was brought into action during the First and Second World Wars and played an important role in defending the river’s busy industrial trade. Today the solid concrete defences of the coastal battery at Tynemouth have been restored by English Heritage and are an important feature in the centuries old defensive heritage of the site.
The town of Tynemouth
Although the picturesque ruins, coastal cove and views are the highlights of Tynemouth, the little town itself is a place of great charm. The town or large village is centred on Front Street and for centuries consisted of little more than this street though it was joined around 1800 by neat terraces such as Newcastle Terrace, Allendale Terrace and Bath Terrace and others of later years.
Front Street is noted for its cafes and restaurants including a fish and chip shop where the legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix came to eat in 1967. Close by at the eastern end of Front Street near the entrance to Tynemouth Priory is a small ornate Gothic clock tower of 1861.
The town’s most prominent monument (not including that of Collingwood down by the river) is that depicting Queen Victoria on the edge of the little village green where Front Street splits into Manor Road and Huntingdon Place. The statue of the seated queen dates from 1905.
Huntingdon Place leads to one of Tynemouth’s most notable buildings, the railway station of 1882. Opened in 1882 for the Victorian leisure trade that brought Tynesiders flocking to the seaside it is noted for its ornate interior of Victorian ironwork that would not look out of place in a museum. Now a station for the Tyne and Wear Metro it is probably the best way to arrive in the town, particularly on weekends when it hosts its own flea market.
Close to the station in Huntingdon Place is the King’s Priory School which has been located in Tynemouth since 1865 (though originally founded in Jarrow five years earlier). Former pupils include the comedian Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame (who lived in North Shields) and the film director Ridley Scott. The Kings of the school’s name are Kings Osred and Oswin of Northumbria and King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland who were all buried at Tynemouth Priory. They are also recalled by three crowns in North Tyneside’s coat of arms.
Nearby, a plaque in the Huntington Place (at number 9) recalls the visit to Tynemouth of the famed Italian politician Giuseppe Garibaldi (from whom the biscuit is named). He sailed into the Tyne in 1854 to discuss his plans for a unified Italy with local politicians and stayed in Huntington Place .
Tynemouth seems to have had its share of famed visitors. Other notables who have visited the place include Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and the wonderfully talented Northumbrian engraver Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) who often holidayed here.
In Tynemouth Road, to the south of the Tynemouth Station, we find the impressive Tyne Master Mariners’ Asylum of 1837. It was built by the North East architects John and Benjamin Green whose work includes Newcastle Theatre Royal, Newcastle’s Grey Monument and Penshaw Monument near Sunderland. Their substantial Mariners’ Asylum at Tynemouth is very different to all of these and is built in Tudor style with Dutch gables and a central clock tower. It demonstrates the versatility of the architects. Built on land donated by the Duke of Northumberland it provided housing for 32 aged mariners and their dependants. The Greens also built the church of Holy Saviour (1841) in Tynemouth. It is along Manor Road close to a roundabout just to the west of the town centre.
Beneath the headland castle and priory at the actual mouth of the Tyne is the Collingwood Monument and Tynemouth Life Brigade Watch Tower Museum.
Collingwood’s monument is a column to rival that of Nelson in London, a man to whom Collingwood was second in command. Admiral Lord Cuthbert Collingwood (1748-1810) was born in Newcastle and first went to sea at the age of 12. Rising through the ranks of the navy he is best remembered for his part in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where he took charge following Nelson’s death.
Collingwood’s monument at Tynemouth dates from 1847 and was designed by the Newcastle architect John Dobson, though the statue of Collingwood himself is by John Graham Lough. The monument is 23 feet tall and its pedestal with the steps leading up to it, is 50 feet high. Cannons at the base of the monument are from Collingwood’s ship The Royal Sovereign.
Out in the Tyne far below Collingwood’s feet are the treacherous Black Middens rocks within the Tyne. These perilous obstacles are hidden at high tide and were a major obstacle to shipping. For centuries they thrashed and destroyed many unwitting sailing ships in times gone by. Indeed, in November 1854 alone they claimed five ships in three days.
Next door to the monument is the watch house, the home of the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade of 1884. The first life brigade in the country chose an appropriate setting overlooking the Black Middens.
Nearby, beneath the rock of the castle is a tiny cove and beach that is the home to Tynemouth Sailing Club. Here, projecting into the sea is the 900 yard long North Pier or breakwater. It was built 1854-1895 by Newcastle’s Trinity House and the lighthouse at its terminus was built between 1903 and 1908. An earlier lighthouse had once stood within the grounds of Tynemouth priory but was demolished in the 1890s.