No, not a return to Finchale, but a continuation of my Hexham visit.  Hexham Abbey is the town’s crown jewel, though technically it’s a misnomer.  An Abbey was a monastery with an Abbot or Abbess at its head, whereas when the monks were led by a Prior then the term Priory should be used.  Of the two, a priory is seen as slightly inferior, though I don’t know why.

To add to the confusion, there is an Abbey there, but the Priory is on top of it.  Let me explain.

Back in the 7th Century there was no England as we now know it, instead the area was comprised of a number of smaller Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  Northumbria was one of these, and as I have suggested in previous posts was arguably the cultural capital of Europe at this point thanks to the Northumbrian saints Cuthbert and Bede.

Let’s introduce another saint into the equation.


Audrey/Etheldreda/Æthelthryth (according to how simplified you want her name) was a princess in the kingdom of East Anglia who in a piece of political manoeuvring was married to the Northumbrian King.  (We don’t need to go into his details at this point)  Whilst queen she granted Wilfrid, Bishop of York, land to build an Abbey in Hexham in 674.  (On the king’s death Æthelthryth retired to Ely, though the monasteries she founded there were destroyed by vikings before the construction of the present cathedral).  That Benedictine Abbey was razed to the ground (yes, those vikings again) two hundred years later, but of course “to the ground” leaves the subterranean untouched.  The crypt remains preserved and can be accessed down a flight of steep stone steps from the nave of the present church.

Here are a number of small chambers, all constructed from stone “borrowed” from Roman sites nearby, including one with an inscription in which reference to Emperor Geta has been “redacted”, an act carried out under orders from his brother Caracalla who had murdered him.

But I digress.  Enter the Normans who build an Augustinian Priory on this site in the 12th century, and much of the present church dates back to that period, though as you can see there is a fairly visible join where the present nave was built at the turn of the 20th Century.

If you have read any of my previous posts about monastic buildings you’ll know what became of the monastery during the rein of Henry VIII, however a stroll around the perimeter of the building still reveals a number of features from that complex, as well as some more recent, but nonetheless historic tombstone designs.

But still I’m teasing you, because the best of the Priory known as an Abbey is within those walls.


5 thoughts on “Q. When is an Abbey not an Abbey?

      1. Thanks for following my posts. There are quite a few poems on my site on abbeys, cathedrals and churches…
        Looking forward to your next posting.

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