When I was a boy I sang in a church choir to a fairly high standard, and as part of that I attended residential training courses during the school holidays each summer, usually in Corbridge. We’d practice all day, and then walk half a mile to the church of St Andrew (a treasure in itself with Saxon and Roman elements) to sing evensong. Did we make that trip in full robes? I can’t remember but it would have been quite a sight if we did!
It’s a beautiful church, though to a teenage boy it’s the unusual features that stand out. Consequently the medieval screens had faded from memory, as had the remnants of older constructions incorporated into the walls and floor that were a complete surprise to me when I recently revisited. (You’ll have to wait for my next post to see the screen.) The Roman tomb stone stayed with me (the Roman army were always a schoolboy favourite) as did two features that I’d never seen in any other cathedral.
The first was a stone staircase leading up to a gallery overlooking the south transept. This flight of 35 steps is known as The Night Stair and dates back to the 13th century when it was used to allow the monks direct access to the church from their dormitories on the first floor of an adjoining building. I’m pretty sure we didn’t use those steps in my singing days but again I could be wrong, though the likelihood of 30-40 teenage boys making it down steps worn by 800 years of traffic without disaster seems slim!
The other feature which I considered unique to the building (though now know otherwise) was described as “The Bishop’s Throne” and is a stone seat fixed in the floor of the choir. Nowadays the item is referred to as a “Frith Stool”, though it seems neither throne-like or stool-like. It seems likely that it was made at Wilfrid’s request when he founded the original abbey as he would have seen similar items on his travels in Merovingian Gaul in the 7th century, so in this respect it was possessed by a Bishop. As his church was made from Roman stone transported from the nearby Roman fort at Corbridge, it is probably that his “throne” originated here too, though it was carved and decorated by the Anglo-Saxons.
When the Normans arrived and reconsecrated the site, they treated the stone chair with great respect and installed it in their priory where they referred to it as a Frith Stool, effectively a seat where one could claim sanctuary and the church’s protection, similar to famous Sanctuary Knocker at the door of Durham Cathedral.
The Victorian’s were less careful with the seat, and in their expansion of the church in the 19th century it was broken into pieces and roughly patched up. When the new nave was complete the whole building was re-floored in the early 20th century at which point some remains from the original 7th century building were discovered. The “stool” was then cemented into the floor at was assumed to the its original position based on the assumed layout of the Saxon church. Those remains are now believed to be part of a separate structure to the original church, meaning that the siting of the chair is incorrect. Thankfully the present church officials have no intention of subjecting this ancient stonework to any further risks.