History of Tynemouth Priory and Castle
The complex history of Tynemouth headland spans over 2,000 years. It is dominated by the remains of a medieval priory, which was protected like a castle by walls, towers and a gatehouse.
After the monastery was suppressed in the reign of Henry VIII (1509–47), Tynemouth headland became a coastal fortress and remained so until 1956, because of its strategic position at the mouth of the river Tyne.
Human settlement on Tynemouth headland
Archaeologists have revealed the earliest evidence for people living on the headland, in traces of two circular wooden houses. One was a large building, 11.5 metres in diameter, of a kind typically used in the two centuries before the Roman invasion of AD 43. The other was smaller, 4.5 metres in diameter, and may have flourished in the Roman period, in the 2nd century AD.
The larger house may have been part of an Iron Age settlement. This may have been a fort protected by a rampart and ditch built across the neck of the headland where the medieval priory gatehouse was built in later times.
The early medieval monastery
The first monastery was probably sponsored by one of the Kings of Northumbria. It existed in the early 8th century when Bede wrote about Heribald, an abbot of Tynemouth who died in 745, and it was sufficiently established in 792 when Osred II, King of Northumbria, was buried in its church.
In the 11th century, a story emerged that the monastery had been founded in the mid 7th century, when Oswine, a Northumbrian king, was buried there. Oswine was murdered by a rival, Oswiu, who afterwards established a monastery at Tynemouth in penance, which became a focus for Oswine as a saint.
In the 9th century the monastery was flourishing. It became a target for raids in 800, 832, 865, 870, and one in 875 that finally destroyed it. Although no buildings survive from the monastery, fragments of Anglo-Saxon crosses have been discovered on or close to the headland and archaeologists have found traces of five rectangular timber buildings which may have been part of it.
The re-founding of the medieval monastery
A monastic community was not re-established for over 200 years. In 1065, the bones of St Oswine were said to have been found in a church on the headland, St Mary’s. In 1083, Turchil, a monk of Jarrow, re-founded the monastery at Tynemouth.
Jarrow, re-founded in 1074, became a subsidiary of the Benedictine priory of Durham, which therefore had jurisdiction over Tynemouth. In 1090, the Earl of Northumbria, Robert de Mowbray, granted his Tynemouth lands, including the headland, to the abbey of St Albans. The fledgling monastery at Tynemouth thereby became a priory, ruled by its prior, but subordinate to the abbot of St Albans. Durham and Tynemouth never gave up their efforts to regain local jurisdiction and ever after were in dispute with St Albans.
Around 1090, a programme of new building at Tynemouth began, initially with a church dedicated to St Oswine and the Virgin Mary. Twenty years later, St Oswine’s remains were brought from Jarrow to a permanent tomb in the new church at Tynemouth, a sign that the east end of the church was finished and that the priory was to be a place of pilgrimage.
Five years later, Robert de Mowbray rebelled against King William II (r.1087–1100) and took refuge in the ‘stronghold’ at Tynemouth. This is the first evidence that the priory was also a fortification, a character that endured throughout its history.
The medieval priory
The feud between Durham and St Albans continued and was settled again in 1174 in favour of St Albans. Nevertheless, Tynemouth was endowed with extensive lands from which rents, produce and resources (including coal) enabled it to prosper. In 1189, Richard I (r. 1189–99) confirmed these privileges in a charter, and the priory’s possessions became known as the Liberty of Tynemouth.
The economic success of the priory enabled the construction of new buildings. The choir and presbytery were rebuilt from about 1190 and the tall lancet windows of the east end wall remain as an impressive example of early Gothic architecture. Baldwin, a goldsmith from St Albans, came to decorate the shrine of Oswine. In 1220–50, the church was extended by a new nave, of which the west front is an impressive survival. By 1260, further monastic buildings included a chapter house.
Success also brought conflict with the town of Newcastle. The priory’s port on the Tyne at North Shields threatened Newcastle’s shipping monopolies in coal, wool and fish. In 1270 the mayor of Newcastle took an armed force and burned North Shields.
Twenty years later, Newcastle convinced the king to suspend the priory’s trade and, in league with the abbot of St Albans – from whom the priory was still seeking its independence – convinced the king to take way the priory’s Liberty of Tynemouth. In 1294, the abbot of St Albans raided the priory and arrested the prior and his associates.
Despite these setbacks, within a decade the priory returned to royal favour and the Liberty was restored. Economic rivalry remained but the priory continued to flourish, putting profits into a magnificent Lady Chapel, described as ‘new’ in 1336, and the Percy Chantry chapel in the mid 15th century.
Sent to the North as punishment
It became common for the abbots of St Albans to punish wayward monks by sending them for a period to Tynemouth, which seemed cold and comfortless in comparison to their southern English abbey. A letter survives from the mid 14th century describing Tynemouth, possibly from one of these exiles:
Our house is confined to the top of a high cliff … day and night the waves break and roar and undermine the cliff. Thick sea frets roll in, wrapping everything in gloom. Dim eyes, hoarse voices, sore throats are the consequence.
The priory fortifications
The ever-present possibility of war in Scotland, the vulnerability of Northumberland to border raids, and the usefulness of the Tyne as a base for English military campaigns, resulted in 1296 in a grant by Edward I (r.1272–1307) allowing Tynemouth to be properly fortified. A high perimeter wall with towers enabled soldiers to defend the priory in times of war and lawlessness. After the Scots’ victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Robert the Bruce attacked the priory, which was defended successfully by an 80-strong garrison.
In 1390, renewed war with Scotland caused Richard II (r.1377–99) to give a large sum to repair the priory defences, and further money came in the same period from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Some funds went towards the great gatehouse – a large and sophisticated defensive structure as strong as that in any castle, and a testimony to the strategic importance of Tynemouth. The gatehouse and sections of the priory walls remain today.
The end of the priory
In the early 16th century, Tynemouth Priory was a rich and powerful monastery. Prior Stonewell achieved the long-sought independence from the Abbey of St Albans, following negotiations with Henry VIII’s most powerful minister, Thomas Wolsey.
The privilege was short-lived, as in January 1539 the priory fell victim to the nationwide Dissolution of the Monasteries. All the priory lands and possessions were surrendered to the king, St Oswine’s shrine was destroyed and monastic life at Tynemouth came to an end.
Tudor military supply base
Only a few years later, Henry VIII made plans to improve the fortifications of the former priory as a supply base for military campaigning in Scotland. War resulted from his attempt to force a marriage between his six-year-old son, Edward, and the infant Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, as a solution to the long-standing conflict between England and Scotland.
In 1544, the Earl of Hertford assembled a fleet at Tynemouth and proceeded to transport English soldiers to Scotland. The aim was deliberate destruction to force the marriage, but also – in advance of Henry’s planned military expedition to France – to leave England safe from Scots attacks when the army sailed for the Continent. Edinburgh was sacked and burnt, as were many Scots towns and villages, when the English army returned overland at the end of the campaign.
The English use of the former Tynemouth Priory as a supply base highlighted the need for better fortifications. Guns on the headland did not command the river mouth, because of a low hill in between, and in 1545 the military engineer Sir Richard Lee and an Italian expert, Gian Tommaso Scala, prepared a plan for new defences. This was to be a fortified line beginning to the west of the gatehouse, running south to include the low hill where guns could fire directly on the river mouth. The hill became Spanish Battery, allegedly named after Henry’s Spanish mercenaries.
By July 1545, 1,000 workmen had almost completed the new fortifications and plans were made for 400 of them to form a temporary garrison, as regular soldiers were in short supply because of Henry’s campaign in France. The defences, as finished, departed from the plan but achieved the intended purpose and are depicted on a drawing made in 1582. The new Tynemouth fortress was commanded by a governor with a small garrison, charged with the security of the Tyne and Newcastle, whose economic value ensured that it remained important.
A coastal fortification
Newcastle and Tynemouth were among only a few important ports controlled by the Royalist side during the Civil Wars (1642–51) and crucial in denying vital supplies of coal to their Parliamentary opponents. Tynemouth Castle and Spanish Battery were heavily fortified, and their guns controlled the river until July 1644, when Newcastle and Tynemouth were surrendered to Parliament after the Battle of Marston Moor, when the Royalist cause in the North collapsed.
After the Restoration of Charles II (r.1660–85), Tynemouth continued as a military garrison. Its buildings were concentrated in the outer court of the former priory, north of the church, including new barracks and a house built by the governor, Colonel Edward Villiers, using stone and lead from demolished priory buildings. The church was used to store gunpowder. Villiers’s house included servants’ quarters, stables, a brewhouse, barns and stores. There was a house for the master gunner, while the gatehouse accommodated the soldiers of the garrison. A lighthouse stood near the edge of the cliff by 1677.
Tynemouth’s role declined from 1672 when Clifford’s Fort was built on the riverside, but a master gunner remained on the headland throughout the 18th century, and guns were emplaced there during successive invasion scares.
There was a revival from 1793 during British involvement in the French Revolutionary War (1793–1802) and Napoleonic War (1803–15), when an ordnance depot was made inside the castle walls to supply the troops of Durham and Northumberland with ammunition. New barracks were built for 146 part-time artillerymen, and gun platforms were reformed on each side of the gatehouse to defend against any attack from the landward side.
At the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815, the ordnance depot closed but a master gunner continued to look after the guns and a limited supply of equipment. As new threats emerged in the 1840s and 1850s, with the growth of shipbuilding, the export of coal and the building of Armstrong’s armament factory at Elswick in 1859, Tynemouth’s defences were improved in the second half of the 19th century.
The headland was revitalised from 1859 with 20 guns, a new gunpowder magazine, barracks and stores. By the 1880s, new piers at the mouth of the Tyne had blocked the field of fire from Clifford’s Fort at river level and so Tynemouth Castle and Spanish Battery became, once again, responsible for the defence of the river.
Modern coast fortress
New buildings for modern breech-loading guns were begun in 1893 and by 1905 the castle was equipped with two x 6-inch, one x 9.2-inch and two x 12-pounder guns (with more at Spanish Battery). These protected the river mouth and its extensive industries from both long-range bombardment by large warships and fast raids by small torpedo-carrying boats.
The guns were protected by concrete emplacements, with underground magazines for ammunition, placed along the eastern edge of Tynemouth headland, with command and control buildings behind them. Barracks and facilities buildings for the gunners had begun to recolonise the area within the old priory walls and the medieval gatehouse was still in use.
The defences included the headquarters of an army Fire Command that controlled the guns and searchlights protecting the Tyne and coastline to the north and south, during the First and Second World Wars. By 1945, the headland was filled with military buildings, many of which were used until 1956 when the army finally left.
Afterwards, the site was purged of many military structures in order to display the priory and castle remains as a historic monument, leaving only the Warrant Officer’s House and the gun emplacements along the cliff edge as evidence of its 20th-century role.
by Paul Pattison, Senior Historian, English Heritage