In the medieval period the Priory at Tynemouth was Benedictine – and the remains standing today are from this period. However, it has a much earlier history than this.
Some Roman stonework has been found here, but it is unclear if there was actually a Roman fortification on the site. The Priory was definitively founded by Edwin of Northumbria early in the 7th Century. In 651 AD the first of Tynemouth’s three Royal burials took place here, that of Oswin, King of Deira, who was murdered by soldiers of Oswiu of Bernicia and his body brought to Tynemouth. He later became St. Oswin and his burial place became a pilgrimage site.
In 792 the second King to be buried here was Osred who was King of Northumbria for just a year and then deposed and murdered.
As the 700s move to the 800s Tynemouth Priory begins a long series of destruction and rebuilding. If there was ever somewhere where the image of Viking marauders destroying innocent monks was true it was here!
The Danes first plundered the Priory in 800. Subsequently it was fortified for the first time – but in 832 the Danes were back, although this time they only did a small amount of damage. In 865 the Priory was destroyed entirely and the nuns of St. Hilda who had come here for safety were massacred. The Danes were back just five years later in 870 and once again in 875, leaving only a small parish church standing.
Earl Tostig refounded the fortress at Tynemouth in the 1060s. By then St. Oswin’s burial place had long been forgotten and it is said that Oswin came to Tostig in a dream and told him where his remains were to be found. Tostig died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 and never refounded the Priory as he had intended.
In 1074 the last Anglo-Saxon Earl of Northumbria, Waltheof II, granted the land to the monks of Jarrow and St. Oswin was transferred there, but it wasn’t until 1090 that Tynemouth Priory was properly refounded, by Robert de Mowbray. It was briefly at the centre of a dispute between the Bishops of Durham and St. Albans.
In 1093 Tynemouth gained its third King – Malcolm III of Scotland who was killed at Alnwick. He was only briefly interred here before being moved to Scotland. Meanwhile, Robert de Mowbray was in open rebellion against William II of England who besieged and captured the basic earth castle and the Priory in 1095. Mowbray, surprisingly, was merely imprisoned for life – a lucky escape.
In 1110 the new church – the one of which remains stand today – was built at the Priory and in 1296 the Prior of Tynemouth was given leave to fortify his land with ‘walls of stone’. This was the birth of Tynemouth Castle as we see it today. The gatehouse was added around 1390 and this is now the largest structure at the site.
In 1312 Edward II and his favourite Piers Gaveston sheltered in Tynemouth Castle before fleeing by boat to Scarborough Castle. Edward’s illegitimate son, Adam FitzRoy, was buried at Tynemouth having died in 1322.
In 1538 the Dissolution finally arrived at Tynemouth and the Priory buildings were dismantled save the Prior’s House and the Church. The Castle continued in active service until the late Tudor period, being refortified with earthen bastions during the Elizabethan period.
The Priory Church remained in use parochially until 1668 when a new church was built in the town and subsequently has become one of those dramatic church ruins which dot the English landscape.
Today the combination of Castle and Priory standing high over the beaches at Tynemouth is one of the defining images of the Newcastle area.
Photo - Andrew J. Müller
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