Those considering marriage in a church might have a specific church in mind for their wedding. Perhaps it is one they have attend for years, or maybe their family have, or in some cases, it is the location that is the key attraction, something grand and memorable. Several years ago, I received an invitation to a wedding in Hexham Abbey in Northumberland. I’d never been to the town. The origins of Hexham are tied to its abbey.
In 674AD Queen Etheldreda granted lands to Wilfred, Bishop of York, who founded a Benedictine Abbey there and for a time, until 821AD, it was a cathedral with a bishop. The oldest surviving part of this abbey is the crypt; the rest of the church was burnt and ravaged by Halfdene (Halfdan Ragnorsson). Yes, the marauding Danes really did have it in for churches. The monastery ceased to exist but the church in one form or another continued to be used on the site until in 1080 Eilaf rebuilt it in the Norman style – the beginnings of the church which still stands today. In 1113 Augustinian canons arrived and the church was integrated into a priory with extensive building work between 1170 and 1250.
A priory is a monastery headed by a prior or prioress and is considered subservient to an abbey. So a prior is lower in rank than an abbot. Put a different way – an abbot can have some of the responsibilities of a bishop (within the diocese), whereas a prior is more like a vicar in having a responsibility towards the community or parish.
If an Abbey church was raised to cathedral status, the abbey became a Cathedral Priory. The bishop took on the role of abbot and the monastery was left in the hands of a prior. This is how new cathedrals were created following the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Hexham Abbey, after its life as a priory, then having survived the Dissolution, became the parish church of St. Andrew. Now, in modern times, it still holds the honour of being a priory and its rector is a female canon. In order to survive much had to be done to maintain the church – 1860, the east end was rebuilt and in 1908, the nave. And so it goes on today.
Although I attended the wedding in its glorious setting, I never had the opportunity to explore the abbey itself, which I regret was not possible due to the service etc. There is plenty to see: the tomb and cross of Acca, Bishop of Hexham, who died in 740AD; a sandstone block on which is carved a Roman standard bearer called Flavinius, who was stationed nearby; and the Frith Stool, the probable cathedra seat of the early bishops. The Frith Stool has another purpose. Anyone seeking sanctuary who reached a Frith Stool could not be touched until granted justice. The practice was outlawed in Tudor times.
Then there are the Night Stairs. Priories and abbeys had night stairs to allow monks the ability to move between their dormitory and choir with ease. In many abbeys, this connection is lost in the ruins, but it remains at Hexham. When fully occupied, the priory would be home to twenty-six canons. Unlike monks who remained secluded in their monasteries, canons not only spent time in prayer, but as ordained priests would go out to the villages to conduct services. The thirty-five steps of the Night Stairs remain visibly worn down by the footsteps of the canons; each night they left their dormitory in the middle of the night to attend the choir for services. Legend has it that in 1298 when the Scots raided the priory, they burnt the roof and the lead melted. The molten drops landed on the steps, hardening into marks in perpetuity. The stairs as still used today.
If I get a chance to go back to Hexham Abbey, I’ll make a point of walking up those stairs.