Brinkburn is an Augustinian Priory. Usually I’m not terribly keen on buildings that have been restored during the Nineteenth Century. The Victorians were not always terribly sensitive in the changes that they made. However, in this instance the priory church is a truly splendid thing.
Augustinian monasteries, as a rule, were always smaller than their Benedictine and Cistercian counterparts. Exceptions include Carlisle and Hexham. The twelfth century was the apex of the monastery building period in England and Brinkburn fits nicely into the timeframe being founded in the early 1130s, during the reign of Henry I, by William Bertram.
The first prior came from Pentney Priory in Norfolk. In addition to their riverside dwelling which can be accessed down a tree dappled hill the monks also owned approximately 3500 acres nearby. They had other pastureland elsewhere in Northumberland as well as buildings in Newcastle including an inn. Pilgrim Street in Newcastle is supposed to have gained its name from the pilgrims who lodged there. They came to worship at Our Lady’s chapel at Jesmond. There was also a Franciscan Friary where there were supposed to be relics of St Francis. In the copy of a grant of a house to Brinkburn Priory in Northumberland, dated 1292, this street is called Vicus Peregrinorum. In 1564, after the Dissolution of the monasteries the inn, or one of the inns on the street, was mentioned for coining false money. In any event whilst the canons at Brinkburn may have not had the huge amount of acres of their Cistercian counterparts they knew how to turn a profit as in addition to the inn they also owned a shop in Corbridge. More traditionally they gained income from bequested advowsons, that is to say the right to appoint the priest, at Felton and Longhorsely.
So far, so straight forward. Unfortunately Brinkburn is north of Newcastle and it became apparent during the reign of Edward II that living anywhere near the Scottish border wasn’t necessarily a very good idea. In 1315 Robert Bruce destroyed Brinkburn and its thirteen canons had to flee their home and beg for their bread.
The story goes that on one occasion the Scots raided as far south as Brinkburn but the priory was spared because of a thick fog. The raiders passed them by. The canons being a grateful sort of bunch rang the bells to give thanks to God and in so doing directed the Scots to priory. The canons having realised that ringing the bell wasn’t necessarily the smartest move they could have made had fled to the other side of the River Coquet. The story continues to say that as the Scots burned the priory the bell which had summoned them ended up in the river – I’m not sure if this was as the result of the fire or some enterprising Scottish person trying to remove them for their scrap value. In yet another version of the story it was the monks who hid the bell in the river – presumably not wanting one of their number to ring it anymore. And finally, the poor monks were so strapped for cash that they sold the bells to the Bishop of Durham but when they moved the bells up the hill one of them ended up in the river. Take your pick!
The canons must have been delighted by the news that the Scots had been defeated at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. Unfortunately three years later the Black death arrived and killed half of Northumberland. Things really seem to have gone from bad to worse for the canons. During the early years of the Fifteenth century they suffered from reiver cattle raids and in 1484 the Scots turned up again and having stripped the place burned it to the ground. Then there was the murder. In 1521 Richard Lighton, one of the Canons, was killed by Humphrey Lisle in a property dispute.
When Cromwell’s visitors arrived the priory was valued at only £69 so it was suppressed in 1536. There were only six canons left at that time. After the dissolution Brinkburn changed hands several times. On two occasions, Brinkburn’s owners lost their heads. For a fair portion of the time the property was in the hands of the Fenwick family. Eventually it passed into the hands of Richard Hodgson. His son did some demolition work on the old manor house which contains the west range of the monastery. The manor house he rebuilt was designed to be a picturesque building so much of the monastic masonry remains in situ.
The style of the church, for those folk who like to know these things, is somewhere between Norman and Gothic – the correct term is transitional.
Eneas Mackenzie, ‘The present state of Newcastle: Streets within the walls’, in Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827), pp. 160-182. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/newcastle-historical-account/pp160-182 [accessed 6 July 2018].
English Heritage (2003) Brinkburn Priory