The prominent headland anciently called by the Saxons Benebalcrag with steep cliffs on three sides towering over the mouth of the River Tyne is an important strategic position where, from the earliest times, it could command the mouth of the river, and indeed the site is known to have been occupied from the Iron Age onwards. The earliest evidence for occupation on the headland was uncovered by excavation in 1963, finding remains of a large pre-Roman round house measuring 11.5m in diameter within a wall of upright posts set within a narrowly dug foundation trench. This defended Iron Age settlement was associated with the tribe called the Votadini. There was a doorway through the south wall and an outer concentric line of post holes which held the eave posts was situated 0.6m beyond the inner wall giving an overall diameter of 14m. Roman pottery found above the foundation trench indicated that the house had gone out of use by the late second century AD. It is thought that the house may belong to a much more extensive Iron Age settlement, possibly a promontory fort where the neck of land which joins the headland to the mainland would be defended by a palisade or a series of ditched defences. These excavations also uncovered the remains of a second circular house, 4.5m in diameter and of different form to the first. This house was not considered to be contemporary with the first, instead it was dated to the later Romano-British period. There was a concentration of Romano-British pottery in this area and one of the pieces of pottery was dated to the late second century AD. The Romans may have occupied the prominentary as a signal station for while the military station Arbeia at South Shields guarded the entrance to the Tyne from the Durham side, a similar fort might be erected on the northern shore. The view is supported by the natural strength which a fortress at Tynemouth would possess. In the year 1782, while military works were being carried out at the castle, a Roman altar was discovered on the north side of the priory church six feet below the surface. It appeared to have been used as a foundation stone for later buildings. On one side there were carved in relief, a bullock's head, an axe, knife and jug the common symbols of sacrifice. The back of the altar was plain ; the front bore the inscription of dedication to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, made by Aeliiis Rufus, prefect of the fourth cohort of Lingones. On June 12th, in 1783, a second inscribed stone was discovered in the same piece of ground. This was a slab or niural tablet, one foot nine inches long by one foot ten inches broad. As in the case of the altar, the top surface had been pared down, and about an inch in breadth had been cut away from the right side of the stone. This has rendered the first line illegible, and the whole inscription obscure. The actual discovery of Roman stones at Tynemouth would strengthen the case for a Roman occupation, were it not for the fact that the stones have evidently been used by later builders, and may have been transported by them from the Roman Fort at Wallsend. Medieval church builders went to considerable distances for worked stone, as is seen in the cases of Hexham and Chollerton. The inscription first quoted evidently points to Segedunum as its source. The first mention of a church built of wood named St Mary, was when in it Rosella daughter of King Edwin, first Christian King of Northumbria, took the veil. In 632 King Edwin died succeeded by King Oswald who embraced Christianity and rebuilt the church in stone establishing the Anglo-Saxon monastery at Tynemouth in the seventh century. Later monks attributed its founding to King Edwin sometime before 632 but it may have been after this time, perhaps in the reign of King Oswald. Precisely when and who established the first monastery is not known. Bede makes mention of it in relation to a story concerning Heribald who was the abbot of the monastery during Bede’s lifetime and died around 745AD. Three kings are reported to have been buried within the monastery, Oswin, Osred and Malcolm making the Priory a place of pilgrimage. King Oswin of Deira a friend of St Aidan was cruely slain by order of the King of Bernicia and his body is believed to have been brought to Tynemouth for burial. Oswin, who died in 651AD, was a Northumbrian king but no mention of his supposed burial at Tynemouth was made by Bede or in any other historical record of Anglo-Saxon times. The link with Oswin was quite possibly a later invention. Another claim is that a Northumbrian king, Osred II was buried at Tynemouth in 792AD. Osred, who only ruled for a year had been exiled to the Isle of Man and was murdered on the Cumbrian coast on his return to Northumbria. Malcolm lll King of Scotland (d. 1093), who killed Macbeth and Macbeth’s son Lulach, gave sanctuary to Saxons fleeing from William the Conqueror and the Normans and expanded his territory into Cumbria and Northumbia. However William ll and the Normans seized his sons as hostages and he was killed in a battle in Alnwick and buried in Tynemouth. In recognition of these three Kings, three crowns still adorn the North Tyneside coat of arms. In 671 during reign of Athelstan the monastery was plundered and destroyed by Danish pirates. Then in 793, to the general horror of the Christian world, the monastery of Lindisfarne was sacked by the Danes. A year later Jarrow shared the same fate, but the Danes received a severe check in a naval battle in Jarrow Slake, and Tynemouth gained a short respite. It was not for long, for in 800 the invaders came again, and this time set on fire and despoiled the rebuilt abbey church and carried off their booty with them over sea.The piratical inroads of the Danes gave way to more ambitious projects of invasion and settlement. In 851 they first wintered in England and directed their attention at first to the south and south-east, but in 867 they captured York. Northumbria was a prey to disunion and the weakness of its rulers. In 875 half of the heathen host sailed into the Tyne, completely destroyed Tynemouth abbey, and murdered the nuns of St. Hilda's convent who are said to have established themselves there. The invaders set fire to it, and the monks perished in the flames. Tynemouth and like the similar headland of Scarborough in Yorkshire became Danish strongholds for the next two hundred years. This may have been the beginning of Tynemouth as a fortified castle. The army, under the leadership of King Halfdan reduced the whole of Northumberland, and spread war into Scotland. All the monasteries on the coast of Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire were destroyed, and monasticism ceased to exist north of the Tyne for a couple of centuries. The downfall of the Anglian abbey marks the close of the first stage in Tynemouth's history. From that time till the eve of the Norman Conquest there is an entire absence of historical tradition connected with the place. Two things only appear certain, that the monastery was not rebuilt, and that in the resettlement of the country at the close of the Danish invasions, Tynemouth, like other lands of the destroyed monasteries, became part of the demesne of the Northumbrian earls. There Earl Tostig used to come on his journeys from one village of his demesne to another, bringing with him a host of followers, for whom each town or village were bound by custom to find lodging and provisions for one, two, or three nights in the year. There was scant accommodation for them so the chaplain and his wife found a lodging on at least one occasion in the tower of the little parish church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which the Danes had spared.According to tradition, it was in the previous year, 1065, that an event took place that sealed the fame and fortune of Tynemouth. Though the Anglo-Saxon monastery had long since perished, a church on the site had continued to be occupied in the era following the Viking raids. In 1065, its priest, one Edmund, is said to have been visited by the ghost of St. Oswin of Deira, the former Northumbrian king. On appearing Oswin’s spirit apparently made the grand announcement that: “I am king Oswin, I live in this church unknown to all” and then asked Edmund to inform Aegelwine, the Bishop of Durham, that his body would be found by digging beneath the floor of the church at Tynemouth. Bishop Aegelwine arrived and digging revealed a body accompanied by a pleasant aroma that filled the air. Whatever the truth behind St. Oswin’s connection with Tynemouth the re-founding of the monastery certainly began in Norman times. At first the aggressive Normans burned down the church at Tynemouth during a devastating raid upon the north as they asserted control. In the years following the Viking raids Tynemouth came into the hands of the Earls of Northumbria, who inherited their regional political powers from the earlier Northumbrian kings. In 1066, Tostig Godwinson of Wessex, the deposed Earl of Northumbria – who had been unpopular in the north – rebelled against his brother, Harold Godwinson, the new King of England. Tynemouth had been a regular base for Tostig. On his return from exile and his failed rebellion he arrived at Tynemouth with his fleet and it was here that he joined up with the fleet of the Norwegian King, Harald Hardrada who was planning an invasion of England. It is not clear whether this meeting was pre-arranged or if Tostig was enforced to join up with Hardrada’s planned invasion. The combined forces headed south and entered Yorkshire via the Humber. Both Tostig and Hardrada lost their lives in defeat to King Harold Godwinson’s forces at the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York on September 25, 1066. The following month, the English king Harold Godwinson would himself lose his life to an invading Norman army at the Battle of Hastings. Shortly after Norman Conquest Tostig, Earl of Northumberland rebuilt the ruined church, whose sucessor Waltheof about 1072 began restoration of the monastery and gave it with all possessions to the Monks of Jarrow and shortly afterwards became a cell to the church of then subsequently transferred to St Albans in Hertfordshire.By the 1080s things were different and under the northern leadership of Waltheof, the new Earl of Northumbria and William Walcher, the Bishop of Durham, Tynemouth was revived. The revival came when a monk from Winchombe called Aldwin, arrived at Monkchester (Newcastle) with the intention of bringing about a kind of revival of the monastic age of Northumbria. With Walcher’s support, Aldwin re-founded Jarrow and Wearmouth. Earl Waltheof then granted the church and surrounding lands at Tynemouth to the Jarrow monks. Tynemouth became an outpost of Jarrow and the Jarrow monks regularly collected Oswin’s bones from Tynemouth and brought them to Jarrow. Waltheof, the Anglo-Saxon Earl of Northumbria who hailed from Northamptonshire had been appointed by the Normans but he was executed following a rebellion against King William in 1075. Bishop William Walcher, a Frenchman from Lorraine then took on the role of earl as well as being the Bishop of Durham. As a political leader Walcher proved ineffective and in 1080 he was murdered by a mob at Gateshead. His successor as Bishop was William of St Carileph and a new Earl of Northumbria, Robert De Mowbray, was appointed.Mowbray confirmed Jarrow’s possession of Tynemouth and its surrounding lands but in 1085 Bishop St Carileph moved the Jarrow monks to Durham. Jarrow became an outlying cell of Durham leaving Tynemouth, where at least one monk was stationed, rather isolated. In 1087 Carileph was implicated in a plot against King William Rufus, hoping to replace the king with Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror. Carileph fled to Normandy but within three years he was back in favour and allowed to return.In 1091 the Scots under King Malcolm Canmore invaded the north reaching as far south as Chester-le-Street. They were seen off but a fleet of Norman ships employed in the counter attack was wrecked at Tynemouth. In the meantime a quarrel arose between Mowbray and Carileph. Mowbray evicted the Durham monks from Tynemouth and entered into negotiations with Paul, abbot of St Albans in Hertfordshire. Paul was a nephew of Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Mowbray made an agreement to bring Tynemouth Monastery under the control of St. Albans. Another important event in the history of the priory was the completion of the new Norman church of St. Mary, which must have been begun immediately after the installation of the monks of St. Alban's, though the troubles of Mowbray's rising may have delayed the advancement of the building. The pre-Conquest church, containing the relics of St. Oswin, had been left standing. The church continued to be used as the Parish Church until 1657 when in consequence of its dilapidated state a new church (Christ Church) was erected in North Shields 1659. The order of events is not clear but in 1091-1092 Mowbray had sold, seemingly under pressure from the king, his virtually regal political rights in that part of Northumbria between the Tees and the Tyne (which became County Durham) to Bishop Carileph. The Bishop already held extensive land here and now became a Prince Bishop within that locality. The earl retained his regal rights in Northumberland north of the Tyne as well as in a district along the north bank of the River Tees called Sadberge that remained in Northumberland and was not acquired by Durham until a later date.Despite profiting from the sale, the loss of such powers must have seemed a humiliation for the powerful earl and his annexation of the wealthy monastery of Tynemouth from the monks of Durham may have been an attempt to compensate for this. In 1093 the St. Albans abbot, Paul, headed north with new monks for Tynemouth and despite protests at York from the monks of Durham in the presence of the Archbishop, Mowbray and Abbot Paul were defiant and persisted with their plan. On his journey home to St Albans, abbot Paul died and the Durham monks probably considered it some kind of divine justice. It did not change Tynemouth Priory’s new status as a cell of St Albans and Tynemouth Priory would remain under St Albans’s control for the rest of its active history. In 1095 Earl Robert Mowbray became involved in a plot against King William Rufus and the king sent north troops to quash the rebellion, the Priory was beseiged by King Rufus and reduced to a ruin but it was rebuilt in 1110. In subsequent ages the Priory generated considerable wealth for its owners in the far away Hertfordshire monastery of St. Albans and it was considered their most valuable possession. Money came from pilgrims and significantly from the extensive managed farm lands that Tynemouth Priory owned. The lands included estates given by the Earl of Northumberland. At one time or another Tynemouth Priory lands included neighbouring North Shields, Preston, Whitley, Monkseaton, Earsdon, Hauxley, Woodhorn, Amble and Monkseaton. Slightly further afield were lands in Benwell, Woolsington, Wylam, Elswick and Coquet Island. (The small Monastery on Coquet Island was also a cell to Tynemouth). Tithes were received from Northumbrian lands as far away as Wooler, Warkworth, Corbridge, Newburn and Rothbury. The monastery was a rival to the powerful Priory of Durham Cathedral which still hoped to reclaim Tynemouth, citing the charter of Earl Waltheof. Durham finally relinquished its claim in 1174 though Tynemouth remained within the diocese of the Bishop of Durham. On November 13, 1093, Malcolm Canmore, King of the Scots was slain at Alnwick after he was tricked by Mowbray’s nephew, Arkil Morel. The king’s body was brought to Tynemouth and buried in a newly established Norman church. Alexander, Malcolm’s son requested that the body be returned to Dunfermline in Scotland. Mowbray agreed but later, the famed medieval historian Matthew Paris (c1200-1259) claimed that the Scots were actually sent the body of a farmer from Monkseaton. Malcolm was remembered as a man of considerable stature and whether or no Malcolm's body continued to lie at Tynemouth, it so happened that when, in 1257, certain foundations were being laid for a new building, two coffins were discovered. One contained the body of a man of great stature ; the body in the other coffin was of smaller build. Ralph de Dunham, who was prior of Tynemouth at that time, thought them to be Malcolm and his eldest son, Edward, who was killed or mortally wounded when the Scottish king lost his life. Malcolm's death was shortly followed by the revolt and overthrow of his rival Mowbray. Carried away by his success, the earl defied William Rufus and broke into rebellion in the spring of 1095. The royal forces marched against him. He stood isolated, but effected a stout resistance.Siege was laid to Newcastle and to Tynemouth, both of which places now appear for the first time as fortified positions. Tynemouth seems to have been the first to fall, after it had held out for two months. The earl's brother and the whole of the garrison were taken prisoners. Mowbray’s castles at Newcastle, Morpeth and Bamburgh were besieged and the earl was captured. For a time Mowbray was imprisoned at Windsor but his life was spared and it is thought that he ultimately became a monk at St. Albans.Northumberland was under constant threat from Scottish raids during the medieval era with wealthy priories and abbeys being particularly vulnerable to Scottish attacks. This was emphasised in 1296 with a raid on Northumberland in which Hexham Abbey was sacked by the Scots. Edward I granted the priors of Tynemouth a licence to build a castle around their priory and enclosure walls and towers were built around a circuit of 974m. It was well that they did so, for in November, 1297, a Scottish army, led by William Wallace, again invaded Northumberland. Marching down the Tyne from Hexham, the Scots laid waste the village of Wylam, a possession of the priory, and advanced upon Newcastle. The inhabitants of Tynemouthshire, alarmed at the approach of the enemy, carried their valuables to the monastery. But the Scots, upon this occasion,did not dare to attack. Tynemouth was one of the largest fortifications in England at this time. In 1349 Tynemouth was described as one of the strongest fortresses in the Anglo- Scottish borders. King Edward I had stayed at Tynemouth on more than one occasion during the 1290s while he meddled in the appointment of the Scottish king at Berwick. The name of the cove – King Edward’s Bay – may derive from this time. King Edward II visited Tynemouth too and the queens of Edward I and Edward II stayed in the Castle and Priory while their husbands were campaigning in Scotland. Edward I. stayed a second time at Tynemouth from December 1st to 4th, 1298. A little later in February 1299 he restored to the monks their forfeited franchise. He was again at Tynemouth on December 8th, 1299 and from June 21st to 26th, 1301. King Edward III considered it to be one of the strongest castles in the Northern Marches. After the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Edward II fled from Tynemouth by ship. In 1314 Robert the Bruce attacked Tynemouth Priory but Tynemouth was successfully defended. The priory came under attack again in 1318, this time from a Northumbrian called Gilbert Middleton. The Middletons were shavaldores, a noted family who been forced to live like marauders in the years after Northumberland was devastated by Scottish raids. Shavaldores were the fourteenth century equivalent of the Border Reivers. Tynemouth Priory and Castle were successfully defended under the leadership of Sir Robert Delaval and Middleton was subsequently captured and executed. A village had long been established in the shelter of the fortified Priory, and around 1325 the prior built a port for fishing and trading. This led to a dispute between Tynemouth and the more powerful Newcastle over shipping rights on the Tyne, which continued for centuries. Despite the occasional threat from raiders, Tynemouth Priory continued to prosper until its ultimate closure in 1539 during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Prior Blakeney, the last prior, received a pension and retired as a farmer to Benwell west of Newcastle, one of the former possessions of Tynemouth Priory. Following the closure of the priory, the defensive role of the castle that had enclosed it gained even greater importance with King Henry VIII ordering that its walls be strengthened to meet the threat of potential attacks from Spanish, French or Scottish forces.In the Civil War, though initially Royalist, the castle at Tynemouth was captured and garrisoned by Scottish soldiers sympathetic to Parliament. Prince Rupert of the Rhine landed at Tynemouth in August 1642 on his way to fight in the English Civil War. The captured king, Charles I was held prisoner by the Scots at Newcastle from 1645 following his defeat and he was brought to Tynemouth during negotiations over his future. During the king’s imprisonment in Newcastle, a Dutch vessel arrived at Tynemouth with a secret mission to rescue Charles on Christmas night 1646, but Charles could not get to Tynemouth. In January 1647 he was finally handed over to the Parliamentary Commissioners and the Scots departed from Newcastle and Tynemouth. In the interests of security a Parliamentarian garrison was kept on at Tynemouth. The castle was under the governorship of the staunch Parliamentarian, Henry Lilburn who then made the surprising choice of switching allegiance to King Charles. In 1648 Tynemouth castle was besieged by Haselrig’s army and Lilburn was captured. His head was cut off and displayed outside the castle walls. The Civil War was the last military engagement for the castle but the castle continued to play an important role in the country’s defences in later centuries. It was garrisoned by gunners during the Dutch War of the 1650s and a new barracks was built in the 1660s. Additional men were drafted in during the Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745 and also during the American War of Independence and Napoleonic Wars.Tynemouth had one of the earliest recorded monastic lighthouses dating from the13th century. It comprised a coal fire in an open brazier and was situated at the east end of the church upon one of two turrets which flanked the east end of the presbytery and was known as St Mary’s Light after the Church. The lighthouse collapsed in 1659 and was replaced by one situated in the north east corner of the promontory. It was subsequently rebuilt during the later 18th century when the coal brazier was replaced by an oil lamp and finally demolished in 1898 being replaced by the new lighthouse on Bates Island, renamed inconsequence, St Mary’s Island.
The monks' cemetery is situated to the south and east of the priory church. It was reused and extended over the ruins of the church in the post-medieval period. It contains some 700 grave stones, mainly of the years between 1715 to 1856. An incomplete cross shaft, which stood originally on the road to the priory near Monkhouse Farm north west of Tynemouth, known as the Monkstone, was moved to its present location in the Priory. The cross is thought to be a sanctuary boundary or wayside cross dating from the ninth century. The castle has been modified down the centuries reflecting the military needs. After the dissolution in the 16th century, Tynemouth became part of Henry VIII's scheme of national defence and was modified to serve as an artillery castle, the medieval walls of the castle were reinforced and the main front of the castle was replaced by stone- revetted earthworks in order to provide artillery platforms. Gun ports were inserted in the south wall, several of which are visible. A wide ditch in front of the barbican was dug which isolated the headland from the mainland. The fortifications were provided with cannon and held a garrison of 50 men. These 16th century alterations were part of a larger defensive scheme which involved an extension of the earthwork outwork defences designed to command the harbour and river entrance. This involved extending the outworks behind the small bay to the south called Prior's Haven to enclose the smaller promontory to the south known as Spanish Battery. However, the full defensive and offensive potential of the site at Tynemouth was not realized and for the remainder of the 16th century it was under manned and neglected. After the Restoration of Charles II, Colonel Sir Edward Villiers became the governor of the castle. In 1663 it is known that the fortifications at Tynemouth were repaired and a governor's house was constructed. During the 18th and early 19th century the walls of Tynemouth castle which encircled the cliffs were adapted for coastal gun batteries in response to threats such as French invasion attempts and the Napoleonic invasion preparations. In the 1880s breech loading guns were installed to protect coal exports in the face of the ever present threat from Germany. Tynemouth’s ‘Fire Command’ was brought into action during the First and Second World Wars and played an important role in defending the river’s busy industrial trade. Today the solid concrete defences of the coastal battery at Tynemouth have been restored by English Heritage and are an important feature in the centuries old defensive heritage of the site.Today most of the remaining ruins of Tynemouth Priory belong to the period of around 1090 when the Norman Priory was begun or to the later period of 1190-1210. The late 14th century replacement gatehouse survives well today and consists of a three storied rectangular tower, with a three storey block attached to its south eastern corner with a barbican to the front separated by an open court. On the ground floor of the main tower were housed a series of passages and guardrooms, on the first floor is the great hall and the upper floor contained the great chamber. The relative grandeur of its accommodation is thought to suggest that one of the main purposes of the new gatehouse was to provide a guest suite for royal and other important visitors .Mike Coates. 2019.