A brief history

A brief history of Hexham

Hexham originated as a monastery founded by Saint Wilfrid in 674. The crypt of the original monastery survives, and incorporates many stones taken from nearby Roman ruins, probably Coria (Corbridge) or Hadrian’s Wall.  The current Hexham Abbey dates largely from the 11th century onward, but was significantly rebuilt in the 19th century.  Other notable buildings in the town include the Moot Hall, the Shambles, and the Old Gaol.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the murder of King Ælfwald by Sicga at Scythlecester (which may be modern Chesters) on 23 September 788.  “This year Elwald, king of the Northumbrians, was slain by Siga, on the eleventh day before the calends of October; and a heavenly light was often seen on the spot where he was slain.  He was buried in the church of Hexham.

The origin of the name of Hexham is disputed.   One theory is that it derives from the Old English Hagustaldes ea and later Hagustaldes ham.  Hagustald is related to the Old High German hagustalt, denoting a younger son who takes land outside the settlement, the element ea means “stream” or “river” and ham is the Old English form of the Modern English “home” (as well as the Scots and Northern English “hame”).   However, the modern form would appear to drive from Hextildesham, in use from the late 12th century when the hamlets of Cockshaw, Priestpopple and Hencotes merge around the Market Place; Hextilda being a Saxon/Scots heiress of Tynedale and benefactress of the priory.

Like many towns in the North of England, Hexham suffered from the border wars with the Scots, including attacks from William Wallace who burnt the town in 1297.   In 1312, Robert the Bruce demanded and received £2000 from the town and monastery in order for them to be spared a similar fate.

In 1464, the Battle of Hexham was fought somewhere to the south of the town, the actual site is disputed, in The Wars of the Roses.  The defeated Lancastrian commander, the Duke of Somerset, was executed in Hexham market place.  There is a legend that Queen Margaret of Anjou took refuge  after the battle in the woodlands to the south of the town, in what is now known as The Queen’s Cave, where she was accosted by a robber; the legend forming the basis for an 18th century play by George Colman.  Sadly, it has been established that Queen Margaret had fled to France by the time the battle took place!

Until 1572, Hexham was the administrative centre of the former Liberty or Peculiar of Hexhamshire.  It remained the centre of the English Middle March until the dissolution of the March system with the unification of the two kingdoms.

In 1715 James Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, raised the standard for James Francis Edward Stuart (The Old Pretender) in Hexham Market place.   The rising was unsuccessful and Derwentwater was captured and beheaded after the battle of Preston.

In 1761, the Hexham Riot took place in the Market Place when a crowd protesting about changes in the criteria for serving in the militia was fired upon by troops from the North Yorkshire Militia.  51 protesters were killed, earning the Militia the soubriquet of The Hexham Butchers.   One rioter, Peter Porter, was eventually hung as a ringleader of the riot.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Hexham was a centre of the leather trade, particularly renowned for making gloves known as Hexham Tans – now the name of a vegetarian restaurant in the town.

Notable buildings

Hexham is dominated by Hexham Abbey.  Originally the church of Hexham Priory, founded by Bishop Wilfrid in 674 A.D.  The current church largely dates from c.1170–1250, in the Early English Gothic style of architecture. The choir, north and south transepts and the cloisters, where canons studied and meditated, date from this period. The east end was rebuilt in 1860 and the nave in 1904.

The Abbey stands at the west end of the market place, which is home to The Shambles, a Grade II* covered market built in 1766 by Sir Walter Blackett.

At the east end of the market place stands the Moot Hall, a C15 gatehouse that was part of the defences of the town. The Moot Hall is a Grade I listed building, and was used as a courthouse until 1838.  The Moot Hall now houses  offices of the Museums Department, though not open to the public any relevant enquiries can be made on the first floor. The ground floor is an art gallery open to hire.

The Old Gaol, behind the Moot Hall on Hallgates, was one of the first purpose built jails in England.  It was built between 1330-3 and is a Grade I listed Scheduled Monument.  It was ordered to be built by the Archbishop of York.  The building is now home to the Old Gaol museum, informing visitors about the how the prisoners were kept in the time of the Border Reivers and how they were punished.  There is also information concerning the local families of time such as the Charltons and Fenwicks, many of which still have descendants living in the area.   The museum also contains the Border Library, a reference collection covering the history of western Northumberland with particular strengths in the reiver families and folk music of the area.

The Queen’s Hall.   Originally built in 1866 as a Corn Exchange and Town Hall.   In its time, the hall has contained banks, ballrooms and cinemas but is now home to the Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, Hexham Library and a cafe.