All that remains of the lavatorium in the west walk of the cloister are these decorative arches. The monks would have washed their hands here before entering the refectory to eat.
This rare edition of the Geneva Bible was translated from the Hebrew and Greek by exiles in Geneva. It was imported because, for the first time, the bible had text divided into numbered verses, which was extremely useful for preachers and readers alike.
It was popularly called the Breeches Bible because, wheras the Authorised Version says “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons”, this edition says “they sewed figge tree leaves together and made themselves breeches” (Genesis, Chapter 3, verse 7).
This copy was presented to Hexham Abbey in 1954 by Col.H. L. Swinburne; it had been in the family’s possession for 150 years.*
*from an information plate next to the Bible
In the centre of the nave a steep stone stair descends into the original 7th-century crypt.
This was discovered only in 1725 when the tower was being reinforced, but would have been the first part of the Saxon church to be built, delved out of the earth before the walls of the main church were erected and bearing out Wilfrid’s biographer Eddius Stephaunus’ description of ‘crypts of beautifully dressed stone’. Like the nave walls, the crypt contains much re-used Roman stone, some with frieze patterns, some with a recurring leaf and berry design, and one slab in the roof (part of which, the ‘Geta’ stone, is now displayed in the nave) that carries a Latin inscription commemorating the building of a granary by the Emperor Septimus Severus and his two sons in 208 before they marched into Scotland.
The scale and complex plan of the crypt is almost unique in England at this time – only Wilfrid’s church at Ripon has something comparable. The closest parallel is Italy, where small tomb chambers similar to the Roman catacombs were constructed to hold the bodies of relics of saints, and churches dedicated to them were built above. At Hexham the stairs lead down into a narrow tunnel-vaulted antechamber which in turn opens through an archway into the main shrine. Two other passages now blocked, once gave access to the crypt from outside the church, one into the antechamber, one into the shrine itself.
We can imagine pilgrims, drawn by tales of relics brought here by Wilfrid, making their way along a dark passage. When they reached the opening of the central chamber, they would see, in the soft radiance from the lamp niches set in the walls, a display of the precious relics of the apostle Andrew, a close friend of Jesus himself. Filled with awe and wonder, they would offer a prayer, and then climb the steep steps into the church and the daylight.*
*From the Hexham Abbey guidebook
THE CROSS WHICH STOOD AT THE HEAD OF THE GRAVE OF ACCA BISHOP OF HEXHAM AD 709-732 WHO DIED AD 740
…So says the modern inscription on the plinth in the south transept of Hexham Abbey. On it is all that remains of a tall, intricately carved cross. It is worn and weathered, its inscription no longer readable. It lacks nearly a metre of the shaft and three parts of the cross-head, but what remains is a significant remnant from the 8th century that has played a leading part in the Abbey story.
Acca became the best loved of Hexham saints. During St Wilfrid’s later years, he was the older man’s loyal companion, eventually succeeding him as abbot and bishop. He had little of Wilfrid’s abrasive energy and tireless ambition. Acca’s godly work was mostly limited to Northumbria, but in that narrower setting he worked many wonders.
Acca journeyed with the ageing Wilfrid on his last visit to Rome. Later he told his friend Bede of their stay at Utrecht with the saintly Archbishop Willibrord, Wilfrid’s old pupil who was carrying on his work of converting continental heathens. For his part, Acca devoted himself to building the faith in Northumbria, bringing to completion Wilfrid’s great centre of Christian worship and learning at Hexham.
Bede left a glowing account of the work Acca did during the quarter of a century when he led the community at Hexham. He adorned the church with paintings, sculpture and rich hangings; he gathered sacred relics and built side-chapels to house them; he created a library of godly books; he brought from Kent a skilled teacher of Gregorian chant named Maban, to ensure that the music and liturgy of the church were as fine as any in Europe. Acca was both a first-class musician and a learned theologian.
What life can compare to this?
Sitting quietly by the window, I watch the leaves fall and the flowers bloom, as the seasons come and go.
The FONT, the place of baptism, or christening, stands on a plinth at the west end of the nave. It is a composite creation which tellingly symbolises the long history of Wirlfrid’s church. The large circular bowl is believed to be Roman, possibly an inverted pillar-base; it is set on a medieval carved stone base decorated with typically 13th-century dog-tooth decoration; the fine wooden cover is 17th century; while the great canopy above it, more than six metres tall, was made in 1916 by a Belgian refugee, re-using 15th-century woodwork.*
Behind the canopy a stained glass window has two tiers showing the Northumbrian saints and below them a tier showing episodes from the saints’ histories.
*From the Hexham Abbey guidebook
The Frith Stool stands in the middle of the Choir at Hexham Abbey, a solid block of sandstone that was broken in two during the 19th century and cemented together again; the stone has been worn smooth by human hands over many centuries. It was made into a seat in the earliest days of the church, probably in the 7th century, and it has played a part in its story ever since.
When Wilfrid founded the first church at Hexham he was Bishop of the Northumbrians with his seat at York; but later he became abbot and bishop here at what was then known as the Hagustaldian Church, so almost certainly he sat on this as his throne; with, it is to be hoped, a cushion. Hexham was a cathedral, at the centre of a diocese, from about 678 to about 821, and this throne was perhaps made the bishop’s official cathedra.
Wilfrid used stones brought from the Roman ruins at Corbridge for his church, and this large block of stone too may have been quarried originally by Roman workmen. Probably Wilfrid’s own Anglo-Saxon Northumbrians scooped out the seat and carved the simple patterns on the arms and front. There parallel straight lines to emphasise the outline of the seat, and an interlace design on the upper side of the arms ending in a triquetra. The same pattern appears in a manuscript illumination of St Matthew seated in a wooden chair that was painted at Canterbury perhaps about 750; but the design is so simple that it could have been carved at almost any time. The seat seems to have been set against a wall, in the middle of stone benches for other clergy; and perhaps it was once on stone supports carved in animal form, rather like larger versions of the beasts now in the niches of the nave.
Prior Richard, who led the new community in its early days and was the first historian of Hexham, wrote of it with pride, calling it the FRITH STOOL The Frith Stool was ‘the Chair of Peace’. Frith, though now obsolete, was common enough in Prior Richard’s time and long before, in Anglo-Saxon English and Old German, meaning peace, security and freedom from molestation. Different forms of the word are found in the name ‘Frederick’ (peace-ruler) and the modem German words for peace, Friede, and churchyard, Friedhof. Many of the greater churches had such frith stools placed, as was this one, close by the high altar. Refugees in time of trouble and civil war, or wrongdoers in flight from authority and justice could claim the protection of the Church until they were assured of a full and fair trial. Anyone breaking the right to sanctuary by taking or killing a refugee within the church was liable to a fine of £96; but, writes Prior Richard, if the victim reached ‘the stone cathedra next to the altar, which the English call the fridstol’, that breach of sanctuary was beyond pardon, and the culprit faced excommunication or death.
The Frith Stool remained close by the high altar throughout the Middle Ages, and it was certainly used in the troubled times of the Border Wars, though we cannot be sure just how much safety it guaranteed. Deserters and petty thieves found their way to the protection of the Priory Church and became ‘grithmen’. In Edward Ill’s reign, the king authorised the recruitment of such wrongdoers into the army. In Tudor times the right of sanctuary was strictly limited, for Henry VIII would allow no one to defy the royal law; and it was completely abolished soon after.