Bywell contains a number of interesting old buildings. The oldest are the two Saxon churches, St Peter's and St Andrew's. Bywell castle dates from the fifteenth century, a time when Bywell village was the most important settlement between Hexham and Newcastle. Bywell Hall was built during the eighteenth century and modified during the nineteenth. All but the castle are open to the public.
St Peter's Church
What is the background to how this church came to be here? The earliest known date associated with the church is 803, when a bishop was consecrated here but that points to an existing building of some status so what happened before that? As is the case in most of what is now Great Britain, our knowledge of human activity and settlement after the Romans left until Bede's time in C8 is sparse. At the battle of Heavenfield (which in fact took place at Deniseburn, near Steel in Hexhamshire) in 634, King Oswald defeated King Penda of Mercia and established the first Christian kingdom in what later became England. Oswald established the important royal seat at Bamburgh and also the monastery at Lindisfarne where, amongst others, Aidan and Cuthbert were Abbots. Although Oswald was later killed by Penda, probably at Oswestry, his brother Oswiu defeated Penda in 655 at the battle of the River Winwaed (Went) at Thorpe Audlin between present-day Pontefract and Doncaster. In grateful thanks for this improbable victory, Oswiu transferred 12 estates from his kingdom to Lindisfarne control, for the establishment of monasteries.
According to Ian Wood (quoted in Adams 20131), one of these estates was Bywell. If this supposition is correct, it means that the granting of this land to the church (but not necessarily the building of any structure on it) predates the bequest in 673 of land at Hexham by Queen Etheldreda to Wilfrid, who established Hexham Abbey.
The foundations of the original Saxon structure slightly overlap the existing building. The area that this building covered suggests a building of great importance.
As its floor space was considerably greater than that suggested by the Saxon remains at nearby St Andrew's church, one can make a reasonable assumption that this was this site, rather than St Andrew's, where a bishop was ordained in 803. Records tell us that Egbert was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne in Bywell by the Bishops of York, Hexham and Candida Casa (Whithorn). From this documentary evidence, we can make a reasoned supposition that this important building was constructed sometime between 655 and the latter part of the eighth century.
Based on its size and similarities to Monkwearmouth church, the Saxon St Peter's was almost certainly a church serving a monastery. Where was that monastery? Probably any archaeological remains (almost certainly of wooden buildings) are under the fields around the church, awaiting discovery! Of course we must not look at the present church when creating a mind's eye picture of the Saxon church. In Saxon times there was no such thing as a parish and those few stone churches that existed did not have towers (these were often added to existing church buildings by the Normans). As the most complete and unaltered Saxon church in England, Escomb church near Bishop Auckland gives us a glimpse of what St Peter's might have looked like. Although smaller than St Peter's, this view of its northern aspect shows that it shares the high windows and simple design of all Saxon stone churches.
Apart from the foundations which are visible at the foot of the north side of the thirteenth century tower, other Saxon parts of the current St Peter's church include the north nave wall, including the four high windows, the side walls of the western part of the chancel and the blocked door on the northern side of the chancel.
Much of the present building is late 13th century, for example the beautiful lancet windows at the east end. The low side window on the south side of the chancel is a mystery. It is unlikely that this was positioned to give access to the sacrament for those who were sick or highly infectious from the plague. On the south side of the church behind the present day organ, is a thirteenth century side chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist. This contained a large stone altar slab inscribed with five altar crosses. On the north side of the church is a more elegant side chapel with a monumental slab (now concealed under the altar) inscribed with a knight in armour. As the square headed windows of this chapel date from the mid fourteenth century there has been speculation that the knight represents one of the Baliols of that time, in particular either John Baliol or his son Edward.
High on the west wall of the tower is a doorway, subsequently blocked up. Tempting as it is to suggest that this was positioned for reasons of defence, it is more likely to have been a temporary access during construction. The tower contains two very old bells; the one of the 13th century is just over two feet in diameter and stamped with a line of very large Gothic letters. The other of similar size has an inscription in Latin ‘ Ut surgant gentes vocor Horn et cito jac(n)tes’ - ‘I am called Horn and I call the sleeping people to arise’ . These bells have been rung each Sunday morning, except during World War ll. In pre-Reformation times this could have been as early as 5 am for Matins! They may also have been used at times to warn the inhabitants of Bywell about impending danger from border reivers - both English and Scots. Outside on the south wall is a scratch dial clock, possibly early twelfth century and rare in the North Country.
After the Norman Conquest in AD 1066, the lands of Bywell were seized from the previous owners - the Saxon thanes - and given into the possession of two great Norman barons, Baliol and Bolbec. The churches too became properties to transfer from one authority to another. The deal included the tax of a tenth part (a tithe) payable by landowners to support the church. The right of presentation, that is the nomination of a clergyman to a vacant benefice, could also be exercised. Bywell St Peter was in the gift of the Baliols. Subsequently, Bywell successively belonged to the Priory of Tynemouth, the Abbey of St Albans (1197-?) and later to the Bishopric of Durham. Bywell St Peter was called the Black Church because it belonged to the Benedictine or Black canons. This was the Order to which the Tynemouth, Hexham and Durham canons, whose dress was black, also belonged. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536- 40 by order of Henry Vlll, the lands and churches of Bywell passed through several different patrons including Queen Elizabeth l, the Radcliffe, Witham, Thornton, Fenwick and Beaumont families.
Canon Dwarris, Vicar of Bywell St Peter from 1845-1901, was responsible for the restoration and enlargement of the church, which took place between 1848-1870. The chancel arch was rebuilt in its previous form in 1849 under the direction of Benjamin Ferrey who was also responsible for the rebuilding of the south aisle on its old foundations, an organ chamber on the south side in 1870 and new oak seats. There is a fine collection of Victorian stained glass windows (1881) made by the famous local craftsman William Wailes. In particular, the north chapel has a series of windows dedicated to various members of the Wailes family.
At about the same time the vicarage, built in the seventeenth century, was also extended. At the entrance to the churchyard are stone piers on which the gates are hung, surmounted by stone ball finials.
1The King in the North Max Adams, 2013 Head Zeus. See also In the Land of Giants Max Adams 2015, Head Zeus
St Andrew's Church
The church of Bywell St Andrew is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Northumberland, as well as being one of the oldest. The tower, 55 feet high, built of sandstone and incorporating some Roman stone, is rated by Pevsner as being ‘a first rate Saxon tower, the best in the county.’ The lower levels of the tower, built of large stone masonry, some walling in the nave, the two-storeyed western porch and the circular graveyard all appear to be earlier than 850 AD. This date accords with the view that St Andrew's was a 'capella ex porta' - a chapel at the gate - built both for local inhabitants and to allow pilgrims visiting the monastery on the site of St Peter's to worship without disturbing the monks' daily routines.
The upper part of the tower is of a later date, possibly late 11th century. Its formidable nature indicates
the importance in those troublesome times of having a strong defensive building in which local inhabitants could shelter. The font dates from about 1300 and the two church bells from about 1400 and 1550.
There is evidence that the church formerly had aisles which may have been destroyed in a Scots raid. A capital from the former nave arcade lies outside the north wall of the nave. The present south transept is of later medieval date.
The age and proximity of the two churches at Bywell have long been a matter of speculation and study. The Rev. A. Johnson, Vicar of Healey and one-time Curate of Bywell St Peter wrote one of the first comprehensive studies of the two churches in 18871. He considered that the same masons who built Hexham Abbey for St. Wilfrid (who became Bishop in AD 674) probably constructed the earliest church on this site.
Like so many old churches, Bywell St Andrew was altered and added to in the nineteenth century, initially by the local architect John Dobson in 1830 and again in 1850. Another architect, William Slater, continued the alterations in 1871 by adding a transept and chapel to the north side and a porch to the south. All the windows are nineteenth century creations though some of the Saxon and thirteenth century structures have been retained in the nave and south transept.
There are two other notable features of Bywell St Andrew. Firstly, part of the shaft of a Saxon cross and its base of carved Roman altar stone have been preserved in the chancel near the east window. Secondly, there is a fine collection of twenty-five medieval grave covers, most of which were set into the north wall in the nineteenth century whilst others were re-used as lintels. To prevent further damage by weathering some were moved inside the church in 1991-1993. What makes them so interesting are the designs on the slabs, all of which have the sign of the cross, in most cases dating them to the 12th and 13th centuries. The emblem of a sword or shield indicated the rank of the men whereas the women were denoted by a pair of shears.
Bywell St Andrew was called the White Church because it was given by Walter de Bolbec to assist the Abbey of Blanchland, the canons of which belonged to the Premonstratensian Order, who had arrived in England in 1140. They wore a white cassock, a long white cloak and cap made from undyed wool. Walter had founded and endowed Blanchland in 1165 and as part of the arrangement, the Abbot had to provide a vicar to conduct the services at Bywell St Andrew. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536- 40 by order of Henry Vlll, the lands and churches of Bywell passed through several different patrons including Queen Elizabeth l, the Radcliffe, Witham, Thornton, Fenwick and Beaumont families.
Blanchland, Shotley and Slaley were once in the parish of St. Andrew but each was established as a new parish due to the efforts of Canon Dwarris, Vicar of Bywell St Peter from 1845-1901.
On 16 April 1975, Bywell St. Andrew passed to the Redundant Churches Fund for preservation and maintenance (now called the Churches Conservation Trust. Visit https://www.visitchurches.org.uk/). At the same time the Chapel of Ease, St. James’ Riding Mill, became the parish church of what had become a very much-reduced parish of Bywell St. Andrew.
The information in this article is largely based on the book produced for the Millennium A Pleasant Retreat by Robert Browell & Dennis Harding, with updates from Peter Ryder.
1Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries. Vol.3. New Series “Bywell” pp.89-166.
Before the Norman Conquest the land at Bywell may have been held by the Saxon earls of Northumberland, but by 1240 it was in the hands of John de Baliol, Baron of Bywell who additionally held considerable lands elsewhere. Although no evidence of a house exists from this time, Bywell belonged to this family until they fell out of favour and were dispossessed by Edward l in 1296. Within that period John de Baliol had been King of Scotland so his fall from power was quite dramatic.
Following the fall of John de Baliol the lands of Bywell passed to the Earl of Richmond and the Neville family of Raby and Richmond. Ralph de Neville became the 1st Earl of Westmorland and commenced the building of the castle, but it was never finished. The reason for this is unclear. However, the Barons of Prudhoe, the Umfravilles, were jealous for their power base, and had already successfully opposed the completion of a castle at nearby Nafferton by appealing to Henry III. The King issued a writ, which ended that particular project, and something similar may have happened at Bywell. Henry VI sheltered briefly at the castle in the aftermath of the Battle of Hexham in 1464; the victor, Lord Montague, later found the king’s crown, sword and helmet left behind as the king made his hurried escape.
The only part of the project built was the gatehouse tower; it remains without a roof but is otherwise fairly complete. The gatehouse entrance, about ten feet wide was originally protected by a portcullis and the retaining grooves at each side can be seen in the stonework It leads into a passageway with a vault on each side, one of which has a stairway to the upper floors. The top floor, with its four corner turrets that project outwards and battlements gives a fine view of the river. The gatehouse entrance faces the river and has the beginnings of a curtain wall, which projects from the south east corner. This extension was the castle gunroom, complete with a vaulted basement and was described in 1810. On the site of this gunroom and over the basement was built Bywell Castle House, which still stands today as the residence of Lord Allendale.
Bywell Castle 1814 print by Clennel
In 1569 Charles, the 6th Earl of Westmorland (1543-1601) and the Earl of Northumberland led a Catholic rebellion. They occupied Durham Castle and celebrated the Latin Mass in the Cathedral. Queen Elizabeth sent her troops to suppress the rebellion. The two Earls fled abroad and their lands, including those in the Bywell Lordship belonging to Charles, were forfeited to the Crown. The Crown sold Bywell Castle and Manor to a branch of the Northumbrian house of Fenwick. At the beginning of the 19th century it was purchased by the Beaumont family, later represented by the Viscounts of Allendale.
The information in this article is largely based on the book produced for the Millennium A Pleasant Retreat by Robert Browell & Dennis Harding.
The name Bywell is derived from an Old English word meaning a place which lies beside a bend by a river. After the departure of the Romans in AD410, we might assume that, as happened elsewhere, local people made use of any abandoned Roman buildings and roads. If the Romans had indeed built a weir at Bywell then surely this spot would have been a natural focus for people to congregate as they came to fish in the pool or to cross the river. Bywell Bay - an area now occupied by the field behind the market cross - was formed by the construction of the weir and existed until the twentieth century. The print below was made in 1754 and shows the village behind the bay.
Bywell Bay by William Bellers 1754
With the establishment of the monastery church at St Peter's in the 7th or 8th century and later the building of St Andrew's church, we may imagine that any settlement which might already have existed in the area (for which we have no direct evidence) would have been made more permanent and viable. Certainly once pilgrims began to arrive in Bywell (which we could infer from other sites of this age), they would have needed accommodation and supplies. When the lands passed in Norman ownership, we might imagine that any residents would have lived under the feudal system imposed by the Baliols, Nevilles and others.
By the time of the Catholic rebellion in 1569, Bywell had become and important village, possibly the most significant between Hexham and Newcastle. We know this because in the year following confiscation of the estates, Royal Commissioners arrived in 1570 to record what they now owned.
The towne of Bywell ys buylded in lengthe all in one streete upon the Ryver or Water of Tyne, on the northe and west parte of the same, and ys devyded into two severall paryshes and inhabyted with handy craftsmen whose trade is all in yron worke for the horse men and borderers of that countrey, or in making byttes, styroppes, buckles, and such othere, wher in they are very experte and conyng, and are subject to the incursions of the theaves of Tyndale and compelled, wynter and sommer, to bryng all there cattell and sheepe into the strete in the night season and watche both ends of the strete, and when the enemy approchith, to raise hue and cry, wher upon all the towne preparith for the rescue of there goods, which is very populous by reason of their trade, and stoute and hardy by contynuall practyse agayst the Enemy ....... Also in Bywell towne on the north syde of the ryver th’auncestours of th’erle of Westmorland buylded a faire towre or gate house all of stone and covered with leade, meanyng to have proceded further, as the foundations declare beyng the heyght of a man above the ground, which were never fynyshed and the said towre is a good defence for the towne and will sone decay yf yt be not mayntened.
As described above, in the sixteenth century Bywell village consisted of a single street bordering the river, which could conveniently be closed off at each end and therefore more readily defended against thieves or reivers. Skilled in ironwork, the inhabitants were able to fashion metal fittings for horse harness and no doubt armour. The equipment of the gentry and yeomen of the Marches, who might be summoned at any time as horsemen to defend the country against the Scots, consisted of ‘a steel cap, a coat of plate, stockings and sleeves of plate, boots and spurres; a Skottish short sword and a dagger, a horseman’s staffe, and a case of pistolls.’ There is no indication of the numbers of the ‘very populous’ village but in 1538 at the time of the Reformation, the parish of Bywell St Peter had 200 ‘howseinge people’ representing a population of 300, though the bridge was in ruins. While these inhabitants and those in the surrounding Barony could have had very good farms, kept respectable numbers of cattle, and got sufficient corn and hay, they were hindered by “continual robberies and incursions of the thieves of Tynedale, which so continually assault them in the night, as they can keep no more cattle than they are able to lodge either in house or like safety in the night” This kind of situation must have caused considerable misery and frustration to the people of Bywell who must have longed for more settled times.
A third church used to exist at Bywell, the chapel of St Helens which was located on the south bank of the river, opposite the castle, near the old salmon lock and the two stone piers which once supported an ancient bridge. John Leland (1506?-1552), one of the earliest English antiquaries made a tour through England in 1534-43 and recorded the ‘Ruines of Arches of a Stone Bridge’ about three miles below Corbridge. William Camden (1551-1623) another antiquarian in his ‘Britannia’ noted at Bywell ‘two solid piles of most firme stone, which in time past supported the bridge’. Such features were they that they were marked on an early map of Northumberland drawn by Armstrong in 1769. As the piers retained no evidence of the springs from which arches could have been supported it was thought likely that the bridge was built of timber. The picturesque piers are both visible on the painting by George Robson below but were blown up when the Beaumont family of Bywell Hall constructed the current bridge in 1836. The distant tower is that of St Andrew's church.
View of Bywell Castle by George Robson 1810
Possibly connected to the great flood of 1771 during which we know considerable damage was done to the village, or as a result of the general agrarian and social changes of that era, by the eighteenth century the village was in decline. In the mid-nineteenth century the Beaumonts decided to clear what was left of the village to create a more attractive landscape surrounding the hall. As part of this clearance, the Beaumonts moved the old village cross to its new position and offered to build a new vicarage on a two-acre site close to the southern end of Bywell Bridge on the site of St Helen’s church that had been cleared in 1836. But the vicar of the day, Brereton Edward Dwarris, refused to co-operate and so an extremely tall wall, the ‘Spite Wall’, was built to conceal the vicarage (now a private residence) from Bywell Hall. This can be seen at the end of the cul-de-sac past St Andrew’s Church.
Apart from the former vicarage and houses associated with the castle and hall, the only other building in modern Bywell is Bywell House, now rented property owned by the estate.
References: A Pleasant Retreat by Robert Browell & Dennis Harding. The website of Archaeological Data Services http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/collections/nsmr03abstracts/10054.html
The impressive Bywell Hall was built by James Paine in 1760 for the Fenwick family, with alterations and additions being made in 1817 by the famous architect John Dobson. There are remains of an earlier building incorporated in the stable block.
The hall was purchased by the Beaumont family in the early nineteenth century, in whose hands it remains today. See http://www.allendale-estates.co.uk/bywell-hall/ for further information and details of tours during the summer months.