The parish church of St Mary’s was founded in the Norman period, or perhaps late in the Anglo-Saxon. Morpeth did not then exist, but there must have been a village of sorts, most likely at St Mary’s Field, or perhaps at the Golf Club.
The priest probably lived where Rectory Park is now, a little apart from the village, with his own glebe or farm.
The De Merley barons, meanwhile, lived in their castle at Ha’ Hill. Some carved stones found there in the 19th century suggest the existence of a chapel. If so, the baron and his family would only need to go to St Mary’s on special occasions.
One of the interesting things about St Mary’s is that, unlike Bothal, Whalton and Woodhorn, it has no lordly tombs. Why? In 1138, Ranulph de Merley founded Newminster Abbey, and that was where he and his successors were buried.
For the peasantry, however, St Mary’s was in exactly the right place — until, in c.1180, Roger De Merley I founded the town of Morpeth. Ever since then, there has been a certain tension over where, if anywhere, the people of Morpeth should worship.
When the bridge over the Wansbeck was built, late in the 13th century, a chantry chapel was raised at its north end, actually in the town itself. It was cruciform in plan so that different parts could be used for different purposes.
There were at least two chantries, and the chantry priests doubled up as keepers of the bridge, collecting tolls and organising repairs, and served as schoolmasters.
To what extent the townspeople used it instead of St Mary’s, we do not know, but marriages, funerals, baptisms and the ‘churching’ of women would still have to take place at the parish church.
The Chantry was dissolved in 1547, but the boy king, Edward VI, founded his school in the old chantry building. It was, of course, already in being, but, perhaps through the good offices of an old pupil, Dr William Turner, the young king was generous in his endowment of the ‘new’ school with lands and properties.
As Alec Tweddle points out in Town Trail for Morpethians No. 1, the whole building belonged to the school. But in time, and perhaps not much time either, the school occupied only the upstairs room, and the rest was used by the townspeople as a chapel of ease. This didn’t suit, however, so they built the Church Peth.
Whether the rector complained that the people never came to church, or the people complained that they wanted to go, but the road to it was unusable, we don’t know.
Either way, a raised footpath was built, with a stone retaining wall and a pitched (cobbled) upper surface. I always make a point of walking on the Church Peth when I’m going that way, but it has to be said that the Tarmac road at the side is much easier to walk on. The next solution was to extend the Chantry. The transepts either fell down or were demolished. Houses were built on the north side, and in 1738 the Corporation built an elegant classical chapel on the south.
By 1842, it had become unsafe. The new rector, the Hon and Rev Francis Grey, decided that it was no longer fit for purpose, sold it, and raised the money for a new church.
The church of St James the Great was opened for worship in 1846 — over 650 years after the town was founded. It had been a long, hard road in more ways than one.