Chibburn was a house of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. It was founded some time before 1313, perhaps long before, and normally had three members of the Order in residence – the preceptor, who was a military brother, a chaplain, an infirmarer, and an impressive establishment of servants.
Like everywhere in the Borders, it suffered from the Scottish wars. The manor house was reported ruinous in 1338, but as there is no mention of the chapel or any other buildings, one cannot be sure if it was due to the wars or to age and neglect.
Henry VIII suppressed it in 1540. It remained a crown possession until 1553, when the Widdringtons of Widdrington bought it and turned what was left of the preceptory into a dower house. They lost everything in 1715 when Lord Widdrington was attainted for his part in the rebellion. The Widdrington estate, including Low Chibburn, was eventually bought by Sir George Warren, and remained in the possession of his descendants, albeit as absentees, long into the 19th Century.
It is clear that after 1715 Low Chibburn was no longer a gentry house. In 1952 Arthur Mee’s King’s England describes it as being ‘now divided into cottages’. But since Arthur Mee died in 1943, it must be uncertain whether the information was current or related to the situation pre-war. The fact that the east end of the chapel was turned into a concealed pillbox during the war only adds to the uncertainty.
An information panel at the Preceptory says: ‘In 1957 the area round the ruins was mined for coal. Radar North … produced over 8 million tons of coal in 16 years. In 1973/4 the land was reclaimed as farmland.’
The ruins were consolidated in the 1990s, but never excavated. Apart from what is actually visible, our main sources of information are J.H. Parker’s Domestic Architecture, 1853, an article by William Woodman in the Archaeological Journal for 1860, in which he closely follows Parker, and another in Archaeologia Aeliana for 1861 by F.R. Wilson, architect, of Alnwick.
The ruins as they stand consist of the medieval chapel, the post-Reformation dower house, both roofless, ruined walls and doorways, and heaps of rubble.
These buildings have been a rich source of confusion. The most remarkable example is John Hodgson’s assertion that the chapel wasn’t a chapel at all.
In his History of Northumberland, 1832, he writes: ‘I see no ground to believe that the building now occupied as a barn here was ever a chapel … as some have supposed.’
I can only think that the piscina was hidden by the things in the barn, and the outside covered with ivy. It was unmistakably a chapel in the 1860s, as it is today.
Woodman quotes a survey of Low Chibburn made in 1768 on the orders of Sir George Warren.
‘The mansion house … is the remains of a religious house; the walls and timber are extraordinary good, but the slate is much out of repair; it has never been pointed nor any of the rooms ceiled; … The tenants make themselves conveniences for stables, &c., out of what were formerly a chapel and parlours.’
The surveyor was here making a natural, but mistaken, assumption. The house wasn’t a survival from the preceptory. Only the chapel was.
Parker and Woodman fell into the same error almost a hundred years later. The buildings, Woodman says, ‘have not been injured by modern alterations or attempts at restoration’.
While his article was in the press, however, F.R. Wilson gave a lecture at the Lit & Phil showing that the house was post-Reformation so Woodman was able to correct himself just in time by means of a footnote.
Parker and Woodman both note that a floor had been inserted into the chapel, which communicated with the upper rooms of the house by a doorway at first floor level, and that this upper gallery in the chapel had a fireplace. Believing as they did that both house and chapel were medieval, they state that this floor went only two-thirds of the length of the chapel.
Parker says: ‘This has clearly been a part of the original plan, and a good example of the domestic chapel.’
Woodman adds that just such an arrangement existed at Warkworth Castle, as it still does.
Wilson, the architect, spotted that the floor went the whole length of the chapel, as evidenced by a blocked doorway at first floor level at its east end, and how the east window had been divided into two to accommodate the intrusion of the floor.
set the record straight
Mistakes still happen. English Heritage’s panel showing the preceptory in the days of the Hospitallers has the chapel and its associated buildings standing in a circular moated compound. The chapel itself is placed in the southern half of the circle, and the other buildings north of it, all closely hemmed in by the moat.
A tower stands at the west end, connected by a link at right angles to the chapel. Other buildings are dotted about on the north side.
The artist was clearly doing his or her best in the total absence of hard information. Nevertheless, their picture is demonstrably incorrect. Though the moat has been destroyed by opencasting, we have good information from the pre-1960 OS six-inch maps. They show that:
l The moated area was not circular, but oval, with the long axis aligned SW-NE.
l Instead of being rounded at its westernmost extremity, it formed a nearly right angled corner.
l The square cluster of dower house, chapel and related outbuildings was exactly in the centre, and separated from the moat by a wide space.
l The width of this open space was greater on all sides than the chapel is long.
The artist’s reconstruction is clearly wrong, therefore, in several particulars.
As regards the other buildings, on the face of it, it’s anybody’s guess what they were like. And certainly the idea that there might have been a pele tower similar to, say Preston Tower, is only common sense.
Everybody now accepts that the dower house is later than the chapel, and this has perhaps persuaded English Heritage to emphasise the point by making the monastic layout look as different as possible from the later Tudor one.
But was it so very different? The Hospitallers’ English headquarters, Clerkenwell, had a cloister on the south side, but three ranges of buildings, including the prior’s lodging, arranged at more or less 90 degree angles on the north side. At Torphichen in Scotland, part of the chapel still exists with, unusually, the cloister on its north side.
A rectangular layout came naturally to medieval builders. Monasteries and Oxford colleges were typically built around hollow squares, whether called cloisters, courts or quadrangles.
It seems to me quite likely that the original preceptory might not have been so different in shape from the later dower house, and that, as at Torphichen and in a less symmetrical form at Clerkenwell, the other buildings could have been arranged in a square on the north side of the chapel.