In search of the early settlement that grew up into our town

The Anglo-Saxon village was probably somewhere near St. Mary's church.
The Anglo-Saxon village was probably somewhere near St. Mary's church.

THE early history of Morpeth is short on facts and long on supposition.

The only grounds, for instance, for believing that the first settlement was somewhere near St Mary’s church, is the church itself. No remains of a village have ever been found.

The building is of the 14th Century, but the fact that it stands three-quarters of a mile from the town suggests the presence of an earlier village.

In 1984 the late Dennis Briggs discovered, by dowsing, the remains of an apsidal church (one with a semi-circular east end) underneath St Mary’s.

Its walls were where the arcades are now, and the apse projected about 15 feet beyond the present chancel arch.

The main axis of the church, Mr Briggs says,’is some 22 degrees north of east, which suggests possible Anglo-Saxon origins.

‘The plan recovered by dowsing could be late Anglo-Saxon or early Norman.’

We do not know the name of the Anglo-Saxon farming village beside St Mary’s, except that it is unlikely to have been called Morpeth.

I prefer to think of it as proto-Morpeth.

Four place names do exist for this part of the parish: Rectory, St. Mary’s Field, Kirkhill and High Church, but information on them does not go back very far.

Rectory speaks for itself. Hodgson refers to Walter, Rector of Morpeth in 1267.

The rector’s house was opposite the church in the 18th Century and it seems likely that it was in the same place in earlier times.

St Mary’s Field is the hillside that lies to the north of the churchyard.

It is an attractive site, facing south and bathed for hours with wintry sunshine on a clear December day.

You could water your stock in the Churchburn at the bottom of the hill, and I should guess there were springs all over the hillside to provide water for cooking and brewing.

Taking all of these factors together, St Mary’s Field is as likely a spot as any for the site of the original village.

Kirkhill is the name of the large housing estate that extends nearly a mile west of the church, but it is said originally to have referred to the hill on which the church stands.

If you view St Mary’s from the bus shelter opposite the Sun Inn, you can see that it might well have stood on a fairly prominent bluff in primitive times, but it is by no means a significant feature, merely a low terrace beside the burn that runs down the north side of the churchyard.

There is also a noticeably sharp rise from the road to the church, but it is purely artificial, having been created by wheeled traffic and by road improvements in the 19th Century and as recently as the 1920s.

Kirk is a common place name element, eg Kirkharle and Kirkheaton, and the late Harry Rowland speculated that the old village might have been called Kirkhill.

In modern O.S. maps, High Church is simply an alternative name for the Kirkhill estate.

But in the late 18th Century it was the name of a hamlet beside the turnpike from Newcastle, which included both the rectory and the Sun Inn.

There were also some cottages on the roadside at the edge of Morpeth Common, but all that remains of them now is the clubhouse of Morpeth Golf Club, once the common herd’s house.

Whalton Road used to come out where the club’s drive is and this former road junction is another likely spot for the one-time Anglo-Saxon village.

If so, it suggests the possibility that Morpeth Common may originally have been its open fields.

Hodgson says that Morpeth Corporation had no title deeds for the Common, having owned it time out of mind.

And although it is no more than a hunch, one can imagine a situation in which, over a period, the more ambitious peasants would have left the village for the new town, leaving the ones that stayed to cultivate less and less of the open fields until they reverted to rough pasture.

As for the name of our presumed Anglo-Saxon village, since its nearest neighbours (Hebron excepted) were Stannington, Whalton, Tritlington Choppington and Bedlington, it is quite likely that it too might have ended in ‘ton’ or ‘ington’, but we shall never know.

I am tolerably certain that it would not have been called Morpeth until after the arrival of the Normans, possibly as early as 1080, or perhaps not until the reign of Henry I (1100-35).

For reasons too long to go into here, I think the new name would have been applied first to Morpeth Castle, then to the Barony, and only afterwards to the village and, towards the end of the 12th Century, to the newly-formed town.

Further reading: John Hodgson, History of Morpeth, 1832. H. Dennis Briggs, Hidden Churches of Northumbria, 1987.

For a discussion on the date of the founding of the Barony of Morpeth, see William E. Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North, 1979.