How far would our clergy travel to preach?

Wansbeck Valley - minsters
Wansbeck Valley - minsters

THREE weeks ago we looked at Stamfordham, one of the churches identified by the late Rev George Addleshaw as an Anglo-Saxon minster. Our map this week shows all the churches between Coquet and Tyne that he so identified, but omitting some in the Tyne Valley for the sake of clarity. Morpeth is shown for reference. There is no evidence for a minster here.

What strikes you immediately is the absence of minsters in the Wansbeck Valley. This raises a question. We know that every minster served a large territory — its parochia — and that the minster clergy travelled out to take the comforts of religion to people where they lived. But how far did they travel?

Within the ancient world of Europe, the Mediterranean and India, people went as far as anybody today, only more slowly. A Gaulish bishop called Arculf visited Jerusalem, and having been carried too far west on his return, gave the Abbot of Iona a detailed account of the holy places. St Wilfred went to Rome, as did Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith. Biscop toured Europe on his return, visiting different monasteries to acquaint himself with best practice wherever he might find it.

Visiting remote hamlets and isolated cottages in the distant parts of your parochia might, however, be a different thing. Bede praises Aidan and Cuthbert for doing just that in their bishoprics, which of course were very large, and criticises the bishops of his own day for not doing. But how far was it reasonable to go, even if you only visited the most remote places once a year?

The only document I know that gives anywhere near a contemporary account of a reasonable distance to go on official errands is the Boldon Book. It was drawn up in 1183, well after the Conquest, and the four extant copies are later again. But there is reason to think that it represents pre-Conquest custom and practice.

The Bishop of Durham, as successor to the Community of St Cuthbert, owned the estates of Norhamshire, Islandshire and Bedlingtonshire. Whereas secular Anglo-Saxon landowners were dispossessed by the Normans, the Patrimony of St Cuthbert at least remained in clerical hands so there was a degree of continuity.

There are frequent statements throughout Boldon Book to the effect that the tenants ‘cart (quadrigant) the bishop’s hay and corn’, but I take it that this would merely be to a barn somewhere in the same shire. As far as longer distances were concerned, the tenants at Bedlington ‘carry loads (faciunt ladas) as far as Newcastle and as far as Fenwick and no further’.

West Sleekburn ‘carries the writs of the Lord Bishop as far as the Tweed … and carry loads as far as Newcastle and as far as Fenwick while on their own journeys’. East Sleekburn, Cambois, Choppington and Nedderton all did the same.

The tenants of Norhamshire had no long distance obligations, except for ten-and-a-half villeins (half a villein?) belonging to Grindon, who had to ‘carry loads and do errands while the bishop is in the district’, while Thornton ‘will carry the rent to Durham’.

The return journey from Bedlington to Newcastle, about 25 miles, might have been done in a day in good weather. Fenwick is 40 miles one way, West Sleekburn to the Tweed about 60, and Thornton to Durham about 80, so it was evidently thought reasonable to require people to go on journeys of several days’ duration in the 12th Century, when travelling conditions were probably much the same as in Anglo-Saxon times.

But the service of the bishop of Durham was hardly of a local nature. The carrying of writs, in particular, reflects the fact that the bishop exercised functions normally reserved to the King. I can imagine that the clergy of minsters in thinly populated mountainous areas like Simonburn and Rothbury might have to make such extended journeys if they were to do their job properly, but this would hardly be the case in lowland areas.

A different approach is to look at parochiae whose size is known with reasonable certainty. Most Anglo-Saxon estate boundaries in this part of England are lost, but those of Bedlington, Hexham and Norham have survived.

Queen Etheldreda, also known as St Audrey, gave Hexhamshire to St Wilfred for the support of his abbey of Hexham. Thanks to a series of historical accidents it remained legally separate, either from the county of Northumberland or the bishopric of Durham, until 1837. It forms a narrow strip about 25 miles long and never much more than ten wide, lying obliquely across the Tyne Valley between Allenheads in the south and Hallington and Colt Crag reservoirs in the north. Although its southern limit is only 15 miles from Hexham, visiting the isolated homesteads in such mountainous terrain would have been a daunting task.

Norhamshire and Bedlingtonshire belonged to the Community of St Cuthbert and formed detached parts of County Durham until 1844. Norhamshire lies below the Tweed, about ten miles by four, taking in Cornhill, Duddo and Horncliffe.

Bedlingtonshire lies between the rivers Wansbeck and Blyth, and was likewise originally ten miles by four, from Twizell (near Kirkley Hall) to North Blyth. It would have been comparatively easy in either case to visit all the homesteads in the area.

The lower part of the Wansbeck Valley, below Morpeth, could have been served by Bedlington and Woodhorn. Whether either of them did serve Morpeth in the 7th and 8th centuries, and indeed whether there was anything at Morpeth to go for, we do not know. Either way, at some stage another mother church was established between them at Sheepwash.

But what about the upper part of the valley, above Morpeth? This is fertile country.

If you travel west to Angerton, Hartburn and Wallington, you see splendid crops, sheep and cattle. The Anglo-Saxons were farmers. This is the sort of land they liked. If so, it would have been populated, and if there were people, it seems unlikely that there would be no minster to provide for their spiritual and pastoral needs.

The centre of the upper valley is about 16 miles from Warkworth, 13 from Woodhorn and about ten from Bedlington, Rothbury or Stamfordham. Rothbury, with its magnificent early ninth-century cross, was an important minster, but it is hard to imagine the priests from there wanting to cross the bleak fells that lie between the vales of Coquet and Wansbeck.

As for the others, the upper Wansbeck Valley is not mountainous country such as you find in the southern part of Hexhamshire.

It is a landscape of rolling hills where you would expect to find fairly closely-spaced minsters with modest sized parochiae, similar to Norham and Bedlington.

The surrounding minsters might have extended their pastoral activities this far, but it seems unlikely.

If so, this begs another question: Have we got a missing minster?

Next week we will look at all the known Anglo-Saxon churches in the Valley, and see what we find.

Quotations are from David Austin, Boldon Book, Phillimore, 1982.