Stepping back to towns’ earliest settlements

Morpeth does not figure in history until after the Norman Conquest.

Saturday, 2nd March 2019, 12:15 pm

Despite this, we can reasonably presume that there was an Anglo-Saxon village close to St Mary’s church. Exactly where is unknown, but the most eligible site is the south-facing slope occupied now by St Mary’s Field.

It is also safe to assume that it was not called Morpeth. As with its location, the name of the village is lost forever.

The term ‘Morpeth’ was first applied to the castle on Ha’ Hill. It is not suitable for an agricultural village, despite good land below the hill, where the tennis courts are now. Rather, it was chosen for defence and to control the river crossing.

Its name comes from the path skirting a dangerous morass, or moor, represented now by the Flower Park. The path in question winds round the shrubbery, off to the left of the picture, and crosses the Postern Burn, after which it begins its climb up the side of Ha’ Hill.

The first written record of Morpeth is in the poem, Esturie des Engles (History of the English) by Maistre Geffrei Gaimar, written c.1150 for a lady called Dame Constance.

It refers to the rebellion of Robert Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, against William Rufus in 1095. William, having marched north against Mowbray:

“Puis prist Morpathe, vn fort chastel

“Ki iert asis sur vn muncel;

“Desur Wenspiz assis estait,

“Willame de Morlei laueit.”

The King: “Then took Morpeth, a strong castle situated on a mound. Above Wansbeck it was. William de Merley held it.”

As far as Gaimar was concerned, Morpeth was a castle, not a town or village, though the town was probably laid out at about the time he wrote.

Compared with Morpeth, Warkworth is much older. The name means ‘Werca’s compound’. She may have been Werca, an abbess of Tynemouth in the seventh century, but if not, was clearly a noble lady possessed of her own estates.

It is first recorded in 737 when King Ceolwulf gave the church of St Lawrence and its estate to the monastery of Lindisfarne. St Lawrence’s is a fine example of a Norman church, but it stands on the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon minster.

Anglo-Saxon minsters were not stone-built churches with Gothic architecture. On the contrary, most were timber-built with thatched roofs. A minster in this sense was a collegiate church of priests and other clergy, who exercised pastoral care over a large surrounding area, known as its ‘parochia’.

Coming from the same root as ‘park’, ‘parochia’ meant an area of land with defined boundaries. It is best thought of as meaning ‘territory’ to differentiate it from the parishes into which the parochiae were later divided.

Minsters were endowed with land, usually by the king, but also collected tithes and other church dues throughout their territory.

With a few exceptions, notably Bamburgh, pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon settlements tended to be scattered and unfenced. Minsters were nucleated, both internally, being walled or fenced compounds surrounding the church, and externally in relation to the parochia, upon which they exercised a powerful centralising force.

We can reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon compound at Warkworth with reasonable certainty. Its conjectural position and extent are marked on our map in green dots. The church and its large churchyard are clearly visible. West of the church is the Old Vicarage, now an Abbeyfield house. To the east is an oblong building, marked c.1860 as ‘Tithe Barn’.

Tithes were one tenth of all the increase of the land, both crops and animals, that were due to the church. The tithe barn was where the corn was stored. It is now a row of cottages, St Lawrence’s Terrace, but in our picture you can just see two upright vents in the gable wall, about level with the top of the door. Beyond the cottages is a high wall, jutting out. The garden behind was the site of a medieval chapel.

In Anglo-Saxon times the area would have been a compound housing the clergy and a few dozen lay people, some of them married. They carried out the humble tasks of cultivating the land, building and repairing buildings, shifting and carting, cooking, looking after the animals and digging graves, etc.

Before the arrival of Christianity, Anglo-Saxon peasants dealt only by barter. Even taxes were paid as food renders to the king. But the requirement to attend church on feast days brought people to the minster, and the requirement to pay tithes, etc, introduced them to the idea of money. This led to the growth of markets at the gates of minsters. Later, some of the laity would set up home just outside the gate.

In front of the church is a wide street, now a car park, called Dial Place. This was the market place, and a market cross still stands at its far end.

The minster compound and the market place between them define the pre-Conquest village of Warkworth.