Sorry it’s been a while! Hoping to get a little more time to keep these old stories coming. The following is an account of one of the great Newcastle landmarks. Published in September 1889 it describes the magnificent St. Nicholas’ Cathedral. It really is fascinating to read about the history of a place you see so often and maybe take for granted. You might walk past an old building like this every day, maybe on the way to work and never think to go inside. It really might be worth taking the time to stop and have an explore!
The Roman Station of Pons Ælii and the Saxon town of Monkchester had both gone down before the arrival in this country of William the Conqueror. When that monarch reached the banks of the Tyne, he found the Roman bridge in ruins and impassable, and provisions for his army could not be found nearer than Tynemouth.
The New Castle upon Tyne fortress and town was founded by his son, Robert Curthose. This was in the year 1080. There is every evidence that the growth of the new town was rapid, and its early prosperity great. The church of St. Nicholas, the earliest ecclesiastical establishment within the walls of Newcastle, is said to have been founded by St. Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury, in 1091. Although no very satisfactory proof of this statement is attainable, it is certain that the town would, soon after its establishment, require a church, and as we know that St. John’s, the second church in Newcastle, was built whilst the twelfth century was still young, there is every reason to believe that the date ascribed to St. Nicholas’ is approximately correct. No part of the church built in those early times exists now. It probably soon became too small for the needs of the inhabitants. The builders were again at work about the year 1250. In the churchyard are three or four stones, moulded in a way which indicates that they have formed part of some structure erected about this time. They had afterwards been used up as old building material, and were taken out of the walls during the restorations of a few years ago. Then we are told that in 1216 the church was consumed by fire. Certainly about that period some rebuilding was carried out. If the reader will go into the nave of the church, and will examine the easternmost pillar on the north side, he will find that an older pillar is encased in the present one. This older pillar is clearly part of a nave, with aisles, built in the early part of the thirteenth century. The walls above the present arches of the nave and below the clerestory windows were built at the same time. The arches themselves are much later, but they have been inserted in the older walls.
The nave and transepts were rebuilt in 1359. As I have just mentioned, the older nave walls were partly preserved, the new arches being pierced through them; and this accounts for what is one of the most remarkable features in this church, viz., the great width of the aisles as compared with that of the nave. Ten years later the chancel was in course of re-erection. The old chancel had been taken down, and the new one commenced, without the permission of the Bishop and Prior of Carlisle, who were rectors of the church. They sent a proctor to Newcastle on their behalf. He, on his arrival, found a priest, named Roger de Merley, sitting near the new choir, and “hammering and working on a new stone.” The proctor commanded the workmen to desist, and threw pebbles at the new work, and at what remained of the old, in evidence of his authority.
Another hundred years passed by, and Newcastle numbered amongst its people one Robert de Rodes, a lawyer, a man of wealth, and one who stood high in the esteem of the Bishop and Prior of Durham. To him we are indebted for the glorious steeple of this church. Aloft in the vault of the tower we have his coat of arms, and the legend
“Orate pro anima Roberti be Rodes.”
(Pray for the soul of Robert de Rodes.)
Except to a few conventional architects, this wonderful steeple is an object of universal admiration. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world. Scotland has two or three towers crowned in a slightly similar, but much inferior way, and the steeple of St. Dunstan’s-in-the-East, London, built by Sir Christopher Wren, has a very poor imitation of this lantern at Newcastle.*
* Church bells were of service in times of old to guide the belated wayfarer to his home in the night. In Mr. North’s “Church Bells of Leicestershire,” published in 1876, there is mention of grateful bequests to parish churches by testators who had been befriended by the belfry when their road was lost in hours of darkness. The church of St. Nicholas was not only of service in this way, but also as an inland lighthouse. Pennant speaks of the pathless moors of this neighbourhood in the past century; and many a traveller who traversed them hail reason to thank the lantern of St. Nicholas in the nights of old. In the second week of November, 1567, an item of 3s. occurs in the books of the Town Chamberlain, “paid for 4 lbs. of waxe maid in candell for the lanterne of Sancce Nycholas churche, and for the workynge.” So, too, in December next, 1s. 6d. went for “waxe wrought in candell for the lanterne.”
Left: Cover of the Font
Right: Pew Standards, St. Nicholas’ Church, Temp. Charles I.
When we enter the church by its west door, the first object to strike our attention is the font, which is plain and rude in design, but is surmounted by a truly magnificent cover. The basin bears the arms of Rodes, as well as those of an old Durham county family, the Bainbriggs. Robert Rodes, who died in 1474, had no children. A niece, Alice Rodes, was his heiress. She afterwards married one Richard Bainbrigg, said to have been a member of a family of that name settled at Snotterton, in the parish of Staindrop. In right of his wife he acquired the estate of Wheatley Hill, in the parish of Kelloe, and his descendants remained there for several generations. I believe this font was erected by the niece of Robert de Rodes and her husband, as a memorial of the man to whom Newcastle owes its most splendid architectural achievement.
Turning into the south aisle, we find at its west end a remarkable slab, fixed to the wall, which has borne a now almost obliterated representation of the Crucifixion of the Saviour. On the upper part of it is a fragment of an inscription, which, with great difficulty, may be read as follows:
Our lady prest is bon to say,
At the lavatory evy day;
meaning that the priest of a chantry dedicated to the Virgin was required every day to say solemn dirge and mass at the altar for the soul of George Carr, and for his wife’s and children’s souls. The lavatory means the water drain near the altar, usually called the piscine.
Before we leave this part of the edifice we must notice the recesses in the wall of the south aisle, which, doubtless, were intended for the tombs of benefactors to the church.
The chapal in the same aisle was formerly the chantry of St. Margaret, founded in 1394 by Stephen Whitgray, who, more than once, had represented Newcastle in Parliament. It is now known as the Bewick Porch, for here, from 1636 to 1859, the Bewicks, of Close House near Heddon-on-the-Wall, were buried, and here are the monuments of some of them. But into this chapel are gathered the earliest memorials of the departed now existing in the church. Besides several fragments, there are three mediaeval grave stones of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and of beautiful designs; but, as was usual in those days, without any inscriptions. Here, too, is the recumbent effigy of a knight, clad in chain mail, cross-legged, and with his feet resting on a lion. There is every reason to believe that this is the effigy of Peter le Mareshal, who was sword-bearer to Edward I., and who was buried in this church on the 18th September, 1322. Edward II., who was then at Newcastle, paid for a cloth of gold to cover Mareshal’s body on the day of his interment.
We proceed towards the east end of the church, and turn into the south transept. Here, on our right, we have the quaint and singular monument of the Maddisons, adorned with many effigies, representing and recording three generations of the same family. On the opposite side of the transept are two windows, architecturally the best in the church.
We now enter the south aisle of the chancel, and immediately beyond the vestry door we have the monument of thn Halls, a less pretentious, but very similar one to that of the Maddisons. The Halls and the Maddisons were related by intermarriages, and were amongst the wealthy merchants of Newcastle during the first half of the seventeenth century.
Before we proceed further, we may glance at the new features which have been recently introduced into the church the reredos, the stalls, the screens, and the bishop’s throne. These all embody much excellent design, almost faultlessly executed; but they are none the less sadly out of character with the edifice into which they are introduced, and display an entire absence of that modest sense of fitness which almost invariably characterized the work of the architects of the middle ages.
If, now, we pass behind the reredos, we see a large painting by Tintoretto of “Christ washing His Disciples’ Feet.” Then, proceeding along the north aisle of the chancel, we enter the north transept, where we find an interesting monument of Thomas Surtees, the last representative of a family which owned the manor of Gosforth from the time of Henry II. Here we may descend into the crypt, formerly one of the chantry chapels, afterwards a receptacle of human bones, and now occupied by organ-blowing machinery.
Many stirring events have been witnessed in this church. Courts of justice were held here in the reign of Edward I. In 1313, penance was performed by one Nicholas le Porter at the doors of this church, he standing unshod, bareheaded, and clothed only in a linen gown, for having dragged certain persons from sanctuary in the church of the White Friars. Here, too, in 1417, Matilda Burgh and Margaret Usher did penance for having approached the shrine of St. Cuthbcrt at Durham dressed in men’s clothes. Treaties of peace between the commissioners of England and Scotland were solemnly signed and sealed here in 1451 and 1459. Here, in 1550, John Knox, the great Scottish reformer, preached before those who sat in judgment on his heresies, he undertaking to prove that the sacrifice of the mass was idolatrous. Bishop Toby Matthew preached here before James I. Here the famed Alexander Henderson preached to General Lesley and the leaders of the Scottish army the day after the battle of Newburn. And when, during the siege of Newcastle in 1644, the same Lesley threatened to fire his cannons at the steeple unless the town would capitulate, Sir John Marley sent all the Scotch prisoners into the belfry, and told the besiegers they might fire away if they desired their countrymen’s destruction. Charles I., during his imprisonment in the town, attended service here, and was insulted by the Scotch preacher’s choice of a hymn, but the people sympathised with the King, and sung another for which he called*.
*The remarkable incident of 1646 is thus related in Sir William Dugdale’s “Short View of the Late Troubles in England” (1681): “A rigid Presbyterian preacher, besides many rude and uncivil expressions in his sermon before the King, called for the 52nd Psalm to be sung by the congregation, which beginneth thus:
Why dost them, tyrant, boast abroad,
Thy wicked works to praise?
Whereupon his Majesty instantly stood up, and called
for the 56th Psalm, beginning thus:
Have mercy, Lord, on me, I pray,
For man would me devour.”
Afte the battle of Dunbar, the Scotch prisoners were lodged for a single night in this church.
No account of this famous church can be considered complete without some reference to Ben Jonson’s enigma. The poet had come this way in 1618, on the occasion of his Scottish tour. Gray quotes in his “Chorographia” the following lines as having been written by Jonson concerning the steeple of St. Nicholas’: –
My altitude high, my body foure square;
My foot in the grave, my head in the ayre;
My eyes in my sides, five tongues in my wombe:
Thirteen heads upon my body, foure images alone.
I can direct you where the winde doth stay;
And I time God’s precepts thrice a day.
I am seen where I am not, I am heard where I is not.
Tell me now what I am, and see that you misse not.
“If Jonson wrote the riddle,” says Mr. Clephan, “some other pen than his own must subsequently have made the lines to halt. They are of the ‘peculiar measure’ of the obliging rhymer who is said to have gone all lengths to please his friends; they present sundry openings for conjectural revision; and we may venture to suggest that at the close of the last line save one, the words were originally written, not ‘I is not,’ but ‘I wis not.’”
R. BOYLE, F.S.A.