Hexham: The Moving Skull and other stories

If I were ever so unfortunate as to be imprisoned in the Old Gaol at Hexham, I would definitely want to be accommodated on the first floor.

The gaol was built on the orders of Archbishop Melton in 1330. Unusually for the time, it was designed from the outset to be a prison. Until 1546, Hexham was an ‘archiepiscopal liberty’ meaning that the Archbishop of York, rather than the King, was responsible for law and order. As the King’s officials had no authority in the area, law breakers fleeing justice could take refuge in Hexham.

A display on the ground floor explained the hierarchical layout of the building in a manner rather reminiscent of a department store:

  • Top floor: Gaoler’s lodgings
  • First floor: Upper class prisoners: resignedly cheerful
  • Ground floor: Slightly depressed prisoners
  • Dungeon: miserable prisoners, rats

If you would like to share the experience of the miserable prisoners, a glass lift with will take you down to the basement level to peer into the gloom whilst listening to a soundtrack of appropriate noises.

Hexham Old Gaol

The upper floors no longer provide accommodation for prisoners, depressed or cheerful, but include a display about the lives of the ‘Reivers’ who lived in the area in late medieval and Tudor times. Families living in the border area between England and Scotland had to contend with cross border raids, invading armies as well as disputes and raids from rival local families who were known for causing trouble. Wealthier farmers lived in defensible farmhouses known as bastles, whilst the wealthiest, most influential families lived in towers or peles. The exploits of families of Reivers were recorded in ballads and later romanticised by Sir Walter Scott.

In another room visitors can see a skull with a mind of its own. Sir John Fenwick of Hexham Abbey was killed in the battle of Marston Moor in 1644. A skull, reputed to be that of Fenwick’s came to the Gaol many years ago. There is a story that it has a ‘favourite’ room, and wherever it is put, it will end up in the favourite room.

The skull with a mind of its own

Whether the helmet and skull are really Fenwick’s is uncertain, but the helmet dates from 1460, with remodelling in the 17th century, which fits with the tradition of it being the helmet worn by the Duke of Somerset at the Battle of Hexham in 1464 and later worn by John Fenwick at Marston Moor.Resistance to authority was not the exclusive preserve of the Reivers. When the Augustinian Priory at Hexham Abbey was due to be closed at the Dissolution of the monasteries, the canons barricaded themselves in for a couple of months.  The Abbey has a long history, having originally been founded in the seventh century as a Benedictine monastery by St Wilfred. Little remains of Wilfred’s church except the crypt, rediscovered in 1725, which can be visited on request, but there is plenty of interest, including Roman, Saxon and Viking stones, and ancient bishop’s throne and 14th century tomb effigies.

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