A little beyond the southern extremities of our region can be found a landscape riddled with the remains of abbeys and monasteries. As one creeps ever northwards they thin out noticeably, and anything north of the Tyne is a very rare specimen indeed (we can thank the Scots and their periodic raids for that). The largest such establishment in Northumberland is thought to have been that on the south bank of the Wansbeck near Morpeth, and was called Newminster Abbey.
This nigh-on forgotten religious house has now been almost completely wiped from the landscape, but it was quite a significant institution in its time. It was, in fact, one of the first daughter houses to be founded by the famous Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire – quite possibly the very first, some say. This all happened around 1137 when the Cistercians were invited north by local noble, Ranulph de Merlay, and his wife, Juliana. ‘Robert of Newminster’ from Fountains was appointed the new abbey’s first abbot, ruling the roost with considerable vigour from 1138 to 1159. A year after its founding the Scots came down and set the place abaze – and as part of the resultant peace treaty with the English pretty much everything north of the Tyne was ruled by the Scots during 1139-57. The monastery slowly recovered under Robert’s enthusiastic leadership, being properly rebuilt by 1180.
Morpeth’s wealthy residents occasionally granted land and possessions to the young institution, and it came to exercise control over much of the land from the Wansbeck to the Scottish border. No one seems to know quite how extensive its influence was, but in time it spawned daughter monasteries of its own at Pipewell (Northamptonshire) and Roche and Sawley (both in Yorkshire). By the late thirteenth century, Newminster Abbey also had two hospitals dependent upon it, at Mitford and Allerburn. This all mattered little come the Dissolution, though, when it was officially sacked in Henry VIII’s first round of plundering in 1537. The Greys came into possession and thereafter began the systematic robbing of its masonry over successive generations. In turn, the Brandlings and then the Ords assumed ownership.
Newminster Abbey was last used in 1937 for the 400th anniversary of its closure. Most of what remains today is hidden underground or under trees. However, a nice collection of photographs from the 1960s can be found here.