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When we think in terms of historical relics, especially religious ones, we often look towards the big, the beautiful, the imposing or the imperial. Seldom do we thing of a slightly lop-sided lump of misshapen rock as anything more than quarry fodder. But not so Hexham’s enigmatic Frith Stool.
Unimpressive it may be, but the tiny throne that sits in the middle of the Choir of the town’s mighty abbey has captured the imaginations of visitors for generations. It is made of sandstone and is also known as St.Wilfrid’s Throne (after the 7th century founder of the abbey) and the ‘Chair of Peace’ (frith meaning ‘peace’, as in being a place of sanctuary). So, yes, this was the spot where, during the Middle Ages, wrongdoers made for as their little area of sanctuary when in flight from authority.
It is generally thought that originally the Frith Stool was made and used by Bishop Wilfrid himself, based, as it was, on similar items of furniture he had seen in cathedrals on his continental tours. It was, quite literally, a throne from which he and succeeding bishops would preside during religious ceremonies. Remember, Hexham Abbey was a cathedral from 678 to around 821, which would have made the Frith Stool an official cathedra and an item of supreme importance.
It’s likely the stool originally stood on legs and was set against a wall; but since its construction the original building in which it was housed has long since gone. The present-day Hexham Abbey is a Norman creation, but it is interesting that the stool has survived many centuries of upheaval – it was clearly a treasured relic.
In more recent centuries, though, the stool has been moved here and there around the abbey with a little less respect. It was during one of these moves that someone seems to have dropped it and it broke into several pieces. It was rather clumsily patched up, until, eventually, it rose once again to reverential status and was placed in its current location in 1910.