On a steep, rocky outcrop at the mouth of the River Tyne the gaunt remains of Tynemouth Priory look out to the open sea, whilst being protected by the confines of the castle defences. This headland was the site of a much earlier Anglian monastery, destroyed by the Danish invasions of the 9th century, but when the Earl of Northumberland re-founded the religious house here in 1085 it was with a colony of Benedictine monks from St Albans Abbey.
Building on the great Norman church began in 1090, and the whole monastery was substantially completed by the end of the 13th century. Having to maintain a priory, providing suitable accommodation and hospitality for many Royal parties, was always a costly business but at Tynemouth Priory the priors were also responsible for the upkeep of the castle and the garrison. The wealth they accumulated from their coal industries was much needed. Perhaps the most notable feature of the buildings at Tynemouth Priory is the thickness of its walls, presumably because of its location and the fact that it was used as much as a fortress as a religious house.
It is remarkable that so much of Tynemouth Priory church remains standing to a good height, when all the claustral buildings and other domestic outbuildings of the monastery have completely disappeared. The solid west front displays much of the elaborate decoration that was added at its re-building in the 13th century, but the 14th century traceried window that sat above the central doorway did not survive. Looking down the length of the nave, past the standing crossing piers, is the glorious remains of the south wall of the presbytery and the east end.
Rising even today to an impressive 73ft (21.1m) high, the massively thick walls are pierced with tall lancet windows above a continuous panel of blind arcading, inset with cupboards and recesses. A second level of windows sits above the three slender lancets in the south wall, but a more unusual arrangement of an elongated oval window flanked by two smaller lancets, with a single lancet placed centrally above it, completes the east end of Tynemouth Priory church. Extending beyond the east end is a small 15th century vaulted chapel that has been heavily restored but remains complete. The rib vaulting is an absolute masterpiece and contains 33 sculptured roof bosses, most of which can still be identified.
Known to be one of the largest fortified areas in England, this site was retained by Henry VIII as a royal castle after the Dissolution of Tynemouth Priory in 1539. It remained in use as a military stronghold until well into the 20th century, when finally all evidence of occupation was cleared from the interior of the medieval site. Certainly the location of Tynemouth Priory could not be described as picturesque, surrounded by remnants of military defences and ugly concrete piers that were erected to prevent coastal erosion, but it is definitely rugged and imposing. Together with the castle gatehouse, it does provide a fascinating insight into how two very different communities lived in apparent harmony for almost 450 years.