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How the Prior of Tynemouth Brought Newcastle to the Brink of Ruin in 1510

The following transcript is from a court case at the Star Chamber in 1510, just one year after Henry VIII came to the throne. I have translated the text from Early Modern English into today’s language, at least I have translated the prose as much as I can without losing its meaning and style, and if I hadn’t have done this it would make hard reading. As it stands, it is a compelling case put forward by the Mayor and the Aldermen against the Prior, whom they paint as a very wicked man.

How the Priory would’ve looked in 1540.

I’ve written about the Star Chamber previously in relation to disputes between the Prior of Tynemouth and powerful local enemies. This dispute is similar but rather more dramatic, involving the alleged murder of many inhabitants of Newcastle at the hands of the Prior’s hired thugs, notably from the bandit lands of Tynedale and Redesdale, which were also places of religious fervour and thus deeply loyal to the Church against the Town. The story that is put to the King in this document represents nothing short of barbarism and armed insurrection.

And although we typically see historical enmity between Newcastle and North Shields being a one-way story of Shields’ growth being put down by violent reprisals from the keelmen on behalf of the hostmen, it did sometimes go the other way, with mafia-like strongarm tactics from the Prior, the commandeering of key assets, the appearance of armed gangs and terrorising assaults on what the Aldermen here portray as a helpless and pitiful town on the verge of collapse.

Plan of Newcastle in 1545 by Italian engineer Gian Tommaso Scala. He was also hired by Henry VIII to fortify Tynemouth.

I’ve also wrote before that the Prior had the tendency to act as a pirate king, giving sanctuary to criminals, helping himself to the cargoes from shipwrecks, engaging in extortion and having people executed, all from his untouchable position of privilege and wealth. We see that demonstrated to great effect here.

Yet there does seem something quite confected about this case. The Star Chamber did become a vindictive tool of the King to pursue his enemies. Later in his reign it served as his personal kangaroo court that struck fear into anyone unfortunate enough to be hauled before it. From reading this you can certainly see where Henry’s hatred for the Church came from. This continual strife culminated in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 when the Prior of Tynemouth, like many other others, was removed from power with his property confiscated. It was after this point that Henry redesigned the headland, binding the Spanish Battery to the Castle and turning it into a military stronghold while giving Trinity House much control over Shields.

Celing of St Mary’s chapel in Tynemouth Priory. Gilded stars on blue was a common decoration across Europe at the time and inspired the name of Star Chamber.

Note that this was written during a brief period at the start of his reign when Henry was allied with France and thus he woudld’ve been keen to placate the French in disputes on trade, which the Prior had created through the seizing of a French ship. The Aldermen where certainly pushing political buttons and embellishing their appeal in order to influence a newly crowned King to take action on their behalf. It is also worth noting that in this same year an attempt was made on Prior Stanwell’s life in Jesmond, according William Gibson in The History of the Monastery Founded at Tynemouth (1847).

You can draw your own conclusions, but it’s nevertheless a real eye opener into the power dynamics of early 16th century Tyneside.

From Select Cases Before the Star Chamber — Isaac Saunders Leadam, Selden Society (1903) p68-74. This tract was sourced by Dave King, an expert on the Star Chamber and who runs the X account Northumberland & Durham Historical Docs.


We are humbly complaining to show to your most gracious highness, that we, your official speakers and subjects, the mayor, the aldermen and the commons of your town of Newcastle upon Tyne, a town your grace holds with its accompanying port and harbour, under your control as a possession of the Crown of England.

This town and port, our officials and their predecessors have received from your noble progenitors, the kings of England since time immemorial along with the granting of a wide range of great customs, franchises and liberties pertaining to the town and the port, which they have always had and enjoyed peaceably.

That is until now, that John Stanwell, Prior of Tynemouth, with his impertinent and ungracious disposition, fearing neither God, your grace or your laws, has been subtly planning the destruction, decay and desolation of the town and port. He is determined to disinherit your grace of your title by right and the duties belonging to your highness in this same town and port.

He possesses great might and power to extort, as Tynemouth Priory stands 8 miles from Newcastle at the mouth of the port in a mighty stronghold and fortlet. It is by the Priory that all ships loaded with merchandise intending for your town, both coming in or going out of your port, must frequently pass with no alternative route.

The Prior has of late, subtly and forcibly encroached on a large quantity of your land within your port and haven and from there has erected many wharves, staithes and quays and around them has built many houses, salt pans, mills and other buildings.

And these had been made so haphazardly and with great many people, forcibly kept and used by him, which has caused this side port to be greatly strained and damaged and is likely to cause ships to be destroyed, as ships and other vessels vying with each other are often in great jeopardy and peril. And your grace is, through this, disinherited. Also, all of these ships vying for the same berth are supposed to load and discharge at your port of Newcastle and in no other place between the town and the sea. There they are supposed to pay your grace such duties, tolls and customs that have been collected since time immemorial and paid to your noble progenitors.

The ungracious Prior daily allows ships and other vessels to load and unload with various merchandise at Shields and Tynemouth, which as has been stated, is at the mouth of your port, 8 miles from the town. There he has made a new port and harbour in a forcible manner with a great many people occupied in using the place. And there he has taken such duties as belong to your grace. If this continues as he wishes, as it is likely to do unless your grace provides remedy, your town, which is the chief source of help and defence of all your nearby counties in time of war or other jeopardous business, shall grow empty and desolate insomuch as it is only upheld and maintained by the gathering of ships using the port.

And we, your poor officials who pay your grace yearly for the fee farm for this town and port shall, because of these reasons, be compelled to give up your town and port into your hands as we will not be able to pay the said fee.

For in saying this, the Prior by those occasions stated, withdraws such duties as we by rights are supposed to take and use for the payment of the said fee. For in every ship coming and going from the port with merchandise loaded, your grace ought of right to have 16 pence. In return for taking this duty for allowing the loading and unloading of ships and Tynemouth and Shields, the Prior forcefully defends them.

In addition, the Prior is continually building fish ponds and weirs for catching and keeping salmon in the harbour between the town of Newcastle and the sea, and each year he moves them from place to place at his pleasure. It is because of this that the port is so wrecked and shallowed that when in times past four or five ships at a time could occupy the same place, now the port cannot receive any hundred tonne vessel that might have come to the bridge in front of the town, and there can be none come now but small vessels, and the town shall be utterly undone by this in short order if we continue to suffer the Prior’s use his fish ponds and weirs.

Also, where a French ship by distress of weather was driven into the said harbour loaded with the goods of Scotsmen, the Prior in violent manner with great force sent 11 of his servants and tenants into the same ship and there took a great amount of goods from the strangers to the value of more than £200 and which goods remain in his hands. Whereupon the mayor of your town, for that ship was in the liberty of your town, sent John Young, Sergeant at the Mace, to the Prior commanding him in your most gracious name to deliver the goods to the owners thereof, which he then refused to do and in a violent manner the Prior and his servants took your sergeant and put him in a strong prison and there he was kept for one day against your laws and peace.

Until now, none of your suppliants dare to come or convey any of their goods out of your realm into any part of the French nation, for they have sure knowledge that if they do, their goods will be taken from them in so much as the misdemeanant Prior took the goods of the strangers out of the liberty and jurisdiction of your town.

Also, when John Young and Robert Herryson, then two of your Sergeants at the Mace within your town, according to your laws and customs in place since time immemorial, docked a ship within your port and within the jurisdiction and liberties of your town, one Robert Cresswell, servant to the Prior, violently accompanied with many lewd and evil people numbering at least 11, violently and in a forcible manner, arrayed with weapons, with jackets and armour and helmets with bills, bows and arrows, came into your port within the liberties and jurisdiction of your town and then and there, riotously against your peace and laws, took your two sergeants and then violently laid hands on them and conveyed them out of the port and liberty of your town by the command of the Prior unto his Priory of Tynemouth, and there imprisoned them and in this confinement they were withheld to such time as Robert Herryson, being in good health of body at the time of the taking, by duress of the imprisonment at Tynemouth, died at the hands the Prior and his servants, maliciously murdered and destroyed as it is openly supposed.

Also, on the 28th February passed, Robert Cresswell, Rauff Wederyngton with many other violent and lewd people, servants and tenants to the Prior, numbering more than 80 people arrayed in arms with bows and arrows and against the King’s peace at about 2 o’clock in the morning, came into the port of Newcastle within the liberties of the town and by commandment of the Prior would have entered a ship called the ‘Elizabeth’ loaded with merchandise and riding at anchor, intending to murder the mariners of the ship, have the goods taken and to sink the ship.

And if the mariners had not made a great and sure defence to the contrary, whereby many of the mariners were certainly injured and in great jeopardy of their lives, they would have been drowned in the downed ship, along with the loss of goods conveyed if those goods had not been shortly rescued and held by the inhabitants of South Shields and other strangers being in the same harbour.

Also, on the 10th February last passed in the time of the last parliament, Rauff Fenwyck, George Cressewell, Richard Strother, Gilbert Colynwodde, Roger Eryngton, Robert Cressewell, Humfrey Rogerson, John Wilson, Rauff Wederyngton, Roger Cramlyngton, John Cressewell, Robert Dove, Roger Belyncham, Richard Yerell, Cristofer Codlyng, Robert Grame, George Roderford, Rolland Lawson, Robert Gusterd, Robert Smyth, William Blythe, Robert Bowmaker, Thomas Gollan, Archembald Brown, Thomas Dalton, John Harropp, Robert Carre, Thomas Pattonson, Richard Pattonson, Robert Elwald, William Baxter, Edward Jakson, John Reede, Thomas Bell, Thomas Hanson, Richard Stokhall, George Waldhave, Thomas Wilkynson, William Herdwyk, William Milbourne, & John Davyson with many other lewd and evil persons to your poor officials unknown, numbering more than 500, violently and forcefully armed with weapons as though it had been a time of war, with spears, glaives, bows and arrows, by the exhortation, command and labour of the Prior assembled together at Tynemouth and with them a great number of the inhabitants of Tynedale and Redesdale, to whom it is supposed and openly spoken in the counties where the riot and unlawful assembly took place, the Prior gave a wage of 6 pence per day so that the misdemeanants, by his command, should murder the mayor, aldermen and other inhabitants of your town and take, destroy and sink their ships in the port.

And so they would have sunk the best ship belonging to the town if it had not been well defended and rescued. And so assembled in arms, violently against your laws and peace, rode about your town of Newcastle for 11 days and took many of the inhabitants of the town and imprisoned them at Tynemouth.

And as is openly said by those that were of the riotous company, the Prior said, though they had killed one hundred of the wretches dwelling in Newcastle, he should be their warrant. To which the persons then violently took John Haddeswell, merchant of Newcastle, and unlawfully imprisoned him among others of the same town, and he was held in prison and tortured to such time the Prior, for dread that he should die in prison, let him depart and upon his release he died within 12 hours.

Also at the same time, the said persons violently took John Todde, Robert Wilkynson and Rychard Wilkynson dwelling in Newcastle and on the order of the Prior imprisoned them at Tynemouth where they were held to such time as Prior commanded. Also, the inhabitants of your town during the time of this unlawful and violent assembly dared not for dread of their lives go to their ships at Shields or otherwise about their business. Instead they stayed together within the walls of your town as though they were assailed by enemies. Certainly, most gracious sovereign lord, such a great gathering and unlawful assembly of people carried on for so long in a time of peace has not been seen in those parts for many years passed. Nor too, has there been such a perilous example of such numbers of offenders coming in recent times, and it shall give great boldness to misdoers in times to come, to do and commit such like offences unless it be punished.

This, most gracious sovereign lord, the Prior with his great might and malicious mind, extorted power violently day by day while taking, encroaching and converting to his own use, your ground and the inheritance parcel of your Crown within the harbour and port, of which your poor officials have in fee from your highness.

And by subtle and crafty means his fish ponds have so much ebbed and shallowed the port. And by loading and discharging ships at Shields, if it be suffered further, your poor town which is the chief safeguard, relief and defence of all the counties thereunto adjoining in time of war, shall be utterly decayed and given up into your hands and the inhabitants of the same compelled to depart and dwell in other places and by these means, your grace and your heirs disinherited to the sum of more than six hundred pounds per year, unless your highness of your most gracious disposition provides remedy in all the places which your poor officials beseech your grace at the recurrence of god to advert and consider. And they shall pray daily for your most noble grace to be long and prosperously in health and honour to continue and endure.

Endorsed: Newcastle, The Mayor, Aldermen & Commons therein versus the Prior of Tynemouth.

We don’t know the outcome or the Prior’s defence.


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