Coldingham Priory History by T.D. Thomson, C.M.G., O.B.E., M.A., LLB, FSA (Scot.).
This is a copy of a book written by T D Thomson in 1972. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the Authors family.
You can learn more about the author at his Notable Residents Page.
Original Photographs: Scanned from original publication.
Colour Photographs: Bob Thomson (no relation).
This historical article contains about 4500 words.
The site of Coldingham Priory has been holy ground certainly for close on 900 years, possibly for 1,300, and perhaps for nearly 2,000 (there is a Bronze Age cemetery site a quarter of a mile away). lt has seen the rise and fall of one of the most interesting monasteries in Scotland; what is to be seen nowadays is only the tip of an iceberg.
lt will be some years before the present excavations under the auspices of the Berwickshire Naturalists’ Club are sufficiently advanced, and the results are properly laid out, to allow this Guide to be anything more than an interim production; for the same reason, no plan is included here. If, indeed, finality is ever possible it will only be when the excavations have been completed and the ecclesiastical sites at St. Abbs Head have also been fully investigated.
Assuming that this Guide has been bought at the present Church door, it begins with some account of the buildings preceded by a short summary of Coldingham's history to help in the full understanding of them:-
c.A.D.635 Some sort of monastic house founded in the Coldingham area.
640 St. Ebba arrived and became head of this.
870 This foundation destroyed by Danish raiders.
1098 Coldingham and its pertinents granted to the monks of Durham by Edgar, King of Scots.
1100 King Edgar attended the dedication of the Church of St. Mary at Coldingham (the " Old Church").
c.1147 This Church developed into a Priory dependent on Durham.
1216 Sacked by King John of England. A new and much larger Church built over the remains and the domestic area renovated.
c.1430 Fired by Prior Drax.
1509 Detached from Durham and attached to Dunfermline.
1537-1560 Much involved in the wars between England and Scotland; besieged at least twice and reported as "destroyed."
1560 The Scottish Reformation.
1566 Visited by Mary Queen of Scots, and still able to accommodate her train of about a thousand.1648 Besieged by Cromwell; south and west walls of the Choir of the monastic Church (the present Parish Church) destroyed.
1662 South and west walls rebuilt.
17th and 18th Centuries. Extensively used as a quarry by local residents.
1850s Extensive renovations, including lowering ground and floor levels, rebuilding south and west walls in their present shape and adding porch with vestry above.
1950 Further interior renovations, including removal of pulpit from south wall and provision of present chancel and its furnishings.
1966 Current excavations and conservation in precincts begun.
1968-70 Outside of Church walls repaired and conserved.
Opposite the door between the porch and the Church proper is the north wall; with the east wall it is generally regarded as one of the most beautiful pieces of ecclesiastical building in Scotland. The unusual combination of clerestory and triforium, so appropriate to the modest height and breadth of the Church, is reinforced by the delicacy of the smaller arches on either side of the lancet windows and the almost infinite variety of ornament on the capitals of the pillars and on the walls beside them. An unusual feature is the peculiar assortment of niches cut into the wall in the spaces between the lower arches; there is no known explanation for them. On the pillars of some of the triforium arches traces can still be seen of at least one of the fires to which the building has been subjected in the past.
The arcading on the lower level of these walls is also worth looking at. The traditional Presbyterian arrangement of a church has the congregation facing inwards towards the pulpit and the Communion Table; this was so here until 1950 and the pulpit was just east of the present door. The population of this large parish in early Presbyterian days necessitated the building of galleries against the other walls, and in doing this the mediaeval stonework was destroyed to about eight feet above the present floor level; these galleries were removed in the 1850s.
Coldingham Priory - Then and Now
What is to be seen now is the work of a local mason, Balfour Balsillie of Ayton, who reconstructed the pillars after the mediaeval manner, even to the differing ornaments on their capitals. He was also responsible for the present west wall; its inside is at present obscured by the organ but what can be seen, and the appearance of the outside of this wall, are sufficient to refute the frequent allegation that no Victorian restorer ever touched an old building but to damage it. The west wall is all wrong in relation to mediaeval church architecture, but it serves its purpose beautifully.
The restoration in the 1850s included the removal of the south and west walls built in 1662 and their replacement by the present ones; unfortunately funds were insufficient to reproduce the mediaeval style on the south wall, which could be called dignified but dull. Some feet of earth were removed both inside and outside the Church at this time and the floor was lowered to its present level. Below. this were found remains of the walls of the Old Church of 1100; it had been somewhat narrower than the present Church, which represents the Choir of the thirteenth-century Church. The north wall of the Old Church was well inside the line of the present wall, while the south wall was on the same line as the present one; the building appears to have ended in an apse which is approximately under the present chancel steps.
The internal arrangement of the Church remained the same until the time of the union of the parish congregation and the former United Free congregation, when the present rearrangement was carried out with funds raised voluntarily from a number of sources. Its result depends considerably upon the furnishings given by a number of members and friends of the congregation, and these are worth examining in some detail (but please do not walk upon the chancel platform to do so).
The eye is caught at once by the Communion Table with the Cross carved on the front panel. This is an adaptation of the Durham Cross (St. Cuthbert’s Cross) and the gold infilling between its arms can be taken to represent St. Andrew's Cross, so symbolising much of the Priory’s history. St. Cuthbert's pastoral staff appears on the shaft of the lectern and on the pedestal of the front is the Star of Aspiration or Bethlehem. On the front of the pulpit is carved the pelican in her piety, feeding her young with blood from her own breast, an allegory of the preaching of the Word: on its side panels are the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, standing on examples of Norman heraldic decoration.
The eight stained-glass windows are modern and of mainly local interest. The brass on the north wall towards its western end commemorates a daughter of Sir James Young (“Chloroform”) Simpson, and sister of Robert Louis Stevenson's companion on his “inland Voyage ": she was for long a resident in Coldingham.
Coldingham Priory - Then and Now
Looking westward on the way out of the Church the organ looms much too large. A fine instrument and a memorial to the wife of one who did much for the whole parish, the late Dr. McDougall, it was moved from St. Andrew's Church when the congregations were united. The hope was that the present vestry above the porch could be converted into an organ chamber with a case of pipes on the south wall and only the console left on the floor of the Church, and that a new vestry could be built against the outside of the south wall, but funds have yet to be found to achieve this.
Going out of the Church door and turning right, we see the remains of the south transept of the mediaeval Church on our left. These are sufficiently well preserved to indicate the size of that Church, cross-shaped and more than twice the length of the present Church, some 200 feet in all. The surviving arch (much rebuilt) led from the south aisle of the nave into the transept. The foundations of this great Church were traced during the nineteenth-century investigations and the main points of the nave and north transept are indicated in the churchyard by wrought-iron markers.
To the right again is the only visible part of the old Church, its western entrance. Within this are the graves of two of the Priors, Aernaldus (1202-1208) and Ftadulphus (1209), covered by the original grave-slabs, on which parts of their names are still legible. During investigation of this area in 1972 it became necessary to remove Fladulphus’ bones temporarily, which allowed of expert examination before their re-interment. lt ws learned that he was in his mid-thirties when he died, a six-footer of ﬁne physique apart from a limp, a man of commanding appearance who for many years had walked with his head
usually bowed in meditation; the cause of his death remains unknown.
Continuing round the outside of the Church, the north and east walls show an interesting combination of architectural styles, with arcading of Norman type on the lower storey and above it the fine First Pointed lancet windows; the mediaeval south wall was presumably similar. Pointed arches on the west end of the north wall indicate the former presence of a side-chapel of later date than the main building.
There is a puzzling niche in the lower part of the north wall near its east end: it is certainly not a lepers’ squint, but the stone may perhaps have been taken from a demolished side-chapel and used to repair the wall here. Near it, set against the Church wall, is the tombstone of a sometime parish minister, the Revd. James Landell (1793-1827), composer of the psalm tune “Coldingham "; the Kirk Session still administers a trust fund for its upkeep.
The windows in the east wall may well have held the beautiful painted glass of which fragments have been found outside and which is at present attributed to the fourteenth century-there are entries in the Coldingham accounts preserved at Durham which refer to work on the Church windows at this time. Under the footpath at the east end of the Church lie the remains of several walls which may have connected either it or the Old Church with the sacristy, chapterhouse and other buildings which lay in that quarter. Part of these was left open after excavations in the 1920s and the remainder, mainly in the next field, is under investigation. In addition to structural remains that investigation has revealed a civil cemetery, dated between 800 and 1200, containing some fifty identifiable skeletons of both sexes and all ages.
The spiritual heart of the monastery was the Church. The centre of its domestic life was the cloister, usually built south of the nave of the Church, but here south of the choir. In the absence of other evidence it would seem that the cloister and the domestic buildings generally were built in relation to the Old Church and were not re-sited when the mediaeval Church was built after 1216.
The layout of the domestic area would probably follow the normal Benedictine pattern. To the west would be a range of buildings running southwards perhaps as far as St. Andrew's Burn, possibly on the line of the present southern approach to the Church. This might have contained the monks' quarters, with a night stair leading from the dormitory to the south transept for convenient attendance at the night services. Beyond the southernmost yew tree west of the cloister there are vestiges of a round structure which may have contained this stair. Such a west range could have continued right down to the burn, with the reredorter or latrine built over the burn and discharging into it. Traces of masonry, still uninvestigated, can be seen in the south bank of the burn about the right place.
To the east might be a somewhat similar range, including the Prior‘s lodging, but this has not been investigated so far apart from unproductive trial trenches on the site of the bungalow recently built near the burn side. East again of this may have been the infirmary with its own little chapel and kitchen (for the aged and the sick ate better that the rest of the brethren).
South of the cloister, Edgai’s Walls (so called after the first royal benefactor) represent the remains of the refectory block. Comparison with Finchale (another Durham dependency and roughly contemporary with Coldingham) and recent exposure of the north-east corner of this block suggest a three-storey building of some dignity standing as high from its ground level as the present Church does. It appears to have had three entrances from the cloister, one near each end and one in its centre. The lowest storey, which we now see, was vaulted, with arches springing from the corners and the six pillars built into each of the long walls; there may have been central pillars as well, but only one trace of these has been found so far. Outside the south wall were buttresses, arranged opposite the internal pillars. In the east wall is a recess which looks like a fireplace but is thought to have been an aumrie (cupboard) ; this has still to be thoroughly investigated.
The continuing excavations in Edgar's Walls, begun in 1966, have revealed much of the history of this area. The most recent use of the whole field was as a market garden; a little earlier it was a butcher's charnelhouse. Passing through the “ Presbyterian Domestic” level, when part of the building may have served the parish ministers as stable or byre, the period of the various military occupations about the time of the Pinkie campaign (1547) has been suggested by a couple of coins, Scots and English, of the 1540s. Below this, earlier troubles were indicated by finds of fifteenth-century armour and arms as well as the many traces of burning, which included ironwork marking out the shape of a large wooden door.
The second lowest level probably represents the rebuilding needed after King John's destructive visit. Some nine inches of the bottom of the building were filled with fallen masonry, rubble, clay and earth, in which the workmen set rows of posts running both north-south and east-west to hold wattled walls for their temporary quarters. This fill was eventually covered with a cement floor; on it were built a number of rough walls from any stones that might be lying about, including many recognisable as parts of pillars and the like and also the head of a cross which may well be older than the Priory itself.
The lowest level exposed is the Norman one on which the wall pillars stand. Across it runs a later stone-lined drain with minor feeders, which may have had some connection with the cloister well; in parts this has been lined with sheet lead. Throughout the whole area numerous sherds of mediaeval pottery have been found, many of them of a kind not previously known in Scotland. lt has been possible to do a good deal of reconstruction with these, especially water pipes. The results, with a number of other finds, are sometimes on view in the Museum in Eyemouth. Fragments of mediaeval armour and a fifteenth
century dirk are on loan to the National Museum of Antiquities In Edinburgh.
After passing through the transept arch it is worth turning round and looking at the west wall of the transept. Against it are several grave slabs bearing unusual types of stepped crosses (“The Coldingham Crosses"); these were found on the transept floor during the excavations in the 1850s. On one side of them are two interesting old tombstones and on the other an assemblage of fragments of masonry, stone handmills and so on found at the same time and built into the wall: among them is a “pillow” capital, a Norman type, which may have come from the Old Church.
Before leaving the Priory precincts, it may be of interest to those in search of ancestors to know that all the decipherable pre-1855 tombstone inscriptions in Berwickshire have been recorded; a copy of the record is in the County Library.
Coldingham's history is long and complicated. ln the Bronze Age there were numerous settlements in eastern Berwickshire, and the cemetery which existed at Michael's Knowe - the present camping field at Scoutscroft - suggests that Coldingham was an important centre for them. It seems unlikely that St. Ninian's disciples ever penetrated this far east, although they may have reached the Lammermuir, but when Christianity was re-established in Northumbria after the battle of Heavenfield in 633 Columban missionaries from lona were invited to work here.
Early records suggest that one of them, possibly St. Finnian, reached the neighbourhood of Coldingham about 635. Here some ecclesiastical establishment was founded, either at St. Abbs Head or at Coldingham itself, the inmates of which welcomed St. Ebba to Urbs Coludi (to quote the Venerable Bede) when she landed on the Berwickshire coast in 640.
Ebba was a sister of King Oswy of Northumbria. Having a taste for the religious life she first established herself at Ebchester, inside the bounds of a former Roman station on the Durham Derwent. Possibly to escape an unwelcome marriage. she later came north by sea and was soon presiding over one of those double monasteries (with separate communities for men and women) which were a unique Anglo-Saxon feature of religious life. Here St. Cuthbert, the Lammermuir lad who became our local apostle, was a not infrequent visitor on his missionary journeys; Ebba, like two other royal abbesses, paid him the curious compliment of weaving a shroud for him. This foundation was burned down in 679 (tradition says by fire from Heaven because of the sins of its inmates) but was rebuilt, to be burned down again by Danish raiders in 870, in the abbacy of another Ebba.
For the next two centuries we know nothing of Coldingham, either ecclesiastically or civilly. It must however have remained of some importance and value, for in 1098 Edgar, King of Scots, found it a worthy offering to “Almighty God and His holy confessor Cuthbert and his monks," i.e. to the Benedictine monastery of Durham. The gift is described in Edgar’s charter as “ Coldingham and all the land they have in Lothian"; it was a thank-offering for Edgar’s success in driving his uncle from the Scottish throne and making it reasonably safe for the descendants of Malcolm lll (Canmore) and St. Margaret.
Two years later. in 1100, the King himself came to the dedication of “The Church of St. Mary at Coldingham” (the Old Church) and made further gifts of land. His successors and their nobles, and some humbler folk, followed his example and the Coldingham lands soon stretched from Auldcambus to the present Border (with some properties in Berwick itself) and some six miles inland from St. Abbs Head, with other holdings as far west as Swinton and Ednam and scattered possessions as far away as the Tay.
At first there was only the Old Church, served by Durham monks as parish priests. By 1147, when King David I held court here, it had become a Priory, still a dependency of Durham but with a Prior who was of some importance about the Scottish Court and capable of sustaining other royal visits. For two generations the new foundation presumably went its quiet way within the Benedictine Rule, becoming a busy agricultural and trading centre and engaging in some literary activity, with Prior Gaufre writing a History of the Church of Durham and the monk Reginald of Coldingham producing a Life of St. Cuthbert in 122 chapters.
King John of England interrupted this peace. After signing Magna Carta he came north on an unsuccessful punitive expedition and on his way home, in a true Plantagenet rage, he sacked Coldingham and went on to burn Berwick (in those days one of the Royal Burghs of Scotland). It seems that little time was lost in rebuilding the Priory. The Prior at this time was Thomas of Melsonby, later Prior and eventually Bishop of Durham, who is said to have been a man of considerable taste, known to be responsible for the “Nine Altars" in Durham Cathedral; he may well have initiated and encouraged the building of the great Church in whose Choir we still worship.
There were another eighty years of comparative peace under Alexander ll and Alexander lll of Scots, and even during the Wars of Independence Coldingham does not seem to have fared too badly. ln its most prosperous days there was an establishment of some thirty monks with a staff, indoor and outdoor, of about seventy to look after them and their wide properties; in southeast Scotland their revenues were second only to those of the great Abbey of Holyrood. Round the Priory grew up a town which by 1371 could accommodate the justice ayres for the Sheriffdom of Berwick “on account of the houses and hostelries which were there more abundant than elsewhere in the said Sheriffdom.“
The combination of great possessions and its anomalous position as an outpost in Scotland of an English foundation got Coldingham into trouble. ln 1378 Robert ll succeeded for a period in detaching Coldingham from Durham and attaching it to the Benedictine Abbey of Dunfermline in Fife (which eventually happened for good in 1509).
By 1400 neighbouring potentates, first Douglases, then Homes, were looking greedily at the Priory lands and the monks had to put themselves under lay protection, at a price. ln any case they cannot have been in very good shape themselves in this period, for about 1430 their Prior, William Drax or Drake, first robbed a Scottish embassy of money consigned to Henry Vl of England and later set fire to his own Priory.
Royal eyes fell again on Coldingham. in the 1470s James lll proposed the suppression of the Priory and the transfer of its revenues to his Chapel Royal; he later proposed to take half the endowments and apply the other half to turning Coldingham into a collegiate church (a popular form of religious foundation at this time). The Homes and others objected and the matter was eventually settled in 1488 by the defeat of the King _in battle at Sauchieburn and his subsequent assassination.
There were other ways of getting at Coldingham's revenues; almost immediately after its final detachment from Durham and annexation to Dunfermline in 1509 Alexander Stewart, James lV’s brilliant bastard son, was appointed Prior. He soon became Archbishop of St. Andrews and Primate of Scotland, and died with his father at Flodden. For the remainder of its monastic history Coldingham's Priors were mostly Homes or Stewarts, and all concerned only with its temporalities; the eight or nine monks who were still in the Priory between 1500 and the Scottish Reformation in 1560 had dwindled to one by 1588. No new monk appears to have entered the community after 1543.
In the sixteenth century Coldingham passed through trying times, with occasional moments of splendour as when in 1509 it received Margaret Tudor as the bride of James IV. in 1528 it suffered in a quarrel between the Homes and the Earl of Angus and in 1537 it was stormed by one of Henry Vlll‘s generals, Lord Evers, who reported it as "destroyed." Shortly afterwards, however, it was strong enough to be held stoutly against another English force and again in 1547 to require storming by Hertford during the Pinkie campaign. Enough of the Priory remained to hold a garrison and stand a siege by Scottish troops under Arran, and even after that Coldingham was capable of housing 6,000 English soldiers on their way to the siege of Leith in 1560. Six years later the Priory could still accommodate the train of a thousand who accompanied Queen Mary on a Border journey—and perhaps the Queen herself, though Houndwood House also claims this distinction.
After the Union of the Crowns in 1603 a peaceful future might have been expected. However, in 1648 what remained of the Priory, now containing the parish church, was garrisoned against Cromwell who brought cannon to the top of Coldingham Law and ousted the defenders after a two-day siege. He tried to blow up the Choir of the old monastic Church, which presumably had been the strength of the defence, but fortunately only succeeded in destroying two of the four walls. For fourteen years the buildings lay desolate until in 1662, after the Restoration of Charles ll, the Royalist laird of Coldinghamlaw rebuilt the south and west walls on the old foundations. With that short break the present site has been used almost continuously for Divine Worship from at least 1100 to the present day.