History: 12th to 20th Centuries


In the early evening of 29th December, a gang of armed men rushed into the cathedral and hacked the archbishop to death. The news spread quickly – all Christendom was appalled. The King of England later did public penance.

Thomas Becket and Henry II
It happened in 1170 in Canterbury. The King was Henry II and the archbishop was Thomas Becket.Becket was born in Cheapside in 1118, of Norman parents, in the reign of Henry's grandfather, Henry I. It was only 52 years after the Norman conquest. A family friend introduced him into the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent him abroad to study canon law. Later Theobald gave him deacon’s orders and made him Archdeacon of Canterbury; then he commended him to the king. In 1155, Henry chose Thomas as Chancellor – a position of great power. King and Chancellor became very close and Becket to serve the King well for seven years as statesman, diplomat and soldier. 

In 1162, however, Theobald died and Henry had Thomas appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking he would be more used to him as Chancellor and Archbishop than just as Chancellor. Becket was still only a deacon; he was ordained priest only the day before being made archbishop. On appointment Becket changed from being, in his words, “a patron of playactors and a follower of hounds, to being a shepherd of souls.” He gave lavishly to the poor, lived an austere life, and, to Henry's dismay, resigned as Chancellor.

He warned the King of the likely consequences of his appointment. Soon they came into conflict over the power of the church to try clerics under canon law (and even the laity in many situations). Justice under canon law was in the main cheaper and more equitable than under the civil courts, and was fairly popular with the people, but Henry was determined to establish a uniform system of law for all, rich and poor, priest and layman. Becket was determined that the church should keep any power it had possessed in the past.

The next difference between them came in 1164 over the Constitutions of Clarendon. Henry appealed to 'the ancient customs of the realm', and tried to claw back privileges which the church had acquired during the civil war between the previous king, Stephen, and Henry's mother, Matilda, when the church provided the only consistent body of law in the land. 

Henry was a man of fierce passions, and during the long quarrel between king and archbishop, the nobles, and even most other churchmen, saw that their best interests lay in supporting the king. 

Thomas fled, and spent several years in exile. Henry confiscated Becket's Canterbury estates and drove his family abroad. Then in 1170 the king had his eldest son, another Henry, crowned as joint ruler with his father.

The coronation was performed by the Archbishop of York, assisted by other bishops, in contravention of the rights of Canterbury. This coronation was a blunder by the king – it alienated the Pope, it offended King Louis of France whose daughter, young Henry's wife, was not crowned and it showed Becket as a victim of outrage. 

Partly to allay these feelings, Henry allowed himself and Becket to be reconciled, at Fréteval, in July 1170. 

Thomas, saying "I go into England to die", crossed the channel in December 1170, while Henry was in France (Henry had a greater possessions in France than the French king himself). 

One of Thomas' first acts was to suspend the Archbishop of York and to excommunicate two bishops who had assisted in the coronation of the young king. The bishops complained to Henry, and told him that Becket was rampaging about the country with a train of armed men. Henry was incensed. Four of his knights, Reginald fitz Urse, Richard le Breton, Hugh de Morville and William Tracey, decided to enforce what they thought was Henry's will. They crossed the channel and killed Becket, striking him down with extreme violence in Canterbury Cathedral.

Immediately after the murder miracles were reported. Becket was canonised two years later. A glorious shrine was completed in 1220 to house his bones. During the middle ages this became the most popular place of pilgrimage in southern England, equalled only in the north by St. Cuthbert's shrine at Durham. In Canterbury Becket's bones rested for more than 300 years until the time of Henry VIII.

Very soon churches were being built in Becket's honour. Most of these were in the S.W. of the country, but one was built in Newcastle on Tyne, at the north east of the old bridge (where the swing bridge is now). The new castle, from which the town was named, was then about a hundred years old, and the town was tiny. Until the nineteenth century there was only one bridge. 

There is no record of who built 'the chapel by the bridge', but we might guess. One of Becket's murderers, Hugh de Morville, was a northerner, and had been Justice Itinerant (travelling administrator and judge) in Northumberland before the murder. After Becket's death the four murderers were excommunicated, but soon they were absolved, and later de Morville was reinstated as Justice. Perhaps in penitence he founded the first church of St. Thomas the Martyr in Newcastle.

The same may have happened elsewhere: in Bovey Tracey, Devon, there is a church, of St. Thomas founded, according to legend, by another of Becket's murderers, William Tracey. 

There is no record of when the chapel was built. A mention that the prelate of St. Thomas the Martyr's chapel was assassinated in 1171 seems too early to be credible. It must have been built fairly soon after Becket's murder, as it is mentioned often in the 1200s.

In 1248 most of the town, including the wooden footway of the bridge, was destroyed by fire. The chapel escaped, and Lawrence 'the keeper of the bridge and chapel' was appointed collector of money for rebuilding. , The bridge was then rebuilt in stone, much of the money being provided by the church (even the bishop of Waterford, Ireland, promised his prayers for those who contributed). However part of this bridge was wrecked by flood in 1339, and for much of the 1300s, it was ruinous. Luckily in 1370 a sum of 10 marks was found belonging to the bridge and the same belonging to the chapel.

In 1329 one William Heron founded a chantry in the chapel, dedicated to St. Ann, and endowed it with £4 17s a year (raised from rents of tenements in Sand Hill) to pay for a priest to pray for 'his soul and all Christian souls for ever'. There was a second chantry in the chapel dedicated to St. Mary, endowed with £4. 3s 6d. a year, from rents raised in The Close and The Side. Under the chapel were three cellars: in 1347 William Spyn, the chaplain, let one of these for a rent of 14/- per annum.

The chapel owned property in various parts of town, including the Earl of Northumberland Inn in the Close. In 1408 a jury before the king confirmed the chapel in the ownership of Sandyford Flatt and the windmill below Jesmond. The chapel benefited in 1429 from the will of Roger Thornton,  a Newcastle worthy who left it three acres of land and three meadows in Whickham, and six fothers of lead to repair the roof. He also left £2 to the lepers of St. Mary Magdalen's Hospital, later to be united with the chapel, and 100 marks to repair the bridge.

St. Mary Magdalen's Hospital
The chapel by the bridge and its history constitute the first strand in the history of the present church. The second strand, that of the site, can be traced from before the chapel was founded.

Soldiers returning from the crusades in the reign of Henry I brought the disease of leprosy to England, and leper hospitals were built outside the walls of most important towns. Outside Newcastle a hospital was founded, near a bridge later known as Barras bridge, by Henry I himself. This site was well placed for the collection of aims from the pilgrims passing (from 'Pilgrim' street) between Newcastle and St. Mary's chapel, Jesmond. Across the North Road stood St. James', another leper hospital, an appendage to St. Mary Magdalen's.
The hospital held much property in the town, left to it by the rich and pious. In the 13th century Adam of Jesmond left it in his will a 24acre farm in Jesmond, and in 1272 Adam's widow had to take the Master of the hospital to court to retrieve her dower, which her husband had included as part of this bequest.
In the 16th century Henry VIll dissolved the monasteries, and the hospital was officially closed, but it was overlooked by the king's officials and therefore continued in existence. In Henry's list of colleges and chantries in Northumberland and Durham can be found the following description:  

‘The hospital of St. Mary Magdalen in the suburbs of the town of Newcastle on Tyne within the parish of St. Andrew's was founded by report to the intent there should be a master, brethren and sisters to receive all sick leprous folk as should fortune to be diseased of that kind of sickness, and with the revenues of the same the said lepers were relieved, and since that kind of sickness abated it is used for the comfort and help of the poor folks of the town that chanceth to fall sick in time of pestilence.’

According to this survey, the yearly value of the hospital was £9. 11s. 4d. The ornaments were valued at 9s. 2d.

The overlooking of this hospital explains how in 1542 the Master, Burrell, was abie to lease 'a place called Spitell-Tongs' and other lands to Robert Brandling for 85 years, with permission to sink coal pits in 'Spitell-Tongs' and Jesmond fields, for a rent of £3. 6s. 8d. p.a., or a third of the profit on any coal found (but only if the hospital paid a third of the costs).

A curious incident took place in 1564. Queen Elizabeth presented Edmund Wiseman as Master, but he was prevented from taking up the post by the Mayor and Corporation, 'who had presented thereto from time immemorial'. Maybe as a result of this, in 1582 the hospital was granted away by Queen Elizabeth.

However, it was reinstated by the next king: for the deeds of the hospital, and also of the chapel by the bridge were lost and some people 'were attempting to appropriate their several possessions to their own use. 
James I, by Royal Charter, incorporated the two foundations together: the chapel was largely rebuilt, and was intended to be the chapel of the hospital, despite the distance between them.

The new foundation was to have a Master (at least a Master of Arts), and three poor, unmarried burgesses. This body was to have a common seal, could set and receive rents and have power to sue and be sued. The Mayor and Corporation as patrons had power to alter the statutes. The Master was to receive one third of the rents received, and the burgesses the other two thirds. At this time there were fourteen poor people living in the hospital, receiving a room, coal and 14/ a month, and fifteen outside, some receiving 8/, some 5/ and some 2/6d a month.

The first Master of the united chapel and hospital, Mr. Jennison, searched the archives to discover what lands were owned. Through his vigilance all was retrieved and the charity's income much augmented.

The chapel was 'beautified and pewed' by the corporation in 1732 and became a ‘Chapel at Ease to' St. Nicholas'. It then seated 300 people.

By the late 18th century the town had grown, and good access to the one bridge became vital. The west end of the chapel was rounded off in 1770, and the steeple removed: these alterations were made 'in a motley and unpleasing manner'. The problem was not solved, and more alterations were needed during subsequent years.

In 1771 there was a great flood. Much damage was done, and many lives were lost. The water rose twelve feet above high spring tide level, and the bridge was destroyed, as were all bridges over the Tyne except that at Corbridge. One of the houses on the bridge fell into the river and was found floating at Jarrow, with a cat and dog inside and unhurt. The chapel was flooded but not substantially damaged, and money to rebuild the bridge was collected by the chaplain, as on past occasions.

By 1827 it was felt that the old chapel had to go. The Corporation bought it from the governing body. On 9th March the Master, Mr. Wastney, preached the last sermon. Demolition began soon afterwards.

The present church

A new church was built in 'the Magdalenes', to the north of the old hospital buildings, some of which, had been converted into dwelling houses. St. Mary's Place was built about the same time.

The spot was fairly rural still: to the north of the church a stream ran from the town moor, under the Barras bridge, and then eastwards past the new church, before turning towards the Tyne. From there on it flowed through the Pandon Dene, a rural area of cottages, gardens, orchards, and winding lanes.
This beauty did not last long after the church was built. Newcastle had filled in most of its denes, to make room for the town to expand. A tunnel (which passes under the church) was excavated in 1842 for a wagonway from Spital Tongues to the river, and the excavated earth was used to fill the dene below Barras Bridge. Gradually the stream was culverted and the whole dene filled in.
The outlook would have been a busy one. The mail and stage coaches to and from Edinburgh, Alnwick, Morpeth and Berwick would all have crossed the Barras bridge daily, and also carriers, and private and hackney coaches (to any part of Newcastle extending to the Barras bridge, the fare for one person was one shilling.)

The new church, to cost £6,000 (to which the Corporation contributed for seating for the poor) was built in gothic style, with flying buttresses and pinnacles, and with an unusual tower pierced by large and empty bell openings which add lightness to the bulk of the building. The church was designed by the famous Newcastle architect, John Dobson, who also built the Central Station, Grainger Market and Jesmond Parish Church.

Outwardly the church must look as it did then, apart from discoloration of the stones. Inside it has been frequently altered to adapt it to changing times.
An organ was built in 1832, perhaps by John Gay. Galleries were added in 1837: these were probably part of the original plan, though they detract from the look from outside of the tall paired windows. The extra seating would have been invaluable to the inhabitants of the new terraces being built north of the town, and also to the people of Jesmond, who had no church and used first St. Andrews' and after 1830 St. Thomas'. Jesmond Parish Church was not built until 1859.

The church was reseated in 1881, and the stained glass of the east end put in. The central window, which depicts the Passion and Ascension, was given as a memorial to Richard Clayton, a much-loved Master.

The old organ was removed in 1960 and a new one was built by Harrison and Harrison of Durham, designed by Donald Wright who was the organist of St. Thomas' for many years. The case was designed by Bruce Alsopp FRIBA. This organ is a very fine instrument. It stands in the west gallery, with the console in the south gallery overlooking the altar and choir stalls.

In 1972 the high altar, which had stood on a stepped marble platform, was lowered. The chancel screen, a memorial to the men of the north east who fell in the Boer War, was removed (to Beamish museum), and the chancel was extended into the nave, with an altar standing centrally on a low dais. The west end of the church was reorganised: the font and several pews were removed, the area carpeted and new doors fitted.

Ten years on more was done: rewiring, improvements in the kitchen area, some redecorating and the repair of cracks caused by the digging of the Metro tunnel (which passes under the church only four feet below the wagonway tunnel). Acoustic screens and display racks were supplied so the area can be used for meetings or exhibitions.

The Chapel of St. Thomas the Martyr has no parish. After being united for more than three hundred and fifty years, the church and the St. Mary Magdalen charity were separated in 1978 and the St. Thomas Chapel Charity was set up. This small charity was assigned the grounds (though not the church, the ownership of which presents unresolved legal problems) and given an endowment, the income from which must be spent on the Master's stipend or on the fabric of the building. A large part of the Charity's capital was made available for repairs to the tower, carried out with additional funds from an appeal launched in 1986. The Charity's capital is now being replaced out of its reduced income. Substantial grants from English Heritage went towards other work, which included replacing the timber wall plate (which supports the roof beams) on the south side of the church, and repairs to the stonework.

St. Thomas' Day falls on 29th December, the anniversary of his murder. The collect from the Roman Catholic Missal for that day is:

Almighty God,
you granted the martyr Thomas 
the grace to give his life for the cause of justice: 
by his prayers 
make us willing to renounce for Christ our life in this world 
so that we may find it in heaven. Amen

Kit Widdows, Master from 1995-2007 (slightly adapted)