Hexham Abbey: Where Romans Come Out Of The Walls

MikeachimThe Everyday2 Comments

We step through the doors (modern, efficient, out of place) and into Hexham Abbey…and the world goes silent.

After a few seconds, I realise that’s not quite true. The great outdoors – which currently consists of a howling wind throwing frigid rain up your nostrils – is being held at bay, somewhere very distant. It’s only when we’re halfway down the Nave that its fury gets through to us, as a distant roar you imagine you can feel in your knees. It’s a savage night, and Hexham is taking a battering.

I wander up and down, trying to remember the church architecture parts of my Archaeology degree. Luckily (or unfortunately) I don’t have to, as my companion knows a thing or two on the subject.  He points things out, and I nod sagely in an attempt to hide my bewilderment. What I’m finding most fascinating, as always in such structures, is the world-building. Step into a building as big as Hexham Abbey or York Minster and you really do feel you’ve stepped through a doorway into Somewhere Else – a transporting, transformative experience, to use a banal phrase that conveys little of the feeling of having been, well, conveyed. I’ve just come in from Hexham – but it feels like I’ve left Hexham.

It’s easy to slip into a timid, unquestioning reverence in places of worship, especially if you’re English. Shuffle around, make the right noises with slow, unhasty gestures, ponder on Godly things, pop some money into the donation box and file out. There’s a pressure to behave in a certain way, the same as in airports. There are roles to slip into – in this case, being a non-believer, I’m only dimly aware of them.

But I’m walking far too softly, too far into my thoughts. Something in me is disgusted. “You’re here to observe and learn, not disappear into yourself”. I want to take photos but my camera is dying – it’ll die tomorrow, on the Wall (which is why these aren’t my photos). I want to rebel, the same way I did when I momentarily found myself at the back of York Minster one day, just past midnight, everyone waiting for me outside, and I stood at one end, faced down into the vast cavern of one of Britain’s most famous sacred spaces, and whistled a few notes of the X-Files theme tune. (Let me tell you – it sounded incredible).

By a blocked doorway is a 9 foot high sandstone slab. It’s pitted and softened by time, but the figure of a horse-rider wielding a staff can still be seen, another man cowering on the ground as the horse rears over him. The rider is armoured (plumed helmet and all) and his sword is sheathed, while the naked, wild-bearded man on the ground is clutching his in apparent desperation. It even looks like the rider is kicking the prone man up the backside (now there’s symbolism for you). It’s a powerful scene. What’s truly remarkable is that it’s 2,000 years old – and we know who the rider was.

Flavinus was the standard-bearer of the Petrian cavalry, a Roman mounted unit based at the fort of Coria (modern-day Corbridge) south of  Hadrian’s Wall around AD 80. Since many troops manning the Wall were Romanized auxilia (Latin for “help”), and since the Ala Petriana came from Gaul, it’s possible Flavinus was by birth a Celt. Through his 7-year military service he diverted some of his pay into a regimental burial fund. We know these details because like the modern variety, Roman tombstones were inscribed – and this is the marker for the last resting place of Flavinus, dead at the age of 25. It’s believed to have been brought from Corbridge by the builders of the Anglo Saxon abbey of St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, in the late 7th Century. By the 12th Century the Benedictine abbey had become an Augustinian priory, and the tombstone was positioned face upwards in the east end of the cloister. There it was found in 1881 by Charles Clement Hodges. And here it is today.

It’s far from the only piece of Roman stonework in the abbey, or in Hexham, or in the many historic buildings dotting the landscape along Hadrian’s Wall. This is another sign that history is populated by people acting like people. If you’re building a garden wall and there’s a handy pile of bricks nearby, hey, why not? If you’re building a 7th Century abbey and there’s a handy pile of Roman stonework nearby – why not? Stone is precious, and people make do with what’s available. For that reason, it’s possible to find the structural handiwork of the Roman Army in the unlikeliest of places in this landscape – sheltered from the ravages of time by being wedged out of the way, forgotten but still useful, until that building crumbles or is taken apart and someone knows enough about what they’re looking at to call an archaeologist…

I’m heading towards the door, but James beckons me over to some steps leading under the floor, from which someone is emerging.

“Can we have a look”?

She agrees (evidently we don’t look the type to steal Baby Jesus), and down we go.

It’s dry down here, and the air is thick and close.

We’re in the crypt of St. Wilfrid’s. It’s tempting to say we’ve stepped back into the 7th Century, but these are chambers and passageways with 1,400 years clearly visible in the deeply pitted stones, the scrapes and splats of repairwork mortar themselves as severely eroded – the unsettlingly friable look of the stonework, a feeling that vanishes when you lay a hand against it, and returns again when you lift your hand and see the powder on your fingers.

We walk to the end of one passageway, and stop.

James points at a slab in the ceiling, not itself doing anything special – but there are letters, broken off (the other half of the inscription is now in the Nave), eroded and partly defaced:

The Emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius  Severus Pius Pertinax and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius (Caracalla), Augusti, [and Publius Septimius Geta Caesar] built this granary with the detachment of the…

Sometimes the search for ancient history doesn’t require transportation into another world. It’s right there, embedded in yours.

Further reading:

Hexham Abbey: Flavinus and Crypt.

Images: Dick Penn, NightFall404, Mike Quinn, Paul McGreevy and nicksarebi.