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The Night Stair

Thirty-five worn stone steps rise from the south transept of Hexham Abbey, leading to a broad gallery behind a stone parapet, with three doorways opening from it. People have used this Night Stair through eight centuries. It was probably built early in the 13th century by masons working for the team of canons who then lived and prayed in the Priory.

The canons, 26 of them when the Priory was at full strength, lived together as a close-knit society but worked among the wider community outside the Priory walls. Much of their time was spent at prayer in the Choir; but as ordained priests they also served in village churches, taught the young and ministered to the needy. In this they differed from monks, who chose a secluded life for their worship and godly learning. Within the Priory buildings the canons ate, slept and worshipped together, living by a strict Rule that was based on the teaching of St Augustine of Hippo (354-439). Augustine had advised a godly life of poverty, simplicity and practical good works, and in the 11th century religious folk agreed that this was how their lives should be ordered. The first canons arrived at Hexham in 1113, sent by the new Norman Archbishop of York, but it was some time before work began on their new church and the cloistral buildings beside it. As in most monastic churches, their refectory (or frater) occupied the south side of the cloister; their dormitory (dorter) was on the east side, continuing at upper level from the end of the south transept, above the canons’ parlour or day-room.

There is nothing left of the dormitory now, but it would have stretched from the present Song School into what is now Beaumont Street. The Rule required the canons to pray together In the Choir seven times each day, and to start with a service as soon as they rose from their beds. Long before first light the Priory bell woke them; it could have been at midnight or around two or three o’clock, for the actual hour varied with the season and changed over the centuries. Led by one of the younger canons bearing a candle or lantern they descended the Night Stair to say prayers and sing psalms in the Choir. This service of Matins, when the canons said Nocturns marked the start of the working day. During the day, when they returned to the Choir for Prime, Terce, the daily Mass, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, the canons came directly from the cloister, using the doorway (now blocked) at the foot of the Night Stair. Only for the early services was the Night Stair used.

In 1537 the Priory was dissolved and the canons pensioned off. The dormitory, no longer used, fell into decay, and was pulled down at some time in the next century; recently the Song School has replaced its northern end. In most other English monasteries, the Night Stair also passed out of use, leading nowhere; it was often removed as a dangerous ruin .In such ruined abbeys as Fountains, Rievaulx and Finchale the opening in the south transept wall remains where the Night Stair once led to the dormitory, but only at Hexham does anything more then a trace remain of the Stair itself. It survived here because it led not only to the dormitory but also to the gallery and two other doors opening from it. One led to the spiral stairway to the clerestory, the tower and bell-chamber, the other to the room above the Market Place doorway once called the Sanctuary Chamber. The accident that saved the Stair was itself the result of an earlier chance. Soon after the canons moved in they began rebuilding the church then they went to work on a new layout for the buildings around the cloister garth, including the slype passageway outside the transept wall through which the canons would leave the enclosed courtyard of their home. Then, about 1180, there came a revised plan: the priory church was to be enlarged; but without changing the position of the cloistral buildings and the slype. So the enlarged south transept took in the slype, and it occupied the end bay with the broad gallery and the sanctuary chamber filling the space above. For some 80 years after that the canons used the stair each night and then their orderly Iives were disrupted when, in 1298, a Scottish army burned the Priory. If tradition is to be believed, lead from the blazing roof dripped on to the steps and remains there to this day.

Nowadays, the Night Stair is still much used. The choir uses it regularly, and for festive occasions it is adorned with candles or with flowers. It makes an admirable setting for dramatic and musical entertainments. For visitors, it is a viewpoint from which to admire the broad sweep of the transepts, the sturdy piers of the tower, the organ and the screen, and the richly coloured Victorian glass filling the 13th-century lancet windows.

Text: Tom Corfe