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The History of Hexham

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Hexham is an ancient market town in Northumberland, England, established just south of the River Tyne . The name of Hexham derives from the Saxon ‘hagustalt’ denoting a younger son who takes land outside the settlement, and ‘ham’ meaning hamlet or village. Although it doesn’t owe its original existence to the abbey, it was the presence of that great ecclesiastical edifice that drove the town’s expansion through its early years and the Middle Ages. Hexham Abbey started out as a humble monastery founded by Saint Wilfrid in 674. The crypt of this original Saxon monastery is intact and incorporates many stones robbed from the many Roman ruins in the area, such as nearby Coria or Hadrian's Wall . The current buildings at Hexham Abbey date mainly from the two hundred years following the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century. The abbey underwent a major redevelopment in 19th century. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the murdered King Ælfwald was buried in Hexham in 788: “This year Alfwald, king of the Northumbrians, was slain by Siga, on the ninth day before the calends of October; and a heavenly light was often seen on the spot where he was slain. He was buried at Hexham in the church.” This burial would have done a lot to raise Hexham’s profile and attract valuable pilgrims to the abbey.

Towns and settlements along the border between England and Scotland suffered continually from the wars with the Scots. Hexham was no different and was attacked from William Wallace who razed the town down in 1297. In 1312, Robert the Bruce , King of Scotland, demanded a surety of £2000 from the town and monastery. In those times that was a very substantial sum of money but they paid up to spare themselves ruin, and worse, at the hands of his marauding troops.

During the Wars of the Roses , the Battle of Hexham was fought somewhere to the south of the town. The actual site is the subject of debate but the date was 1464. The defeated Lancastrian commander Duke of Somerset was executed in Hexham market place. The battle gave rise to a legend that Queen Margaret of Anjou took refuge in what is known as The Queen's Cave where she was attacked by a robber but the truth is that Queen Margaret had fled to France by the time the battle took place.

The Abbey is situated at the west end of the market place, where Hexham also has the Shambles. This is a covered market built in 1766 by Sir Walter Blackett and now a listed building. Other historic Hexham buildings include the Moot Hall and the Old Gaol which was was one of the first purpose built jails in England. Constructed between 1330-3 it is also a listed building as well as a scheduled monument it was commissioned by the Archbishop of York.

In 1715 the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, James Radclyffe, raised the colours for James Francis Edward Stuart in Hexham Market place. The uprising was short lived and Radclyffe was captured and beheaded after the Battle of Preston . More trouble came in 1761, the year the Hexham Riot broke out. A crowd gathered in the Market Place protesting about changes in the criteria for serving in the militia was fired upon by troops from North Yorkshire Militia. Fifty-one protesters were shot dead and the event earned the Militia the name of The Hexham Butchers. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the market town was renowned for making gloves known as Hexham Tans. At the time it was an important centre for the leather trade. In 2001 Hexham had a population of 11,139.

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