by Jacquie (Hedley) Emerson

        Ovingham, a village of about 1300 people is situated on the banks of the Tyne River twelve miles west of Newcastle Upon Tyne.  To its north lies Hadrians Wall, built by occupying Roman soldiers between 112 and 128 A.D. to separate Roman occupied territory from the marauding tribes to the north.  By 400 A.D. the Romans had withdrawn from Britain, and the Tyne Valley was relatively unoccupied until the Saxons colonized it about 590 A.D.  The name, Ovingham, means "enclosure (or farm) of the kin of Offa," presumably the first Saxon chief to settle there. 1
        In 627 the King of Northumbria, Edwin, had accepted the Christian faith, which had been carried to Northumberland by Paulinus under the direction of Pope Gregory the Great in Rome;  however, Edwin was killed in battle a few years later, and the Roman mission collapsed.  His successor, Oswald, had been living in exile on Iona, an island in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland.  St. Columba of Ireland, along with twelve disciples, had made Iona the centre of Celtic Christianity, converting the whole of Northern  Scotland.  After hearing of Edwin's death, Oswald, an earnest Christian, gathered an army and in 635 reunited the whole of Northumbria under his own rule.   He sent a request to Iona for missionaries, and eventually Aiden arrived and began a successful mission, making his abode on the island of Lindisfarne.  Travelling through the Tyne Valley, a distinctive figure, with his hair shaved back from his forehead in the fashion of the Celtic monks, Aiden established, in Northumbria, Christianity in its Celtic form.  Unfortunately, in the struggles for power that followed, Oswald was killed in battle and Aiden was murdered.  The Celtic church with its monastic ideal was abandoned and Roman Catholicism adopted, bringing Northumbria again into touch with Rome and the Christianity of Southern England.  Churches began to appear in the Tyne Valley, and by 690 a stone church had been constructed at Ovingham, making use of the ample supply of dressed stone from the abandoned Hadrian's Wall.  It was probably cared for by a community of Celtic monks.
        Near the end of the 9th century the Tyne Valley suffered the scourge of Viking attacks, mainly from Denmark, but eventually Viking families settled in the area, and the years from 950 to 1050 were relatively peaceful.  During this period, the stone church was enlarged by the addition, to the existing structure, of several chapels and three apses (semi-circular, vaulted structures around the altar), more than doubling its original size.  The ancient parish of Ovingham was much larger than the present parish.  It straddled the Tyne River and included Prudhoe and Hedley on the Hill (map) to the south and extended to the line of Hadrian's Wall to the north.  After the Reformation it also included Wylam.
        About 990 a Saxon stone tower was added, still an impressive feature of the church over 1000 years later.  The doorways from the church to the tower were high up, indicating the tower's use as a refuge from both the avenging Normans and the raiding Scots.  After the Battle of Hastings in 1066,  William the Conqueror carried out a systematic campaign to subdue the rebellious Saxons.  He confiscated large tracts of land and gave them to his followers, put down rebellions, substituted foreign prelates for many English bishops and made a survey of England (The Doomsday Book) for taxation purposes.
         A large estate on the present site of the town of Prudhoe, across the Tyne River from Ovingham, was given to a Norman family, the De Umfravilles, who built a castle on it which they defended against the Scots.  They were also instrumental in winning, with others, the battle of Alnwick in 1174. With the family's growing importance, they turned their attention to the need for a church worthy of their name.  Thus they began the rebuilding and beautification of the stone church.  It began with the construction of the Norman doorway around 1200.
         Towards the end of the century Ovingham Parish became enmeshed in national politics.  The Umfravilles were border barons, loyal to the English throne, but interested in extending their power to Scotland.  In 1268 the King of Scotland died without an heir, and thirteen men at once laid claim to the throne of Scotland.  Edward I of England, after an unsuccessful attempt to arrange for a successor, ruled Scotland himself.  A rebellion led by Scottish patriot William Wallace in 1297 was crushed with great severity.  A new champion, Robert Bruce, appeared and cleared the English from Scottish territory.  In spite of this victory the Scottish border wars continued, and Ovingham was twice burned to the ground.  In 1328 the English recognized Scottish independence, with Robert Bruce as king.

        By 1378 the main line of the Umfravilles was dying out, and Prudhoe Castle was acquired by the Percys through the marriage of Henry Percy to to the widow of Gilbert de Umfraville.  Percy gave the care of Ovingham Church to nearby Hexham Priory on condition that monks be moved to the church.  The Hexham Augustinian House provided a master and three canons, who took up living quarters in a pele tower where the old vicarage now stands.  For 150 years, until the Reformation reached England, Augustinian canons served Ovingham Church and administered its lands, including the master's farm, west of Prudhoe Castle.
       The Act of Supremacy of 1534 made the King head of the Church in England and took over the wealth of the monasteries.  When the commissioners of Henry VIII came to close Hexham Priory, the leader of the protest was the master of Ovingham who, dressed in armour, challenged the commissioners from the Priory roof.  "It was inappropriate clothing for a monk, and he was hanged."
        The people of the Tyne valley were involved in the 1536 rebellion called the "Pilgrimage of Grace" protesting the abolition of papal supremacy.  It ended with the execution of the leaders.  During this time many of the ornaments and images of Ovingham church were destroyed.
        The Puritan advance in the early 1600's imposed a new style ministry intended "to draw people from idolatry to a purer commitment to God and His Word."  It brought with it more devastation to the church building, removing whatever decoration had survived the Reformation, including the statue over the porch door and the decoration on the 12th century baptismal font.
        The English Civil War, which raged between 1642 and 1646 arose from disputes between the Stuart King Charles I and Parliament.  It ended with the beheading of Charles and the governing of England as a republic, eventually under the autocratic control of Oliver Cromwell.  The Restoration of the Monarchy in the 1660's was accompanied by the persecution of  republicans and Quakers and the return of militant Anglicanism.  The Ovingham preacher, after his dismissal, moved to the outskirts of the parish, where he opened a new Congregational Church.  The vicars of the Restoration period started the Ovingham parish registers.
        In 1745 the people of the Tyne valley took part in the "Forty-Five" rebellion, led by James Radcliffe, Earl of Derwentwater, who lived at Dilson Hall, twelve miles west of Ovingham.  It was a last attempt of the exiled Stuarts to claim the throne of England.  Supporters of the Stuart claim, mostly Roman Catholics, were known as Jacobites, from the Latin name for James.

        1   Most of the information and all of the material within quotation marks  in this brief outline of the history of Ovingham Parish were taken from a booklet by David Goodacre, Vicar of Ovingham, Offa's Church: St. Mary the Virgin, Ovingham, 2nd ed., (Prudhoe, Northumberland: B.E.E.D. printing, 1990).


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