Hartlepool Abbey

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Hartlepool Abbey was a Northumbrian monastery founded in 640 CE by Hieu, the first of the saintly recluses of Northumbria,[1] and Aidan of Lindisfarne, on the Headland Estate of Hartlepool now called the Heugh or Old Hartlepool, in County Durham, England.

Construction and early days[edit]

Built in the early Saxon style, it was likely a walled enclosure of simple wooden huts surrounding a church. It was a joint-house of both monks and nuns, presided over from 640-649 by Hieu, the first female abbess to ever be put in charge of such an institution.[2] In 649 after Hieu left for Tadcaster, Hilda (later Hilda of Whitby) was appointed second abbess of the abbey by Bishop Aidan. In 655, King Oswiu of Northumbria sent his one-year-old daughter Ælfflæd to stay with Hilda, "to be consecrated to God in perpetual virginity",[3] an important gesture. Hilda stayed at Hartlepool Abbey until 657 or 658 when at Aidans behest she became founding abbess of Whitby Abbey, then called Streoneshalh.[4][5]

The monastery then disappears from history, and it is possible that it either ceased to operate or that it moved to and became the nucleus of Hilda's new foundation.


A village was founded around the monastery in the 7th century, marking the earliest beginnings of the modern town of Hartlepool. However, after Hilda left Hartlepool Abbey it, and the village surrounding it, is not mentioned again in any known sources[6] until the 12th century,[7] and appears to have declined in importance until it was finally either sacked and destroyed by Danish Vikings around 800,[8] or possibly simply abandoned.[9]

Double monastery[edit]

St Hilda's church, Hartlepool.

Hartlepool was a double monastery. Hilda ruled men and women[5][10] Bede speaks of male students in the monasteries of the Abbess Hilda,[1] and there are male names on the head stones, and male interments in the cemetery.[11]

List of abbesses[edit]

Name Date appointed Abbess Date Left Notes went to
Hieu 640AD 649AD Founder of Abbey Tadcaster
Hilda 649AD 658AD [3][5] Whitby Abbey


No trace of the monastery remains today, though the monastic cemetery has been found near the present-day St Hilda’s Church. It is the most extensively explored of all the Northumbrian monasteries of the 7th and 8th centuries, beginning in 1833 when workmen building houses on the headland found human burials and Anglo-Saxon artefacts.[9][12] A namestone found during this excavation can be found on display in St Hilda's Church. Significant finds are still being unearthed to this day.[9] Hartlepool Abbey was featured in a March, 2000 episode of archaeological television programme Time Team,[12] called "Nuns in Northumbria", where bones and a book clasp were found.


  1. ^ a b Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, lib. iv, c. 23.
  2. ^ Archaeologia Aeliana, xix, 47.
  3. ^ a b Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, lib. iii, c. 24.
  4. ^ Mattew Paris, Chron. Maj. (Rolls Ser.), i, 302.
  5. ^ a b c "Saxon Houses: including Wearmouth and Jarrow", A History of the County of Durham: Volume 2 (1907), pp. 79-85.
  6. ^ Archaeologia Aeliana, xvii, 205.
  7. ^ Old Hartlepool - This is Hartlepool
  8. ^ Legend of St. Cuthbert (1626) by Robert Hegg seems to suggest that the monastery was destroyed: "Then [i.e. in A.D. 800] perished that famous emporium of Hartlepool, where the religious Hieu built a nunnery . . . whose ruins show how great she was in her glory."
  9. ^ a b c Tees Archaeology - Saxon Monastery, Hartlepool
  10. ^ Bede, Hist. Eccles. lib. iv.
  11. ^ Journ. of Brit. Arch. Assoc. i, 185; V.C.H. Dur. i, p212.
  12. ^ a b Channel 4 – Time Team

Coordinates: 54°41′42″N 1°10′51″W / 54.69500°N 1.18083°W / 54.69500; -1.18083