The Anglo-Saxon monastery at Hartlepool is mentioned in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which was written at Jarrow in AD 731 by the monk Bede. According to Bede the monastery at Hartlepool was founded by the nun Heiu in the 640s AD. This monastery was named Heruteu, meaning the island of the hart or stag. Heruteu was a dual monastery ruled by an abbess, in which the monks and nuns lived separately. When Heiu left in AD 649 Bishop Aidan appointed another nun, Hild (later St. Hilda), to take over as the head of the monastery.
Hild was the great-niece of King Edwin of Northumbria and had become a nun a few years earlier. This royal connection was reinforced in AD 655 when King Oswiu gave his baby daughter Aelfflaed into Hild’s care. In AD 657 land was given to Hild to found a monastery at Whitby, and although she retained control of Hartlepool, both church and royal attention moved there with her.
Anglo-Saxon finds were first made in Hartlepool in 1833 during the building of houses between South Crescent and Prissick Street. The workmen uncovered an Anglo-Saxon cemetery with burials laid in rows, with the bodies aligned north to south, which is unusual for Christian burials.
The cemetery is significant as the graves included a number of inscribed stones marked with personal names and crosses. These namestones are similar to others found in Scotland and Ireland and help to date the cemetery to the 8th century. An original namestone found in 1833 is on display in St. Hilda’s Church.
During the following 100 years, further accidental finds were made in the same area. None of the human remains from these or the earlier discoveries survive and we know very little about the people who were buried here. In 1999 the Time Team visited to try to find the cemetery. A number of front gardens were excavated before a complete female skeleton was found. She was reburied in the aisle of St. Hilda’s Church after scientific analysis had taken place which proved she was between 25 and 30 years old and died in the 8th century AD.
A separate cemetery was excavated at Church Walk in 1972 and 1976, just south of the medieval church of St. Hilda . These burials included men, women and children and had their heads at the west end of the grave. They may be part of the lay community which would have been an important aspect of the monastery.
A third Saxon cemetery is also known to the rear of Gladstone Street but this was a chance find by the water board in the 1960s with limited resources available for a proper excavation. The bones were badly damaged but kept in store and recently radiocarbon dated to the late 7th century.
Anglo-Saxon monastic buildings were first noted in 1968 during redevelopment in Lumley Street . Further finds of buildings were later made at Church Close in 1984. These discoveries show that the monastery consisted of a number of small rectangular wooden buildings grouped together into clusters, and separated by wooden fences and boundary ditches. These buildings often consisted of a single room and would have been used by monks and nuns for basic accomodation and quiet contemplation.
A reconstruction of one of these wooden buildings can be visited at Bede’s World museum at Jarrow.
The growing number of Anglo-Saxon artefacts has added much to our understanding of the monastery.
The excavations at Church Close found evidence for metal-working, including a number of clay moulds. One of these shows a calf with a trumpet, one of the symbols of St. Luke.
The bronze cast from the mould may have been used to decorate the cover of a book suggesting the monastery was an important place for literature and crafts.
Archaeologists have found few personal items like jewellery or other items of dress. The lack of finds suggests that life in the monastery was rather austere.
Bede describes both of Hild’s monasteries as conforming to the early church ideal where no-one was rich for they had all things in common. Hild also instructed those under her direction to devote much time to the study of the Holy Scriptures.
This does not however explain the presence of a fine disc-headed pin with gold decoration found in Baptist Street in 1995. The decoration shows two beasts fighting, intertwined and possibly eating each other’s tail. This item is on display in the Museum of Hartlepool.
It is tempting to blame Viking raids for destroying the monastery in the early 9th century. However none of the excavated sites show any signs of a Viking onslaught. The archaeological evidence suggests abandonment as the Northumbrian monasteries fell apart in the political troubles of the late 8th century.
We published a monograph on Anglo-Saxon Hartlepool in 2007. Copies can be ordered from our Shop. Our out-of-print booklet on Anglo-Saxon Teesside is available as a free download. For a birds-eye view of the monastery please download our Anglo-Saxon poster (other posters in the series are available as part of our Resources).