Set in an almost impregnable position on a steep headland between the river and the North Sea, Tynemouth has always been as much a fortress as a religious site.
Here stood a 7th-century Anglian monastery, burial place of Oswin, sainted king of Northumbria. After its destruction by Danish raiders, the present Benedictine priory was refounded on its site in c. 1090.
The towering east end of the priory church, built in c. 1200 with slender lancet windows and soaring arches, still survives almost to its full height, dominating the headland. Beyond it stands a small but complete and exceptionally well-preserved chapel, with a rose window and an ornately sculpted roof vault, built in the mid-15th century as a chantry for the souls of the powerful Percy family, Earls of Northumberland.
Enclosing both headland and monastery, and still surviving in part, were the strong walls which once made Tynemouth among the largest fortified areas in England, and an important bastion against the Scots. Probably begun by Edward I in 1296, they were strengthened and updated in the 15th century. Thus when the priory’s 19 monks surrendered Tynemouth to Henry VIII in 1539, it was immediately adopted as a royal castle. Thereafter the fortress-headland continued to play its centuries-old part in coastal defence, both against Napoleon and during the two World Wars. The restored magazine of its gun battery can be seen at weekends