Why is the church of England in Alston dedicated to St. Augustine? – I wondered.
There is the legend about Cross Fell, formerly supposed to have been called Fiend’s Fell (a name that still appears on a part of Cross Fell), that tells of “evil spirits which are said in former times to have haunted the summit of the hill, and continued their haunts and nocturnal vagaries upon it until St. Austin (St. Augustine), as it is said, erected a cross and an altar whereupon he offered the Holy Eucharist by which he counter charmed those hellish fiends and broke their haunts”. (Stirring stuff)
This would seem a good enough reason to have St. Augustine as one of our local patrons, the other being St. John of Garrigill and Nenthead. However, St. Augustine of Canterbury never travelled this far north. Paulinus, who converted to Christianity most of the inhabitants of Northumbria, of which Alston Moor was then a part, would be a more likely candidate for the legend. But that doesn’t answer the question.
In 1154, King Henry II himself presented his “own clerk, Galfrid” to the church at Alston. Where would Henry have obtained this cleric? Probably from either from York or Canterbury, the two great rivals at that time. York held sway over Scotland and the north of England, while the influence of Canterbury was in the south. To unite the country with a southern influence might have been a motive for the choice of a priest from Canterbury and to dedicate the church to a southern saint. If Galfrid was from Canterbury this theory for his appointment is a possibility, but it is not the answer to the name of the church.
In 1209 or 1210, King John of England confirmed by charter to Ivo de Veteripont the grant of the lordship of the Manor of Alston Moor given by William ‘the Lion’ of Scotland to the de Veteripont family. Perhaps in gratitude, or perhaps as a shrewd political gesture, Ivo in turn granted lands in Priorsdale and the church of Alston Moor to the ‘Prior and Convent’ of Hexham. The priory was then under construction by the order and occasional personal supervision of King John.
The monks at Hexham were a particular type of monk, they were canons – Augustinian canons. They were followers of St. Augustine of Hippo, but churches were dedicated to his namesake, St. Augustine of Canterbury. This is the accepted reason for the name of the church in Alston.
So, we’ve got St. Augustine and the canons, now what about the Black Book, or Liber Niger, since everything was written in Latin in those days?
The Black Book was basically the rent book for the lands owned and controlled by the Priory at Hexham. In it property or tenement boundaries and rights of the canons were laid down, as well as the value of the lands and livestock. It was compiled in the 15th century but it referred to time immemorial before then. The book, in Latin, has been published in typescript, but not wholly translated into English. (This was true at the time of writing the article in 2001, then a book with the complete translation was published in 2011.)
Reverend Caesar Caine wrote about Garrigill in 1908 and included a translation of the Priorsdale tenement. However, on checking the index of the Black Book I found several other references to Alston Moor. Some had been translated, some hadn’t. So I bought a second-hand Latin-English dictionary and set to.
I found that the Priory also owned two large tenements very close to Alston. One was on the west side of the Tyne from south of Crosslands, a significant name which itself is of interest, the fact that it was named so long ago as the 15th century at least, to the site of an old bridge which I take to be somewhere near the present one.
The other tenement was on the east side of the Tyne and stretched from Nattrass Gill to the same bridge, which incidentally would make Annat Walls the centre, although it is not mentioned.
The crucial point here, relevant to this article, is that the northern boundary of this eastern tenement, so very near to Alston, is called the “the land of St. John”.
Was the church at Alston only dedicated to St. Augustine in the year around 1209 or 1210? If so, then was it called when Henry II appointed Galfrid in 1154? There was no obvious reason to select a ‘foreign’ saint for Alston when local saints Paulinus, Wilfrid and Oswald were so legendary, unless the de Veteriponts had personal reasons. And what of St. John? He was the choice for Garrigill at some point around 1215, and for Nenthead in 1845, and land near Alston was dedicated to him early in the middle ages.
I might be well off beam here with these ramblings and that there’s an obvious solution that I’m not seeing, but it’s something to think about. Was there a saint, possibly St. John, ousted from the church at Alston by the arrival of St. Augustine?