Monastic cell and medieval tower on Coquet Island


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Monastic cell and medieval tower on Coquet Island
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Northumberland (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
NU 29295 04522, NU 29315 04533

Reasons for Designation

From the time of St. Augustine's mission to establish Christianity in AD 597 monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. In addition to the larger monastic sites housing communities of monks, a range of smaller monastic settlements (sometimes known as `cells') also developed. These were used as recluse sites by small groups of ecclesiastics or sometimes by a single monk. The majority of these cells were deliberately located in remote or isolated places, including islands, to ensure that their inhabitants were well away from the pressures of secular life and could therefore focus more clearly on religious activities and contemplation. The buildings of these sites were usually simple and small. A small chapel may have been provided, as well as a simple hut for shelter. Stone or wooden crosses were often erected. Cemeteries were also a common feature as many early ecclesiastics retreated to such cells towards the end of their lives; burials were often marked by cross-incised stone slabs. The majority of cells were established in the pre-Viking period, although many remained in use for several centuries. At some, life was significantly disrupted by the Viking raids which began in the early ninth century. The slight nature of the original structures has meant that it is often the case that little has survived the passage of time and these sites are often now difficult to identify on the ground. Many are known almost wholly from documentary evidence. Some cells were revitalised by or re-established during the post-Conquest period when larger, more elaborate and permanent structures were built, usually including stone-built structures not dissimilar to those found elsewhere on larger contemporary monastic sites. Whilst often still used for the purposes of retreat and contemplation, those cells associated with renowned early saints also developed a role as pilgrimage centres. As a rare monument type which provides an important insight into early ecclesiastical life, all positively identified examples of pre-Conquest monastic cells will be identified as nationally important. Post-Conquest monastic examples are also rare and a significant number of these will also be identified as nationally important. Tower houses are a type of defensible house particularly characteristic of the borderlands of England and Scotland. Virtually every parish had at least one of these buildings. Solitary tower houses comprise a single square or rectangular `keep' several stories high, with strong barrel-vaults tying together massive outer walls. Many towers had stone slab roofs, often with a parapet walk. Access could be gained through a ground floor entrance or at first floor level where a doorway would lead directly to a first floor hall. Solitary towers were normally accompanied by a small outer enclosure defined by a timber or stone wall and called a barmkin. Tower houses were being constructed and used from at least the 13th century to the end of the 16th century. They provided prestigious defended houses permanently occupied by the wealthier and aristocratic members of society. As such, they were important centres of medieval life. The need for such secure buildings relates to the unsettled and frequently war-like conditions which prevailed in the Borders throughout much of the medieval period. Around 200 examples of tower houses have been identified of which less than half are of the free-standing or solitary tower type. All surviving solitary towers retaining significant medieval remains will normally be identified as nationally important. The monastic site on Coquet Island survives well within the 19th century buildings and is one of the few where the archaeology of the period can be readily appreciated by visitors. The incorporation of a tower into a small monastic site is unusual. It will aid research into the early Christian period in Northumbria.


The monument includes the site of a pre-Conquest monastic cell founded c.AD 684, and a pre-AD 1125 Benedictine foundation located on Coquet Island. The cell comprised a domestic range with a vaulted undercroft and a chapel attached to the east. It survives as an east-west range of medieval stone buildings, probably 15th century in date, which are incorporated into 19th century buildings associated with a lighthouse. To the south west stand the remains of a medieval tower which has been incorporated in the lighthouse tower. It is linked to the east-west range by a building of 1841. The medieval parts of the building can be differentiated externally from the 19th century work as only the latter are now whitewashed. The east-west range measures 28.5m long and divides into two parts of approximately equal length. The ground floor of the western section remains virtually unaltered with its four centred barrel vault, having no communication with the 19th century upper floor which extends over most of its length. Two cross walls divide the ground floor into three chambers. A chamfered four centred doorway at the west end of the south wall opens into the west and smallest chamber. On the inner face of the wall immediately east of the door is the blocked foot of a stone newel stair, contained in an external buttress-like projection. In the west wall, now obscured by fuel tanks, are two adjacent blocked doorways, the northern one retaining its arched head. These imply an adjacent structure, replaced by the 1841 building, which must have linked the east-west range with the tower. The exact size and extent of this adjacent building is not yet fully understood and thus its site is not included in the scheduling. The central and largest chamber is entered by a rough doorway set centrally in the western cross wall. The cross wall is 0.56m wide with a rubble fill and the external walls are 0.8m wide. A single window is located on the south side which is probably an enlargement of an original opening; it has an internal splay and measures 0.9m by 0.9m externally and 1.35m by 1.05m internally. There is no opening through the eastern cross wall, against which is set a post-medieval fireplace which appears to pre-date mid-19th century remodelling. The east chamber is entered by a doorway in its east wall from the 19th century cottage beyond. It is lit by two deeply splayed openings, each measuring 0.6m by 0.88m, in the north and south walls. At first floor level the only fragment of this part of the range to survive is the east end of its south wall, with a small square headed window. The eastern part of the range is narrower than the western and is incorporated in the 19th century lighthouse keeper's cottage; original walling survives on the north and east sides. On the south the cottage wall is set slightly forward of the western part of the range which, at its extreme east end, partly masked by the cottage wall, shows some large dressed blocks which appear to be the west jamb of an original doorway. The surviving fragment of the east end projects above the cottage roof and contains the sill and double chamfered jambs of a large window of a single storeyed building, probably the chapel. Toothing on the external wall face to the north of the window probably indicates a buttress position. At the west end of the north wall is a projecting turret, interpreted as a sacristy or room where sacred items are kept. It measures 2.4m square, is built of more thinly coursed stonework than the main range and is probably a medieval addition. The ground floor of the turret has no openings and may be of solid masonry. The first floor is carried on an oversailing chamfered course, a little above which squinches or small arches across the angle of a square tower link its side walls with that of the main range behind. Internally, the walls of the first floor chamber in the turret stand up to 1.5m high and show several features of interest: the east jamb with drawbar tunnel, remains of a doorway into the chamber, and the lower parts of windows in both east and west walls. In the north east corner is a rectangular shaft or flue in the wall thickness and, on the north, remains of what appear to be twin drains running through the wall. Because of the extent of the medieval fabric in it, the whole of the east-west range of buildings, as described above, is included in the scheduling. The tower measures externally 5.6m north-south by 6.8m east-west. The medieval squared masonry, laid in irregular courses, extends to the top of the second floor. Above this is a setback and a 19th century top stage carrying a corbelled out embattled parapet and the lighthouse lantern. A 19th century engraving by D Harding shows a tower of at least four storeys and further buildings to the left. If Harding's engraving is to be believed, the 19th century work must replace medieval fabric. The existing windows are all 19th century in their present form, but older blocked square headed windows are visible on east, north and south faces. Internally, on the ground floor is a vault which appears to be medieval. The tower is interpreted as a defensible retreat rather than a conventional tower house. Only the medieval remains, extending to the top of the second floor, are included in the scheduling. The earliest documentary reference to the island is in AD 684 when St Cuthbert met Elfleda, sister of King Egfrith and abbess of Whitby on the island. There was presumably a monastic establishment on the island already when this meeting took place. A number of stray finds discovered on the island also testify to its early occupation: among these were a ninth century ring and an enamelled metal ornament. An Anglo-Saxon cross-decorated slab was found on the beach below the lighthouse in 1969. It is now in the Department of Archaeology, University of Durham. It is dated to the last quarter of the seventh to the first quarter of the eigth century AD. An Anglo-Saxon cross- decorated slab was found on the beach below the lighthouse in 1969. It is now in the Department of Archaeology, University of Durham. It is dated to the last quarter of the seventh century to the first quarter of the eigth century AD. After the Norman Conquest, Robert de Mowbray gave the island to the prior and convent of Tynemouth. In the early 13th century a hermit named Martin built a windmill on the island which was ordered to be knocked down by Robert fitz Roger, lord of Warkworth. In 1415 a list of fortalices stated that the tower of Coket-eland belonged to the prior of Tynemouth. In 1442 Henry, second Earl of Northumberland, made a grant to Tynemouth on condition that two monks should celebrate masses within the chapel on Coquet Island for his and his wife's souls. After the Dissolution the monastic group of buildings fell into disrepair and were used by coin counterfeiters. By 1730 the buildings consisted of the remains of houses and a tower. Mackenzie's history, dating to 1825, refers to the ruins being `partly converted into a dwelling house and a lighthouse'. In 1841 a major rebuilding scheme by Trinity House converted the monastic remains into a lighthouse complex. The lighthouse and attached buildings are Grade II* Listed Buildings.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Bates, C J, The Border Holds of Northumberland, (1891), 19
Graham, F, The Castles of Northumberland, (1976), 115
Mackenzie, E, An Historical View of the County of Northumberland, (1825), 121
Ryder, P, The Remains of the Monastic Cell on Coquet Island, (1987)
parish of Hauxley, Department of the Environment, List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, District of Alnwick, Northumberland, (1988)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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