A 1,000 year Timeline

Historic context of Alnwick's Christian heritage
Early Christianity in Northumberland
 
The first signs of Christianity in Northumberland date from Roman times, but these are mainly associated with the military.
Christianity did not reach the wider population until the seventh century when King Oswald invited missionaries from Iona to convert his pagan subjects. By the eighth century their monasteries had become centres of fine craftsmanship, recognised for illustrated books such as the Lindisfarne gospels. Their vulnerability to Viking raids brought this golden age to an end, but as the area became more settled the church became well established.
By the time the Normans invaded in 1066 a number of Saxon churches existed around the Alnwick area.

Arrival of the Normans

With their base in the south of England, Norman kings feared both invasion from Scotland, and rebellion by the local population. They relied on the loyalty of the Prince Bishops of Durham (who held extensive lands further north), and on powerful local families, such as the Percys in Alnwick. Despite their efforts to maintain order, the borders remained turbulent until the union of England and Scotland in 1707.
While growing prosperity in other parts of the country enabled the rebuilding of early churches, construction work in the borders tended to concentrate on defence.
Churches played their role - as shown by the number of church towers that were capable of being defended. As well as a number of castles, and fortified houses, this unstable period has therefore left a legacy of early medieval church architecture in the area.

Reformation in England and Scotland
 
In 1534 the English Church separated from Rome under Henry VIII, and a period of religious conflict followed. Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, was among those beheaded, for his role in an unsuccessful attempt by Catholic nobles to replace Queen Elizabeth I with Mary, Queen of Scots.
For more than two centuries after the separation, members of the Catholic Church continued to be subject to various forms of persecution and discrimination. Nevertheless worship continued – often discreetly until restrictions began to be removed in the late eighteenth century.
The English reformation, which followed the separation from Rome, formed the basis for developments in the Church of England. However, Scotland was a separate nation and reformation north of the border followed a different path, favouring Presbyterianism.
As links strengthened between these established churches and the state, various forms of non-conformism emerged as alternatives for those of differing views.
Victorian diversity
 
In Victorian times Alnwick experienced both economic growth and social change, and more than half of worshippers favoured non-conformist churches.
This proportion was broadly in line with the rest of Northumberland, but proximity to the Scottish border meant that Presbyterianism played a particularly important role in Alnwick, while Methodists (the next most active) played a more important role in other parts of Northumberland than they did in Alnwick.
The Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England both had a hierarchical structure of governance, but in non-conformist churches individual congregations had more independence.
So it was common for their adherents to divide into a number of different congregations within the same town.
In 1851 there were 17 different non-conformist chapels in Alnwick and the surrounding area. Some of these (for example the two large Presbyterian congregations in Pottergate and Clayport) divided according to their position on matters of national debate – in this case the relationship between church and state.
Others (such as the Methodist congregations in Chapel Lane and St Michael’s lane) took different views of their relationship with the Church of England. Other congregations divided on a local issue or simply on their preference for a particular minister.

The legacy
 
The variety of different forms of worship in Alnwick peaked in the second half of the nineteenth century. By then generations of churchgoers had left a rich legacy of buildings – some simple and some imposing.
Many of these have adapted to the needs of today’s congregations. Some have been converted to secular uses. Most are valued and protected features of the Alnwick townscape.

Further information
  • The Northumberland volume of Pevsner’s “Buildings of England” provides extensive information on the development of church architecture across the county, as well as details of many of the more important buildings.
  • Volume 2 of George Tate’s “History of the borough, castle, and barony of Alnwick” (1869) covers the development of Non-conformism in Alnwick and the personalities involved in considerable detail. A digital copy is available here.
  • The 1851 Census provides detailed statistics on worship in England and Wales in the middle of the nineteenth century. It can be viewed online here  (figures for Alnwick are on Page 116).