St Aebbe and Coldingham

Coldingham Priory

Coldingham Priory. Photo © B Keeling

St Aebbe, daughter of King Aethelfrith of Bernicia, founded a monastery on the Berwickshire coast sometime around the middle of the 7th century. The site she selected was a fortified settlement on top of a hill overlooking the sea. Its name, in Latin, was Urbs Coludi, ‘Colud’s Fort’. Although we don’t know anything about Colud his name appears to be Celtic so he was probably a native Briton or a local god. Aebbe established a community of monks and nuns on the summit of the hill, no doubt utilising the ramparts of Colud’s Fort as a boundary. Nothing can be seen of her monastery today but the site is still known as Kirk Hill and is part of a dramatic coastal feature called St Abbs Head. Among the impressive cliffs and deep-cloven bays a large number of seabirds make their nests, hence the designation of the entire headland as a nature reserve.

St Abbs Kirk Hill

St Abbs Head: Kirk Hill (in the distance). Photo © B Keeling

In the early 680s the monastery was accidentally destroyed by fire. By then, Aebbe was already dead and her community had acquired a reputation for sleaze and scandal. After the fire the monks and nuns abandoned Urbs Coludi to join other religious houses where, we may assume, their behaviour improved. At some point in the next two hundred years a new monastery was established slightly inland, at nearby Coldingham, eventually becoming the centre of a cult devoted to St Aebbe. Little is known of its history and it possibly didn’t survive the perils of the Viking period. Whatever its fate, the religious settlement at Coldingham was re-founded in 1098 as a priory of the Benedictine Order to whom the Scottish king Edgar granted the site and surrounding district. In the 14th century a small church, an offshoot from Coldingham, was built on Kirk Hill, on the seaward side of the summit, but it almost certainly fell into disuse when the priory itself was dissolved in the 1600s.

Coldingham Priory

Coldingham Priory: foundation of tower, c.1100. Photo © B Keeling

The parish church of Coldingham now occupies part of the Priory site and is still used as a place of worship. Next to it a medieval arch has been reconstructed in the style of the 13th century, partly from old stonework and probably on its original base. On one side of the arch lie the visible foundations of a tower built c.1100, with the inscribed grave-slabs of two priors from the early 1200s placed in the centre. On the other side stands the ‘Lapidarium’, a wall erected in Victorian times using sculptured blocks and other objects unearthed at the site. Among the various interesting items in the Lapidarium are several piscinae or stone basins for washing vessels and vestments used in the Mass. One of these is thought to be a genuine 7th-century relic from St Aebbe’s original monastery on Kirk Hill.

Coldingham Priory

The presumed 7th-century piscina. Photo © B Keeling


* More about St Aebbe can be found in this post by Michelle of Heavenfield

* I haven’t yet looked for detailed information on the ancient piscina so if anyone knows something about it please feel free to add a comment below

* Two useful links: one for the Coldingham village website, the other for the Priory

* Bede wrote about St Aebbe, her monastery at Urbs Coludi and the lax morals of its inhabitants in Book 4, Chapter 25 of his Ecclesiastical History

Coldingham Priory St Aebbe

Coldingham Priory: modern memorial to St Aebbe. Photo © B Keeling


4 comments on “St Aebbe and Coldingham

  1. esmeraldamac says:

    That’s a very impressive site for the early monastery! I’ve never heard of actual hill forts being re-used like this. Great post, as always!

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Diane. At the moment I can’t think of another instance of a hillfort being re-used in this way but there might be one somewhere.

      • Roman forts were reused in East Anglia. Didn’t Fursey or Botulf build a monastery in a Roman fort? Or was it Cedd?

        Given how early Abbe’s monastery was, on a northern frontier and a double monastery, I imagine it was important for it to be defensible. That land had just been secured by her brother(s), maybe Oswald and surely Oswiu. It seems like a risky location to me but maybe she had kinsmen nearby to protect it.

        • Tim says:

          Yes, a Roman fort seems to have been quite a popular choice for the monastic builders. You know the list of southern sites better than I do, Michelle, but an East Anglian fort certainly rings a bell with me. On the other side of Britain the Roman coastal fort at Caer Gybi (Holyhead on Anglesey) also springs to mind.

          I tend to think of Urbs Coludi as being quite far inside the Bernician border when Aebbe went there. If we could be certain about the ‘fall of Edinburgh’ c.640 it was possibly a long way inside. Excavation has shown that the ancient fort was protected by a substantial earthwork which the religious folk presumably adopted as their monastic boundary.

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