Those who have visited the beautiful village of Neasham, just south of Darlington, know that it is a perfect place to stroll along a particularly scenic part of the River Tees in a quiet and picturesque setting. What they may not know is that the village once had a house of 8 Benedictine Nuns, called the Priory of St Mary, which was already considered well-established by 1156.

Most likely founded by one of the Barons of Greystoke, the abbey was first mentioned in a Papal Bull in 1156 by Pope Adrian IV. Pope Adrian, previously known as Nicholas Breakspear, remains the only Englishman hold the Papal office. He endeared himself to Pope Eugene III, through his reforming zeal as an abbot in France, and was later appointed Pope in 1154. Other than being the only Englishman to be Pope, Adrian is known for his desire to reconcile the Eastern and Western churches. He saw an ideal opportunity for this when the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Comnenus, invaded Sicily in a desire to restore the Roman Empire. The Pope and the Emperor agreed a coalition in an attempt to defeat the Norman forces of Sicily. After a series of battles, the Papal and Byzantine forces were, however, defeated. Any hopes for a lasting alliance were quashed, as the Pope demanded recognition of his religious authority over all Christians, which was unacceptable for the Emperor. Adrian IV is also known for his encouragement of the Angevin Henry II, King of England, to invade Ireland in 1155 and therefore bring the Irish church under Roman influence. Henry declined and it wasn’t until 1171 that Ireland, or some of it, was under Angevin rule.

Located next to the river, the abbey was perfectly situated for the life that was encouraged by the Benedictine order. The 8 nuns could work the land, using the river as a key resource for water, irrigation and possibly even travel. The Priory of St Mary was possibly the only religious house in County Durham that was independent of the Church of Durham. That being said, the priory did rely on the Bishop of Durham for confirmation of appointments of its prioresses. Although nothing of great importance ever took place at the abbey, it was visited by Princess Margaret, future Queen of Scotland and grandmother of Mary Queen of Scots, in July 1504. Princess Margaret stopped at the gates and kissed a cross that one of the nuns was wearing. The abbey also survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries largely intact, through the quick thinking of the prioress, who transferred the possessions into her brother’s keeping, and later surrendered the abbey in to the King’s hands.

The land in which the abbey once stood now contains a private house. Although there are no visible remains of the abbey, you get a sense of the beauty the abbey would have had, and see why it was located there. This abbey, like so many of the other churches and religious sites, along with the inevitable collection of houses that sit alongside the river, once again highlights the importance of the River Tees as a source of life. Not only did it provide for the industries of the 19th and 20th centuries, it shows it was vital for human life for at least a thousand years before.