Hexham Abbey originated as a monastery founded by Saint Wilfrid in 674. The crypt of the original monastery survives, and incorporates many stones taken from nearby Roman ruins, probably Coria or Hadrian's Wall. The current Hexham Abbey dates largely from the 11th century onward, but was significantly rebuilt in the 19th century. Other notable buildings in the town include the Moot Hall, the covered market, and the Old Gaol.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript D: Cotton Tiberius B IV) records the murder of King Ælfwald by Sicga at Scythlecester (which may be modern Chesters) on 23 September 788:
This year Alfwald, king of the Northumbrians, was slain by Siga, on the ninth day before the calends of October; and a heavenly light was often seen on the spot where he was slain. He was buried at Hexham in the church.
Her wæs Alfwald Norðhymbra cyning ofslægen fram Sigan on .viiii. Kalendas Octobris, 7 heofonlic leoht wæs lome gesewen þær þær he ofslægen wæs, 7 he wæs bebyrged on Hagustaldesee innan þære cyrican.
The name of Hexham derives from the Old English Hagustaldes ea and later Hagustaldes ham whence the modern form (with the "-ham" element) derives. Hagustald is related to the Old High German hagustalt, denoting a younger son who takes land outside the settlement; the element ea means "stream" or "river" and ham is the Old English form of the Modern English "home" (and the Scots and Northern English "hame").
Like many towns in the Anglo-Scottish border area and adjacent regions, Hexham suffered from the border wars between the kingdoms of Scotland and England, including attacks from William Wallace who burnt the town in 1297. In 1312, Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, demanded and received £2000 from the town and monastery in order for them to be spared a similar fate. In 1346 the monastery was sacked in a later invasion led by King David II of Scotland.
In 1464 during the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Hexham was fought somewhere to the south of the town; the actual site is disputed. The defeated Lancastrian commander Duke of Somerset was executed in Hexham market place. There is a legend that Queen Margaret of Anjou took refuge after the battle in what is known as The Queen's Cave where she was accosted by a robber; the legend formed the basis for an 18th century play by George Colman the Younger; but it has been established that Queen Margaret had fled to France by the time the battle took place.
Until 1572, Hexham was the administrative centre of the former Liberty or Peculiar of Hexhamshire.
In 1715, James Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, raised the standard for James Francis Edward Stuart in Hexham Market place. The rising, however, was unsuccessful, and Derwentwater was captured and beheaded after the Battle of Preston.
In 1761, the Hexham Riot took place in the Market Place when a crowd protesting about changes in the criteria for serving in the militia was fired upon by troops from North Yorkshire Militia. Fifty-one protesters were killed, earning the Militia the soubriquet of The Hexham Butchers.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Hexham was a centre of the leather trade, particularly renowned for making gloves known as Hexham Tans - now the name of a vegetarian restaurant in the town.
"Hexham" was used in the Borders as a euphemism for "Hell". Hence the term "To Hexham wi’ you an’ ye’r whussel!", recorded in 1873, and the popular expresion "Gang to Hexham!". "Hexham-birnie" is derived from the term and means "an indefinitely remote place".
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