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Sunderland: Unlikely Site Of Early Christian Settlements In NE England

Sunderland – Tyne and Wear is a major city in the North East of England. It is famous for ship building, coal mining and heavy industry but this article looks at the settlements which existed on the River Wear before Sunderland developed into an important port city and industrial center.

The history of human settlement on the site dates back further than the name of Sunderland itself, which was originally a small fishing village at the mouth of the River Wear. This village was granted its charter in 1179, but the settlements of Monkwearmouth and Bishopwearmouth are considerably older.

Monkwearmouth is the earliest recorded settlement in the area. It dates back to 674. In that year Benedict Biscop, an Anglo-Saxon nobleman, founded the Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery (also known as St Peter’s) on the north bank of the River Wear. The land had been granted by Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria. The location then became known as Monkwearmouth.

This monastery was an important source of learning in Anglo-Saxon England. St. Peter’s library held over three hundred volumes, and the Codex Amiatinus was produced there. This is the earliest surviving copy of the Latin Vulgate bible. Three copies were produced by the monks, of which one now survives. That copy had been sent as a gift to Pope Gregory II. It is now in the Laurentian Library in Florence.

Saint Bede, or the Venerable Bede, was a monk at St.Peter’s. It was here that he wrote “The Ecclesiastical History of The English People”, for which master work he is now known as “The Father of English History”.

The monastery at Monkwearmouth had to be abandoned after the Viking raids on England in the middle of the ninth century, but in 930 land was granted by King Athelstan to the Bishop of Durham. This land was on the opposite side of the river to Monkwearmouth and the settlements here were called Bishopwearmouth.

Sunderland itself was originally a small village in the parish of Bishopwearmouth. In 1179 Sunderland received a charter from Hugh Pudsey who was Bishop of Durham. Over the years the industries of ship building, salt panning and coal mining developed around the port of Sunderland. As the port of Sunderland grew in importance it overshadowed and absorbed the earlier settlements of Monkwearmouth and Bishopwearmouth.

Today St. Michael’s Church now known as Sunderland Minster is the old Bishopwearmouth Parish Church, and St. Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth contains parts dating from the original monastery of 674.


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