Christian heritage

Founded in AD681, the twin monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow was the birthplace of European culture and learning as it was the home of the Venerable Bede.  The Anglo-Saxon monastery of St. Paul's, Jarrow was founded by a Northumbrian nobleman, Benedict Biscop, who had, less than a decade earlier, in 674 AD, founded St. Peter's in Wearmouth.

Both monastic houses were founded on large land grants from King Ecgrith of Northumbria and they functioned as a single monastery. Bede entered St. Peter's in 680 AD aged seven and he remained in the twin monastery until his death in 735 AD.

His writings, particularly The Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow and The English History of the English People give a unique insight into life in the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the late 7th and early 8th centuries.

The founder of the monastery, Benedict Biscop, was well travelled. He journeyed three times to Rome before beginning to build St. Peter's, and undertook a further three journeys bringing back books and equipment for his monasteries. He visited monasteries and experienced monastic life across Anglo-Saxon England and in France and Italy. He drew on these experiences for his own foundation, putting together a rule based on the best rules he had seen at 17 different monasteries, and bringing the Arch-Cantor of St. Peter's in Rome to teach his monks to sing the Roman chant as it was sung in Rome.

He built his monasteries in the Roman style, bringing stonemasons and glaziers from Gaul, so that he could have stone buildings with plain and coloured window-glass. At this time the Anglo-Saxon building tradition was to build in timber; the monasteries of St. Peter's and St. Paul's were amongst the first stone buildings in Northumbria since the days of the Roman Empire, and would have created an impressive statement in the landscape.


Archaeological finds

Excavations at both sites were undertaken in the 1960s and 70s under the direction of Professor Rosemary Cramp of Durham University. The layout of the Anglo-Saxon buildings at St. Paul's has been marked out and can be seen on site.

Amongst the finds were finely carved stone and large quantities of coloured window glass. These survivals testify to the richness of the art and architecture employed by Benedict Biscop to glorify God and represent a fraction of what could have been seen at the monastery in the early 8th century. We know from Bede that fine textiles, religious pictures, and vast quantities of books were also obtained for the monastery by Benedict Biscop and his successor Ceolfrith, but these would not survive in the ground.

No detailed accounts of Wearmouth-Jarrow dating from after Bede's death in 735 survive. A few letters, and an account of Bede's death written by his pupil Cuthbert, show that life carried on through the 8th century. Archaeological evidence suggests that in the later 9th century, organised monastic life was disrupted or discontinued and at some time between the later 9th and the later 11th centuries the buildings were badly burnt. At about this time, Viking raiders were establishing a kingdom based around York, and the Community of St Cuthbert abandoned their monastery at Lindisfarne because of the Viking threat. Alternatively Scottish raiders could have attacked the monastery.


Durham and Henry VIII

Eventually pagan Scandinavian settlers in Northumbria accepted Christianity, allowing the Community of St. Cuthbert to establish a monastery at Chester-le-Street in 883 and giving them substantial lands between the rivers Tyne and Wear - this presumably included the estate of St. Paul's, Jarrow. In 995 the Community moved to Durham. According to the chronicler Symeon of Durham, a member of the Durham Community, Alfred Westou was in the habit of visiting Jarrow in the 1020's on the anniversary of Bede's death and on one of these occasions removed Bede's bones from Jarrow to put in St. Cuthbert's coffin at Durham.

In the 1070s, Aldwin, Prior of Winchcombe, travelled north with two monks from Evesham to visit the sites of the Northumbrian saints described by Bede.  Walcher, Bishop of Durham, gave them the site of St. Paul's monastery and they set about rebuilding it to a Benedictine layout.  The monastery continued to function as a small cell dependant on Durham Cathedral, until it was dissolved by Henry VIII.  The monastic estates were then sold, although St. Paul's Church continued in use as the parish church of Jarrow.


St Paul's Church

St. Paul's is a living church. The chancel survives from the 7th century when it was a free standing chapel in the monastery.  Inside the church cemented into the wall of the tower is the original stone slab which records in a Latin inscription the dedication of the church on 23 April AD 685.

The inscription translates in English as:

The dedication of the basilica of St. Paul on the 9th day before the Kalens of May in the 15th year of King Ecgfrith and in the fourth year of Abbot Ceolfrith founder, by God's guidance of the same church.

The Venerable Bede

Bede described himself as "Servant of Christ and Priest of the Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul which is at Wearmouth and Jarrow". Today we know him best as the author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People which he completed in AD 731. This work is our primary source for understanding the beginnings of the English people and the coming of Christianity and is the first work of history in which the AD dating system is used.

Bede was born on the lands of the monastery in AD673 and was entrusted at the age of 7 to the care of Benedict Biscop, the founder of the monastery. Bede spent his remaining years in the monastery, being ordained deacon at the age of 19 and priest at 30. He attended choir and worked as a scholar and teacher.

Bede's scholarship was astonishing, going far beyond the "History". His commentaries on books of the Bible were widely sought and circulated.  Bede also wrote about nature - he knew the earth was a sphere; he knew the moon influenced the cycle of the tides; he had a sense of latitude and the annual movement of the sun into the north and south hemispheres from the evidence of varying lengths of shadows. He wrote on calculating time and his work was fundamental to the church in the task of calculating the date of Easter.
Bede died in 735 but his legacy remains today.

St Hilda's Church

In 1100 the Norman's built St Hilda's church next to South Shields' market place. The church still remains one of the oldest in the UK and tours are held during Heritage Open Days and at other times upon request. During the Christmas months the church's gardens are home to lovely Christmas Wonderland lighting.