St Peter’s, Monkwearmouth is a few minutes walk from the metro station, at grid reference NZ402578. Just above the River Wear it is now surrounded by University buildings and a large grassed area where the monastery was – it would be lovely on a warm, sunny afternoon. Richard from Ponteland told me that he was one of those who worked on the excavations – and that it was a very noisy job as the shipyards alongside the river in those days caused a tremendous din. There is lots of wonderful film of Clyde shipyards on the website of Panamint cinema, but not much film easily available of the industry in the North East (unless others can enlighten me). There is an article about shipbuilding in Sunderland here.
We made our way into the church – signposting could have been better, use the North Door – and were greeted like long-lost friends by the two ladies on duty. The parish contains three churches, including St Andrew’s Roker which we have visited – and this church is staffed by volunteers from all three parishes; it seems to be open everyday. There is a website, and we were given a guided tour.
We started at the west door, looking up to the Saxon tower. Work on the church began in 674, but the story goes back to 653 when Biscop Baducing left for Rome (spellcheck tried to change that to Bishop). He travelled some of the distance with Wilfrid. He spent eleven years in monasteries in Italy and Gaul, and made other journeys across the Channel. He joined the monastic community at Lérins in France and, becoming a monk, took the name of Benedict. In 667, while on his third visit to Rome, he was appointed as interpreter and guide to accompany Theodore of Tarsus to England when he took up his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury. On his return he become temporary abbot of St Peter’s and St Paul’s abbey in Canterbury. In 671 he made a fourth trip to Rome to collect books, manuscripts, paintings and holy relics. On his return to England he went to Northumbria, and King Ecgfrith gave him land to form this monastery and, as I wrote earlier, the building work on this church began in 674. Benedict made a fifth trip to Rome in 678-9, and another in 682. In that year the monastery at Jarrow is founded, and it was united with this one in 688. (I find it incredible that they can unite two monasteries – these days it takes years of discussion and argument before anyone can unite two parishes). Benedict Biscop died in 689. By 716 the Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery had 600 monks – that is an incredible story.
The West Wall, porch and tower are original. The stone work would probably have been covered with a layer of plaster and paint. There was an upper chamber in the porch – perhaps the home of the Sacristan. You can see the serpents with birds’ heads and fish tails intertwined. There is a diagram inside the church. The upper part of the tower was probably added in the C11 when the church and monastery was restored by Aldwin of Winchcombe. The rest of the church buildings date from the 1870s – it is a fascinating mixture of Saxon and Victorian. A lot of ballast from the ships was dumped in this area, which might have protected some of the stone.
There are some more fascinating lumps of stone in a small museum, and the list of clergy contains some interesting names.
We have a little more Saxon … . We cannot visit without mentioning Bede – he joined the monastery in 680 at the age of seven. Here is a rather nice picture remembering him (there is far more about him at Jarrow – a church high on my list for 2016). There is a church trail which takes you round the Sunderland churches and up to Jarrow. You can download the leaflet here.
There is also a page from the Codex Amiatinus. To quote Bede “Coelfrith was a man of acute mind, conscientious in everything he did … He double the number of books in the libraries of both monasteries … He added three copies of the new translation of the Bible … One of these he took with him as a present when he went back to Rome in his old age, and the other two he bequeathed to his monasteries.” I can’t help thinking I have a wife who has doubled the number of books in her libraries! According to the guidebook, each volume would have measured 515 mm x 340 mm x 230 mm, would have weighed 35-40 kg, and the skins of 515 calves would have been needed to produce the vellum for its 2060 pages. Coelfrith headed south in 716 with his bible for the Pope. He died en route at Langres in France, and the book disappeared. In 1782 it was rediscovered in an Italian monastery at Mount Amiato. There is more about this book here.
On the subject of the Saxons – I have recently enjoyed two books. Dr Janina Ramirez, who is often on the telly, and who we heard lecturing at York recently, has written Power, passion and politics in Anglo-Saxon England: the private life of the Saints. I enjoyed it as it writes about the saints as real people – like me, she enjoys telling their stories. Her website is here. Max Adams wrote In the land of Giants: journeys through the Dark Ages, London: Head of Zeus, 2015 and traces this period of history through a series of journeys. I would like to make these journeys. His website is here.
Let us move from Saxons to windows – since it is Coelfrith who appears in one of them. We have a good selection of Evetts’ windows. Coelfrith, Hilda and Benedict Biscop in windows along the north side.
There is some interesting glass on the altar. It is a mirror ‘cloth’ created by Pamela So in 2008. It incorporates plant and herb motifs familiar to both Chinese and Anglo-Saxon cultures. In giving the work the appearance of linen, the cloth refers to the early flax growing and textile industry of the northern European countries. There are also Chinese variations on the vine scroll etched on the base of the suspended church lights.
What else do we have in this amazing church? A C13 stone memorial to a priest, and font made of local Frosterley marble. A phrase like “Frosterley marble” always inspires me to google, and I have found this leaflet. I quote “A special type of limestone is found in Frosterley; this fossil-rich stone, known as Frosterley marble, can be polished to a high shine. Technically, it is not a proper marble. Marble is formed when limestone is heated or subjected to pressure (or both) which causes it to recrystallize into marble. This limestone has not been altered in this way. It is the white fossils, from a tropical seabed of 325 million years ago, encapsulated within the dark grained limestone which make this such a decorative stone. The earliest known reference to the rock is via ‘Lambert the marble cutter’ who is mentioned in the Bolden Book, a northern version of the Domesday Book commissioned by Bishop Hugh de Puiset in 1183. The most famous use of Frosterley marble is in Durham Cathedral. Here, the ceiling of the Chapel of the Nine Altars is supported by slender columns of this unusual stone.” So now you know … I am writing this blog on the sofa on New Year’s Day, and can’t help thinking my health would be improved by walking one of this leaflet’s walks!
The Hylton Memorial, which looks like it sits in a fireplace, has a knight in armour – probably Baron William Hylton, the builder of Hylton Castle who died in 1435. His legs have been cut off – tradition has it that the leg went because they needed somewhere to put a safe.
The roof is lovely. It was restored after an arson attack in 1984, and a burnt part is displayed behind some lovely flowers. (You’ll have noticed that the Christmas tree and decorations were impressive).
This is a church which has seen a lot of ups and downs in its history, and now it welcomes visitors very well. We ended our visit with tea and scones – and spent too much on the bookstall. My last church visit of 2015, and first blog of 2016. A Happy New Year to all my readers.