With so little written evidence from the 7th and 8th centuries we can only surmise from what has been found so far that it was the monastery here at St. Peter’s Monkwearmouth and in Jarrow at that time, along probably with Hexham – all of which came under the Northumbrian kingdom – that ended the identity crisis of the British Isles. By collapsing so emphatically in the 4th century the Roman Empire had plunged the British Isles into uncertainty of who it was meant to be in the world, other than a Roman possession. It also left an important question – who ruled it.
Benedict Biscop, with unprecedented support from the Northumbrian king, Oswald, constructed not just a new monastery at St. Peter’s but set in train an artistic and cultural movement from his kingdom which would influence all of the British Isles.
King Oswald had put money and resources into monks who were being trained at a wooden church constructed on the relative safety of an island in the sea. The monastery was only accessible on foot via a causeway at low tide. It was named Lindisfarne monastery and lies on the coastline to the North of St.Peter’s.
More monasteries followed. Hexham, 673–4; Monkwearmouth, 674; and Jarrow, 682–5. Hexham was established probably at the insistence of his devout wife. Wearmouth and Jarrow similarly were nurtured and supported. It is important to note here that those large numbers of monks being trained at Lindisfarne, Hexham and St. Peter’s were being taught to read and write. As the numbers were many hundreds these monasteries can, in many respects, be seen as a collegiate which interestingly is reflected in the structure of Durham University today. Is this how the collegiate system was first introduced into Britain? That question remains unanswered until new facts emerge. Bede, as father of modern history, would disapprove if we just assumed.
Before long the Northumbrian kingdom was attracting interest. Judging by the requests from elsewhere it was clearly working as a kingdom, if not admired. At the behest of Oswald the Northumbrian king who received requests from elsewhere in the isles, monks were dispatched from Lindisfarne to establish new churches and new communities around the country. It clearly proved to be a successful model as can be seen in the article on this website about the early history of English churches on the mainland.
To enhance the monasteries even further Benedict Biscop brought back important works to be copied. He also recruited artisans and builders who could create buildings, carvings, glass, pottery and woodwork that were unprecedented since Roman times.
When asked ” Is the stone cross a special British and Irish phenomenon?” in an interview by the British Academy review in 2019 Dame Rosemary Cramp said,
“It is. Where it began in stone is a moot point. I still think it probably is Northumbria. I put this forward as a theory and I still believe it: when people like Benedict Biscop at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, or Wilfrid at Hexham, imported stonemasons from France to build their churches, these trained English masons. The native masons were then capable of replicating the idea of wooden crosses in stone, and that is how you get some of the really grand, early 8th-century crosses that everybody knows about, like Ruthwell and Bewcastle. The grandest crosses tend to be put up on the borders of the Anglo Saxon kingdom – the early ones are meant to impress. Some of them are meant to educate as well, via the scenes that are on them. They are the source not just of sermons but of inspiration, I suppose, and meditation.
By the Viking Age, you get many more crosses merely put up in memory of individual people, and here you get pictures of secular figures, sometimes armed, not only Christ or the Apostles.”
Dame Cramp established the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture which has most of its publications available on-line. You can click on this link to visit the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture website at Durham University.