The Setting of St. Peter’s

“Beauty in all things”

Wearmouth-Jarrow was a religious community, but its faith was expressed as much in art as in prayer.

From the stones of its churches to the pages of its manuscripts, it created beauty in everything it did. Benedict Biscop brought masons and craftsmen over from the continent to help with the construction of the monastery here. For example, the architectural style of the tower at St.Peter’s is similar to those found in Italy.

Calligraphy (meaning ‘beautiful writing’) was used by the monks in their preparation of the manuscripts in the scriptoria at Wearmouth and Jarrow and here many of the bound leather Gospels of the Saxon times were produced. The unical script written in two columns on each page of the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Latin text of the Bible, is as beautiful to behold as, if not more than, the illustrated pages from the same book.

In modern times, the University of Sunderland with its department of Art, Design & Media and the National Glass Centre, share the buffer zone around the candidate world heritage site. The church of St.Peter works in close association with its neighbours in the Wearmouth-Jarrow partnership, sharing the University of Sunderland’s hosting of its biennial calligraphy symposium, and there are plans to create a digital scriptorium within the church site. The Bede’s Bakehouse also has an art gallery manager and exhibitions run concurrently through the year.


The Setting

In what had been a promontory overlooking the north of the harbour and
estuary of the River Wear, 70 hides of land were given by King Ecgfrith for Benedict Biscop to found the monastery of St. Peter in the name of the Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury in 673 AD. (A hide – or a ‘hid’ – was an amount of land that would support one family – ‘hiwan’ – using probably one plough or one yoke of oxen to produce enough in a year to sustain them.) This was the beginning of a new project a movement to bring learning, culture and the Christian religion to the north of Saxon Britain.
This was the monastery on whose lands the Venerable Bede was born and it was here at Wearmouth that at the age of 7 he entered the schooling of the monastery, just as S.Hild another famous Northumbrian saint associated with Monkwearmouth had done, taking her vows as a nun some time after her baptism in647 AD, before being appointed abbess at Hartlepool and Whitby, where she hosted the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD.
“Inspired by her sister’s example, Hild continued a whole year in the kingdom of the East Angles with the intention of going abroad; but then Bishop Aidan called her home and she received a hide of land on the north side of the river Wear, where, for another year,she lived the monastic life with a small band of companions.” (Bede: EH IV 23)

This was the time in the dark middle ages known as the Golden Age of Northumbria, when monastic communities spread from Ireland to Iona to Lindisfarne and from Rome to Canterbury and to Wearmouth
and Jarrow.

Founded in 673 AD shortly followed by St.Paul’s Jarrow in 681 AD the two became known as a twin settlement “one monastery in two places” as Bede put it under one order, and often in the early decades sharing an abbot.

The saints associated with St.Peter’s are Hild, Bede, the abbots Benedict Biscop, Ceolfrid, Eosterwine, Hwaetbehrt and Sigfrid.

St.Peter also shares with Hexham Abbey the foundation date of 673 AD and the association between the travel companions Benedict Biscop and S.Wilfrid.

Most of the monastic settlement lies under the churchyard of St.Peter’s having been largely excavated and recorded by Professor Rosemary Cramp of Durham University in the 1960’s and covered over again for protection. Some of the stones and artefacts were unearthed and
brought into the church where they can be seen on display today.

The western wall and the porch under the tower date from the foundation and still stand as part of the St.Peter’s church where the Christian community gathers for worship as in earliest times. The tower itself also dates from the early decades of the monastery’s construction.

Surviving the ravages of the Vikings, the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the bombardment of the shipyards in the Second World War, and more recently an arson attack in 1984, St.Peter’s found itself in the industrial age enclosed in terraced housing, almost touching
the church walls, built to accommodate the workers in the shipyards on Europe’s most productive shipbuilding port.

The Wear itself meanders, from its origins high in the rugged beauty of the Upper Weardale fells, past the oxbow peninsular on which the massive norman edifice of Durham Cathedral towers to the sandy estuarine setting of Wearmouth. Durham represents the end of the journey where tradition has it the bones of the Venerable Bede lie in the Galilee Chapel, Durham being the Jerusalem to Wearmouth’s Bethlehem, the place of Bede’s origins until recently found hidden away cheek by jowel amongst the dwellings of the poor.

Recent developments in the City of Sunderland and particularly on the north banks of the Wear have transformed the rugged beauty of heavy coal and shipping industry into a riverside walk and art trail, leading east to a new marina and the lighthouse and pier, and today St.Peter’s church
shares its riverside setting with the St.Peter’s Campus of the University of Sunderland and the popular National Glass Centre. The proximity of the
City centre to the beach (only a mile distant) on which St.Peter’s marks a
halfway point surprises many visitors at the unexpected beauty of the estuarine city setting.

The Wearmouth-­‐Jarrow Property

The Wearmouth-­‐Jarrow Nominated Property includes all of the known standing and buried remains of two seventh-­‐century monastic complexes centred on Wearmouth and Jarrow, which functioned as a single institution. These are now the earliest surviving and most completely excavated Western European monastic complexes illustrating large regular buildings arranged in formal relationship to each other and designed for communal living, according to a monastic Rule of life. It is outstanding because of the quality and quantity of surviving below-­‐ and above-­‐ground
seventh-­‐century remains, and their exceptional testimony to the early stages of the development of monastic plans which would become central to European culture through the Middle Ages. Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith, the founders of the monastery, created an exceptional centre for learning.
This produced Bede, one of the greatest scholars of the first millennium AD and the only English person to be designated a Doctor of the Church for his scholarship. The twin monastery provided the physical context and resources, in particular an extensive library and high-­‐quality education
books, not commonly available at the time, which equipped him to produce his amazing output. Bede, who lived and worked in the twin monastery from the age of seven, produced wide-­‐ranging works which made the scholarship of classical antiquity relevant to emerging medieval Europe, and which have influenced international scholarship ever since.
Wearmouth-­‐ Jarrow’s associations with Benedict Biscop, Bede and Bede’s teacher Ceolfrith, together with its outstanding physical remains, make it one of the most influential monastic sites in Europe.

Outstanding Universal Value

The Twin Monastery of Wearmouth-­‐Jarrow, founded in the late-­‐seventh century AD on estuarine sites in the north-­‐east of England looking out to the North Sea coast and the wider world, is a milestone in the development of Christian Europe. Its architectural remains in the original monastic churches and below-­‐ground remains of the associated monastic complexes, exceptional both in quality and quantity, provide a visible link between the past world of late Roman antiquity and the coming world of the European Middle Ages. Its innovative architecture, some of which survives in situ, epitomises the introduction of building in stone with Roman-­‐style sculpture and coloured glass windows into the British Isles. In its design, it was a key stepping stone on the way to the greater formalisation of monastic claustral layouts, and communal as opposed to eremitic life, which accompanied the development of written monastic rules across Europe during the course of the next century, leading to the standard claustral layout which would come to dominate medieval
European society and then be transferred to other parts of the world.
The outstanding library and teaching assembled at Wearmouth-­‐Jarrow by Benedict Biscop and his colleague and successor Ceolfrith, and its scholarly ethos, were unlike anything else available in its day. Particularly through the prolific and wide-­‐ranging works of its most renowned thinker,
Bede, Wearmouth-­‐ Jarrow at its apex became the primary intellectual centre of Western Europe, the scriptorium developing a faster script in order to keep up with demand from across Europe for copies of its scholarly output.
The founders of Wearmouth-­‐Jarrow and the scholarly ideas of Bede created a gateway for the ideas of late-­‐Roman antiquity to enter the emerging early medieval world: through Wearmouth-­‐Jarrow the skills and learning of late antiquity centred on the Mediterranean Sea, and the ideas of the early Christian world were not only transferred to the northern limits of the emerging literate world, but combined, developed, remodelled and expanded, then exported back to Europe and beyond.


Five attributes have been developed which express the Outstanding Universal Value of Wearmouth-­‐Jarrow:

  • The relationship between the twin monasteries and their estuarine sites
  • The standing (above-­‐ground) remains of the Anglo-­‐Saxon monastic building complexes
  • The in-­‐situ excavated remains of the Anglo-­‐Saxon monastic building complexes
  • The monastic plan
  • Further archaeological remains

This Property is also particularly rich in associative attributes, which substantially augment understanding of its Outstanding Universal Value:

  • The legacy of knowledge and understanding derived from the work of the monastery
  • The rich combination of the in-­‐situ remains, archaeological collections and documentary evidence from the twin monastery


The Property is complete, in that all of the physical attributes necessary to express its Outstanding Universal Value are entirely contained within
the Boundaries of its two parts, including the known physical remains above and below ground and the extant monastic plan. These formed the liturgical heart of the monastery and contain the area from which evidence for technological innovation was recovered, all dating to Bede’s lifetime. Its estuarine setting can be readily appreciated and is protected by the buffer zone.

The Property is of adequate size, as there are no known physical remains of the monastic complex which fall outside the designated Boundary. Although both sites are situated within urban areas where there is inevitably some development pressure, local planning frameworks contain policies to ensure the protection of the Property’s Outstanding Universal Value. The twin monastery sat originally within a built environment, including buildings for liturgy, learning, cultural development and domestic needs, and that context remains today.


The authenticity of the Property, being the extent to which information sources about its values are credible and true, has been assessed
against the attributes which express its Outstanding Universal Value.

The estuarine locations and settings of the two parts of the monastery has not changed, although through time the surrounding areas have inevitably changed and developed. The surviving above ground structures remain remarkably intact for their period, and preserve a significant amount of
original fabric. The substantial below-­‐ground remains have a very high degree of authenticity, and show that the basic plan of both monasteries is clear and survives well. Both above-­‐ and below-­‐ground survivals demonstrate that the monastery was built in a Roman style, with
stonemasonry, Roman-­‐style coloured-­‐glass windows, painted plaster walls and opus signinum floors decorating the monastery, and incorporating an innovative communal pre-­‐claustral layout; this is the best survival of its date from Western Europe. The vast quantity of surviving copies of Bede’s works distributed across the world are highly persuasive evidence of legacy of knowledge and understanding of the Nominated Property, and the rich combination of surviving physical and
documentary evidence vividly illustrates the context in which this astonishing contribution to knowledge occurred.