The fascinating 1,300-year history of Sunderland's St Peter’s church – and the man who called it ‘Sonderlonde’

St Peter’s Church in Monkwearmouth is a justifiable source of pride in Sunderland for people of faith, or no faith, and has been for 1,347 years – so far.

Friday, 26th November 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Friday, 26th November 2021, 1:58 pm

But how much do you know about this internationally renowned place of worship here on our doorstep? Have you ever even been in? We guarantee it’s worth the effort.

The church was built in AD 674. For context that was about a century before the Vikings came to charm us, almost 400 years before William the Conqueror took over and nearly a millennium before Oliver Cromwell spoiled all the fun.

It’s asking much to squeeze so much history into the allotted space, but we’ll have a crack anyway.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

St Peter's Church has been in Monkwearmouth since AD674 and is one of the most historically important landmarks in the North East. Picture by Frank Reid.

In the beginning…

St Peter’s was part of Monkwearmouth’s abbey and founded by Benedict Biscop, who also later founded the sister site, St Paul’s in Jarrow, in 685. Benedict is Sunderland’s patron saint.

The land on which St Peter’s stands was granted by King Ecgfrith of Northumbria. Ecgfrith’s piety didn’t save him from being slain at the 685 Battle of Dun Nechtain to Picts led by King Bridei III (yes him).

The land had possibly been a Roman site. There is evidence of Roman stone nearby and inside is what appears to be a Roman altar. Early Anglo-Saxon churches were often built over Roman sites.

How the church looked in around AD 685.

It was built as a monastery, similar to others in Italy and France. When the Victorians restored it they had to bring in stone masons and glaziers from France. No one in Britain had the requisite skill.

Only the church’s west wall is original. The porch with its distinctive serpent carvings came about 30 years later. Although the rest of the current church is not original, it is still extremely old.

For example the rest of the tower above the porch is 10th century, although this makes it a slip of a lad compared to the west wall.

Bede

Regardless of what you believe, St Peter's has got to be worth a visit. Picture by Frank Reid.

Benedict’s fame has long been paled by that of the Venerable Bede, who entered the monasteries at both St Peter’s and St Paul’s aged seven in about 679.

He stayed in the monasteries his whole life and became the foremost scholar of his time; a prolific writer of history, geography, hagiography, science, poems and more.

His best known work is his smash hit Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which gave an account of every significant event in this country between the Roman Invasion and 731 when the book was written.

It’s a highly important reference book on Anglo-Saxon history, which gave England some identity as it emerged from the Dark Ages as a scattering of separate kingdoms.

The beautiful mosaic floor at St Peter's.

Much of it was written at St Peter’s. Although generally agreed to be short on laughs, it’s still the most important work of literature to emerge from Sunderland.

Bede’s Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Latin bible, was also written in Monkwearmouth and presented to Pope Gregory II in 716. It remains in Florence today, although the British Library was allowed to display it in 2018 (understandably they wouldn’t loan it out).

Bede also popularised the AD dating system. So he wasn’t what might be termed a layabout and achieved all of this during the so-called Dark Ages.

Incidentally he referred to Sunderland as “Sonderlonde”. Ha’way the lads.

After Bede

The Vikings (booo!) turned up in around 800 and did what they are best known for. Scorch marks on the stonework are still visible. This ushered in a period of decline before the church was restored in the late 11th century.

This place contains more than 13 centuries of history - and it's in the middle of Sunderland.

Gothic “modern” parts of the church came in the 13th century when the north aisle was built. A beautiful east window was added in the 14th.

In the 1220s St Peter’s became part of Durham Priory and a teacher, known as the Master of Wearmouth, was sent to educate. The role of Master of Wearmouth lasted until 1536 when it fell victim to Henry VIII’s infamous Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The psychotic Tudor fatty wanted rid of Catholicism and so appropriated many monasteries, booted out the clergy and kept all the treasure. St Peter’s was at least spared being razed to the ground. Others were less fortunate.

The church once stood on a small hill, but in the mid-19th century the ballast from ships was dumped there to create the topography we see today. It was later surrounded by houses.

Earlier that century the arcade of the north aisle and most of the chancel arch were removed, with galleries created.

St Peter's was restored in 1875. The east window of the chancel was replaced, the north aisle rebuilt and an organ loft installed.

Modern times

In 1973 the Duke of Edinburgh officially laid the foundation stone for a new chapter house. In 1985 the chancel roof was destroyed by fire, but replaced.

The most recent event of note (depending on whom you ask) was in January 2020, when the UK Cabinet met at the nearby National Glass Centre. Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, called in for an unpublicised visit.

He later said on Instagram: “It is well worth visiting and the welcome is wonderful.”

This is a very superficial history of the place. We have barely scratched the scratchings of the surface. What we suggest therefore, whatever you believe, is that you visit the place yourself.

St Peter’s is of course a working church with services on Sundays and Wednesdays at 11am. Guided tours are available during the week.

Perhaps surprisingly, they are a little short of both volunteers and visitors these days. Schools are especially welcome. It has parking, accessible toilets, baby changing facilities, a ramped entrance, a hearing (induction) loop, Braille and a small cafe – Bede's Bakehouse.

Jesus mentioned a lamp being placed under a bushel. Perhaps Sunderland has done this with St Peter’s. Wearsiders can help as both volunteers, visitors and word spreaders.

What are you waiting for? Go to www.monkwearmouthcofe.com/st-peters.

Read More

Read More
The Second World War bomb that caused chaos in Sunderland – 62 years later

Support your Echo and become a subscriber today.

Enjoy unlimited access to all of our news and sport, see fewer ads, experience faster load times, test your brain with daily puzzles and get access to exclusive newsletters.

Your support for our journalism means we can continue telling Sunderland’s stories for generations to come. Click here to subscribe – and click here to get a snapshot of the Echo’s news and sport to your inbox through our email newsletters.

St Peter's used to be surrounded by houses.
The windows alone make a visit worthwhile.
View of the east window from the nave.
Rector Richard Bradshaw of St Peter's Church.