In the seventh century it must have been amazing for the people at the time living near Monkwearmouth in Northumberland to see this building going up! The craft skills of building in stone were lost when the Romans left Britain at the beginning of the fifth century, and, according to an Anglo-Saxon poem called ‘The Ruin’ it was thought that such buildings were created not by mere mortals but by giants. However, on his five journeys to Rome, Benedict Biscop (c. 628–690) saw magnificent large and sturdy stone buildings and brought back masonsfrom Gaul, as well as glassworkers to create stained glass windows, and, under his direction, they built this church in 674–5 and its sister church of St Paul’s in Jarrow.
Only the tower and west wall remain of Benedict’s church now but they are supreme examples of the stone mason’s skills. It is thought that many of the actual stones and some of the masonry came from Roman buildings nearby, and this arch certainly has a Roman feel to it with its carefully dressed stone. Even so, if it was created by the Romans, dismantling and recreating it on this site needed knowledge and techniques.
The massive corner stones give great strength to the building, some of them being about three feet (1 metre) in length as can be seen here. Even the strong Northumberland wind and sometimes inclement weather wouldn’t shift this structure!
Even now, the mason’s skill can be seen. There are horizontal striations on the two short pillars supporting the arch in the front of the porch.
The barrel vaulting creating the rounded arched roof is truly magnificent, the stones being selected very carefully to be well matched in size and shape. What an entrance to a church!
Either side of the arch are two similar smaller arches, with carefully cut stones to create the top curve. Although the wall may look rather higgledy-piggledy, a little like a dry stone wall, the stones are actually carefully selected and neatly placed.
There is even some pattern in the seemingly random stones creating here a zig-zag texture.
The porch was extended upwards by the end of the seventh century when a second floor was added, and this can be seen from inside the church here in a line in the masonry just below the narrow single window above the arched doorway.
In the porch are two stone slabs and on one there are incised depictions of a sword, a decorated cross and what could be a bishop’s crook (?).
The tower was extended upwards by the tenth century with other floors added, but the Romanesque style of half-moon arches was still being used in buildings.
St Peter’s in Monkwearmouth is just outside Sunderland* and is well worth a visit. I am so very grateful to the vicar and those at the church who kindly stayed on after the Sunday morning service and opened up the porch door so that I could take the photographs used in this post.
Benedict Biscop was given the land to build this church. He was also given land close by – the ‘sunder’ land, hence ‘Sunderland’.