Monkwearmouth Anglo-Saxon monastery and medieval priory
- Heritage Category:
- Scheduled Monument
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Date of most recent amendment:
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Sunderland (Metropolitan Authority)
- National Grid Reference:
- NZ 40154 57784
Reasons for Designation
From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597
monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in
the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities including monasteries
were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-
brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of
systematic discipline. The main components of the earliest monasteries might
include two or three small timber or stone churches, a cemetery and a number
of associated domestic buildings, contained within an enclosure or vallum.
Those sites which have been excavated indicate no standard layout of buildings
was in use. Rather a great diversity of building form, construction,
arrangement and function is evident. The earliest sites were not markedly
dissimilar from contemporary secular settlements, although their
ecclesiastical role may be indicated by the presence of objects indicating
wealth and technological achievement, such as stone sculpture, coloured glass,
inscriptions, high quality metalwork and pottery. Only the church and leading
secular figures are thought to have had access to the skills and trade
networks which produced such goods. Later foundations in the 10th and 11th
centuries generally had one major stone church and a cemetery. By this time
other domestic buildings were more regularly aligned, often ranged around a
cloister. Documentary sources indicate the existence of 65 early monasteries.
The original number of sites is likely to have been slightly higher and would
have included sites for which no documentary reference survives. Of these,
less than 15 can at present be linked to a specific site. As a rare monument
type and one which made a major contribution to the development of Anglo-Saxon
England, all pre-Conquest monasteries for men exhibiting survival of
archaeological remains are worthy of protection.
After the Norman Conquest monastic communities belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many monasteries acted as foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. Benedictine monasticism had its roots in the rule written about AD 530 by St Benedict of Nursia for his own abbey at Monte Cassino. Benedict had not intended to establish an order of monasteries and wider adoption of his rule came only gradually. The first real attempt to form a Benedictine order came only in 1216. The Benedictine monks, who wore dark robes, came to be known as `black monks'. These dark robes distinguished them from Cistercian monks who became known as `white monks' on account of their light coloured robes. Over 150 Benedictine monasteries were founded in England. As members of a highly successful order many Benedictine houses became extremely wealthy and influential. Their wealth can frequently be seen in the scale and flamboyance of their buildings. Benedictine monasteries made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all examples exhibiting significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection. Excavation has confirmed the survival of significant buried remains of Monkwearmouth Anglo-Saxon monastery and medieval priory. These excavations have provided important information on the form, layout and history of the monastery and the later priory. Further important information on these aspects will be preserved. Also of significance are the burials and structures which are interpreted as predating the documented foundation of the monastic community.
The monument includes the below ground remains of Monkwearmouth Anglo-Saxon
monastery and medieval Benedictine priory, in the grounds of St Peter's
The Anglo-Saxon monastery was founded in AD 674 by Benedict Biscop, who also
founded Jarrow in 682, and the two monasteries have often been described as
one monastery split between the two sites. By 716 the two foundations had a
community of 600 brethren. The only upstanding remains of the Anglo-Saxon
monastery at Monkwearmouth are the west wall of the nave and lower part of the
tower of St Peter's Church. These are not included in the scheduling since
they are part of a church in ecclesiastical use. These parts of the church
were built within a year of the foundation by stonemasons brought over from
Gaul. The skills of the Gaulish masons were passed on to the monastic
community and Monkwearmouth became renowned for stone building, receiving a
request from Nechtan Mac Derile, king of the Picts in 710 for stonemasons to
build him a church in the Roman manner.
Although the area of the remains has been landscaped, the survival of monastic
features about 1m beneath the present ground surface was confirmed through
archaeological excavations to the south of St Peter's Church between 1959 and
1969. The excavations also discovered the stone footing to a timber structure
and a Christian cemetery, which were interpreted as predating the documented
foundation of the Anglo-Saxon monastery. The remains of the Anglo-Saxon
monastery, which are 1m below the present ground surface, include burials and
monastic buildings. The most prominent excavated building was a gallery at
least 32m long, which served as a covered walkway between the church and the
southern edge of the site. It is 3.35m wide and was constructed of limestone
blocks; the lowest two courses were clay bonded and the remainder set in
mortar. It also had a mortared floor, a roof of thin limestone slates with
lead flashing and windows of coloured glass. The art of glass making was
taught by artisans, who, like the stonemasons, were requested by Benedict
Biscop from Gaul. This gallery separated the lay cemetery to the west from the
monastic cemetery to the east. The lay cemetery had a mix of male, female and
child burials all in a supine position, lying with their heads to the east,
and their feet either crossed or together. Some had evidence of being buried
in wooden coffins or on biers (wooden trays). The monastic cemetery had only
male burials in supine position. A round ended shrine 3.66m by 3.2m was also
identified in the monastic cemetery.
The floor of fine white concrete was sunk 1m below the level of the Saxon
ground surface (about 2m below the present ground surface) and carried a
wattle and plaster superstructure. This is one of the few buildings of the
Anglo-Saxon monastery known to survive apart from the fragments of the church.
In addition to a church and the gallery, the Anglo-Saxon monastery is known to
have included a chapel dedicated to St Mary, porticus (chapels on the sides of
the church and entered from within the church), refectory (dining area), and
cubiculae (private chamber) for the abbot, prior and senior members of the
The monastic community abandoned Monkwearmouth after Viking raids on
Northumbria in around 874. Evidence of burning associated with this
abandonment was found in excavated deposits. However, activity at the site
between this abandonment and its revival in the late 11th century is indicated
by the erection of the upper storeys of the tower in about 1000 and also by
burials in this period.
In 1072 Alwine, Prior of Winchcombe revived the monastery, which after 1083
continued as a cell of the Durham Benedictine foundation until the Dissolution
of the Monasteries in 1540. Again the only upstanding remains of the medieval
priory are incorporated in the fabric of St Peter's Church and include parts
of the chancel walls, the chancel arch, parts of the north aisle and the five-
light east window. In account rolls at the time of Dissolution the church was
recorded as being part of a much larger complex which included hall, kitchen,
pantry, larder, bakehouse, brewhouse, malt kiln, grange, granary, stable,
byre, court (farm yard), aqueduct and mill dam. Excavations have confirmed the
survival of remains of the cloister, perimeter wall, domestic buildings, and
east and south range. The layout is an orthodox Benedictine plan with a
cloister with east range and south range. The east range would have contained
the chapter house, parlour, abbot's private lodgings and monk's dormitory. The
south range would have contained the kitchens and refectory. There was no west
range to the cloister at Monkwearmouth; instead, the area outside the west
cloister wall was used for farm buildings. The cloister wall is about 1m wide,
with five courses of foundations laid in a 1m deep trench. The gallery of the
Anglo-Saxon monastery, whose surviving foundations cross the medieval
cloister, had been demolished prior to the medieval remodelling.
After the Dissolution the cell and its farm were granted to Thomas Whytehead
for 161 pounds, two shillings and seven pence. The east and south ranges were
adapted into an `L'-shaped hall. It was purchased by Robert Woodrington in
1597 and then by Dame Dorothy Williamson in 1689. In 1735 the hall became the
parson's house until it was destroyed by fire in 1790. It had been rebuilt by
1854, but was demolished following the redevelopment of Hallgarth Square in
The church of St Peter's, roads and path surfaces, steps, monument display
lights, the flagpost, benches, all metal railings and the vicarage are
excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath all these features
is included. The present garden of the vicarage lies about 3.5m above the
level in which remains of the monastery and priory survive as the ground level
was built up with ships' ballast in the 19th century. The top 1m of the garden
is therefore excluded from the scheduling although the area below is included.
MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
- Legacy System number:
- Legacy System:
Books and journals
Cramp, R, 'Archaeological Journal' in Monkwearmouth Church, , Vol. 133, (1976), 230-237
Cramp, R, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Excavations at the Saxon monastic sites of Wearmouth and Jarrow, , Vol. 13, (1969), 21-66
Cramp, R, 'Churches Built in Ancient Times' in Monkwearmouth and Jarrow in their Continental Context, (1994), 279-292
Cramp, R, Letter re: Monkwearmouth, (1998)
This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
End of official listing