The church was founded by a Northumbrian nobleman, Biscop Baducing. Biscop travelled to Rome and France, where he stayed two years in an island monastery at Lérins, where he took monastic vows, was instructed by the monks, and took on the name Benedict Biscop. Enthused by his experience of the church in Europe, Biscop returned to England. He impressed King Ecgfrith of Northumbria, who provided Benedict with land in 673 to build a monastery. Biscop brought craftsmen and builders from the continent to create a Roman-style church on the banks of the Wear, and it is built between 674-76.
On his visits to Rome, Biscop collected religious, classical, and secular books, with which he established a library at St Peter’s for use by the monks. In 680, the seven-year-old Bede was accepted into the monastery to be a pupil of Biscop.
By the eighth century, there were more than 600 monks in the community and St Peter’s and its twin site at Jarrow were famed throughout Europe as centres of learning and culture, drawing in visitors from across the continent. Around the 730s, Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in Latin, which is the first substantial piece of English history. It is a crucial document in the formation of English identity and it is fiercely loyal to the Northumbrian kingdom. Bede wrote around 60 books on a variety of subjects, mainly biblical commentaries and interpretation, saints’ lives, and theology. He became known as the Venerable Bede in recognition of his contributions to Christianity.
The oldest parts of the church are the late 7th century west porch (which features a striking and unusual serpent) and the late 7th century west wall of the nave (immediately adjoining the porch). The Saxon tower about the porch dates from around the 10th-11th century.
One stained glass window shows a Knight who apparently has two left feet. This may have been the influence behind the Lewis Carroll’s White Knight who similarly complains of ‘squeezing a left-hand foot into a right-hand shoe’. This is shown in illustrations from Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland.
Images reproduced courtesy of Bryan Talbot.
Sir Cuthbert Sharp’s poem of anguish about a departing sailor is perhaps apt here, too.