Jarrow : Venerable Bede
Jarrow is a special place in the history of the English speaking world for no other place is more closely associated with Bede, the man who first recorded the history of the English people.
Jarrow was the place where Bede shone as a light of learning in an otherwise dark period of history – an era about which we would know much less if it were not for Bede. His legacy was felt throughout Europe. In the ninth a century, a monk in far away Switzerland neatly summed up Bede’s influential status when he wrote:
“God, the orderer of natures, who raised the Sun from the East on the fourth day of Creation, in the sixth day of the world, has made Bede rise from the West as a new Sun to illuminate the world”
In his life, the Venerable Bede, or St. Bede as he may also be called is not thought to have ventured beyond his home Kingdom of Northumbria. It was one of a number of kingdoms in which English or at least the now almost unrecognisable, Germanic tongue of the Anglo-Saxons was spoken. Bede was keen to stress the shared history of these English speaking kingdoms. He was the greatest scholar of his age and no other Anglo-Saxon comes close to his fame other than perhaps Alfred the Great, a later king of Wessex who lived after Bede’s time but revered Bede as one of the key figures of the Anglo-Saxon era.
Bede is known to have travelled south to York and north to Lindisfarne but seems to have rarely ventured beyond the boundaries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, which he regarded as one monastery in two places. At one point Pope Sergius invited Bede to visit Rome but there is no evidence that Bede took up this opportunity.
Biscop and Wearmouth
Bede’s lack of travel would not deter his thirst for learning and if he sounds a rather parochial figure it should be remembered that Wearmouth and Jarrow were then great centres of wealth, culture and learning and there was nothing to compare with them within these isles. They were home to works of Roman and European art, to stained glass (then almost unheard of in Britain) and they were places of European renown. As with such places today, people came to visit as tourists and pilgrims bringing with them knowledge and learning. Bede barely needed to travel.
At around the time that Bede was born the first monastery at Wearmouth had been founded by another man of learning and knowledge. Unlike Bede, this was a man who had travelled widely. His name was Benedict Biscop.
Biscop, otherwise known as Biscop Baducing, founded his first monastery at Monkwearmouth in 674 AD on the north bank of the River Wear at a location just before that river enters the sea. The land consisting of 70 hides was granted by the Northumbrian king, Ecgfrith and soon became a centre of great learning with its extraordinary collection of books and works of art bought home from Biscop’s travels to France and Rome.
Gyrwe : ‘Fen Dwellers’
Seven years after the monastery at Wearmouth was established, a second, twin monastery was founded by Biscop. Like Wearmouth, it was located close to the mouth of a river. This time the river in question was the River Don which entered the Tyne at Jarrow after skirting its way around or through the wide estuarine-like basin of Jarrow Slake. The slake was a strange and sometimes dangerous feature of the river scenery here: “a ruined haven, half filled by wash of sand and soil which receives the Tyne at flood, dry at ebb” wrote Robert Surtees, a historian in the 1820s.
Surtees was describing environs that were inhabited sometime before Bede and Biscop by an Anglo-Saxon tribal group or community called the Gyrwe (pronounced Yeerweh) – whose Anglo-Saxon folk-name translates as the ‘fen dwellers’. Their name was applied to the locality as well as to the people and the name Gyrwe would later become Jarrow.
The strange name ‘Gyrwe’ was not unique in Britain. It had also been applied in Anglo-Saxon times to dwellers who lived around the fenland of The Wash between East Anglia and Lincolnshire. It is not known if there was a connection between the two people of the two localities but it is possible. The Anglo-Saxon people who inhabited Lincolnshire (then forming a virtual island called Lindsey were known as the Lindisfarorna) and it is thought there was some kind of ancient link between them and the island of Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast.
Foundation of Jarrow
Whatever its early roots, in Anglo-Saxon times Jarrow was also sometimes referred to as Donaemuth (Don mouth) and it was here in the 682AD that the monks of Wearmouth employed masons from France to build their second monastery.
Once again the land, this time consisting of 40 hides, was a gift from the King, Ecgfrith. Construction of the building was supervised by Biscop’s assistant Ceolfrid. As at Wearmouth the monastery at Jarrow included a church – a basilica – built in the Roman style. Today the church at Jarrow has Britain’s oldest surviving church dedication inscription which can still be seen in the wall above the entrance to the Saxon chancel. It reads:
DEDICATIO BASILICAE SCI PAVLI VIIII KL MAI ANNO XV ECFRIDI REG CEOLFRIDI ABB EIVSDEMQ Q ECCLES DO AVCTORE CONDITORIS ANNO IIII
This can be translated as:
THE DEDICATION OF THE CHURCH OF ST PAUL ON THE NINTH OF THE KALENDS OF MAY IN THE FIFTEENTH YEAR OF KING ECGFRITH AND THE FOURTH YEAR OF CEOLFRITH, ABBOT AND WITH GOD’S HELP THE FOUNDER OF THIS CHURCH.
By today’s calendar this means the church was completed on April 23, 685AD. On completion it was 170 feet long and 45 feet wide and there would be few churches to match it in northern Britain save perhaps for Ripon, Hexham and Monkwearmouth, which were also all in Northumbria.
Roman Jarrow to Saxon Port
Much of the stone for the building of the monastery at Jarrow is thought to have been acquired from a neighbouring Roman site, most likely the abandoned Roman fort of Arbeia at South Shields, though there have been suggestions that there may have been some kind of existing Roman site at Jarrow. In 1866 two inscribed Roman stones were found during repairs to the nave at Jarrow and the wording on the stones, which could only be seen in part, appeared to read:
`The Barbarians were scattered
and the province of Britain freed.
A boundary was established
between the two oceans
a distance of 80 miles….’
It was suggested that these inscribed stones belonged to a statue dedicated to the Emperor Hadrian, that might possibly have stood at the mouth of the River Tyne. Whether Jarrow had been utilised by the Romans in some way, perhaps as the site of a temple, is not known.
Jarrow was seemingly a port in Anglo-Saxon times – Portus Ecgfrid – the port of King Ecgfrith. It is interesting to speculate that the exact location of the Roman port associated with Arbeia at South Shields is not known. Jarrow is a possible candidate, but there is no evidence that the haven of the slake forming the mouth of the Don at Jarrow, two miles distant from Arbeia, was ever utilised as a Roman fort.
The Venerable Bede, during his time at Jarrow, was well aware of the significant Roman remains in the vicinity of Jarrow and he was the first Anglo-Saxon to record the existence of Hadrian’s Wall. It was Bede that gave the name ‘Vallum’ to the defensive Roman earthwork that runs just to the south of Hadrian’s Wall. He must also have been well aware of the neighbouring Roman Road now called the Wrekendyke which then skirted the southern edge of Jarrow Slake en route to South Shields.
Bede entered the monastery of St Peter at Wearmouth when he was seven years old. He is likely to have come from a well off background. Bede is a rare Anglo-Saxon name though a king of Lindsey (the island kingdom of Lincolnshire) had been called Bede. Rather curiously this king was succeeded by a king called Biscop. They are of course a different Bede and Biscop but it does suggest that Bede and Biscop were both names of noble standing.
Bede seems to have been born with an enquiring mind and a desire to learn which was a very lucky situation for him as he now found himself in the best place of learning in Britain with access to what was then the greatest library in the British Isles.
It is thought Bede moved from Wearmouth to Jarrow shortly after completion of the new monastery. Unfortunately, disaster struck barely a year after the new monastery opened when a plague came to both monasteries and claimed the lives of many if not most of the monks.
Amongst the casualties were Eosterwine who had been left in charge at Wearmouth while Biscop was away in Rome. The Jarrow abbot, Ceolfrid and Bede, who was still a boy survived. It was a fortunate survival for the world as Bede was already showing signs of several talents. These included a musical talent, particularly for singing. The young Bede may have been influenced and impressed by the visit of John, the Arch Chanter of Rome who had, at Biscop’s request, travelled all the way from Rome to Wearmouth to teach the monks the art of chant.
Following the death of Biscop in 690AD, Ceolfrid, who had been appointed abbot of St Paul at Jarrow also became abbot of St Peter at Wearmouth. Ceolfrid doubled the size of the library that Biscop had developed, further emphasising the importance of this joint monastery as a centre of learning. It is estimated that there were around 200 different books at the Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery and very likely two copies with one at each of the two centres.
Around two years after Biscop’s death Bede was ordained a deacon by John, the Bishop of Hexham (later known as St John of Beverley) and at the age of 30 the same man ordained Bede as a priest. It was, though, as a writer that Bede would make his name. With access to the best library in Britain, the enquiring Bede became the foremost man of learning in Europe in his day and would be unmatched for centuries to follow.
Works of Bede
Through the library Bede became familiar with classical works such as that of Pliny and he developed keen skills, talents and knowledge in cosmology, history, chronology, calligraphy, story-telling, grammar, poetry, science, scripture, theology, singing, music and linguistics. Bede could speak fluent Greek and Latin as well as his native Northumbrian and he was, incidentally, a man who was very well aware that the world was not flat.
Bede started writing his works from around the year 701AD and would go on to complete more than 60 books, most of which survive in locations across Europe . Bede’s best known work is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum – A church History of the English People.
With information gathered from many sources including his contacts in other parts of Britain, this work, dedicated to Ceolwulf, the King of Northumbria, is the primary source for the history of these islands from the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon invasion up to the age of Bede himself. It is from Bede that we know the origins and the places of settlement of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who first settled Britain from northern Europe. They were people who sowed the seeds of what would become England.
There were other major works including those featuring theology and chronology. Bede wrote extensively on astronomy, particularly in relation to the complicated and once controversial calculation of Easter in relation to the phases of the moon.
Bede was a noted hagiographer remembered for his authorship of the Life of St. Cuthbert written at Jarrow for the monks of Lindisfarne and completed at about the same time as the Lindisfarne Gospels were created on that island. Another of Bede’s biographical works was his Lives of The Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, an important source of information for the immediate environment in which Bede lived.
Perhaps Bede’s greatest legacy came through his chronological work De Temporum Ratione (The Reckoning of Time) in which he introduced the dating of years from the supposed birth of Christ using the term Anno Dominii AD – year of the Lord. He did not invent this system. It had first been suggested by Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Short) a monk from Scythia (in Romania-Bulgaria) during the fifth century. Nevertheless it was Bede’s subsequent works and in particular his Historia Ecclesiastica that promoted the use of this system and popularised it to the extent that it became the norm throughout the Christian world.
Before Bede’s time it had been the fashion to date from the numerical year of the reign of a particular king or pope. It is a humbling thought that all the years and dates and golden decades of our history have a legacy going back to the days of Bede.
Northumbria after Bede
Bede died at Jarrow on May 25, 735 AD aged about 62 and many historians since have lamented his loss. For several centuries succeeding his death, reliable sources of history were often scant. Much of what we know of later periods comes from the hand of a few Anglo-Saxon chroniclers.
In addition to his talent for learning Bede was a great teacher and one of his pupils, Ecgbert went on to become the first Archbishop of York. The creation of the Archbishopric of York, independent of that of Canterbury came about in 734AD. Bede had urged Ecgbert to apply to the Pope for the status of York to be elevated and the Pope agreed. It was one of Bede’s final achievements in the year before his death.
Archbishop Ecgbert’s brother Eadbert was the new king of Northumbria and under the leadership of the two men, York thrived as a centre of learning. One of this Archbishop’s pupils, Alcuin, became the new star scholar of Northumbria.
Alcuin (pronounced Al-quin), later progressed to become the head of the school in York. He was born about the time of Bede’s death and in the 780s following a trip to Rome, he joined the court of the powerful Charlemagne in France where he ultimately became the Abbot of Tours and remained there for the rest of his days.
Alcuin could only look on as Northumbria became increasingly embroiled in a civil war with different factions fighting for the Northumbrian crown. Alcuin did much to promote the work and memory of Bede on the Continent and it is thought that it was through Alcuin that Bede came to be associated more with Jarrow rather than ‘Wearmouth-Jarrow’ as Alcuin referred to a single place.
Alcuin was disillusioned that Bede’s legacy of learning was seemingly forgotten in Northumbria as instability increased within the kingdom. Ultimately Northumbria paid the price in the year 793AD when the increasingly vulnerable kingdom was attacked from overseas in the devastating Viking raid on Lindisfarne that shocked the whole of Europe. Alcuin naturally saw the raid as a punishment from God.
Viking raids, Bede’s bones
In 794 AD, just over sixty years after the death of St Bede, Jarrow would also become a victim of one of the earliest Viking raids on mainland Britain. Biscop’s sacred monastery was severely burnt by the Vikings, though the Viking leader was caught by the local Anglo-Saxons and he was put to death.
In their attempt to flee from the monastery, the remaining Vikings were caught in a violent storm as they attempted to leave the Tyne and were shipwrecked. It is said that many were cast ashore, where they were mercilessly slain.
Jarrow was not so lucky in later Viking raids. In 875 AD, the monastery was fatally sacked. It remained a ruin along with Wearmouth which was also severely burned by the raiders and a ruin it continued to be up until the time of the Norman conquest.
The curious 1960s sculpture of two Viking warriors in Jarrow’s modern town centre commemorate the Viking raids though their presence in those ancient times can hardly be seen as a cause for celebration in Jarrow. As treasure houses, undefended monasteries like Jarrow were a prime target for the Vikings. The monasteries did not have a chance of survival particularly as the Danes increasingly took control in the north, seizing and settling Yorkshire and the eastern midlands from 866 AD
Fortunately, one of the few precious remains at Jarrow that seemingly, survived, untouched by the Vikings was the grave of Bede himself. In 1022 Bede’s remains were removed by Aelfred of Westoe, the opportunistic sacrist (sexton) of Durham who was a noted hoarder of saint’s relics. Aelfred brought Bede’s remains to the defended site of Durham in the loop of the River Wear. He buried Bede’s bones in the grave of St Cuthbert in the new Saxon minster at Durham which had been established in 995AD. They were later moved to a grave of their own in the later Norman cathedral where they still rest in a tomb to this day.
Norman monastery at Jarrow
It was during the Norman period that the monastery at Jarrow experienced a new revival when it was re-established. In 1074 a Mercian monk called Aldwin (of Winchcome in Gloucestershire) who had been reading Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People was inspired by what he had read and arrived at Monkchester (Newcastle) to explore. He hoped to revive some of the northern monastic sites that he had read about in Bede’s works.
William Walcher, the new French Bishop of Durham granted Aldwin the former monastic lands and church at Jarrow along with several newly attached estates. Aldwin and his companions began the construction of a new monastery, of the Benedictine order, on a site incorporating the original church of Biscop’s monastery. On completion Aldwin moved on to the abbey at Melrose in Scotland but was soon recalled by Walcher to undertake the revival of Biscop’s first monastery at Wearmouth.
In 1080 Bishop Walcher was murdered by a mob at Gateshead and his mutilated body was recovered by the newly established monks at Jarrow to which it was taken for safety before it was moved on to Durham.
Bishop Walcher’s successor was William of St Carileph best remembered as the man who started the building of Durham Cathedral. Carileph removed the existing monks from Durham Cathedral (who were successors to those of Chester-le-Street and Lindisfarne) and in 1083 he moved in the Benedictine monks from Jarrow and Wearmouth to replace them.
Jarrow and Wearmouth became outlying cells of Carileph’s powerful priory at Durham Cathedral and they continued to be so up until their closure by Henry VIII in the 1530s. After this time they again fell in to ruin, though the respective churches of St. Paul at Jarrow and St. Peter at Wearmouth survived.
Church and monastery today
Today, Jarrow is a town that has seen much industrial activity and development since the early nineteenth century but the remnants of Bede’s famous monastery survive and now have a beautiful parkland setting with surrounding trees in a managed historical landscape. They are bordered by the banks of the River Don – with its salty riverside aroma – as they have been since the age of Bede.
Many of the buildings that remain at Jarrow date to the Norman period of the monastery founded by Aldwin in 1074. The church at its centre does however have a significant Anglo-Saxon building. There had in fact been two churches within the Anglo-Saxon monastery. They stood end to end with the smaller of the two perhaps exclusively used by the monks and the larger possibly used by both visitors and monks.
Beginning in the ninth century, a building was built between the two churches linking them both together. This linking building was later developed into a tower. The upper part of the tower – the belfry – dates from the twelfth century.
By the eighteenth century the larger of the two churches (by then forming the nave) was in danger of collapsing upon the Jarrow congregation so it was demolished and replaced in 1783. The smaller church which had become the chancel still survives.
Here the small window recesses in the stone are the original Anglo-Saxons ones with the middle one containing fragments of recovered glass from Jarrow’s Anglo-Saxon era. When the church is viewed from the side that faces the River Don, the original small church, dedicated to St Paul is that situated to the right of the tower.
Between the church and the River Don within the Anglo-Saxon monastery once stood a guest house where guests at the monastery, who often arrived by the river, were greeted and housed. These guests would have included distinguished visitors from overseas.
Both the Norman monastic remains at Jarrow and the Anglo-Saxon remnants of the church are more substantial than those at Monkwearmouth but both places should be visited as part of Bede’s story.
One artefact associated with Bede’s time that should be regarded with a pinch of salt is Bede’s Chair in the chancel at Jarrow. The wooden chair was reputedly Bede’s own, from which he is said to have created his great works. In fact the chair is thought to date to the fourteenth century. Sitting in the chair was once believed to improve the chances of having children and many a new bride would sit upon it in the hope of improving fecundity.
One of the biggest changes in the landscape of Jarriow came about in quite recent times. For centuries the main feature of this riverside area was the large tidal mudflat called Jarrow Slake.
Before the onset of industry the slake was the dominant feature of the local scenery but has now been completely filled in for the development of land by the Port of Tyne. The infilling of the 120 acre slake began in 1972 and was completed by the early 1980s. Much of the site is now a distribution centre for Nissan cars and masses of these brand new vehicles now occupy the now solid ground of the site.
The slake was a prominent feature at the time of Bede but in truth though Jarrow Slake was part of the natural landscape it was something of a muddy mess when the tide was out. When the tide was in it was filled with the water of the Tyne. It was through the slake that the River Don, entered the Tyne and the land on which St Paul’s monastery was established almost formed a small peninsula with the slake on one side and the Don on the other.
The slake and the mouth of the Don formed a harbour in Anglo-Saxon times that was possibly that known as the Port of Ecgfrid (or Ecgfrith) who was the King of Northumbria in Bede’s time.
In this respect the tidal basin has a resemblance to a similar tidal haven at Budle Bay on the coast near Bamburgh. The Bamburgh-based Kings of Northumbria operated a port at Waren on the Waren Burn within Budle Bay during Anglo-Saxon times and it is interesting to compare the two sites.
The name of Jarrow Slake is, incidentally, said to be a corruption of ‘Jarrow’s Lake’ though slake is probably a word in its own right. In local dialect the slake was sometimes known as Jarrow Slax. Slake was also the name of a tidal mudflat within the natural hook of the Hartlepool headland, an ancient spot associated with St. Hilda and later the focus of a medieval port.
Close to the monastic site of St Paul in Church Bank is Jarrow Hall which for many years served as the main museum housing finds from Jarrow. A brick building of around 1785, it was built by local industrialist Simon Temple who opened Jarrow Colliery (Temple Main Colliery) in 1803.
Later, Temple went bankrupt after making some poor investments and ended up living with his butler. Later occupants of the hall, which has a distinct bow-shaped front, included the Drewett family, the Mercantile Dock Company and from the 1920s, the Shell Mex company. In the 1930s another occupant, Catherine Chaytor, set up a woodden toy manufactory here in the hope of creating work for Jarrow’s unemployed at the time of the Jarrow March.
Over the years the hall fell into disrepair but had been acquired by Jarrow Borough Council. In the 1970s when it became the home of a museum – the Bede Monastery Museum – housing finds from the monastery of nearby St Paul. In the 1990s it became part of a much larger museum called Bede’s World. Bede’s World closed in February 2016, reopening on October 23, 2016 as a the world’s only Anglo-Saxon farm and village as well as a museum dedicated to Bede.
There are artefacts and archaeological finds from St Pauls monastery and collections of stained glass and displays relating to the Kingdom of Northumbria and the life of Bede.
The Anglo-Saxon farm called Gyrwe (Yeerweh) features three large timber buildings with thatched roofs and two smaller buildings – a monk’s cell and a grubenhaus used as a cold storage. Cereal crops of the Anglo-Saxon era are grown on the farm and animals of a kind familiar to the Anglo-Saxons are raised on the site. It brings the world of the past to life enlightening people in ways that surely Bede would have approved.