Bishopwearmouth and the Minster

Sunderland Minster, formerly the Church of St Michael and All Angels lies is at the heart of historic Bishopwearmouth and has links to the locality's earliest roots. 


For most of its history up until its inauguration as 'Sunderland Minster' by the Bishop of Durham on January 11th 1998, it was Bishopwearmouth's parish church, officially the 'Church of St Michael and All Angels'. As a new Minster it was given extra-parochial status, enhancing its central role in the city.


On May 1st 2007, the church was renamed again, this time becoming 'The Minster Church of St Michael and All Angels and St Benedict Biscop' in recognition of its extended status.


Although its exact origins are uncertain, it is believed the earliest church at Bishopwearmouth was built around 930AD. In view of the large size and monastic connections of the South Wearmouth estate at the centre of which this church lay, it is probable Bishopwearmouth village and its church, have roots in the 7th or early 8th century. It seems likely there was a Saxon predecessor to the present church at the centre of a large parish rooted in a significant Anglo-Saxon estate. 


Encompassing nearly twenty square miles, the medieval parish of Bishopwearmouth was four miles wide from east to west and extended five miles from north to south. Its division only began in 1719 with the creation of a separate parish over to the east in the port of Sunderland where the handsome, if somewhat isolated, Georgian church of Holy Trinity still stands. Further divisions associated with the expansion of Sunderland's growth resulted in the gradual breakup of Bishopwearmouth's parish lands into 20 daughter parishes.


We know that the earliest surviving parts of Sunderland Minster can be dated to the construction or rebuilding of the church in the thirteenth century although descriptions and illustrations in the eighteenth century suggest it was probably begun in the twelfth century. Carved stones of the late Saxon period, probably from a grave, were discovered at the Minster in the 1930s and may point to early church origins that support the theory there was a Saxon church here.


Much of the medieval church underwent extensive reconstruction in the nineteenth century because the modest, possibly Saxon, proportions of the church were unsuitable for the rapidly expanding population of the parish and extended seating was required. The reconstructions began with work in 1805-1807 by the Durham architect, Christopher Ebdon in which the medieval chancel was largely reconstructed and the church tower replaced. Ebdon's 'Gothick' style tower has a battlemented parapet with intersecting glazing bars to the windows. The tower still retains some sixteenth century stonework and bears the Royal coat of arms. Within the tower there are eight bells weighing from 4 to 12 cwt with the original six dating from the early 1800s.


Further work was undertaken mid-century when new transepts of Decorated style were built by the Newcastle architect John Dobson in 1849-50. In the 1920s subsidence caused by neighbouring collieries further highlighted the need for further restoration. Renovation focused on the nave and aisles with work by W.D. Caroe in 1933-1935 at the expense of the Sunderland shipbuilder, Sir John Priestman. 


Caroe's work is described as "a quite remarkable effort in a free neo-Perp" that is "a sensitive handling of period material and on a scale not often demanded in 20th century churches".


Inside, the church includes high quality wood galleries in the transepts; a medieval font bowl; a seventeenth century font; medieval grave covers; a medieval effigy of a fourteenth century knight and several memorials of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The last of these include memorials of brass and a marble memorial to Thomas Wilson (died 1776), proprietor of a glass manufactory at Ayres Quay.


Other features include a wooden door on the north side with sculptured faces of the fourteenth century. A church organ can also be seen within of 1935. It was built by Harrison and Harrison of Durham, a North East company of international renown.


Notable stained glass in the church includes a large, impressive window in the chancel that is a focal point for the whole building. It has multiple details including depictions of different saints. The centrepiece is Christ in his Glory with other features including the Sunderland coat of arms, the Durham Diocese arms, St Michael slaying a dragon and St Nicholas patron saint of sailors. Designed in the 1950s by D.M Grant the window replaced an earlier one destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.


More recent features in the Minster are in keeping with the building's community role. They include a restaurant, office and meeting rooms divided by oak partitions placed here in 1981. One room is for community hire and another is occupied by the Sunderland Antiquarian Society.


The historical importance of the church and parish was reflected in the high status of Bishopwearmouth rectory. The rectory stood on land to the rear of the later Empire Theatre and the Rectory Park lands led down to the river. The rectory, demolished in 1855, was been described by one incumbent, a famed clergyman-philosopher, William Paley (1743-1805) as one of the best parsonages in England, "there are not more than three bishops that have better", he claimed. Paley's name is incidentally recalled in the name of Paley Street which adjoins the High Street close to the site of the old rectory within our Heritage Townscape area.


During the nineteenth century much of Rectory Park was colonised by urban and industrial developments, notably by Sunderland's Vaux Breweries (founded 1837) that stood here from 1875 to 1999.


As the Rectory for a parish of some considerable size, Bishopwearmouth produced a good living for its incumbents some of whom had remarkable careers. Undoubtedly, one of the most noted rectors was William of Durham (William De Dunelm) rector from 1229. When he died in 1249, William left the bequest for the foundation of University College at Oxford, the very first of Oxford University's colleges.


Other notable rectors included Phillip De Poitiers in the twelfth century, who became Bishop of Durham and two half brothers of Henry III who were successive Bishopwearmouth rectors in the thirteenth century. Two Bishopwearmouth Rectors were appointed Archbishops, namely Simon De Langham who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1366 and Tobias Matthew who subsequently became Bishop of Durham and then Archbishop of York. The illustrious list of rectors even includes a Pope. Robert Gebenens, Rector in the 1370s became Pope Clement VII, one of the Popes seated at Avignon in a period of Christian history known as the Great Western Schism.


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