Half way up the eastern seaboard of England, the wide mouth of the Humber River makes a deep gash in the coastline. Two thousand years ago most of the land north from the Humber to what is now the Scottish border was occupied by the Brigantes, the largest and most powerful of the many warring Celtic tribes who called Britain their own. 

The Celts had gradually settled in Britain from Continental Europe between 500 and 100 BC, and had brought iron working with them. While their language, culture and religion identified them as Celts, there was no central government. The tribes themselves, frequently at war with each other, were based on the clan system of extended families and lived in huts of thatched roofs, wood and wickerwork from which they farmed the surrounding land.

The Romans

The Romans first came into the Celtic lands in the south of England in 55 BC, when Julius Caesar, general of the legions in Gaul (France) advanced as far as the Thames, the river on which London now stands. The motivation for this early incursion was partly to check the support that the Celts in Britain were affording their allies in Gaul. But Britain was also a site for valuable minerals, including tin from Cornwall, as well as a source of food supplies for the legions. Another Roman incursion came the following year, 54 BC. But in 43 AD, in the reign of Emperor Claudius, the Romans launched a full-scale invasion and pushed far to the north in what would transform the face of ancient Britain. Military victories combined with strategic alliances between the Romans and selected tribes effectively reduced opposition among the fragmented Celts.

  The Places
Ancient history around County Durham, England
55 BC - 1500 AD






Other Celtic tribes

Mouth of the

River Wear

Mouth of

the Humber

Celtic England: Northern and central England before the Roman invasion in 43 AD. The most dominant of the Celtic tribes were the Brigantes, who occupied what would one day become Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire and part of the Midlands. They also occupied parts of southern Ireland.

Below: Part of the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, which 2000 years ago protected the Roman Empire’s northern border. This section is in County Durham, not far from Sunderland.

In the north, the Brigantes were reduced to subjection by AD 80. The large number of excavated Roman military camps between the Tees and Tyne rivers are reminders of the challenge in subduing that ancient kingdom of which County Durham is now a part. Roman camps or towns were situated along a major north-south military road which enabled the rapid deployment of troops and supplies. There was also a Roman road from the Tees to the Tyne, crossing the River Wear at Hylton. A Roman station may have stood at the mouth of the River Wear, at the north end of what is now Castle Street, Sunderland.

After the conquest of the Celtic Britons, the Romans turned their attention to expanding agriculture, transforming more of the the heavily forested land and swamps into productive farms. Over time, the country became the granary for the northern Roman Empire, with vast amounts of food crops grown and exported. Britain’s climate proved receptive to the introduction of new plants and fruit trees. Gradually the Roman way of life permeated the populace, especially in the well-planned Roman towns with their markets and commerce. The whole structure was protected by military garrisons, coastal defences and, of course, the great Hadrian’s Wall marking the extreme northern frontier of the empire. Christianity arrived in about AD 178, competing at first with the paganism of both Celts and Romans and finally becoming the acknowledged religion of the empire in 324 under Constantine. 

The Anglo-Saxon invasions

With the collapse of the Roman Empire and the recall of the last Roman soldiers from Britain in 410, Britain entered the Dark Ages in which historical records are scanty. Now open to raiders and settlers from the Germanic tribes of Europe, the country was soon invaded and colonized by Anglo-Saxons, who overcame Celtic Britons and forced them to the western side of the island - to Cornwall, Wales and the northwest. The Angles were from the region around the neck of the Jutland peninsular (modern Denmark and northern Germany), the Saxons from lower Saxony. It was from the Angles that England later got its name, but England as a country did not yet exist.

By 600 AD several dominant Saxon kingdoms had emerged, the two largest of which were Northumbria and Mercia. Northumbria, established in 547, stretched from the Humber to the prominent Scottish inlet at the Firth of Forth, a location that invited constant trouble from the Scots and Picts to the north. From 547 to 800 Northumbria was ruled over by some 30 kings, including King Oswald who introduced Christianity. 

Biscop and Bede

In 674 there came one of those pivotal moments so valued by historians, because the records of the associated events pour a flood of light onto the otherwise obscure times. King Ecgfrith of Northumbria granted a substantial tract of land to Benedict Biscop, a Northumbrian noble of Angle lineage, on which he built the monastery and church of Wearmouth. Biscop made several trips to Rome and the Continent, and brought back many books, works of art and sacred relics, as well as craftsmen who reintroduced glassmaking to England. Little of the original monastery now exists, but the associated church of St. Peter’s stands today on the same site as the parish church of Monkwearmouth, in the heart of what is now Sunderland. 

Biscop was the first Abbott of the monastery, but what is even more significant than his remarkable life is the entry into the monastery in 680 of a seven year old boy known as Bede. Bede’s life was spent at St Peter’s and a sister monastery built soon after at Jarrow, a few miles to the north. Over time, Bede’s prodigious scholarship turned Jarrow into the main European center of learning north of Rome. His most famous work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) gained him the title "The Father of English History.”  The book covers the period from Julius Caesar’s invasion to his own day, with special emphasis on the kingdom of Northumbria.

Below: Saxon kingdoms and tribes in future England and Wales, AD 600. (Map adapted from Wikimedia Commons).

The Saxons could not hold out indefinitely, however, against raiders who came suddenly from the sea unopposed by any organized navy or any comparable seafaring expertise. By the middle of the ninth century the monastery at Monkwearmouth had been abandoned. In 867 a large and unstoppable Danish force plundered the whole of Northumbria, burned houses and churches to the ground and slaughtered the inhabitants. 

It was from about this time that the Danes came to settle, not just to pillage. There were long years of conflict with the Saxon kingdoms, principally the dominant Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. The Saxon king Alfred the Great of Wessex drove the Danes back for a time, but Danes mostly held the upper hand. A system of legal jurisdiction and governance called Danelaw was established over much of the country. From 1016 to 1042 Danish kings held sway in most of England. 

Gradually, however, centuries of conflict, treaties, truces and and accommodation saw the Danes assimilated. Especially under the Danish King Canute, they settled down on the land, intermarried with Anglo-Saxons, and the two races became one people. A BBC genetic survey of the population of Britain in 2000 identified Norwegian origins among certain settlements, notably the outer islands of Scotland. However, the Danish descendants could not be distinguished from those of the Anglo-Saxons. Some Danish place names remain - Suddick, now Southwick, a Sunderland suburb on the north shore of the Wear, is an example.

The emergence of Sunderland

The harbour at the mouth of the Wear was well known in Saxon and Danish times, and probably well frequented because of the important Benedictine monastery at Monkwearmouth as well as the shelter it provided. At this time there were three distinct settlements, in addition to a few very small neighbouring hamlets. On the north side of the river stood Monkwearmouth. On the south side, the community of Bishopwearmouth was founded in 930, while Sunderland itself was a small fishing village toward the mouth of the river, the name probably referencing “sundered land” because of the River Wear valley carving its way toward the coast. “Soender-land” has both Anglo-Saxon and Danish connections. Eventually, Sunderland would grow to absorb both Monkwearmouth and Bishopwearmouth and surrounding villages.

Bishopwearmouth was so called to distinguish it from Monkwearmouth on the other side of the River. A grant of land from the Northumbrian king to the bishop of Durham included Westoe, Offerton, Silksworth, Ryhope, Burdon, Seaham, Seaton, Dalton, Dalden, and Haseldene.

Historian William Cranmer Mitchell, in his 1919 “History of Sunderland,” describes Bishopwearmouth in Saxon times as follows. The explanations in brackets have been added.

Left and below: St Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth, as it is today. The tower dates to Norman times and its stone wall can be seen at the far end of the aisle. The monastery was dissolved by King Henry VIII as part of the English reformation.

Right:  The original doorway through which St. Benedict Biscop and the Venerable Bede entered the church. This west wall and the porch behind it are all that remain above ground of the monastery of St. Peter, founded in 674.

The Danes

The English Book of Common Prayer in the 8th Century included the phrase, “Deliver us, O Lord, from the wrath of the Northmen.” It was an understandable plea. Danish incursions began in the late 700s on the Northumbrian coast and continued for 200 years. Churches and small settlements were easy targets for pillage, plundering and rape. The monastery and church at Lindisfarne were plundered and burned in 793, and the ecclesiastical buildings at Jarrow were attacked the following year, although the Danes were driven off. A large battle between Saxons and Danes near Tunstall Hills, on the southern side of what is now suburban Sunderland, also resulted in a defeat for the Danes.

Above: The extent of the Danelaw at the time of the Treaty of Chippenham, AD 878. For comparison purposes, the red dot marks where Sunderland later developed

“On the crest of the hill stands the small Saxon church, made of wood, the roof thatched with reeds. On three sides of the church are clustered the dwelling houses, each with a small croft [small area for farming], and garden with fruit trees; while on the fourth side is the village green where men and boys practice at the butts [longbow archery targets].

“Surrounding the town may be seen a ditch and an earthen wall, with a wooden fence on top, as a defence against any enemy.

“Very early in the morning the town gate is opened and the herd appears driving the villagers’ cattle, which he has collected from each croft, to the grass land at Boyldon Hill.

“Next appear the Ceorls, the most numerous and the lowest class of Saxon freemen. They are accompanied by a number of Thralls or slaves, and are on their way to the strips of cultivated land at the west of the village where wheat, rye, oats and barley are grown. Now we see the Thane with his sons and house carls [household troops or bodyguards] issue forth. Some follow the stream which joins the Wear and are going to fish for salmon; others are going to hunt in the woods.

“An extensive view of the sea and the surrounding country can be obtained from the village as none of the land is enclosed. There are no noisy shipyards, no busy factories belching forth smoke from their tall chimneys, and the Wear runs swiftly to the sea between steep, craggy banks, in parts overgrown with bushes and trees. In place of the tiers of great tramp steamers, a few long black galleys ride at anchor and here and there a rude boat is drawn up on the shore.”

The Norman Conquest

The Battle of Hastings in 1066 between Anglo-Saxons and Normans from the Continent was one of the most pivotal in the long history of the British Isles. Its origins, context, politics and results are complex and well beyond the purposes of this essay. Still, the Norman invasion and settlement of England had profound consequences for the area we now call County Durham. 

In 1069 the Saxons refused to yield to 900 Norman soldiers come to forcibly install the Earl of Northumberland in the city of Durham. The Normans, including the earl, were slain. The Normans followed up with a larger force that quelled the rebellion and ravaged the entire countryside, burning and destroying everything between the Tees and Tyne rivers. Within ten years, a second insurrection was put down with equal brutality.

From this time, England - now a distinct country - fell under the rigid and utterly unreasonable feudal system. Ultimately, the Normans, too, would be assimilated in the larger Anglo-Saxon population, and English rather than Norman-French would become the language of the nobility and courts of law.

Over the years, the historical record shows signs of increasing recognition of the settlements on the mouth of the Wear. A Charter of Privileges was granted to the “Burgesses of Weremue” about 1154, apparently in an effort to stimulate trade and commerce and the development of a port. In 1180, the Boldon Book - a survey of land, rents and tenants that included the villages of Bishopwearmouth and Sunderland - refers to specific numbers of tenants and cottagers, and directly references a carpenter and blacksmith, among others. 

Gradually, the ferries and fisheries attracted related river-based activities. Ships began to be built on the river in the 1300s, and the historical record specifically mentions shipbuilding at Hynden (later the Sunderland suburb of Hendon) in the 1460s. One-room wooden dwellings gave way to stone cottages, often with thatched roofs but sometimes capped with tile.

By 1500 it is doubtful that the population of the neighbouring Wearmouth villages exceeded 1,000 people. The next two centuries, however, would see Sunderland gradually recognized as a significant port, before its explosive growth began in the 1700s.

To come:

Sunderland’s modern history, 1500-today