“The Shire of Wearmouth”- When Sunderland Stretched To Dalton-Le-Dale

The 10th century was a significant point in the history of Wearside. The Anglo-Saxon King Æthelstan triumphed against the Scots and the Vikings, ultimately serving to unite the divided Saxon states under the banner of England for the first time and thus becoming “King of the English“.

In doing so, his victory against the Viking Kingdom of York seen Northumbria become a part of the new Kingdom of England, which led to political rearrangements in the region. The most powerful political force and landowner in the North East was of course the Bishopric of Durham (at this time based in Chester-Le-Street), which was styled as “The Community of St. Cuthbert”, which originated from Lindisfarne.

In exchange for accepting the new King’s authority, in 935, the Bishopric of Durham or “Community of St. Cuthbert” was granted by Æthelstan a series of lands south of the River Wear. It is from this grant that the name “Bishopwearmouth” is derived, as it was literally “The Bishop’s Wearmouth”. While the Bishopwearmouth parish itself was small and only covered the south of Sunderland (The Townships of Ford, Ryhope, Silksworth, Tunstall and Burdon) the actual body of land and estate owned by the church, known as “South Wearmouth” was much larger.

This “South Wearmouth estate” would be referred to in medieval times as a “shire”, as it was a collection of rural land under one owner, which consisted of many parishes. This stretched further south than the administrative boundaries of Sunderland today. It included: Seaham, Seaton, Dawdon, Murton and Cold Hesledon. Thus in the imaginative sense, the boundaries of “Sunderland” effectively extended downwards into East Durham itself.

But of course you’re wondering, why are these towns no longer part of Wearside, and why did they go their separate ways? The answer is more changes to the region which came of course with the Normans in the 11th century. On seizing power at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror sought to violently consolidate his authority against a rebellious, pro-Anglo Saxon, North of England, and pursued a brutal campaign known as the Harrying of the North, which involved relentless death and destruction.

The Harrying was motivated by William’s inability to control Durham. With William having taken power, the existing Bishop of Durham Æthelwine attempted to rebel, before he was caught and imprisoned, with the king appointing his own Bishops. However, his first appointment, Walcher, was murdered in Gateshead in 1080 by rebels, which seen William unleash his violent campaign which involved the wholesale destruction of agricultural land and killing of local populations.

After this, a Norman, and loyalist to William, William de St-Calais was appointed Bishop. His work was to implement the new King’s feudal order in England, which consolidated the Bishopric of Durham as a delegate authority to the king and creating the “County Palatine of Durham“. The Bishopric was not only a “landowner” as it were in Saxon times, but now also a “landlord” under the crown for all of that respective region, even if they did not own the land directly.

The consequence of this is that the larger “Shire” of the Wearmouth estate, once owned exclusively by the Bishop, was broken up and delegated to a series of new owners, including priories, without harming the alignment of power in the new system. After all, with the creation of a new “County Durham” the older rendering of a shire system was irrelevant. Likewise, the estates and parishes in East Durham which were part of Greater Wearmouth went their own way under different owners.

So that finishes the medieval story as to why Seaham, Murton and Dawdon were once part of the Wearmouth era, but now they constitute seperate towns and villages in County Durham. In many ways however, they are still effectively rendered as part of a “Wearside” family and we continue to be close to them.