What Was Sunderland Like in the Middle Ages? Here’s What We Know
The Middle Ages is a period which attracts a lot of public interest and imagination. We often romanticize it with imagery of knights in shining armour, castles and fancy design, but are nonetheless also conscious of it being quite a miserable and unlucky period of history to live in, where life was short, tough and brutal. But perhaps less focused on, is what our own beloved Sunderland was like during this period.
We have snippets of it here and there, such as the existence of Hylton Castle and St. Peter’s Church, but how might we imagine the area as a whole? Here we set out the most comprehensive accumulation of Wearside in the Medieval era, which we will define from the 10th century, as to when King Æthelstan granted the lands to the Bishop of Durham and commenced settlements as it is known, to the 16th century or so as the renaissance started.
To put it bluntly, Sunderland as we understand it today did not exist in the Middle Ages. The current city which encompasses everything is a creation of modernity, something which was brought about by industrialisation and urbanisation. This does not mean before that there was nothing, but what it means is everything that was there was smaller, sparser and less well connected. What was known then as “Sunderland” was in fact a small fishing village located in the current East End, of which would then boom from the 17th century onwards and eventually consume the area we know today.
Instead, a number of recognizable but smaller locations spanned Sunderland’s territory, the primary of which was “Bishopwearmouth” constituting the west side of the city centre. Bishopwearmouth was a village situated around a church built in the 10th century, of which we now know to be “Sunderland Minister”. This small settlement was the home of the parish and the centre of everything on Wearside. Next to the church was the Green, which constituted the main forum for public life and is now the current “Town Park”.
As you can see from this artist’s reconstruction, Bishopwearmouth was structured with a number of streets that continue to exist in the present day, these include High Row and Low Row. At the top, what is described as “King’s Road” is now the modern Sunderland High Street, which connected the Parish centre to the fishing village on the sea of Sunderland itself, it also went west too going through what is now Millfield. These streets were lined with Medieval households.
To the North of the village, sat which is called the Rectory, the former residence and estate of church officials appointed by the Bishop of Durham. This is described as a place of wealth and prestige. The rectory owned over 130 acres of land, of which spanned westwards and consisted of what is now the cemetery. The rectory hosted some of the most famous and prestigious individuals of the medieval era, including Adam Marsh, Simon Langham and Robert of Geneva. The building was rebuilt around the 18th century, but then demolished in 1855. Its doorway arch however, was transplanted into Mowbray Park, ever wondered what that strange little door is? There’s your answer.
“The Outer Suburbs”
But what of course, about other parts of Sunderland? Bishopwearmouth was a small village, but it was a broader parish and remained like the centre stage is today, the hub of numerous other locations. As above notes, the land was all initially owned by the Bishop of Durham and it was leased out to tenants in what was known as “Demesnes”. As a result, surrounding the centre was a number of “townships” and smaller villages which fed into it, many of which equally existed since from the early Middle Ages. The historic “Boldon Book” a survey of the North in 1183 complimenting the “Doomsday Book” documents and reveals a lot of these settlements. Let’s take a look at them all
Ryhope and Burdon
Two of the longstanding medieval villages of Wearside were in fact, Ryhope and Burdon. The Boldon Book says that there were “27 villains” (peasants) who laboured on these lands. Ryhope in particular was by legend a popular beach resort of the Bishops of Durham, and was also at one point under the occupation of the Vikings. By the 14th century, Ryhope was populated by about 180 people.
Silksworth and Farringdon
Another township of Bishopwearmouth was in fact Silksworth, of which was derived from an Old English name meaning “Sigelac’s Enclosure”. This was long before the mining village was established and should not be confused with “New Silksworth” to the North. Instead, the former village of Silksworth was located to the South around the Silksworth Hall area and contemporary Doxford Park. It contained a local holding court.
Old Silksworth was accompanied by “Farringdon Hall” situated up the road, of which was a hamlet and monastic grange and later a private estate. In the 15th century the area was home to Robert Jakson, appointed as Constable and Baliff of the Sunderland area by the Bishop of Durham. Farringdon’s name was derived from the Anglo-Saxon era, which means “Hill of Faer or his sons“. By the modern era the old Farringdon Manor had disappeared.
Grindon and Thorney Close
Grindon, meaning “Green Hill” was also mentioned in the Historical Boldon Book and was a land granted by the Bishop to a man called “Walter De Roth” in the 12th century. This was also a manor estate which lasted right up until the 1950s. What was to become “Thorney Close” in the Middle Ages was not yet clear, yet by the Tudor Era “Thorney Close House” had likewise appeared of which was known for centuries as an Orchard.
Finally within the territory of Bishopwearmouth Parish, there was the village of Tunstall, of which the template of the Medieval Green still exists today. In the 14th century, Bishop Hatfield’s survey of County Durham recorded 12 tenants living in Tunstall who held 110 acres of demesne lands, holding 14 dwellings, a mill and two cottages. “Paddock Lane” in the area is also quite evidently the direct continuation of a Medieval street.
As set out in our previous article “The Glorious History of Hendon” this area’s name is derived from Old English for “The Valley of the Monks” which was largely associated with the “South Moor” of the area. Medieval Hendon was also unsurprisingly a series of farms, as well as being part of the town of Sunderland. In the year 1381, Hendon became the site of Sunderland’s first shipyards with Thomas Menvill paying rent to the Bishop of Durham for it. The Hendon we know today emerged as Sunderland grew into an industrial town.
In addition to the heart of Bishopwearmouth, there were the lands of Hylton in the Middle ages, which had also been held by the family of the same name since the Anglo-Saxon era. The first version of Hylton Castle was built sometime during the 11th century, with the stone version appearing by the 14th. What was South Hylton was simply known as “Hylton Ferry” due to the shallow crossing across the River, of which was aided by Roman era Brigstones which constituted a port or dam.
The Herringtons were another set of farming villages which existed from the early middle ages, and were a separate entity from Bishopwearmouth which had its own parish church. Herrington Manor (demolished in the 1950s) was again specified in the Boldon Book and existed from the 12th century onwards under William De Herrington.
North of the river, Southwick was also an independent entity of which was eventually absorbed into Sunderland as a whole during its northern expansion, formally incorporated in 1929. The name of the area is historically referred to as “Suddick” which is speculated to be Norse for “clearing by a Marsh”. The village is attributed to have been another farming community in the Middle Ages of at least 1000 years of age. The Southwick Village Green Preservation Society was able to erect a heritage plaque commemorating its Anglo-Saxon origins.
Conclusions: A blank canvass of a city to be
In the Middle Ages, Sunderland was not a city or even a town but a sparsely populated region of various villages, manors and farming communities who were largely linked together by the core of Bishopwearmouth with its church upon the hill. The roads of Durham and Chester today were in fact ancient ones which connected the settlement for over a millennium.
The North of the River was a separate entity altogether bar a small crossing at “Hylton Ferry” (South Hylton) with the deeper river near the mouth creating a geographic barrier. It was in the 18th century whereby the town of “Sunderland” in the east became a bustling port for shipbuilding, salt panning, glassmaking and coal mining, swallowing up Bishopwearmouth and later Monkwearmouth.
The real centre of political and ecclesiastical power in this era of course, was the City of Durham and its Cathedral. This meant the most part, Bishopwearmouth was a sleepy country town in the Middle Ages. It is nevertheless unfortunate that apart from Hylton Castle and St. Peter’s church, very little remains of Medieval Wearside archaeology wise. The village greens of Tunstall, Ryhope, Bishopwearmouth and Southwick live on, but the buildings of these sites have long been lost.
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