Of the church we see today, only the chancel and the base of the tower remain from the Anglo-Saxon era. There were actually two churches here built in a line with each other and separated by a very short distance. The chancel we see today was the entirety of the first of those churches. There was, in fact, little about it that was Romanesque. However, Biscop commissioned a second church in AD685 , only three or four years later. That church did have aisles and occupied the space of the nave of today’s church! Just how long they co-existed adjacent to each other we do not know. We do know that by probably AD800 at the latest they were joined together through the building of what is the base of the current church tower. It was not a tower then, nor intended to become so: it was simply a bridge between the two ancient churches. If you look at the picture above the development of the site from one to two churches and then one larger one is not difficult to visualise.
Probably there was a raised gallery at what is now the west end of the chancel. It was probably accessed by an external stairway through a surviving south doorway to the first floor of the tower There is increasing evidence that such galleries were commonplace in the earliest Anglo-Saxon churches including the two most famous “Mercian” Anglo-Saxon churches at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire and Brixworth in Northants.
A794 saw the start of the Viking raids into Northumbria with the sack of Lindisfarne Monastery. It is believed that the monastery was destroyed by the Vikings at some point and was probably largely evacuated by the mid-9th century.
In AD1072 Prior Aldwin of Winchcombe in modern Gloucestershire was inspired by St Bede’s writings to undertake the rebuilding of Jarrow Monastery before leaving to become the first prior of the magnificent new Norman monastery at Durham. His legacy in the church itself is the addition of two stages to the “bridge” between the two original churches to form a tower.
The final twist to the story came in 1782 when the original Romanesque church that had become the nave had to be demolished because it was structurally unsafe. In 1866 repairs were made to the Saxon chancel and the inevitable Sir George Gilbert Scott built a new nave and a north aisle that we see today.
Visiting Jarrow is a rather odd experience. The cult of Bede and the Northern Anglo-Saxon saints is very much alive here and there is even a commercial Visitor Centre - “Bede’s World” - just up the hill from the church. The nave is home to story boards and to glass cases containing fragments of Anglo-Saxon sculpture which are very illuminating for the casual visitor. There are books and pamphlets for sale in abundance and eager amateur guides at hand. There is an inescapable sense, however, that the nave is just an anteroom to the mysteries of the Anglo-Saxon chancel and tower base. It would be easy to be cynical about the commercialisation of the Anglo-Saxon religious legacy here, but this would be misplaced: this was one of the most important phases of English history and one where England perhaps led the rest of the world in scholarship. If the exhibitions fire the imaginations of children and their parents then I’m all for it!
Outside, of course, there are still significant remains of Prior Aldwin’s monastery that was suppressed in 1536.