Despite the larger part of Sunderland lying to the south of the River Wear, some of the oldest and most historic aspects of the town are situated on the north side of the river. Undoubtedly the most ancient region of Sunderland is the coastal quarter located on the north bank called Monkwearmouth. Sunderland was originally a part of Monkwearmouth and the name Sunderland derives from ‘Sundered Land', that is, land that was sundered or separated from the monastic estates of Monkwearmouth in Anglo-Saxon times. For centuries Sunderland was merely a part of the greater area of Wearmouth, and although the name ‘Sunderland' was commonly used for the whole region, it was not until 1719 that Sunderland itself achieved the status of being a separate parish. In 1897 roles were finally reversed and Monkwearmouth officially became part of the town of Sunderland. Nevertheless, Monkwearmouth is where Sunderland's history really begins. In AD674 Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, granted the northern shores at Wearmouth to a noble called Benedict Biscop, who built a monastery on his newly acquired territory.
All that remains to us of the monastery is the Anglo-Saxon church of St. Peter, one of the most historic churches in all England. Biscop had great ambitions for his Wearmouth monastery, bringing in masons and glaziers from France. The Venerable Bede (675-735), born in the vicinity of Sunderland, began his monastic life at Monkwearmouth before moving to Biscop's other later monastery at Jarrow-on-Tyne. The ancient churches of St Pauls at Jarrow and St Peters at Monkwearmouth were described by Bede as ‘one monastery in two places' - both still stand in remarkably similar riverside settings. Monkwearmouth and Jarrow were two exceptionally important centres of Northumbrian culture and learning during the so-called ‘Dark Ages'.
Sadly the Anglo-Saxon life of St Peters at Monkwearmouth came to a violent end in the 9 th century when Danish pirates Hubba and Hingman sacked the church. Fortunately, the churches at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow were both re-established in the Norman period when they became monastic cells of the great cathedral of Durham.
Sunderland prospered most particularly as a result of its development as a coal exporting harbour situated at the mouth of the River Wear. The town grew and flourished in spite of centuries of fierce resistance to it from its wealthy and powerful neighbour, Newcastle upon Tyne. The latter possessed a Royal Charter restricting the shipment of coal from the nearby port of Sunderland. This rivalry between the two towns intensified during the English Civil War (1642-9), when Newcastle remained staunchly Royalist and Sunderland declared for Parliament. Sunderland was partly influenced by its large contingent of Scottish traders, and in 1642 received a garrison of Round Heads courtesy of Oliver Cromwell; they were composed almost entirely of Scots or ‘Blew Caps' as they were nicknamed. As a result Sunderland became the centre of Parliamentarian offensives against Royalist strongholds in north eastern England - particularly Newcastle and Durham.
In 1644 Sunderland's Blew Caps laid violent siege against its bitter commercial rival Newcastle, but the walled town managed to resist; the fierce aggression displayed during the Civil War increased hostilities between the two rivals even more. However, in the wider picture the divergent roles adopted by the two rivals was of immense significance, as Newcastle was the major supplier of coal to London. If Sunderland had also turned Royalist the essential supply of coal to Cromwell's London would have been virtually cut-off and the outcome of the war could have been quite different. Sunderland's choice, however, was very understandable for it was a Royal Charter that had for so long restricted her trading rights, providing Newcastle with a distinctly unfair advantage commercially. The inevitable outcome of Parliamentarian success was a rapid expansion of Sunderland's coal trade, while Newcastle, though remaining the major coal port of Britain, had permanently lost its monopolistic hold on the export of local coal.
Sunderland, long an important coal port, was until recent times even more closely associated with shipbuilding. Since 1346, when Thomas Menvill was recorded as building vessels here, Sunderland has had a shipbuilding industry. By 1814 the town had 24-shipyards, a figure which had risen to 65 in 1840. By the mid 20 th century, when Sunderland produced more than a quarter of the nation's total tonnage of merchant and naval ships for World War II, it was widely regarded as the largest shipbuilding town in the world. Sadly, as world orders dried up, Sunderland's last shipyards were closed down in 1988.
Today the two banks of the River Wear at Sunderland are linked by the steel arched Wearmouth Bridge of 1929 and the Queen Alexandra Bridge of 1909. Until the 18 th century Sunderland was only linked to Hylton and Monkwearmouth on the north side by means of a ferry. Hylton Castle, one of Sunderland's most historic buildings, stood guard over an important ferry crossing of the Wear. The castle was built around 1400 by William de Hylton and is most famous for its ghost, the ‘Cauld Lad o' Hylton'. Although occupied until the 20 th century, the castle today is largely ruined, hidden in the north west suburbs of the town. Stone-carved coats of arms of various local families, including the Percys and Washingtons, are still evident. Interestingly, the Washington coat of arms consists of two bars and three stripes, thought to have been adapted by George Washington for the stars & stripes flag of the US.