Sri Lanka were 15-3 after three wickets fell in 10 balls, Kumar Sangakkara out first ball to James Anderson (3-56).
The skipper survived four chances, two badly spilled late on by Monty Panesar, but revived his side with 13 fours and three sixes in his 30th Test hundred.
Panesar was one of three spinners, with Samit Patel taking 2-27 on his debut.
When England lost the toss on a cloudless day in searing heat at a ground on which they had never won, they might not have relished tackling a Sri Lanka side containing three players with Test averages in excess of 50.
Any anxieties would have been exacerbated in the opening over when they lost the first of their two reviews, an lbw referral rejected as the ball had pitched outside leg-stump.
However Anderson utilised the shine superbly, shaping the new cherry both ways in an opening spell of 2-6 in 10 overs.
Lahiru Thirimanne edged to second slip and Sangakkara, who has two centuries and six fifties against England, attempted an ambitious drive to a similarly pitched delivery moving away outside off-stump.
Former skipper Tillakarate Dilshan seemed set to play with his usual abandon but departed in the next over when he prodded suspiciously at a well-directed full length ball from Broad and was smartly snaffled at first slip.
The situation called for consolidation and Sri Lanka had the perfect exponents of the art.
Jawawardene exuded calm authority, reminding Swann that he was not content to merely block by taking a step down the wicket and lofting majestically over long-on for six.
He had the ideal ally in Thilan Samaraweera, who scored only a single from his first 48 deliveries but when the opportunity arose dispatched the ball in classical fashion to the boundary as the fifty stand was recorded from 154 balls.
However in the second after lunch a firm straight drive from Jayawardene was flicked into the stumps by Anderson in his follow-through and left Samaraweera short of his ground at the non-striker’s end, out in the most unfortunate fashion.
It was a timely breakthrough for England as batting had begun to look easier with the softening of the ball, superbly illustrated by Jayawardene, who clipped three boundaries in an over from Anderson with exquisite timing.
Monty Panesar bowled economically, probing with persistence but little threat, and only occasional slow turn.
With Swann also largely failing to trouble the batsmen, Patel was given an opportunity with his slow left-armers, in England’s first three-pronged spin attack since 1987.
Having got off the mark by swiping Panesar for six, Dinesh Chandimal took a similarly ruthless approach against Patel’s rather innocuous round-arm, almost whirling himself off his feet with another big hit over the ropes at long-on.
But the cavalier batsman attempted one bold shot too many and on 27, the second best score of the day, sliced to cover to give a jubilant Nottinghamshire all-rounder his first wicket.
Patel was then unceremoniously taken out of the attack in favour of Panesar, who produced a stunning delivery to the new batsman that turned violently away from the outside edge.
Coincidentally Swann then found dramatic turn and bounce from round the wicket to surprise Jayawardene, the ball brushing the glove and squeezing through Anderson’s fingers, but it proved the exception to the rule and it was to be an unproductive day for England’s first-choice spinners as Sri Lanka accumulated 102 runs in the afternoon session.
After tea Anderson began to find some prodigious inswing and trapped Prasanna Jayawardene lbw, a decision upheld following a review, while Randiv fell to a direct hit from Strauss close in.
Deceiving Jayawardene with a cleverly disguised slower ball, Anderson failed to grasp a straightforward return catch, and the Sri Lanka captain nonchalantly dispatched the next ball for six over and reached his century from 200 balls in the next over with a delicate fine sweep.
Patel returned to trap Herath lbw for five and end a partnership of 62 but his reward was again to be immediately taken off as England took the second new ball.
But Panesar returned to his dark fielding days of old when the ball went inexplicably through his hands to reprieve Jayawardene twice, firstly on the square-leg boundary off Anderson on 147 and again when the ball followed him to mid-on off Broad.
However unfortunate, the failure to dismiss the captain will have taken some gloss from England’s day, and it remains to be seen how significant the dropped catches prove to be. (Courtesy BBC Sport)