Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral. Photo © David Simpson

The Sanctuary Ring

Most visitors to Durham Cathedral enter from Palace Green via the North Door on which we find the imposing bronze sanctuary ring. This is popularly known as the ‘sanctuary knocker’ but the protruding ring that hangs from the beast’s mouth has always been fixed in place to the door and is intended for grasping rather than for rapping. The whole sanctuary ring is a near perfect replica of the twelfth century original which is now part of the cathedral museum’s treasured collection.

The sanctuary ring features the face of a hideous lion-like beast and represents the ancient privilege of sanctuary that Durham Cathedral once granted to criminal offenders. Criminals could seek refuge at Durham by grasping the knocker and alerting the attentions of watchers who resided in two small chambers overlooking the door.

Durham Cathedral Sanctuary Knocker
The Sanctuary Knocker Photo © 2017 David Simpson

A watcher would then invite the criminal inside the cathedral. Upon entering the cathedral the criminal had to exchange his clothes for a black robe with a yellow cross of St Cuthbert imprinted on the left shoulder. He would then confess the details of his crime before a coroner and was allowed to remain inside the cathedral for a period of thirty seven days. Here he was provided with food and water paid for by the church. Before or on the thirty-seventh day the criminal was expected to leave the country by an assigned port or else face execution.

In the case of Durham the assigned port was usually Hartlepool. The criminals were escorted to the sea port by the constables of each parish that they passed through. On no account was the criminal allowed to stray from the king’s highway during the journey as this was punishable by death. Offenders seeking sanctuary at Durham came from every part of the country and included burglars, cattle thieves and horse thieves. More usually the offence was murder.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral © David Simpson 2020

Carileph’s Cathedral

When William the Conqueror finally took control of Durham in the years that followed the Norman Conquest of 1066 the king appointed a Frenchman called William Walcher as Bishop of Durham. Following the death of Waltheof, the Earl of Northumbria in 1076 – who was executed for his part in a rebellion – Bishop Walcher became the Earl of Northumbria combining both political and ecclesiastical powers as a virtual ‘Prince Bishop’.

The position of Prince Bishop came about through the combination of the powers of the bishop with those of the earl. The term ‘Prince Bishop’ which describes the powers of the Durham bishops was never an official title and did not really come into use until many centuries later. The bishops were technically ‘Counts Palatine’ but ‘Prince Bishop’ is the best description of the political and ecclesiastical powers once held by the Bishops of Durham.

Durham Cathedral from Gilesgate
Durham Cathedral from Gilesgate. Photo © David Simpson

Walcher’s time as a Prince Bishop was characterised by weak leadership which ultimately resulted in his murder at Gateshead in 1080. Walcher was then replaced by a new bishop called William St Carileph (or St Calais) who was the man responsible for building the present cathedral. Carileph remained bishop for the whole Northumbria region north of the Tees but his political powers and those of subsequent bishops were mostly confined to the land between the Tyne and Tees.

Carileph designed the greater part of the Cathedral of Durham as it stands today and its construction began in the year 1093. Occupying the site of the old stone Anglo-Saxon minster built by Uchtred, the building was completed in line with the bishop’s ambitions in more or less forty years. Unfortunately Carileph did not live to see the completion of the cathedral around 1135.

Durham Cathedral from Frankland Lane
Durham Cathedral from Frankland Lane. Photo © David Simpson

Ribbed vaulting and flying buttresses

The buildings of the Nave, the Choir and their accompanying aisles form the central body of the cathedral and it is these which were largely built to Carileph’s designs in the period 1093 to 1135.

Inside the cathedral, the nave is particularly striking for its massive spiral and zig-zag decorated cylindrical piers (columns) and the larger multiple columned compound piers which support the impressive diamond ribbed vaulting of the ceiling high above.

Ribbed vaulting Durham Cathedral
Ribbed vaulting Durham Cathedral as seen during the Lumiere festival, 2017. Photo © David Simpson

The ribbed vaulting at Durham was in its time technically far more advanced than any vaulting found anywhere else in Britain or on the continent. In fact it is quite possible that Durham Cathedral was the first building in Europe to receive ribbed vaulting.

The cathedral at Durham is also important for the flying buttresses, a feature invented by the Norman masons at Durham. Situated in the triforium or upper storey of the cathedral, they cannot be seen by visitors.

Pudsey’s chapel and Bede’s tomb

In later years two major additions were made to the cathedral of William St Carileph. One of these additions was the beautiful Galilee Chapel built by Bishop Hugh Du Puiset, who is more usually known as Bishop Pudsey (1153-1195). Pudsey’s Galilee Chapel is at the western end of the cathedral and is situated right at the top of the gorge formed by the River Wear where it is overlooked by the cathedral’s twin western towers.

Bede's Tomb, Durham Cathedral
Bede’s Tomb, Durham Cathedral. Photo © David Simpson 2017

The Galilee Chapel is famous as the home of the black marble-topped tomb of The Venerable Bede (673-735 AD). Bede was a great scholar who was, amongst many great things, the first historian of England. He lived most of his life at Jarrow near the River Tyne. His bones were brought to Durham from the ruins of Jarrow monastery in 1020 AD and his tomb is inscribed with the following words:

Hac sunt in fossa Baedae Venerabilis Ossa’
Translated this means:

‘ in this tomb are of Bede the Bones’.

Legend tells us that the use of the term ‘Venerable’ is said to have been inspired into the mind of the writer of this poetic epitaph by an angel who told him how to complete the rhyme. The inscription actually dates from 1830.

The Galilee Chapel is also known as the ‘Lady Chapel’ as it was once the only part of the cathedral that could be entered by women according to the rules of the Benedictine order of monks. A little way inside the main cathedral building we can see a line of black Frosterley Marble in the cathedral floor which marked the point beyond which women were not allowed to pass.

So strict was the rule against women entering the cathedral that in 1333 when Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III crossed the line to find sleeping quarters in the cathedral, she was forced to sleep elsewhere. The Durham monks petitioned the king and insisted that she find sleeping accommodation in the castle to avoid upsetting St Cuthbert.

Durham Cathedral western towers
The western towers of Durham Cathedral and the River Wear viewed from the central tower. Photo © David Simpson 2019

Lady chapels are normally constructed at the eastern end of cathedrals and not to the west so Durham is quite unusual in this respect. Initially there had been an attempt to build the Lady Chapel at the eastern end but problems with crumbling masonry forced Bishop Pudsey to transfer the building work to the west end.

The building problems at the east end probably arose from the nature of the ground here, but legend attributes the damage to St Cuthbert who is said to have disliked the idea of a Lady Chapel so close to the site of his tomb. At a later stage another chapel called the Chapel of the Nine Altars was built at the cathedral’s east end. Mysteriously this seems to have had no major structural problems.

Chapel of the Nine Altars, Durham Cathedral
Chapel of the Nine Altars, Durham Cathedral. Photo © David Simpson

The chapel with the rose window

The huge Chapel of the Nine Altars at the eastern end of the cathedral was started during the episcopacy of Bishop Richard Le Poore (1228-1237) who was also later associated with the building of Salisbury Cathedral. The new chapel at Durham provided more space for the increasing number of visiting pilgrims who packed the aisles and choir of the cathedral to view the shrine of St Cuthbert.

A number of interesting features can be seen within this chapel including some elegant piers of Frosterley marble. Not a true marble, this is a decorative black polished stone originating from the Durham valley of Weardale. Frosterley marble is embedded with the white shells of ancient sea creatures, dating from a time when the rocks of Weardale formed a sea.

Rose window Durham Cathedral
External view of the Rose Window, Durham Cathedral. Photo © David Simpson

Another prominent feature in the chapel is a large white statue of Bishop William Van Mildert who died in 1836. Van Mildert, technically the last ‘Prince Bishop’ of Durham was the man largely responsible for the foundation of Durham University in 1832. The University is of course the third oldest in England after Oxford and Cambridge.

Arguably, the most beautiful feature of the Chapel of the Nine Altars is the huge rose window which was originally made in the fifteenth century by Richard Pickering of Hemingbrough and reconstructed in the eighteenth century by James Wyatt.

Chapel of the Nine Altars, Durham Cathedral
Chapel of the Nine Altars, Durham Cathedral. Photo © David Simpson 2019

The rose is ninety feet in circumference with a central core depicting Christ surrounded by the twelve apostles. Inside the cathedral the Chapel of the Nine Altars lies just to the east of an elevated feretory (a chapel for saint’s relics) in which we find the tomb of St.Cuthbert.

The shrine and tomb of St Cuthbert

In medieval times Durham Cathedral was one of the greatest centres of pilgrimage in England and the chief reason for pilgrimage was the rich and glorious Shrine of St. Cuthbert.

Today the simple grey stone tomb inscribed ‘Cuthbertus’ is all that remains of the shrine but before the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century, the whole area around the tomb was an elaborately decorated focal point for the cathedral that was described as one of the richest monuments in England.

Once decorated with an “ingeniously made structure of costly green marble and gilded with gold” the shrine was bestowed with an incredible number of gifts and jewels including contributions from kings, queens, churchmen and wealthy nobles. The gifts were stored in beautifully decorated wainscot lockers which were situated on the north and south sides of the feretory.

The lockers also contained relics associated with St Cuthbert and other saints and were opened for viewing on special occasions such as the feast day of St Cuthbert. The magnificent shrine of St Cuthbert was destroyed in the sixteenth century along with many others throughout the land on the orders of King Henry VIII. The men who opened St Cuthbert’s tomb found a number of precious jewels and a wand of gold which were all confiscated by the Crown.

Durham Cathedral from Prebends Bridge
Durham Cathedral from Prebends Bridge. Photo © John Simpson

A screen, a throne, a clock and the tower

St Cuthbert’s tomb and feretory are hidden from the neighbouring Choir by the Neville Screen which was at one time decorated with 107 alabaster figures. The screen was donated to the cathedral by John the 5th Lord Neville (died 1388) and is constructed from Caen limestone originating from a French quarry many hundreds of miles away. The massive screen was constructed in London and shipped north to Newcastle from where it was carried across land by cart to Durham.

John Neville’s tomb lies in the south aisle of the Nave where he is accompanied by his wife Matilda. The tomb of John’s father Ralph Neville is also in the cathedral. It was this Ralph who successfully led the English into victory over the Scots at the Battle of Neville’s Cross just outside Durham in 1346. As an honour for the victory he became the first layman to be allowed burial in the cathedral.

The south aisle of the cathedral choir contains the tomb of Bishop Thomas Hatfield (1345-1381) who was bishop at the time of the aforementioned battle. His tomb is covered by his alabaster effigy which lies snugly tucked under a decorated arch formed by a short stairway leading to the bishop’s throne or ‘cathedra’ directly above. The bishop’s throne at Durham is the highest in Christendom.

Central Tower, Durham Cathedral
Central Tower, Durham Cathedral. Photo © David Simpson

To the west of the choir we stand directly beneath the central tower which was built in the fifteenth century. An earlier tower had been destroyed by lightning in 1429. The entrance to the cathedral tower is in the south transept where we find the sixteenth century decorated cathedral clock.

During the Civil War when 4,000 Scottish prisoners were held in the cathedral following the Battle of Dunbar (1650) nearly all the woodwork in the great church was destroyed by the Scottish prisoners for firewood. The clock was spared, seemingly, because it has a carving of the sacred Scottish thistle upon it.

In this period the cathedral was no longer used as a place of worship, in line with Cromwell’s demands. It was a harsh place of imprisonment for the Scots and many perished. In 2015 a mass grave that had been discovered in 2013 on Palace Green near the cathedral was identified as that of the Scottish prisoners who did not survive the ordeal.

Open Treasure

Exiting from the main body of the cathedral on the south side we enter into the former monastic buildings of Durham Priory that form the cathedral cloisters – a quadrangle of four covered walkways.

Just as we enter the cloisters here we see a plaque informing tourists that an ancestor of American President George Washington was a Prior at Durham Cathedral. The Durham priors were the most powerful men in the whole of Durham other than the Bishop and the Washingtons were an old County Durham family originating from Washington near Sunderland.

Open Treasure in The Monks' Dormitory, Durham Cathedral
Open Treasure in The Monks’ Dormitory, Durham Cathedral Photo © David Simpson 2016

Close by within the western part of the cloisters is the entrance marked “Open Treasure” where we climb stairs into the Monk’s Dormitory which was once the monks’ sleeping quarters. The dormitory dates from the fourteenth century and has an extremely impressive roof of wooden oak beams that give it the appearance of a grand medieval hall.

There is an entrance fee to the Monks’ Dormitory as this now houses the Cathedral’s Open Treasure exhibition with a wide range of wonderful artefacts relating to the cathedral’s history. It is also home to a library belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Durham which is displayed in beautiful hand-crafted wooden bookcases.

Notable features of the Open Treasure collection include a number of stone crosses and sculptures from the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Viking periods that are displayed within the dormitory. They are from throughout Northumbria, though mostly from south Durham and North Yorkshire. In addition the displays in the dormitory include a timeline of the cathedral’s history and a number of interactive displays.

The walk-through Open Treasure exhibition extends into other areas of the former monastic buildings and culminates in the magnificent former kitchen, an octagonal building with an impressive vaulted roof. The cathedral’s Great Kitchen now houses the cathedral’s most treasured exhibits – the relics of St.Cuthbert. These include the carefully pieced together 1,300 year old wooden coffin of the saint and his pectoral cross.

Other notable items include the Conyer’s Falchion, said to have been used by Sir John Conyers in the killing of the legendary ‘Sockburn Worm‘ close to the village of Croft on Tees near Darlington.

The sword is presented to each new Bishop of Durham on entering the Diocese of Durham for the first time at Croft Bridge. It is a great ceremonial tradition in which the a local dignitary declares:

‘My lord bishop I hereby present you with the falchion wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery flying serpent which destroyed man, woman and child in memory of which the king then reigning gave him the manor of Sockburn to hold by this tenure that upon the entrance of every bishop into the county the falchion should be presented.’

The rectory of Croft where Lewis Caroll lived as a boy overlooks the bridge where the sword is presented and the dragon legend may have inspired him to write the ‘Jabberwock’, a famous dragon slaying rhyme he wrote at Croft on Tees and at Whitburn near Sunderland.

Cloisters, Durham Cathedral
Cloisters, Durham Cathedral. Photo © David Simpson

The Cloisters: Place of the monks

The beautiful buildings of the cloisters – featured in scenes from the Harry Potter movies – are clustered around a small square green called the Cloister Garth were the monastic priory buildings of the cathedral and included the Chapter House, the Monk’s Dormitory, Scriptorium, Refectory and Great Kitchen.

It was here in and around the covered cloister walkways that the monks of Durham Priory spent much time during the priory’s heyday.

Above the southern walkway of the Cloisters is the former refectory or eating area of the monks and nearby the south western corner of the cloisters is the cathedral bookshop and its restaurant. The bookshop occupies what was once the monastery’s Common House and the restaurant lies within what was the great cellar or buttery. It has a notable vaulted roof.

Western towers and Cloister, Durham Cathedral
Western towers and Cloister, Durham Cathedral.Photo © David Simpson

On the east side of the cloisters is the Chapter House where meetings are held to discuss the day to day running of the cathedral. Unlike other buildings in the cloisters, the Chapter House is not the original medieval structure.

The original Norman Chapter House was partially demolished in 1796 for the comfort of the clergy and then rebuilt in its original style in 1895. Nevertheless, the floor of this building contains the tombs of three very important Bishops of Durham: William St Carileph, Ranulf Flambard and Hugh Du Puiset.

The Chapter House, served as a set for a classroom in the first Harry Potter movie but it is not open to the public. Just next to the Chapter House on its immediate north side is the site of a former prison.

Eastern walkway, The Cloisters, Durham Cathedral.
Eastern walkway, The Cloisters, Durham Cathedral. Photo: David Simpson

College Green – the cathedral close

At the south eastern corner of the cloisters an archway known as the Deans Walk leads through to the Cathedral’s beautiful close known as the College. Here we find the former house or lodgings of the Durham Prior now called the Deanery and a number of beautiful houses clustered around the College green with a water pump and water tower as a centre piece.

College Green, Durham
College Green, Durham. Photo © David Simpson

College Green has a very beautiful secluded village-like quality to it, with the houses being the home to members of Durham’s Dean and Chapter. The Dean and Chapter was established in the 1540s after the Reformation. The Dean and Chapter is the successor to the Prior and monks of Durham of times past.

An arched gateway on the east side known historically as the ‘Abbey Gates’ and also called Prior Castell’s Gatehouse dates from 1495-1519 and leads into the street called the Bailey.

The Abbey Gate, Durhm Cathedral
The Abbey Gate, Durham Cathedral. Photo © David Simpson

On the west side of the green, a tunnel passageway called the Dark Entry leads to the Durham river banks. The term ‘college’ as used in connection with College Green has nothing to do with Durham University or any other educational establishment but is used to describe the organisation of the cathedral’s administrative body.

The south western corner of the College is the home to the Durham Chorister School. This was originally established as a song school around 1390. Ex-pupils of this school have included the former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the actor, Rowan Atkinson who is most noted for his role in the BBC comedy series Blackadder and as the comedy character Mr Bean.

As well as being quite possibly the most beautiful part of Durham City, College Green provides lovely views of the south side of the cathedral.

For more information about Durham Cathedral visit the Durham Cathedral website

Durham Cathedral Tower | Durham City Origins 

Durham Castle and The Baileys | Durham Market Place

Durham : Elvet | Durham : Gilesgate 

Durham : Framwellgate to Finchale



Durham Cathedral Lumiere A3 Print


North East England History and Culture