The Community of St Cuthbert, a group of influential monks who were guardians of the coffin and relics of St Cuthbert settled at Durham or Dunholm as it was known, in the year 995. Under the leadership of Bishop Aldhun, they built an Anglo-Saxon minster to house the saint’s shrine. Dunholm became the seat of the bishop and the Bishops of Durham became successors to the earlier Bishops of Lindisfarne.
When William the Conqueror took control of Durham in the years that followed the Norman Conquest, the king appointed a Frenchman called William Walcher as Bishop of Durham. In 1076, the Earl of Northumbria, Waltheof, was executed for his part in a rebellion and Walcher became Earl of Northumbria too. His role combined 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’ describes the powers of the Durham bishops. It was never an official title and did not really come into use until centuries later. The bishops were technically ‘Counts Palatine’ but ‘Prince Bishop’ is the best description of the political and ecclesiastical powers held by these powerful prelates.
Walcher’s time as a Prince Bishop was characterised by poor 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 all the way up to northern Northumberland but his political powers and those of subsequent bishops were mostly limited to the land between the rivers Tyne and Tees.
Bishop Carileph built the greater part of the Cathedral of Durham as it stands today and its construction began in the year 1093. It occupied or stood close to the site of the Anglo-Saxon minster built for Bishop Aldhun by Uchtred, an Earl of Northumbria around 999. Carileph’s new building was completed in line with his own ambitions, in the Norman Romanesque style in more or less forty years.
Built of sandstone quarried from sites within the Durham City area and utilising the talents of masons from Normandy, the building of the cathedral commenced at the eastern end. On August 11, 1093 the first stones were laid by the Bishop and intriguingly, by Malcolm Canmore, King of the Scots, who would lose his life only months later, during a raid at Alnwick.
The building of the cathedral must have been an extraordinary site to see. It would have been a hive of activity with masses of workmen and masons; scaffolding; wooden huts for the workers; deliveries of stone and the burning of lime for the making of the cement. Of course Carileph would not live long enough to see the completion of his cathedral around 1135-1140, with much of the work overseen by his powerful successor, Bishop Ranulf Flambard.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 flying buttresses, a famed architectural feature invented by the Norman masons at Durham. Sometimes called quadrant arches because they are the shape of one quarter of a circle. The flying buttresses are situated in the triforium or upper storey of the cathedral, where they are hidden from view so they cannot be seen by visitors.
Flying buttresses added further support and stability to the cathedral’s structure by transferring the thrust and weight of the vaulting to the outer walls of the cathedral. This is absorbed by the wall buttresses which are the the oblong vertical protrusions between the windows on the outside of the cathedral. In architectural terms, the remarkable developments at Durham Cathedral marked the greatest peak of one architectural era and signalled in the beginning of a new one.
Windows, arcades and tombs
Interesting features to discover and explore around the nave and the cathedral as a whole include a beautiful array of stained glass windows. Most of the medieval glass has gone, falling victim to the Reformation but there is significant tracery (the intricate stone work within which the glass is placed) surviving from the medieval age.
Throughout the cathedral there are fine examples of colourful and poignantly-themed stained glass windows from the eighteenth century through to the twenty-first century. Some examples are shown below.
Stained glass of the mid twentieth century includes a depiction of St Cuthbert and another window depicts King Oswald with a depiction of the cross from the Battle of Heavenfield at his feet. Both works are by Hugh Eaton. From later in the century is the nearby colourful Daily Bread window of 1984 by Mark Angus which depicts Jesus and his disciples seated around a table. The Illumination window of 2019 by Mel Howse is in memory of Durham University student, Sarah Pilkington who died suddenly from a cardiac-related condition in 2012.
The Transfiguration window by Tom Denny commemorates Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) who served as Bishop of Durham (1952-1956) and Archbishop of York (1956-1961) before his appointment as the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury (1961-1974). The Millennium window, installed in 1995, celebrates the 1000th anniversary of the settlement of the monks of St Cuthbert at Durham in AD995 but includes scenes depicting our modern age.
In times past, the stained glass was not the only colourful feature of the cathedral. In medieval times the bare walls would have been ornately painted in dazzling colours and motifs. One hint of this can be seen in the arcade of the cathedral’s north aisle which features a small recreation of the colourful designs. It helps us imagine what the cathedral may have looked like in distant times.
More sombre features of the cathedral include the numerous tombs and monuments ranging from the simple slabs of powerful prince bishops and noted County Durham family members to prominent statues. Notable amongst these is the reclining figure (1839) of James Britton, a nineteenth century headmaster of Durham School with hand on chin. It has a quite curious prominence in the cathedral. Another prominent memorial depicts the figure of Bishop Joseph Lightfoot (died 1889), directly across the opposite side of the nave from the throne and tomb of Thomas Hatfield, a bishop of medieval times.
Stone figures and faces of forgotten characters can be seen in the stonework around the cathedral with expressions ranging from the grotesque to the pious. Of more recent times are wooden sculptures of the human form. These include the simple figurine entitled ‘Annunciation’ by Joseph Pyrz in the little Galilee Chapel and in the larger fitting space of the Chapel of the Nine Altars, Fenwick Lawson’s huge sculpture, ‘Pietà’ of beechwood and brass, depicting a grieving Mary and a dead Jesus.
Pudsey’s chapel and Bede’s tomb
Two major additions were made to the cathedral of William St Carileph in the twelfth and thirteenth century. 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.
This chapel and the main body of the cathedral had been before Pudsey succeeded as bishop. His prominent masons included a man called Christian who oversaw the work. Christian’s tomb can be seen in the church of Hallgarth at Pittington which has an interior that has remarkable similarities to Durham Cathedral.
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:
‘ 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.
Architecturally, sometimes described as ‘Moorish’ in style the Galilee Chapel features simple Norman Romanesque arches. It does not feature the complex vaulting of the cathedral nave and choir and the roof is very low which give this part of the cathedral a gentle, intimate, quiet elegance. The piers that hold up the arches are of Purbeck marble (one of its first uses in northern England) but these were later reinforced with additional sandstone columns.
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.
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.
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.
Influenced by the then recently constructed and widely admired East Transept at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, it is built in a different architectural style to the main body of the cathedral. It is Early English Gothic, featuring pointed arches and pointed arched windows. The ground on which it was built lay about three feet below the main part of the cathedral which gives the interior a great sense of height and space without spoiling the proportions or appearance of the cathedral.
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 limestone originating from a quarry at Frosterley in the Durham valley of Weardale.
Frosterley marble is embedded with the fossilized traces of ancient sea creatures and shells some 325 million years old, dating from a time when this stone in Weardale formed part of a sea.
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.
At the base of the Van Mildert statue is the black marble tomb of Bishop Anthony Bek who died in 1311. It features a brass plate memorial to the Bishop who remarkably also held the title ‘Patriarch of Jerusalem’. He was one of the most powerful of the medieval Prince Bishops of Durham.
Alongside Bek’s tomb is the tomb of Bishop Herbert Hensley Henson who died in 1947. Henson was Dean of Durham (1913-1918); Bishop of Hereford (1918-1920) and Bishop of Durham from 1920 to 1939. Although he was perceived by the Church of England as liberal in his views and seems to have had a common touch in his dealings with the working class, his dislike of trade unionism and strikes brought with it conflict in the heavily industrialised diocese of Durham. Notably, Henson was an opponent of the Jarrow march. A third tomb alongside the two bishops contains three members of the noted Hopper family of Silksworth.
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.
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.
Within the feretory we can see an outline marked out in the floor which shows the shape of the original east end of the cathedral before the Chapel of the Nine Altars was built. It forms the shape of an apse – this being the central and largest of three apses which formed the eastern end of the Norman cathedral. Two smaller apses were situated at the end of the north and south aisles.
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. First brought to Durham in 995, St Cuthbert’s remains were transferred to this part of the cathedral in 1104 from its resting place in the Cloisters. His remains were inspected before the coffin was lowered into the tomb.
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.
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) of Raby 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 here. 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.
Sadly, the Neville tombs were later smashed to pieces and their heads broken off – a destruction mostly attributed to Scottish prisoners in the seventeenth century following the Battle of Dunbar. To complete the indignation the tombs were incised with graffiti and some of the incisions include the outlines of feet. Some of the etched dates of the graffiti show that the damage inflicted in the seventeenth century continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
An interesting feature of Ralph Neville’s tomb is that it is surrounded by nineteen stone figures said to represent his children (all with heads missing) all of whom, except for one, face outward with the inward facing figure said to be that of a child that Ralph disliked.
The south side of the cathedral choir contains the tomb of Bishop Thomas Hatfield (1345-1381) who was bishop at the time of the aforementioned battle.
Hatfield’s 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.
To the west of the choir we stand directly beneath the central tower of the cathedral which was built in two stages during the fifteenth century. An earlier tower had been destroyed by lightning in 1429.
It is Bishop Carileph’s nave of course that forms the heart of the cathedral with transepts to the north and south that give the cathedral its typical cross like-shape. The North and South Transepts lie respectively either side of the crossing tower. Part of the South Transept is set aside as a chapel in honour of the Durham Light Infantry, commemorating those who gave their lives in the battles and campaigns in which the regiment fought.
The entrance to the 218 feet high (66.45m) cathedral tower which can be climbed via 325 spiral steps for a small fee, offers superb views from the top and is situated in the south transept. Also situated within this transept near the tower entrance is the impressive sixteenth century 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, supposedly because it features a carving of the sacred Scottish thistle.
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.
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.
At the north-west corner of the cloisters there is a plaque informing visitors that a distant ancestral relative of American President George Washington was the 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.
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 worm legend may have inspired him to write the ‘Jabberwock’, a famous wyvern-slaying rhyme he wrote at Croft on Tees and at Whitburn near Sunderland.
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. These formed the monastic priory buildings (the cathedral was the priory’s church) and included the Chapter House, 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, in the south western corner of the cloisters is the cathedral bookshop and restaurant.
The bookshop occupies what was once the monastery’s Common House and the restaurant lies within what was the great cellar or buttery. Both have a beautiful vaulted roof.
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.
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 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 are the successors to the prior and monks of the pre-Reformation era.
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. It should not be confused with Prior Castell’s tower, a tower associated with him on the island of Inner Farne in Northumberland.
On the west side of the green, a tunnel passageway called the Dark Entry leads down to the Durham river banks and onward to Prebends Bridge. 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.
Visit the Durham Cathedral website