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Discovering Albion – day 9: Durham Cathedral

The Rose Window at Durham Cathedral. Image by Ian Greig via geograph (CCL)

The cathedral of Durham is one of the finest Norman buildings and a World Heritage site. It stands on a rocky height above a loop in the River Wear, a perfect place defensively. At the time of its establishment it fell under the protection of the Earl of Northumberland, a kinsman of the Bishop.

scotland trip jan 15 025History tells how the relics of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne were borne with love by his Brethren to Chester-le-Street when the raids of the Danes forced them to flee Holy Island in 875AD, taking the relics with them. A shrine was set up there to the saint, but they were obliged to leave there too in 995. Legend tells they wandered until, following two milkmaids searching for a dun cow, the coffin became immovable. This was taken as a sign that here the new church should be built. On the external walls a carving can be seen of the milkmaids and the cow… and a nearby street bears the name of the Dun Cow.

scotland trip jan 15 034Initially a small wooden structure was raised, then enlarged to house the relics of the saint. In 1080 William of St. Carilef was installed as the first prince-bishop by William the Conqueror and it was he who caused the building of the present Cathedral, which continued after his death.

Durhan Cathedral Choir. Image via Geograph by Richard Croft (CCL)

The massive pillars, carved with the distinctive Norman chevron resemble those of Dunfermline Cathedral and as there were ties between the two it is thought the same masons may have worked on both buildings.

Tomb of St Cuthbert, holding the head of king and saint Oswald, whose head was said to have been buried with Cuthbert. Photo by John Hamilton (PD)

St Cuthbert’s relics were installed in a new shrine behind the altar of the cathedral. When the tomb was opened in 1104 the tiny Gospel that belonged to the saint was removed along with the silk vestments laid there by King Æthelstan in the 10th century. The Gospel is preserved in the British Library, the vestments remain one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon embroidery.


The shrine itself was destroyed at the time of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, but the relics were spared. Cuthbert’s coffin was later preserved when the tomb was again opened in 1827, reconstructed to show the rare carved Saxon wood and a gold and garnet cross recovered that has become an emblem of the saint.

scotland trip jan 15 029There is a legend that tells that the real remains of Cuthbert were removed from the tomb before Henry VIII’s officials arrived at the cathedral; his body replaced with that of a more recently deceased monk. The tale says that to this day only twelve brothers know the true location of the saint’s relics and as one dies, the secret is passed on. Fact or fiction? We will probably never know.

Tomb of the Venerable Bede © Durham Cathedral and Jarrold Publishing

Cuthbert is not the only saint whose remains are housed at Durham. The Venerable Bede, writer of the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, called the first historian of Britain lies beneath a marble slab, along with many figures known to history. It is a beautiful place… The rose window above the Chapel of Nine Altars is worth the trip all on its own.

scotland trip jan 15 026Yet perhaps the single detail that brought home the human side of the church was the bronze door knocker on the huge North Door. This is the symbol of the tradition of Sanctuary offered by the cathedral to all those who were in trouble with the law… a law much harsher once upon a time than it is now. The present knocker is a perfect replica of the twelfth century lion fugitives would use to attract the attention of the clergy. Once within the church they would don a black robe with a yellow cross of St Cuthbert on the shoulder. They would confess their crime to the clergy who would then care for them, house and feed them for thity seven days, after which they had to leave, either to their death by execution, or to be escorted by the constables to a seaport where they would to leave the country. In a harsh world, this may have been the only hope for those accused of serious crime.

scotland trip jan 15 024Opposite the cathedral stands a Norman castle and keep, part of the Palatinate of the Prince-Bishops of Durham and still in use today. I was glad to have seen the place, but it was a fleeting visit. We had smaller fish to fry on the North Yorkshire coast. Smaller… but far more satisfying…

scotland trip jan 15 017

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