Durham Cathedral or the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham dominates the city that gives it its name. It stands magnificently on top of a dramatic peninsula, deep inside a wooded loop of the River Wear. For centuries this monument to the skill and endeavour of early medieval masons has impressed visitors and pilgrims alike and welcomed back those returning to the county, particularly by train.
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the German-born British scholar described Durham Cathedral in his celebrated work ‘The Buildings of England’ as:
“…one of the great experiences of Europe to the eyes of those who appreciate architecture, and to the minds of those who understand architecture. The group of Cathedral, Castle, and Monastery on the rock can only be compared to Avignon and Prague.”
A slightly mistier-eyed tribute from the great romantic poet Sir Walter Scott can be found carved into the western end of Prebends Bridge overlooking perhaps one of the classic views of the cathedral:
“Grey towers of Durham
Yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles
Half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot
And long to roam those venerable aisles
With records stored of deeds long since forgot.”
Durham Cathedral is the best surviving example of Norman architecture in England. It is fashioned out of the landscape around it: its edifice sits firmly in contact with the same coal-measures sandstone bedrock from which it is constructed because only in this way can its 2 metre-thick walls be prevented from tumbling into the River Wear below. Flying buttresses lend support to those walls and the ceiling of its nave boasts the earliest surviving rib-vaulting in Europe – the pre-cursor to the Gothic style that dominated thereafter.
The cathedral was founded in 1093 by Bishop William de St Calais who together with several of the Benedictine monks whose home was the adjacent monastery, laid its very first stones. These monks had been invited to Jarrow by the first Bishop of Durham, William Walcher. St Calais (or Carileph , as he was also known) then had them relocated to Durham in 1083 with the express purpose of displacing the native and long-established Community of St Cuthbert, the people of the saint or the ‘Haliwerfolc’.
Thanks to the miracles attributed to St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral profited from being a popular place of pilgrimage in medieval times generating revenues that made the Bishopric of Durham one of the most sought after in the country. However, by the beginning of the 16th century its star was beginning to fade; in 1538, as Henry VIII’s policy of suppressing the monasteries gained momentum the king’s commissioners turned up in Durham and demolished the shrine and tomb of St Cuthbert appropriating the precious items that they found there and desecrating the saint’s remarkably preserved body in the process.
Worse was to come: the period of the English Civil War from 1640 saw parliamentary Scottish Covenanter forces intermittently occupy Durham, vandalising the cathedral while they were there. These were desperate, poverty-stricken times for Durham Cathedral and its congregation. Its status had plunged to such a level that Oliver Cromwell himself had no hesitation in using it to imprison 3000 Scottish soldiers taken at the Battle of Dunbar who had been marched south to Durham in the bitter winter of 1650. To keep warm they were forced to rip out the fittings and fixtures within the cathedral to use as firewood with the notable exception being Prior Castell’s clock which it seems, was saved by having a Scottish thistle on it!
Much was done to reverse the damage when John Cosin was restored as Bishop in 1660. His name is synonymous with several of the historic buildings around Palace Green – including the cathedral – and the fittings within them.
Between 1772 and 1810 the cathedral underwent a period of renovation that was not always in its best interests. In 1777 the architect James Wooler, amongst other recommendations, advised that the entire outside of the building should be removed to the depth of ‘one, two or three inches…to bring the upright of the wall to a tolerable, even or straight surface.’ Probably not a course of action that would be recommended today! Consequently 1000 tons of stone was removed from the east, west and north sides of the building along with almost all of the decoration. The newly exposed stone was quickly contaminated by the smoke from the increasing number of coal-fired chimneys in the rapidly developing town below the cathedral, the results of which are still visible in the external fabric of the building today.