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Durham Cathedral: some facts and history

Though Durham dates from the tenth century, yet it is necessary, to understand the growth of its power, to go back to the
seventh century. The exact date of the birth of St. Cuthbert is unknown. As a youth he was admitted into Melrose Abbey, where in the course of fourteen years he became monk and prior. From there hepassed another fourteen years in the Convent of
Lindisfarne, after which he retired to Fame for nine years. At the end of this period he was persuaded, most unwillingly, by Egrid, King of Northumbria, to become Bishop of Lindisfarne, a See in Bernicia, as Durham County was then

But after two years’ office he retired to Fame. There died St. Cuthbert on March 20, a. d. 687,in the thirty-ninth year of his monastic life, still undecided as to where he should be buried. However, the remains were reverently preserved in the Church of Lindisfarne, till the monks were compelled to flee, owing to the invasion of the Danes, towards the end of the ninth century.

Though in dire dread and confusion, the monks forgot not their sacred trust, but carried the holy remains of St. Cuthbert with them. They wandered many a weary day throughout the North of England in search of ” Dunholme,” which Eadner, a monk of their order, declared to them had been divinely revealed to him as the lasting place of rest for the holy and incorruptible body of St. Cuthbert. They seemed to have had  great difficulty in locating the whereabouts of
Dunholme, for according to tradition they were miraculously delivered from their nomadic life. As they proceeded they heard a woman inquire of another if she had seen her cow, which had gone astray. Much to their joy and relief they
heard the reply, ” In Dunholme.’

Thereupon they climbed to the summit of the ” Hill Island,” at the base of which they had arrived, as they wished to deposit their corruptible burden on a spot so close to Heaven that it should remain incorruptible, and by its incorruptibility
be a fitting foundation on which to build a shrine worthy of their Saint and the God who honoured him.

About 995 their idea was realised by Bishop Ealdhune. He founded a church, built in the style usual then in Italy, of brick or stone with round arches. This style, based directly on Italian models, became prevalent throughout all Western Europe till the eleventh century, and in England was known as Anglo-Saxon.

This church was erected over the Saint’s resting-place, upon the rock eminence called Dunholme (Hill Island). Later on the Normans changed this into ” Duresne,” whence Durham. And a representation of a dun cow and two female attendants was placed upon the building. At the same period the See was transferred from Lindisfarne, and, together with the growing fame of the presence of the ” incorruptible body ” of the Saint, attracted pilgrims, who settled there with their industries. Thus were laid the foundations of the great city.

In this wise St. Cuthbert became the patron Saint of Durham, as well as of the North of England and of Southern Scotland. In 1072 William the Conqueror found it necessary to erect, across the neck of the rock- eminence, the castle, to guard the church and its monastery.

In 1093 Bishop Carileph built a church of Norman structure in place of Ealdhune’s Anglo-Saxon church, and changed the Anglo-Saxon establish- ment of married priests into a Benedictine abbey. After the Norman Conquest the county became Palatinate, and acquired the independence peculiar to Counties Palatine. The bishops of Durham were invested with temporal and spiritual powers, exercising the royal prerogatives, such as paramount property in lands, and supreme jurisdiction, both civil and military, waging war, right of forfeiture, and levying taxes.

These privileges were granted, owing to the remoteness of Durham from the metropolis and its proximity to the warlike kingdom of Scotland, and allowed of justice being administered at home, thereby doing away with the obligation of the inhabitants quitting their county, and leaving it exposed to hostile invasions. They were also excused from military service across the Tees or Tayne, on the plea that they were specially charged to keep and defend the sacred body of St. Cuthbert.

Those engaged on this service were called ” Haliwer folc ” (Holy War folk). But in the twenty-seventh year of the reign of Henry VIII. the power of the See was much curtailed ; and eventually, on the death of  Bishop Van Milvert in 1836, it was deprived of all temporal jurisdictions and privileges.

Around Carileph’s fine Norman church numerous additions were made from time to time, namely : The Galilee or Western Chapel of Durham cathedral, of the Transitional Period. The gradual change from the Norman to the Pointed style, which took place between 1 154 and 1 1 89, during Henry H.’s reign. The Eastern Transept, or ” Nine Altars.*’

The Western Towers, built in “The Early English Style,” which was a further development of ” The Transitional.’* It was carried out in the reigns of Richard I. to Henry HI., 11 89 to 1272. It is also known as “First Pointed” or “Lancet.” The Central Tower (Perpendicular). The Windows (Decorated and Perpendicular).

From 1 154, the commencement of Henry II ‘s reign, architecture acquired new characteristics in each reign, or rather the architects of each reign attempted to improve on the style of their predecessors. It began with the “Transition from Norman to Pointed.” From that it passed to ” First Pointed or Early English.” Then to ” Complete or Geometrical Pointed.” This was succeeded, in Edward III.’s time, by a more flowing style called ” Middle Pointed,” ” Curvilinear,” or ” Deco- rated.” The graceful flowing lines of this period culminated in what is known as “The Third Pointed,” “Rectilinear,” or ” Perpendicular Style.” This period existed from 1399 to 1546, that is to say, from the beginning of the reign of Henry IV. to the end of the reign of Henry VIII.

The Galilee or Western Chapel was built and dedicated as an offering to “The Blessed Virgin,” by Bishop Pudsey, between 1153 and 11 95; and served as the allotted place of worship for women, who were strictly forbidden to approach the sacred shrine of St. Cuthbert. In the south-west corner of this chapel there is an altar-tomb of blue marble. This is revered as the abiding-place of the earthly remains of the great monk and historian, the Venerable Bede.

durham cathedralConcerning him, tradition relates how Elfred, “The Sacrist” of Durham, in 1022, stole these remains from Jarrow and preserved them in St. Cuthbert’s cofiin till 1 1 04. They were afterwards placed in a gold and silver shrine by Bishop Pudsey, which was left in the refectory till i 370, when Richard of Barnard Castle, a monk afterwards buried under the blue stone on the west of the present tomb, influenced its removal to the Galilee Chapel.

Interior of Durham Cathedral

There upon the altar-tomb, mentioned before, the casket was placed, and was covered by a gilt cover of wainscot, which was drawn up by a pulley when the shrine was visited by pilgrims. Upon this altar tomb there is an inscription in Latin, in current use of the period, which runs thus: ” Hac sunt in fossa Bedae Venerabilis ossa.” (” In this tomb are the bones of the Venerable Bede.”) In connection with this inscription there is a legend that the sixth word, ” Venerabilis,” was miraculously supplied by divine intervention to the tired and till then uninspired monk who was pen-ning it. Hence Bede is known generally as ” The Venerable Bede.”

Close by there was an altar to the Venerable Bede. The Reformation swept away the original tomb, leaving only a few traces behind, and the bones were buried under its site ; and an altar-tomb, which still exists, was erected over them. Every Sunday and holiday at noon a monk was accustomed to ascend the iron pulpit beneath the great west window, and from it to preach. Though this pulpit is gone, there still exists in close proximity a small chamber of the time of 4 [ 49 ] CATHEDRAL CITIES Bishop Langley, which was obviously the robing- room of the preacher.

From 1775 to 1795 this magnificent pile was given over to the tender mercies of one James Wyatt, architect, who, but for timely intervention on the part of John Carter, would have left little of it to our present view; but, alas! by his chisel- ling and interference with the superficial details of the exterior, he has taught us a lesson in vandalism. The Cathedral still survives with surpassing beauty, and the name of the would-be destroyer is dead. The Galilee Chapel was happily rescued in time from utter destruction at the hands of James Wyatt.

This gentleman had already commenced to pull down a portion of it to make room for a coach- road, which he had planned to facilitate the connection between the castle and the college. Unhappily the spirit of utility of a most material age allowed the Chapter House to be demolished, but, oddly enough, this demolition, together with the peeling of the exterior, the removal, so to speak, of details and minor embellishments of the grand edifice, have robbed us of nothing of its impressiveness, but indeed remind us, as the mutilated Parthenon marbles do, of the irony of man’s vain predilection to mutilate the beautiful, which must last for ever. Thus again there is evidence in the  interior of man’s destructive power in the mutilation of the Neville tombs.

It seems strange that the House of God the Peacemaker and the shrine of St. Cuthbert the “incorruptible” should have been used as a prison-house of corruptible beings and peace-breakers, legitimised murderers,  for here were interned the Scotch prisoners to the number of forty-five hundred, after the battle of Dunbar, and ample scope of amusement was given for their empty brains, as their ruthless exercise of the privilege records. The Chapel of the Nine Altars still contains the remains of St. Cuthbert. When the tomb was opened in 1827 a number of curious and interesting books and MSS., the portable altar, vestments, and other relics were found. These are now placed in the Durham Cathedral Library.

The Cathedral Library was formerly the dormitory and refectories of the abbey, as it was originally styled. In this connection one is led to speculate upon the possible early evolution of religious thought of early Christianity, and to half suspect that the “Nine Altars” in the Galilee Chapel and the “Woman’s Bar” were the remnants of symbols of pre-Christian era, retained for the obvious purpose of satisfying converts to the faith still young.

There is a strong flavour of the worship of the Nine Muses of pagan times, and of the Judaical laws with regard to women either within or without the places of worship. Tradition has it that St. Cuthbert was a misogynist, and so strong was it that the precincts of St. Cuthbert were strictly guarded against the encroachment of women. To enforce this “The Boundary Cross” or “Woman’s Bar” was constructed to limit their approach, in the south of the nave. By this attitude towards women St. Cuthbert, as a priest, only foreshadowed the present regime of the Church of Rome as regards matrimonial obligations on the part of its servants.

For so saintly a man must not be taken as a hater of women, or his beatification as the son of a woman would have no sense, and would call his incorruptibility into question, and his saintliness of character in grave doubt. The chief entrance to the Cathedral was originally in the west end, but when Bishop Pudsey built the Galilee Chapel, a doorway was constructed in the north end, framed in a rich and deeply recessed Norman arch, doing away with the necessity of the great entrance. Fixed to the door is the famous Norman knocker, suspended from the  mouth of a grotesque monster, by which offenders seeking sanctuary made their presence known.

One of the most marvellous features, perhaps, of the whole Durham Cathedral is the impressive grandeur of its appearance to the traveller, approaching from any quarter, who sees this Island Hill capped by the mighty structure, soaring up, as it were, into the heavens, yet dominating by its protecting shadows the city round its base — the symbol most beautifully conceived of the affinity between earth and heaven, and truly the noblest form of monu- ment of reverential design that the human brain could have possibly conceived.


This extract comes from “Cathedral cities of England” by George Gilbert, published in 1908 and now in the public domain