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Durham Cathedral


When William the Conqueror finally took control of Durham he appointed a Norman called William Walcher as Durham's first Prince Bishop by combining the powers of the Bishop with those of the Earl of Northumbria.The term `Prince Bishop' did not actually come into use until many centuries later but it is a good description of the political and ecclesiastical powers of Walcher and succeeding Bishops of Durham.

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral and Palace Green : David Simpson

 Walcher's time as a Prince Bishop was characterised by weak leadership which ultimately resulted in him being murdered at Gateshead in 1080. He was replaced by a new bishop called William St Carileph who was the man responsible for building the present cathedral. Carileph designed the greater part of the Cathedral of Durham as it stands today and began its construction in the year 1093. Occupying the site of the old stone minster built by Uchted, the new building was completed to the bishop's designs in more or less forty years. Unfortunately Carileph did not live to see the completion of his cathedral in 1135.


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 (or 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 to be 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 can not be seen by visitors.


In later years two major additions were made to the cathedral of William St Carileph one of which was the Galilee Chapel built by Bishop Hugh Le Puiset, who was known more affectionately 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 overshadowed by the cathedral's twin towers (See photo).

The Galilee Chapel is famous as the home of the black marble-topped tomb of The Venerable Bede (673-735 A.D), who was the first historian of England. Bede 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 A.D. Bede's tomb is inscribed with the following words

Hac sunt in fossa Baedae Venerabilis Ossa'

which translated means' in this tomb are of Bede the Bones'. Legend tells us that the use of the word 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 dates from 1830.

The Galillee 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 accomodation in the castle to avoid upsetting St Cuthbert

Lady Chapels are normally constructed at the eastern end of cathedrals and not at 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 Hugh Pudsey to transfer the building work to the west end. The building problems at the east end 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 huge Chapel of the Nine Altars at the eastern end of the cathedral was begun during the episcopacy of Bishop Richard Le Poore (1228-1237) who was also associated with the building of Salisbury Cathedral. This new chapel 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 in this chapel including some elegant piers of Frosterley Marble, a decorative black substance originating from the Durham valley of Weardale. It is embedded with the white shells of ancient sea creatures. Another prominent feature in the chapel is a large white statue of Bishop William Van Mildertwho died in 1836.Van Mildert, 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.

Without doubt 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.


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 prior to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century, the whole area around the tomb was an elaborately decorated shrine 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. These gifts were stored in beautifully decorated wainscot lockers which were situated on the north and south sides of the feretory. The lockers which also contained relics associated with St Cuthbert and other saints 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 by the order 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.


St Cuthbert's tomb and feretory are hidden 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 hundred 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 Ralph who successfully led the English into victory over the Scots at the Battle of Nevilles 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. 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 4000 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. During 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.


To the south of, but adjoining the cathedral are the buildings of the cloisters which are clustered around a small square green called the cloister garth. The buildings surrounding the garth were the monastic priory buildings of the cathedral and included the Chapter House, the Monk's Dormitory, the Refectory and the Great Kitchen.Around the square green are four covered Cloister walkways where the monks spent considerable periods of time during the heyday of the Durham priory. One of the walkways on the northern side of the cloisters by the main cathedral wall was formerly the monk's Scriptorium. This contained a number of reading chambers in which the monks could study. At the western end of this walkway a plaque can be seen informing American tourists that an ancestor of George Washington was a prior at Durham Cathedral. The Washingtons were an old County Durham family originating from Washington near Sunderland.

Above the western walkway of the Cloister is the Monk's Dormitory, the site of the sleeping quarters. It dates from the fourteenth century and has an extremely impressive roof of wooden oak beams. It now houses a library belonging to the Dean and Chapter and has a collection of Anglo-Saxon and Viking crosses from throughout the Chapter House where meetings are held to discuss the day to day running of the cathedral. The building contains the tombs of three very important Bishops of Durham - William St Carileph, Ranulf Flambard and Hugh le Puiset. Above the southern walkway of the cloisters was situated the refectory or eating area. This is now a private library belonging to the Dean and Chapter. Behind the refectory is the peculiar octagonal shaped building of the kitchen.


Today most visitors to the cloisters are drawn to the cathedral's restaraunt, the bookshop and the Treasury Museum which all lie in the south western corner of the cloisters. The Treasury Museum is one of the most important museums in the north of England and contains many relics of the `Golden Age of Northumbria'. The museum's ancient exhibits include the 7th century wooden coffin of St.Cuthbert which has been carefully pieced together and the pectoral cross of St.Cuthbert. Some very impressive silver plate may also be seen in the museum which belonged to the Prince Bishops of Durham. Other interesting items include some ancient books and the sword called the Conyer's Falchion which is 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 cermonial tradition in which the a local dignitary declares 'My lord bishop I hereby present you witth the falchion wherewith the champion Conyersslew 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 sould be presneted' . The rectory of Croft where Lewis Caroll lioved as a boy overlooks the bridge where the sword is presented and the dragon legend may have inspired him to write the Jabberwocky, a famous dargon slaying rhyme he wrote at Croft on Tees and Whitburn near Sunderland.


Most visitors to the Cathedral will have entered the building from Palace Green by the North Door on which we find the imposing bronze sanctuary knocker. This is a near perfect replica of the twelfth century original which can be seen in the Treasury Museum. It features the face of a hideous lion-like beast and represents the ancient privelege of sanctuary once granted to criminal offenders at Durham cathedral. Criminals could seek refuge at Durham by loudly banging the knocker to alert the attentions of the 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 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 stealers and horse thieves. More usually the offence was Murder.

The Durham Cathedral website

Durham Cathedral & Fulling Mill

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