Durham Cathedral

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Durham Cathedral

The Cathedral Church of Christ,
Blessed Mary the Virgin
and St Cuthbert of Durham

Durham, County Durham

Status: Cathedral
Durham Cathedral from the south-2.jpg
Durham Cathedral from the south
Church of England
Diocese of Durham
Grid reference: NZ27264217
Location: 54°46’25"N, 1°34’34"W
Built 1093–1133
Website: www.durhamcathedral.co.uk

The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham, commonly known as Durham Cathedral is a vast Norman cathedral in the City of Durham, in County Durham. It is the seat of the Bishop of Durham.

The Bishopric dates from 995, with the present cathedral being founded in AD 1093. The cathedral is regarded as one of the finest examples of Norman architecture and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with nearby Durham Castle, which faces it across Palace Green.

The present cathedral replaced the 10th century "White Church", built as part of a monastic foundation to house the shrine of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. The treasures of Durham Cathedral include relics of St Cuthbert, the head of St Oswald of Northumbria and the remains of the Venerable Bede. In addition, its Library contains one of the most complete sets of early printed books in England, the pre-Dissolution monastic accounts, and three copies of the Magna Carta.

Durham Cathedral occupies a strategic position on a promontory high above the River Wear. From 1080 until the 19th century the bishopric enjoyed the powers of a Bishop Palatine, having military as well as religious leadership and power. Durham Castle was built as the residence for the Bishop of Durham. The office of the Bishop of Durham is the fourth most significant in the Church of England hierarchy, and he stands at the right hand of the monarch at coronations.

There are daily services at the Cathedral and the Durham Cathedral Choir sings daily except Mondays. The cathedral is a major tourist attraction within the region, the central tower of 217 feet giving views of Durham and the surrounding area.


The Catedral was before the Reformation known as 'the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Mary the Virgin and St. Cuthbert the Bishop'. It was renamed by a charter of King Henry VIII of 12 May 1541, to become 'the Cathedral Church of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin'.[1]

The Dedication was changed in 2008 to 'The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham' in a service on Sunday 4 September 2005. This was reflected in the Cathedral's Constitution and Statutes on 16 December 2008. usually known as Durham Cathedral[2][3][4] and home of the Shrine of St Cuthbert,[5]


Anglo-Saxon age

Legend of the founding of Durham depicted on cathedral

The see of Durham takes its origins from the Diocese of Lindisfarne, founded by St Aidan at the behest of Oswald of Northumbria around AD 635. The see lasted until AD 664, at which point it was translated to York. The see was then reinstated at Lindisfarne in AD 678 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Among the many saints produced in the community at Lindisfarne Priory, the cult which grew around St Cuthbert, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from AD 685 until his death on Farne Island in 687, is central to the development of Durham Cathedral.

After repeated Viking raids, the monks fled Lindisfarne in AD 875, carrying St Cuthbert's relics with them. The diocese of Lindisfarne remained itinerant until 882, when a community was re-established in Chester-le-Street. The see had its seat here until AD 995, when further incursions once again caused the monks to move with the relics. By this time the Society of St Cuthbert mnay have been only nominally monastic.

The Legend of the Dun Cow tells of how the site was chosen; it says that the monks of St Cuthbert followed two milk maids who were searching for a brown cow. They were led into a peninsula formed by a loop in the River Wear. At this point Cuthbert's coffin became immovable. This was offered for a sign that the new shrine should be built here. A more prosaic set of reasons for the selection of the peninsula is its highly defensible position, and that a community established here would enjoy the protection of the Earl of Northumberland, as the bishop at this time, Aldhun, had strong family links with the earls. Nevertheless, the street leading from The Bailey past the Cathedral's eastern towers up to Palace Green is named Dun Cow Lane.

Initially, a very simple temporary structure was built from local timber to house the relics of Cuthbert. The shrine was then transferred to a sturdier, probably wooden, building known as the White Church. This church was itself replaced three years later in 998 by a stone building also known as the White Church, which was complete apart from its tower by 1018. Durham soon became a site of pilgrimage, encouraged by the growing cult of St Cuthbert. King Canute was one early pilgrim, granting many privileges and much land to the Durham community. The defendable position, flow of money from pilgrims and power embodied in the church at Durham ensured that a town formed around the cathedral, establishing the early core of the modern city.


The nave in 2010

The present cathedral was designed and built under William of St Carilef (or William of Calais) who was appointed as the first prince-bishop by William the Conqueror in 1080.[6] Since that time, there have been major additions and reconstructions of some parts of the building, but the greater part of the structure remains true to the Norman design.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1093 at the eastern end. The choir was completed by 1096 and work proceeded on the nave of which the walls were finished by 1128, and the high vault complete by 1135. The Chapter House, partially demolished in the 18th century, was built between 1133 and 1140.[7] William died in 1099 before the building's completion, passing responsibility to his successor Ranulf Flambard who also built Flamwell Bridge, the first crossing of the River Wear in the town. Three bishops William of St Carilef, Ranulf Flambard, and Hugh de Puiset are all buried in the rebuilt Chapter House.

In the 1170s, Bishop Hugh de Puiset, after a false start at the eastern end where the subsidence and cracking prevented work from continuing, added the Galilee Chapel at the west end of the cathedral.[8] The five-aisled building occupies the position of a porch, it functioned as a Lady Chapel and the Great West Door was blocked during the Mediæval period by an altar to the Virgin Mary. The door is now blocked by the tomb of Bishop Langley. The Galilee Chapel also holds the remains of the Venerable Bede. The main entrance to the cathedral is on the northern side, facing towards the Castle.

In 1228 Richard le Poore came from Salisbury where a new cathedral was being built in the Gothic style.[8] At this time, the eastern end of the cathedral was in urgent need of repair and the proposed eastern extension had failed. Richard le Poore employed the architect Richard Farnham to design an eastern terminal for the building in which many monks could say the Daily Office simultaneously. The resulting building was the Chapel of the Nine Altars. The towers also date from the early 13th century, but the central tower was damaged by lightning and replaced in two stages in the 15th century, the master masons being Thomas Barton and John Bell.[7]

The Shrine of St Cuthbert was located in the eastern apsidal end of the cathedral. The location of the inner wall of the apse is marked on the pavement, and St. Cuthbert's tomb is covered by a simple slab. However, an unknown monk wrote in 1593:

[The shrine] "was estimated to be one of the most sumptuous in all England, so great were the offerings and jewells bestowed upon it, and endless the miracles that were wrought at it, even in these last days."
—Rites of Durham, [8]


Cuthbert's tomb was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII in 1538,[6] and the monastery's wealth handed over to the king. The shrine was destroyed, but Cuthbert's body in its wooden coffin was not; all was reburied under a plain stone slab. The ancient paving around it remains intact. Two years later, on 31 December 1540, the Benedictine monastery at Durham was dissolved, and the last prior of Durham – Hugh Whitehead—became the first dean of the cathedral's secular chapter.[8]

17th century

Durham Castle and Cathedral from the north-west

After the Battle of Dunbar on 3 September 1650, Durham Cathedral was used by Oliver Cromwell as a makeshift prison to hold Scottish prisoners-of-war. It is estimated that as many as 3,000 were imprisoned of whom 1,700 died in the cathedral itself, where they were kept in inhumane conditions, largely without food, water or heat. The prisoners destroyed much of the cathedral woodwork for firewood but Prior Castell's Clock, which featured the Scottish thistle, was spared. It is reputed that the prisoners' bodies were buried in unmarked graves. The survivors were shipped as slave labour to North America.

In 1946 during work to install a new central heating system for the University, a mass grave of the Scots was allegedly uncovered, but research has been inconclusive.

Bishop John Cosin, who had previously been a canon of the cathedral, set about restoring the damage and refurnishing the building with new stalls, the litany desk and the towering canopy over the font. An oak screen to carry the organ was added at this time to replace a stone screen pulled down in the 16th century. On the remains of the old refectory, the Dean, John Sudbury founded a library of early printed books.[8]


During the 18th century, the deans of Durham often held another position in the south, and after spending the statutory time in residence, would depart to manage their affairs. Consequently, after Cosin's refurbishment, there was little by way of restoration or rebuilding.[8] When work commenced again on the building, it was of a most unsympathetic nature. In 1773 the architect George Nicholson, having completed the Prebend's Bridge across the Wear, persuaded the Dean and Chapter to let him smooth off much of the outer stonework of the cathedral, thereby considerably altering its character.[8]

The architect James Wyatt demolished half the Chapter House, altering the stonework of the east end, and inserting a large rose window that was supposed to be faithful to one that had been there in the 13th century. Wyatt also planned to demolish the Galilee Chapel, but the Dean, John Cornwallis, returned and prevented it, just as the lead was being stripped from the roof.[8]

In 1827 Cuthbert's tomb was opened up and his wooden coffin and various relics were removed. The coffin, actually one of a series of several, as reconstructed by Ernst Kitzinger and others, remains at the cathedral, on public display and is an important rare survival of Anglo-Saxon carving on wood. The coffin is carved with representations of the four Gospel writers and has inscriptions in runic wrting. A Saxon square cross of gold, embellished with garnets, in the characteristic splayed shape was found on Cuthbert's body, which form of cross was used later as the heraldic emblem of St Cuthbert: it is found today in the arms of Durham and Newcastle universities, and as the main emblem on the Flag of County Durham. The body was reburied beneath a stone slab in the cathedral inscribed "CVTHBERTUS" Despite the expectations of Roman Catholics, Cuthbert's body was not found incorrupt as his hagiographic legend had asserted it would be.

The restoration of the cathedral's tower between 1854 and 1859 was by the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, working with Edward Robert Robson, who went on to serve as architect in charge of the cathedral for six years.[9] In 1858 Anthony Salvin restored the cloisters.[10][11]

20th century

Durham World Heritage marker

In 1986, the Cathedral, together with the nearby Castle, became a World Heritage Site. The UNESCO committee classified the Cathedral under criteria C (ii) (iv) (vi), reporting, "Durham Cathedral is the largest and most perfect monument of 'Norman' style architecture in England".[12]

21st century

Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank selected the Cathedral as one of his four choices for the 2002 BBC television documentary series Britain's Best Buildings.[13]

In November 2009 the Cathedral featured in a son et lumière festival whose highlight was the "Crown of Light"[14] illumination of the North Front of the Cathedral with a 15-minute presentation that told the story of Lindisfarne and the foundation of Cathedral, using illustrations and text from the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Lumiere Festival was repeated in 2011 and 2013.[15]

On film

In 1996, the Great Western Doorway was the setting for Bill Viola's large-scale video installation The Messenger.

Interior views of the Cathedral were featured in the 1998 film Elizabeth.

The Harry Potter films used the cathedral (digitally altered) as Hogwarts Academy.


Floor plan

The building is notable for the ribbed vault of the nave roof, with pointed transverse arches supported on relatively slender composite piers alternated with massive drum columns, and flying buttresses or lateral abutments concealed within the triforium over the aisles. These features appear to be precursors of the Gothic architecture of Northern France a few decades later, doubtless due to the Norman stonemasons responsible, although the building is considered Romanesque overall. The skilled use of the pointed arch and ribbed vault made it possible to cover far more elaborate and complicated ground plans than before. Buttressing made it possible to build taller buildings and open up the intervening wall spaces to create larger windows.

St Cuthbert's tomb lies at the east in the Feretory and was once an elaborate monument of cream marble and gold. Beside it is the tomb of the Venerable Bede.

The Cathedral Chapter

The cathedral is governed by the chapter which is chaired by the dean. Durham is a "New Foundation"[16] cathedral in which there are not specific roles to which members of Chapter are appointed, with the exception of Dean and Van Mildert Professor. The other roles, Sub-Dean, Precentor, Sacrist, Librarian and Treasurer, are elected by the members of Chapter annually.



In the 17th century Durham had an organ by Smith that was replaced in 1876 by Willis, with some pipes being reused in Durham Castle chapel. Harrison & Harrison worked on the organ from 1880, with several major additions to the stop list, and a refurbishment in 1996. The cases, designed by C. Hogdson Fowler and decorated by Clayton and Bell date from 1876 and are in the galleries of the choir.[17]


There is a regular choir of adult lay clerks, choral scholars and child choristers. The latter are educated at the Chorister School. Traditionally child choristers were all boys, but in November 2009 the Cathedral admitted female choristers for the first time.[18][19] The girls and the boys serve alternately, not as a mixed choir, except at major festivals such as Easter, Advent and Christmas when the two "top lines" come together.


Ground plan of Durham Cathedral

"Durham is 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."—Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England.

"I paused upon the bridge, and admired and wondered at the beauty and glory of this scene...it was grand, venerable, and sweet, all at once; I never saw so lovely and magnificent a scene, nor, being content with this, do I care to see a better." – Nathaniel Hawthorne on Durham Cathedral, The English Notebooks.

'With the cathedral at Durham we reach the incomparable masterpiece of Romanesque architecture not only in England but anywhere. The moment of entering provides for an architectural experience never to be forgotten, one of the greatest England has to offer.' – Alec Clifton-Taylor, 'English Towns' series on BBC television.

"I unhesitatingly gave Durham my vote for best cathedral on planet Earth." – Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island.

"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."

– Sir Walter Scott, Harold the Dauntless, a poem of Saxons and Vikings set in County Durham.[20]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Durham Cathedral)


  1. Mackenzie, Eneas & al. An Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive View of the County Palatine of Durham: Comprehending the Various Subjects of Natural, Civil, and Ecclesiastical Geography, Agriculture, Mines, Manufactures, Navigation, Trade, Commerce, Buildings, Antiquities, Curiosities, Public Institutions, Charities, Population, Customs, Biography, Local History, &c., Vol. II, p. 366. Mackenzie & Dent (Newcastle), 1834.
  2. Durham Cathedral: The Shrine of St Cuthbert. "About Us". Chapter of Durham (Durham), 2014. Accessed 21 December 2014.
  3. A Church Near You. "Durham Cathedral, Durham". Church of England (London), 2014. Accessed 21 December 2014.
  4. Association of English Cathedrals "Durham Cathedral". Accessed 21 December 2014.
  5. Durham Cathedral: The Shrine of St Cuthbert. Official Website. Chapter of Durham (Durham), 2014. Accessed 21 December 2014.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Tim Tatton-Brown and John Crook, The English Cathedral pp. 26–29
  7. 7.0 7.1 John Harvey, English Cathedrals, p.129
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 Stranks, Durham Cathedral
  9. Who Was Who, online edition, ROBSON, Edward Robert (subscription required), accessed 13 December 2008
  10. National Heritage List 1121389: Cathedral cloister west range
  11. National Heritage List 1310239: Cathedral cloister southrange
  12. Full report (PDF file)
  13. Cruickshank, Dan. "Choosing Britain's Best Buildings". BBC History. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/programme_archive/best_buildings_03.shtml. Retrieved 3 June 2008. 
  14. "Crown of Light - interview with its designer". Sky Arrts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxOIR77ZTbw. Retrieved 22 November 2013. 
  15. http://www.lumieredurham.co.uk/default/
  16. "Cathedrals: An Historical Note". Church of England. http://www.churchofengland.org/media/40671/chapter5.pdf. Retrieved 23 November 2013. 
  17. Details of the organ from the National Pipe Organ Register, retrieved 1 March 2013
  18. "The Northern Echo: Durham Cathedral has female choristers at service". http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/4714377.History_made_as_girls_sing_at_cathedral/. Retrieved 18 November 2009. 
  19. "Durham Cathedral – News – Here Come The girls". http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/introduction/news/160. Retrieved 18 November 2009. 
  20. The verse is inscribed on a plaque on Prebends Bridge, which still affords the excellent view of the Cathedral that inspired it, sometimes known as Scott's View ("Scott's View". http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0020-2754(1982)2%3A7%3A3%3C354%3AVLIMTV%3E2.0.CO%3B2-N.  and Walter Scott. "Harold the Dauntless". http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/works/poetry/harold.html. )


  • Clifton-Taylor, Alec (1967) The Cathedrals of England. London: Thames and Hudson
  • Dodds, Glen Lyndon (1996) Historic Sites of County Durham Albion Press
  • Harvey, John (1963) English Cathedrals. London: Batsford
  • Moorhouse, Geoffrey (2008) The Last Office: 1539 and the dissolution of a monastery. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
  • Stranks, C. J. The Pictorial History of Durham Cathedral. London: Pitkin Pictorials
  • Tatton-Brown, Tim (2002) The English Cathedral; text by Timothy Tatton-Brown; photography by John Crook. London: New Holland ISBN 1-84330-120-2
Cathedrals of the Church of England

Province of York: BlackburnBradfordCarlisleChesterDurhamLiverpoolManchesterNewcastle upon TynePeelRiponSheffieldSouthwellWakefieldYork

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