Durham Cathedral The Shrine of Saint Cuthbert

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Photograph of the Quire Screen

Cathedral History

Durham Cathedral has been described as ‘one of the great architectural experiences of Europe’. It is renowned as a masterpiece of Romanesque (or Norman) architecture. It was begun in 1093 and largely completed within 40 years. It is the only cathedral in England to retain almost all of its Norman craftsmanship, and one of few to preserve the unity and integrity of its original design.

The Cathedral was built as a place of worship, specifically to house the shrine of the North's best-loved saint, Cuthbert, in whose honour pilgrims came to Durham from all over England. It was also the home of a Benedictine monastic community. For more information about St Benedict and Benedictine monasticism in Durham visit The Order of Saint Benedict website. The Cathedral holds an annual Benedictine Weekend when there is an opprotunity to explore in more depth the historical and living tradition of St Benedict, focusing on its expression at Durham Cathedral in the past and present.

The Cathedral also served a political and military function by reinforcing the authority of the prince-bishops over England's northern border.

The Cathedral is built on a peninsula of land created by a loop in the River Wear and the west end towers over a precipitous gorge. Aerial photograph of the peninsual on which the Cathedral sits The northern front of the Cathedral faces onto Palace green and here the full 496 foot (143 metres) length from west to east can be seen. The nave, quire and transepts are all Norman, at the west end is the twelfth century late Norman style Galilee Chapel and at the east end the 13th century Chapel of the Nine Altars is in the Gothic style. The western towers date from the 12th and 13th centuries and the great central tower is the most recent addition, it dates from the 15th century and displays perpendicular Gothic detailing. The original medieval sanctuary knocker can be seen in the Treasures of St Cuthbert a replica hangs at the north porch door.

The Cloister, on the south side of the Cathedral, was begun at the same time as the Cathedral but contains much work from the 15th century or later. Many of the Claustral buildings are open to the public and full details can be found under Visiting the Cathedral. The College, the name given in Durham to the Cathedral Close, is a quiet area on the south side of the Cathedral. It is the home of the Cathedral clergy and others associated with its life, and of the Chorister School, a co-educational school where the Cathedral choir boys are educated. Many of the buildings surrounding the Green originated in the Middle Ages, and entry is gained via the medieval gate house which is still locked every night. Buildings in the College are not open to the public.

The Reformation was a watershed in the Cathedral's history as it brought the dissolution of the Priory and its monastic community. The monastery was surrendered to the Crown in December 1540, thus ending hundreds of years of monastic life at the Cathedral. In January 1541 the Cathedral was refounded, the last Prior became the first Dean, and twelve former monks became the first Canons. Much valuable information about life in the Cathedral in the period immediately prior to the dissolution can be found in a 1591 work, ‘The Rites of Durham’ which it is presumed was written by a former member of the monastic community and is available in the Cathedral. Print showing the west end of the Cathedral in 1672 Despite the continuity of some of the personnel, this period must have been very traumatic in the life of the Cathedral as medieval worship and monastic life gave way to the new Book of Common Prayer. There was much regrettable destruction of historic furnishings and artefacts in the later 16th century as the reforms were zealously upheld.

During the Civil War and the Commonwealth period in the 17th century things became even worse in Durham; in 1650 the Cathedral was closed and used by Cromwell to incarcerate 3,000 Scottish prisoners. With the Restoration in 1660, the new bishop of Durham - John Cosin, a former Canon - set about refurbishing the church and his work can be seen in the quire with its richly carved woodwork. The late 18th century was another sad period in the history of the Cathedral as there was much unfortunate work to the fabric of the Cathedral including the chiselling off of between 2 and 3 inches of stone from most of the exterior and the demolition of part of the Norman Chapter House. Luckily the idea of demolishing the Galilee Chapel was abandoned. The Chapter House was rebuilt to the original design in 1895. The nineteenth century also saw the introduction of much of the stained glass in the Cathedral and the Scott screen in the crossing. The Bishop of Durham and the Cathedral Chapter founded Durham University in 1832. In the twentieth and twenty first centuries the emphasis has been on sensitive conservation, along with the introduction of some contemporary art. The Cathedral is also responsible for the care and upkeep of the river banks which provide the stunning setting for the Cathedral when seen from the west.

Print of the Cathedral from Architectural illustrations and description of the Cathedral Church at Durham by R. W. Billings (1843)

Visitors to the Cathedral can purchase a full colour guide to the Cathedral which gives much more detail of its history and a guide to the interior, and a short guide which is available in several languages and provides brief details of various parts of the Cathedral. A 17 minute Audio Visual Display tells the story of St Cuthbert and Durham, and the Building the Church Exhibition is suitable for children and adults who want to know more about that aspect of the Cathedral's life. Many historical artefacts associated with Cuthbert and the Cathedral are on display in The Treasures of St Cuthbert. For full details of opening hours, see Visiting the Cathedral.