English Churches - County Durham

Durham Cathedral

A superb setting and possibly the best Norman architecture in the country

Set high above an incised meander in the River Wear, Durham Cathedral is regarded as one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in the country. The views from Prebends Bridge and along the river banks provide some of the classic shots of the cathedral.

Durham Cathedral

The splendid Norman building replaced an earlier church, built to hold the body of St Cuthbert. When Cuthbert died in 687 he was buried on Lindisfarne, Holy Island. The monastery became very rich from gifts bestowed by pilgrims to the shrine. The Vikings made many raids on the monastery forcing the monks to flee taking the coffin of St Cuthbert with them. The coffin was carried around the north east for over a hundred years before being buried in the newly built church at Durham.

According to the legend, the vehicle carrying the coffin came to a standstill and no-one could get it to move. After a period of fasting and meditation, St Cuthbert appeared in a vision to one of the monks saying the coffin should be taken to a place called Dunholm. The monks were now able to move the coffin, although they had no idea where Dunholm was.  By chance a few days later, they heard a milkmaid asking another milkmaid if she had seen her dun cow that had wandered off. The other replied she had seen the cow roaming near Dunholm. The monks followed the milkmaids to where they found the dun cow. This place became the site for a new church for the body of St Cuthbert in AD995. The story is remembered by an C18th carving of two milkmaids and a cow on the north west corner of the Chapel of the nine Altars.

Durham Cathedral

Legend or no legend, this was an excellent spot to rebury the body as the peninsula was a very defensive site set high above the river with only a narrow neck to defend. A simple stone church was built in AD998 housing a community of Benedictine monks and soon became a site of pilgrimage.

There is nothing left of the original church. The present building was built by William of Calais who was appointed Prince Bishop by William the Conqueror in 1080. Construction began in 1089 and continued until 1140 when the nave, quire, and two transepts had been built. These have the typical round Norman windows and heavily carved Norman doorways. The Galilee Chapel was added in 1175. The two west towers were built between 1217-26. These originally had spires (like at Southwell Minster) which were removed in the C17th.

Durham Cathedral

The central tower dates from the same time, but was struck by lightning and had to be rebuilt in 1429. It was struck again thirty years later and had to be completely rebuilt between 1465-74 with tall lancet windows. The top was added ten years.

The Chapel of the nine Altars was added to the east end between 1242-1280 and was built in the completely different Gothic style.

Durham Cathedral

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the Cathedral was re-founded with the last prior becoming the first dean. Twelve former monks became canons. The wall paintings were covered with whitewash, Cuthbert’s shrine was destroyed and the stained glass broken.
After the Civil War, the Cathedral was closed and used by Cromwell to hold 3000 Scottish prisoners. They burnt much of the surviving woodwork to keep themselves warm. Prior Castell’s clock in the south transept is said to have survived because it had a thistle on it.

After the Restoration, Bishop Cosins, a former canon refurbished the church. The glorious woodwork in the quire dates from this time.

The cathedral still has some of the best surviving monastic buildings with the cloisters, chapter house (rebuilt in C19th), great kitchen, undercroft and the monk’s dormitory still surviving. The Undercroft is now the shop and tea room.

When we visited in October 2014, the C14th monk’s dormitory and great kitchen were closed as they are being developed into a state of the art exhibition centre.

The cathedral can either be approached from the south by Palace Green which was the original market place with the entrance to the castle off it. This takes you through the massive south door with its rows of chevron carving and sanctuary knocker with its head with medusa like arms round it.

Durham Cathedral

The other entrance is via College Green on the north side. This was the former outer court of the monastery. Following the Dissolution, the buildings were converted to provide accommodation for the Dean and twelve Prebends. The Bishop originally lived in Durham castle, before moving to Auckland Castle twelve miles to the south of Durham.

This entrance takes you into the cloisters, past the undercroft with shop and restaurant and in through one of the south doors off the cloisters. Although smaller and less ornate than the north door, they have round pillars with carved capitals and several rows of Norman carving around the round arches above the door.

Durham Cathedral

Unfortunately photography is not allowed in the cathedral.

Standing at the back of the NAVE, the immediate impression is the size and strength of the building with its massive round pillars with round arches with chevron carving above. Every other one is carved with a different geometric pattern. The diameter of the pillars is the same as their height which brings home to you just how massive they are. Above are smaller round arches in front of a walkway round the top of the nave and another row of round arches around the clerestory windows. Above is the stone vaulted ceiling with stone ribs forming arches to support the ceiling. This was the first time this technique had been used in the construction of a roof. It let the masons construct a much taller ceiling which soars above the nave. The ribs are also carved with chevron patterns. At the base of the ribs are carved heads, each different and one sticking his tongue out.

The side aisles are very narrow, more like passageways, and draw the eye down the length of the building. On the outer walls is blind arcading with interlooped round arches.

At the back of the nave is the C17th FONT, part of the post Restoration work carried out by Bishop Cosins.  The font is small white marble bowl standing on a stem with flowers round the bottom. This is surrounded by a huge crocketted pinnacled structure of carved dark varnished wood standing on legs.

On the floor towards the back of the nave is a long narrow band of dark Frosterley marble. Until the mid C16th, women were not allowed to approach the shrine of St Cuthbert behind the high altar and had to remain behind this line.

The stained glass in the windows is mainly C19th. At the back of the north aisle on the north wall is the RAF memorial window dating from the 1950s. This is a lovely window with an airman on the back of an eagle flying over Durham Cathedral and Durham castle. Above him is a large angel surrounded by four smaller angels. A the bottom is written “As Birds Flying, so shall the Lord of hosts protect Jerusalem”. On the wall below is “remember with Honour the men and women of County Durham who served in the war 1939-45 and give thanks for all their courage and consistency of those whose task it was to endure”.

On the west wall above the doors into the Galilee chapel are two other windows also from the 1950s with St Oswald and St Cuthbert.   In the centre of the west wall is a huge window with C19th glass with Mary and the young Jesus surrounded by Biblical figures.

The GALILEE CHAPEL was built onto the west end of the cathedral between 1175-89. Seen from across the river, this looks tiny against the bulk of the Cathedral. Inside it feels much larger. Marking the start of the transition from the Norman to the Gothic style of architecture, it feels much lighter and more dainty than the nave. The heavy round pillars are replaced by four arcades of slender pillars with water leaf capitals. These support round arches with chevron carving. It is lit on three sides by very large windows containing square pieces of medieval glass set into later plain glass windows. This gives the chapel a light, airy feel. Until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, this was the only place women could worship in the Cathedral.

On the right is the tomb of the Venerable Bede, a massive stone base with a darker top engraved with “HAC SUNT IN FOSSA BAEDAE VENERABILIS OSSA”

In the centre, steps lead up to an altar with a triptych on the back wall set on a Frosterley marble base and under a gilded canopy. The pictures show the Garden of Gethsemane, the Crucifixion in the centre and the removal of Christ’s body from the cross. In front is a massive unidentified table tomb with painted shields on the front.

Beyond is a simple stone altar table set in front of a round topped arch with the remains of C12th wall paintings. On the back wall is a modern pale wood cross. On either side are painted drapes with pale brown folds. On the side walls are the remains of two figures. One is a bishop but the other is incomplete.

Somehow, I managed completely to miss the C13/14th wall painting above one of the arcades depicting the apostles as martyrs dying for their faith. Moral - always look up.

Back in the nave, at the back of the south aisle is the DURHAM MINER’S MEMORIAL, placed here in 1947 and made of very dark varnished wood. This has two barleycorn twist pillars with grape vines up them. Inside are panels with carved fruit on either side of the central inscription “Remember before God the Durham Miners who gave their lives in the pits of this county and those who work in darkness and danger in those pits today.”

Below are two small cherubs and a quotation from Job “He breaketh open a shaft away from where he sojourns. They are forgotten of the foot that passes by”.

Next to the memorial is a miner’s lamp and a Book of Remembrance of the Durham Miners giving the date, their name and age. Even though the last pit closed in 1994, the miners still hold a service in the cathedral every July during the Miner’s Gala.

Further along the south aisle was the Neville chantry. This is long gone although two rather battered Neville tombs survive between the pillars. These were probably damaged during the Civil War. The first was a once splendid tomb with weepers carved round the base set in canopied arches with painted shields between the arches. On top of the tomb are two bits of the original effigies.

On the arcade opposite this in the side aisle is the remains of a wall painting with brick shapes outlined in red with a tiny central flower motif.

Beyond it is another table tomb with an effigy of a Neville lady in a long robe with a bit of the torso of her husband.

The transepts are large and impressive. The NORTH TRANSEPT has a small altar below the huge north window. In the south east corner is a massive memorial to Matthew Woodfield who died in 1826. Greek columns support a massive top with a carving of an owl surrounded by oak branches. Above is the sarcophagal urn.

In the SOUTH TRANSEPT is a statue to Shute Barrington, Bishop of Durham from 1791-1826. He is shown as a kneeling figure with a shield and gilded bishop’s mitre on either side of the inscription. At the south end is PRIOR CASTELL’S CLOCK installed during the time of Prior Thomas Castell between 1494-1519. It is the only wooden object known to have survived the Civil War, allegedly as it had a thistle on it and was spared from being used as firewood by the Scottish prisoners. It is a splendid clock set in a painted surround with crocketted pinnacles. It just has a single hand on the main dial with three smaller dials above. 

The DURHAM LIGHT INFANTRY CHAPEL is in the south transept. The DLI was established in 1881 and served in the Boer War and both World Wars, fighting in every major battle. In 1968 it merged with two other regiments. The chapel was created in 1922 to mark the loss of life in the First World War when more than 12,600 men from the Durham Light Infantry were killed and thousands more wounded. It contains the Books of Remembrance for both World Wars, as well as a book listing all those who fell in Korea, Borneo, Cyprus and Northern Ireland between 1952-73.

There is a large wooden cross inscribed “In memory of the gallant officers , NCO and men of the 6th, 8th and 9th battalions of the Durham Light infantry who fell in an attack on the Butte of Warlencourt and surrounding trenches on November 5th 1916.” Below it explains the cross was erected "in affectionate remembrance by their friends who fought with them and will forever keep their memory green". Round the base are small wooden crosses with red poppies.

On the east wall is an altar with a red curtain behind with two silver angels holding candles above it. Filling the south wall is a memorial listing all the battles the DLI have fought in from the Peninsula War to Korea. Their colours hang from the roof.

Separating the nave from the quire is a decorative stone SCREEN with Frosterley marble pillars and highly carved arches. This was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott who also designed the lectern of a pelican plucking her breast to feed her young and the pulpit. This is a glorious bit of baroque work, standing on different coloured marble legs with lions at the base. It is reached by a flight of stairs and is decorated with small marble pillars and mosaic marble insets. The book rest is supported by an eagle.

The QUIRE is completely different to the massive bulk of the nave, with a much more intimate feel. The beautifully carved dark wood choir stalls with elaborate ends and poppyheads date from the 1660s and were part of the Bishop Cosin renovations after the Restoration. Those at the back have misericords and are set under tall crocketted and pinnacled canopies with the names of the canon occupying each painted on the back. The Bishop’s throne towers above them, being set over the Hatfield chantry. This contains the tomb of Thomas Hatfield, a C14th Bishop. His effigy was the only one to survive the Reformation. It is set under an ogee arch with his shield and angel’s heads. The throne above dates from the same time and when it was built was claimed to be the highest throne in Christendom. It is a glorious structure brightly painted in red, blue and gold. Stairs lead up to the throne with a dark wooden gate at the base with a carved shield with a bishop’s mitre above and a lion and griffin on either side.

The elaborate marble floor is C19th and part of the Gilbert Scott restoration.

Steps lead up to the high altar set beneath the stone Neville Screen. This was a gift from John Neville who is buried in the nave. It was carved in London from Caen stone and then shipped to Newcastle by boat before being re-assembled on site in 1380. This is a mass of pinnacle niches which would have contained statues, 107 of them. These were removed to a safe place during the Reformation but have never been found. Originally it would have been brightly painted and gilded. Towering behind the screen is the round east window.

The aisles on either side of the quire lead to St Cuthbert’s shrine behind the high altar, reached by a flight of stairs on each side. Below the shrine on the north side is a list of all the Bishop’s of Durham from Aldus in 995 to Paul Roger Butler in 2014. It also lists the Priors from 1083-1540 followed by a list of deans from 1541 to the present incumbent. On the south side is a splendid memorial to Charles Stewart, sixth Marquis of Londonderry (1852-1915) and his wife Theresa (1856-1919), with their kneeling figures and coat of arms.

The CHAPEL OF THE NINE ALTARS was added at the end of the C13th. The apsidal end of the Norman church  was becoming dangerous. It was taken down and the Chapel of the Nine Altars replaced it. (The outline of the original apse is marked by a lead insert in the  floor around St Cuthbert’s shrine). This gave more space for pilgrims to visit the shrine of St Cuthbert. The architecture being Gothic, is completely different to the rest of the cathedral with wall columns of Frosterley marble soaring up between the tall and narrow lancet stained glass windows to form the ceiling ribs. Above these in the centre is the glorious rose window with Christ in the centre surrounded by the apostles with the 24 elders from Revelation round the outside. Round the walls is blind arcading with columns of Frosterley marble with carved capitals and small heads carved at the corners of the ogee arches.  The overall impression is of height and light. It is much more ornate than the Norman building.

There are no longer nine altars, although their positions can still be seen. In the centre is a large altar occupying the space of three of the original altars. This has an embroidered reredos set in three arcade arches which was made in 1994 to celebrate Aidan, Cuthbert  and Bede. The frontispiece is a patchwork of semicircles of blue and green at the base (sea) with yellow and brown above (land), which have small embroidered motifs of seaweed, crabs, birds and flowers.

To the left is a smaller Altar dedicated to St Hild. The kneelers in front are embroidered South Shields, Hartlepool and Whitby, places associated with the ministry of St Hild. Next to the altar is a modern icon of St Hild with her image in the centre surrounded by scenes from her life.

At the north end is a large statue of the C19th Bishop Van Mildert, surveying the length of the Chapel of the Nine Altars. 

The SHRINE OF ST CUTHBERT is behind the high altar and was a major place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. It was a lavishly decorated tomb covered with gold and precious jewels. This was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Reformation and was replaced by a simple marble slab inscribed Cuthbertus.

A wooden screen surrounds the shrine and it is reached up a flight of steps. Above the marble slab is a painted and gilded canopy with Christ in Majesty dressed in blue and red and with the nail holes in his hands and feet. On either side are small roundels with an angel head surrounded by red wings. In the corners are the symbols of the four evangelists with blue wings.

Behind the tomb is the back of the Neville Screen with more empty niches that would have held statues.

The cathedral is open daily. There are traffic restrictions on vehicle entry to the historic centre of Durham on the peninsula and no parking on either Palace or College Green. The Cathedral bus runs a thirty minute service between the railway station, market place and some car parks to Palace Green.

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