The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham, commonly known as Durham Cathedral and home of the Shrine of St Cuthbert, is a cathedral in the city of Durham, England. It is the seat of the Bishop of Durham, the fourth-ranked bishop in the Church of England hierarchy.
The present Norman era cathedral had started to be built in 1093, replacing the city’s previous ‘White Church’. In 1986 the cathedral and Durham Castle were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Durham Cathedral’s relics include: Saint Cuthbert’s, transported to Durham by Lindisfarne monks in the 800s; Saint Oswald’s head and the Venerable Bede’s remains.
The Durham Dean and Chapter Library contains: sets of early printed books, some of the most complete in England; the pre-Dissolution monastic accounts and three copies of Magna Carta.
From 1080 until 1836, the Bishop of Durham held the powers of an Earl Palatine. In order to protect the Anglo-Scottish border, powers of an earl included exercising military, civil, and religious leadership. The cathedral walls formed part of Durham Castle, the chief seat of the Bishop of Durham.
There are daily Church of England services at the cathedral, Durham Cathedral Choir sing daily except Mondays and holidays, receiving 727,367 visitors in 2019.
The See of Durham takes its origins from the Diocese of Lindisfarne, founded by Saint Aidan at the behest of Oswald of Northumbria in about 635, which was translated to York in 664. The see was reinstated at Lindisfarne in 678 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Among the many saints who originated at Lindisfarne Priory, the greatest was Saint Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne from 685 until his death in 687, who is central to the development of Durham Cathedral.
After repeated Viking raids, the monks fled from Lindisfarne in 875, carrying Saint Cuthbert’s relics with them. The diocese of Lindisfarne remained itinerant until 882, when the monks resettled at Chester-le-Street, 60 miles south of Lindisfarne and 6 miles north of Durham. The see remained at Chester-le-Street until 995, when further Viking incursions once again caused the monks to move with their relics. According to the local legend of the Dun Cow and the saint’s hagiography, the monks followed two milk maids who were searching for a dun-coloured cow and found themselves on a peninsula formed by a loop in the River Wear. Thereupon, Cuthbert’s coffin became immovable, which was taken as a sign that the new shrine should be built on that spot, which became the City of Durham. A more prosaic set of reasons for the selection of the peninsula is its highly defensible position, and that a community established there would enjoy the protection of the Earl of Northumbria, with whom the bishop at this time, Aldhun, had strong family connections. Today the street leading from The Bailey past the cathedral’s eastern towers up to Palace Green is named Dun Cow Lane due to the miniature dun cows which used to graze in the pastures nearby.
Initially, a very simple temporary structure was built from local timber to house the relics of Saint Cuthbert. The shrine was then transferred to a sturdier, probably still 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 in 1018 was complete except for its tower. Durham soon became a site of pilgrimage, encouraged by the growing cult of Saint Cuthbert. King Canute was one of the early pilgrims, and granted many privileges and estates to the Durham monks. The defensible position, flow of money from pilgrims and power embodied in the church at Durham all encouraged the formation of a town around the cathedral, which established the core of the city.
The present cathedral was designed and built under William de St-Calais (also known as William of St. Carilef) who in 1080 was appointed as the first Prince-Bishop by King William the Conqueror. In 1083 he founded the Benedictine Priory of St. Cuthbert at Durham and having ejected the secular canons (and their wives and children) who had been in charge of the church and shrine of St Cuthbert there, replaced them with monks from the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow. The extensive lands of the church he divided between his own bishopric and the new Priory. He appointed Aldwin as the first prior.
Bishop William of St. Calais demolished the old Saxon church, and on 11 August 1093, together with Prior Turgot of Durham (Aldwin’s successor), he laid the foundation stone of the great new cathedral. The monks continued at their own expense to build the monastic buildings while the bishop took the responsibility for completing the building of the cathedral. Stone for the new buildings was cut from the cliffs below the walls and moved up using winches. The primary reason for the cathedral was to house the bodies of St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede.
Since that time many major additions and reconstructions of parts of the building have been made, but the greater part of the structure remains the original Norman structure. Construction of the cathedral began in 1093, at the eastern end. The choir was completed by 1096. At the death of Bishop William of St. Calais on 2 January 1096, the Chapter House was ready enough to be used as his burial place. In 1104 the remains of St. Cuthbert were translated with great ceremony to the new shrine in the new cathedral. The monks continued to look after the Shrine of St Cuthbert until the dissolution of the monasteries.
Work proceeded on the nave, the walls of which were finished by 1128, and the high vault by 1135. The chapter house was built between 1133 and 1140 (partially demolished in the 18th century). William of St. Carilef died in 1096 before the building was complete and passed responsibility to his successor, Ranulf Flambard, who also built Framwellgate Bridge, the earliest crossing of the River Wear from the town. Three bishops, William of St. Carilef, Ranulf Flambard and Hugh de Puiset, are all buried in the now rebuilt chapter house.
In the 1170s Hugh de Puiset, after a false start at the eastern end where subsidence and cracking prevented work from continuing, added the Galilee Chapel at the west end of the cathedral. The five-aisled building occupies the position of a porch and functioned as a Lady chapel with the great west door being blocked during the Medieval period by an altar to the Virgin Mary. The door is now blocked by the tomb of Bishop Thomas Langley. The Galilee Chapel also holds the remains of the Venerable Bede. The main entrance to the cathedral is on the northern side, facing the castle.
In 1228 Richard le Poore, Bishop of Salisbury, was translated to Durham, having just rebuilt Salisbury Cathedral in the Gothic style. At that moment the eastern end of Durham Cathedral was in urgent need of repair and the proposed eastern extension had failed. 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. In 1250, the original roof of the cathedral was replaced by a vault which is still in place.
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.
The Bishop of Durham was the temporal lord of the palatinate, often referred to as a Prince-bishop. The bishop competed for power with the Prior of Durham Monastery, a great landowner who held his own courts for his free tenants. An agreement dated about 1229, known as Le Convenit was entered into to regulate the relationship between the two magnates.
The Shrine of Saint 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 Saint 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.
During the dissolution of the monasteries Saint Cuthbert’s tomb was destroyed in 1538 by order of King Henry VIII, and the monastery’s wealth was handed over to the king. The body of the saint was exhumed, and, according to the Rites of Durham, was discovered to be uncorrupted. It was reburied under a plain stone slab now worn smooth by the knees of pilgrims, but 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.
After the Battle of Dunbar in 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 (see further, ’21st century’ below), and the survivors were shipped as slave labour to the American Colonies.
Bishop John Cosin (in office 1660–1672), previously 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, Dean John Sudbury founded a library of early printed books.
During the 18th century the Deans of Durham often held another position in the south of England and after spending the statutory time in residence, would depart southward to manage their affairs. Consequently, after Cosin’s refurbishment, there was little by way of restoration or rebuilding. When work commenced again on the building, it was not always of a sympathetic nature. In 1777 the architect George Nicholson, having completed Prebends’ 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. His successor William Morpeth demolished most of the Chapter House.
In 1794 the architect James Wyatt drew up extensive plans which would have drastically transformed the building, including the demolition of the Galilee Chapel, but the Chapter changed its mind just in time to prevent this happening. Wyatt renewed the 15th-century tracery of the Rose Window, inserting plain glass to replace what had been blown out in a storm.
In 1847 the architect Anthony Salvin removed Cosin’s wooden organ screen, opening up the view of the east end from the nave, and in 1858 he restored the cloisters.
The Victorian restoration of the cathedral’s tower in 1859–60 was by the architect George Gilbert Scott, working with Edward Robert Robson (who went on to serve as Clerk of Works at the cathedral for six years). In 1874 Scott was responsible for the marble choir screen and pulpit in the Crossing. In 1892 Scott’s pupil Charles Hodgson Fowler rebuilt the Chapter House as a memorial to Bishop Joseph Barber Lightfoot.
The great west window, depicting the Tree of Jesse, was the gift of Dean George Waddington in 1867. It is the work of Clayton and Bell, who were also responsible for the Te Deum window in the South Transept (1869), the Four Doctors window in the North Transept (1875), and the Rose Window of Christ in Majesty (c. 1876).
There is also a statue of William Van Mildert, the last prince-bishop (1826–1836) and driving force behind the foundation of Durham University.
In the 1930s, under the inspiration of Dean Cyril Alington, work began on restoring the Shrine of Saint Cuthbert behind the High Altar as an appropriate focus of worship and pilgrimage, and was resumed after the Second World War. The four candlesticks and overhanging tester (c. 1950) were designed by Ninian Comper. Two large batik banners representing Saints Cuthbert and Oswald, added in 2001, are the work of Thetis Blacker. Elsewhere in the building the 1930s and 1940s saw the addition of several new stained glass windows by Hugh Ray Easton. Mark Angus’s Daily Bread window dates from 1984. In the Galilee Chapel a wooden statue of the Annunciation by the Polish artist Josef Pyrz was added in 1992, the same year as Leonard Evetts’ Stella Maris window.
In 1986, the cathedral, together with the nearby Castle, became a World Heritage Site. The UNESCO committee classified the cathedral under criteria c, reporting, "Durham Cathedral is the largest and most perfect monument of ‘Norman’ style architecture in England".
In its discussion of the significance of the cathedral, Historic England provided this summary in their 1986 report:
The relics and material culture of the three saints buried at the site. The continuity of use and ownership of the site over the past 1000 years as a place of religious worship, learning and residence; The site’s role as a political statement of Norman power imposed upon a subjugate nation, as one of the country’s most powerful symbols of the Norman Conquest of Britain; The importance of the site’s archaeological remains, which are directly related to the site’s history and continuity of use over the past 1000 years; The cultural and religious traditions and historical memories associated with the relics of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede, and with the continuity of use and ownership of the site over the past millennium.
In 1996, the Great Western Doorway was the setting for Bill Viola’s large-scale video installation The Messenger, that was commissioned by Durham Cathedral.
At the beginning of this century two of the altars in the Nine Altars Chapel at the east end of the cathedral were re-dedicated to Saint Hild of Whitby and Saint Margaret of Scotland: a striking painting of Margaret (with her son, the future king David) by Paula Rego was dedicated in 2004. Nearby a plaque, first installed in 2011 and rededicated in 2017, commemorates the Scottish soldiers who died as prisoners in the cathedral after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. The remains of some of these prisoners have now been identified in a mass grave uncoverered during building works in 2013 just outside the cathedral precinct near Palace Green.
In 2004 two wooden sculptures by Fenwick Lawson, Pietà and Tomb of Christ, were placed in the Nine Altars Chapel, and in 2010 a new stained glass window of the Transfiguration by Tom Denny was dedicated in memory of Michael Ramsey, former Bishop of Durham and Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 2016 former monastic buildings around the cloister, including the Monks’ Dormitory and Prior’s Kitchen, were re-opened to the public as Open Treasure, an extensive exhibition displaying the cathedral’s history and possessions.
In November 2009 the cathedral featured in the Lumiere festival whose highlight was the "Crown of Light" 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, 2013, 2015, and 2017.
Durham Priory held many manuscripts; in the 21st century, steps were under way to digitise the books, originating from the 6th to the 16th century. The project was being undertaken in a partnership by Durham University and Durham Cathedral.
The cathedral church and the cloister is open to visitors during certain hours each day, unless it is closed for a special event. In 2017 a new "Open Treasure" exhibition area opened featuring the 8th-century wooden coffin of Saint Cuthbert, his gold and garnet pectoral cross, a portable altar and an ivory comb. This exhibition was continuing as of October 2019. In that month, a new exhibit was added, Mapping the World, featuring books, maps and drawings and from the archives, scheduled to run until 18 January 2020.