Durham Cathedral, in the city of Durham in northeast England, was founded in 1093 and remains a center for Christian worship today. The present building dates almost entirely from the 12th century and is widely regarded as the finest example of Norman architecture in Europe.
Along with the nearby Durham Castle, Durham Cathedral has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is notable not only for its pleasing Norman architecture, but also its sacred shrine of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and tomb of the Venerable Bede. Visitors can climb 325 steps to the top of the tower to enjoy a fine view of Durham and the surrounding area.
History of Durham Cathedral
For 240 years, there was a thriving monastery on Lindisfarne (Holy Island), where St. Cuthbert was monk, bishop and inspirational leader. He died in 687.
In 875, the monks of Lindisfarne fled the island due to Viking raiders, but they made sure to bring with them their most precious treasures, including St. Cuthbert's miraculously preserved body and the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels. In 995, the Lindisfarne monks found a safe, easily defended position above the River Wear, in modern Durham.
The foundation stone of Durham Cathedral was laid on August 12, 1093. The cathedral is the third church to be built on the site. The choir, transepts and nave (forming the main cross-shape of the cathedral) were built between 1093 and 1133. They still survive in their original Norman (Romanesque) form. Four major additions came later:
From 1093 to 1540, the cathedral was not only the seat of the Bishop but the church of the Benedictine monastery of Durham. Around 1560, after the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries, the walls of the cathedral were whitewashed, the shrine of Cuthbert destroyed, and the stained glass windows broken.
The bishops of Durham were very powerful Prince-Bishops from the Middle Ages to the mid-19th century, reaching the peak of their power in the 14th century. They lived in Durham Castle near the cathedral. The seat of Bishop of Durham is still the fourth highest in the Church of England hierarchy, and signposts for the modern-day County Durham are still subtitled "Land of the Prince Bishops."
What to See at Durham Cathedral
The main entry to Durham Cathedral is through the north door, which bears a great bronze sanctuary knocker, used in medieval times for those seeking sanctuary in the church. The knocker would wake the two watchmen who slept in a room above the door. The one on the door is a replica; the original is in the cathedral treasury.
The cathedral's nave is dominated by impressive, massive carved pillars. They have stood for almost 900 years and are 6.6 meters around and 6.6 meters high. Every other one is carved with geometric designs.
Durham was the first cathedral in Europe to be fitted with stone rib vaulting and it has the earliest pointed transverse arches in England. Until the late 1800s there were no seats in the nave. The long, narrow slab of Frosterly stone set in the floor marks the point behind which women had to remain until the mid-16th century.
The stained glass windows of the nave are mainly Victorian. The stone tracery of the great West Window (or Jesse Window) is from c. 1350, but the glass is from 1850. Look for the brightly-colored window near the entrance door: known as the Daily Bread Window, this abstract depiction of the Last Supper was given by the staff of Durham's Marks and Spencer in 1984 to mark the company's centenary. The Rose Window, at the far east end, was remodelled in the late 18th century.
The large Galilee Chapel (built 1170-1175), located in the west end, is one of the most beautiful parts of the cathedral. Wall paintings on the northern side are 12th century and probably depict St. Cuthbert and St. Oswald. The chapel also contains the tomb of the Venerable Bede, the 8th century monk and the first English church historian. His major work is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
The Quire (Choir) is the site of daily services, including the lovely Evensong. The stalls of finely carved wood date from the 1660s, replacing original medieval ones.
The Bishop's throne dates from the mid-14th century. The Bishop of Durham uses this lofty seat the first time he comes to the cathedral, but thereafter he sits near the chancel screen. When it was built, the throne was claimed as the highest in Christendom.
Below the throne is the Hatfield Chantry, a chapel containing the tomb of Thomas Hatfield, Bishop of Durham (1345-81) and founder of Trinity College, Oxford. The figure on his tomb was the only one to survive the destruction of the Reformation.
The high altar, the focal point of the cathedral, is separated from St. Cuthbert's shrine by the stone Neville Screen, a gift from the influential Neville family. Carved from Caen stone between 1372 and 1380 in London, it was assembled on site.
The Shrine of St. Cuthbert, behind the high altar, was a major pilgrimage center in the Middle Ages and remains a sacred site today. Cuthbert, a monk and bishop of Lindisfarne who died in 687, is the most popular saint in the North of England. A sign posted in the chapel describes the richness of the shrine in medieval times:
The Chapel of Nine Altars was built between 1242 and 1280. It was based on a similar arrangement at Fountains Abbey and originally had nine altars so that the many priests of the monastery could say Mass each day. The extra space also helped the movement of crowds visiting the Shrine of St. Cuthbert.
In the south transept, don't miss Prior Castell's Clock. The clock was provided by Thomas Castell, Prior of the Monastery 1494-1519. Renovated by Dean Hunt in 1620-38, it was the only wooden furnishing in the cathedral to survive the Civil War and the Scottish prisoners held in the cathedral. (The Scots are thought to have spared it because it features a thistle in its decoration.) It was restored in 1938. The face is unusual in having 48 minute markings, as it originally had only one hand.
The cloisters were heavily rebuilt in 1828, but the west door to the cloisters features 12th century ironwork.
The Treasury Museum is worth a visit, but not terribly large or impressive. It displays the relics of St. Cuthbert, a collection of illuminated manuscripts, and other artifacts. The admission price includes a nice booklet describing the collections.
Tip for photographers: For a good view of the outside of the cathedral and castle, walk on the outer bank of the River Wear around the bend between Elvet and Framwelgate bridges, or rent a boat at Elvet Bridge. The viewpoint is marked on some maps. There are also one-hour cruises along the river from June to September.
Quick Facts on Durham Cathedral
|Names:||Cathedral Church of Christ and St. Mary the Virgin · Durham Cathedral|
|Categories:||cathedrals; World Heritage Sites; priory churches; Grade I listed buildings|
|Faiths:||Anglicanism; Benedictine Order|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||54.773513° N, 1.576034° W|
|Phone:||0191 386 4266|
Open until 8pm mid-July to Aug
|Lodging:||View hotels near Durham Cathedral|
- Personal visit (August 19, 2006).
- Durham Cathedral - official website
- Tour of Durham Cathedral & Castle - University of Durham
- Webcam views, zoomed and wide angle - University of Durham
- Voted "Britain's Favourite Building" in BBC Radio poll, 2001 - BBC News
- Durham Cathedral (booklet)
- E.W. Boyd, English Cathedrals: Their Architecture, Symbolism and History
- Stanford E. Lehmberg, Cathedrals Under Siege: Cathedrals in English Society, 1600-1700.
- Debra Shipley, Durham Cathedral (Travel to Landmarks).
- Charles James Stranks, This Sumptuous Church: The Story of Durham Cathedral.
- Tim Tatton-Brown, The English Cathedral.
- Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, Monks And Markets: Durham Cathedral Priory 1460-1520.
- Photos of Durham Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Durham Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Durham Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.