The Danish Vikings who came to England in the 9th century raided, pillaged, murdered and plundered Northumbria so fiercely that the monks of Lindisfarne decided that they had had enough.
In 875, they packed up the Lindisfarne Gospels, the head of King Oswald, the bones of St. Aidan, and the miraculously preserved body of St. Cuthbert, and left.
For the next seven years, they carried their precious cargo around Northumbria, looking for a new home. It must have been a sight to see. Wearing a golden pectoral cross inlaid with garnets and Mediterranean shells over his burial garment, Cuthbert rested in an oak coffin that the monks had made for him in 698. On the coffin, the monks had carved figures of the Virgin and Child, Archangels, angels, Apostles, and Christ surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists.
Legend has it that Cuthbert appeared to the monks in a vision and told them to settle in a place called Dunholme. But he didn’t tell them where they would find Dunholme. First, they stopped at a place called Chester-le-Street. In 995, they decided to move on.
One day, the cart carrying Cuthbert’s coffin suddenly stopped and couldn’t be moved. The perplexed monks saw a girl walk by and heard her ask another young woman if she had seen a lost dun (brown) cow. The young woman said she had seen the cow heading in the direction of Dunholme, and pointed out the way. Overhearing that delicious tidbit of information, the monks decided to follow the girl, and Cuthbert’s coffin started moving in that direction. When they arrived at Dunholme, their long journey came to an end.
Dunholme, now known as Durham, sits on a peninsula protected by the steep, rocky banks of the River Wear, so Cuthbert had selected a very safe haven for his loyal monks. In 1093, the building of a cathedral to house Cuthbert, Aidan and Oswald’s remains began.
The cathedral was built in the Norman architectural tradition, but is distinguished by some very innovative decorative features. Interlaced arcades on the aisle walls are some of the earliest in England and are thought to have been inspired by Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Vaulted main spaces reflect their growing popularity of the time. But its masonry columns carved with V-shaped chevrons, spirals, diamond-shaped lozenges and zigzags are especially distinctive. The patterns evoke those on the sandstone pillars of the Lindisfarne Priory’s ruined nave.
Cuthbert’s relics were placed in the unfinished cathedral in 1104, and a shrine was constructed over his new grave. Soon after, pilgrims started coming from all over England to venerate him.
Others came to the cathedral for a different type of refuge. Fugitives being pursued for certain crimes used a knocker on the cathedral’s door to be admitted to its protective sanctuary for 37 days. When that time was up, they had to leave the country or face trial.
Before long, another saint’s remains arrived at Durham Cathedral. Bede, an eighth-century Northumbrian monk, was a great scholar, writing poetry, books on nature and astronomy, and the first chronicle of the lives of the saints. His best-known and perhaps most important work is The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede’s remains were brought from his monastery at Jarrow to Durham and first were buried alongside Cuthbert in 1022; in the 14th century, they were moved to his own shrine in the Galilee Chapel. A Latin inscription on Bede’s tomb in the cathedral reads, “Here are buried the bones of the Venerable Bede,” which is the source of his famous moniker.
In the years that have followed, the cathedral has witnessed a lot. Installed during the time of Prior Thomas Castell (1494-1519), the cathedral’s huge astronomical clock is said to have survived the English Civil War because it was embellished with a thistle, the symbol of Scotland. The Scottish army who used the cathedral as its barracks in the 1640s couldn’t bring themselves to use it for firewood.
Durham and its cathedral have been immortalized in the works of Daniel Defoe, Thomas Gray, Samuel Johnson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Matthew Arnold, and Sir Walter Scott, who wrote in his Marmion, “Grey towers of Durham, Yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles….” J.M.W. Turner and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy painted it and its picturesque setting.
Durham Cathedral also happens to have three issues of Magna Carta, one of the most important documents in English history. Magna Carta was signed by King John at Runnymede on June 15, 1215 and proclaimed that the king would govern England fairly and justly, but he was not above the rule of the law. To commemorate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta’s sealing, a local artist created a hand-painted vellum work including representations of King John’s Great Seal, an English rose, a Green Man, and a pectoral cross for display at the cathedral. The cathedral also contributed one of its 1216 issues of the document to Magna Carta and the Changing Face of Revolt, an exhibition this past summer at Durham University’s Palace Green Library. Why does the cathedral have three versions of Magna Carta? It’s thought that issues of it were distributed around the country, were read from pulpits so that people would hear its contents, and were then retained in the cathedral’s archive.
A major project called Open Treasure is under way at Durham Cathedral, and it will transform visitors’ experiences there. First, the project created a new cathedral shop and a refurbished restaurant in the West Undercroft, where I purchased an Emma Bridgewater mug of Durham Cathedral and St. Cuthbert’s Slice, a fruitcake studded with cherries, sultanas and nuts. Now, the Open Treasure project is working on new exhibitions of both building spaces and collections — including the surviving fragments of St. Cuthbert’s coffin and his pectoral cross — so that they can be discovered and enjoyed by more people. Click here to learn more about Open Treasure.
To support the Open Treasure project, you can help build a scale model of Durham Cathedral that will be made of 350,000 LEGO bricks. For a £1 donation, you can place your own brick on the model, which will measure 12.5 feet in length, five feet wide and 5.5 feet high when completed. Since photography is not allowed inside the cathedral, photos of the model helped this visitor capture its important features to show you.
For more on Durham and its cathedral, see Durham Cathedral: History, Fabric and Culture, edited by David Brown; Durham Cathedral: Light of the North, by John Field; Durham Cathedral: The Shrine of St. Cuthbert; A History of Durham Cathedral Library, by H.D. Hughes; and chapter 25 of Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. Sting, a native of nearby Newcastle-upon-Tyne, gave a live concert in Durham Cathedral in 2009. The Durham Cathedral Boys’ Choir — together with local Newcastle artists playing the Northumbrian pipes, fiddle and melodeon — joined Sting for a performance of traditional Christmas songs, carols and lullabies from the British Isles. A Winter’s Night: Live from Durham Cathedral, is a DVD recording of the concert.