A miracle in stone – Durham Cathedral

The early Christian church was sustained by the actions of small bodies of dedicated individuals who devoted their lives to prayer and worship. Living communally to the rules laid down by monastic orders such as the Cistercians and Benedictines, they were able preserve the fabric of cultural life and carry the seeds of knowledge forward, through what became known as the Dark Ages.

Durham Cathedral was raised as a shrine to St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, the Northumbrian saint. whose coffin had been carried here by six monks after it was thought that he would have wished to have rested in Durham. They raised ‘the White Church’  in 995 AD on this spot, a high bluff overlooking the River Wear. By 1093, the foundations to a magnificent Norman cathedral were laid and essentially completed by 1143. As well as containing the tomb of St Cuthbert, the church also contains the relics of St Bede the Venerable (the Venerable Bede), whose ‘An Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ (Historica ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum) is a superb work of Anglo-Saxon literature, although he actually achieved sainthood (and the title ‘Doctor of the Church’) for his translation of the Gospels.

For many years the Bishops of Durham were designated as Prince-Bishops, in that they exercised temporal power, at the behest of the sovereign, as well as spiritual power; they could raise taxes, hold courts and mint coins. The first of these was William of St. Calais, a Norman monk, appointed by William the Conqueror, and this led to Durham being refered to as ‘the county Palatine’ or sometimes, ‘the Palatinate’. This semi-independent status continued until 1836. Even today, the boundary markers of the county state, ‘Durham, Land of the Prince-Bishops’.

The superb central tower of the cathedral, seen above, dates from the 15th century, and has typical Perpendicular Gothic detailing. It affords incredible views of the city, the River Wear, the Castle (built for the Bishop) and the surrounding countryside, and is well worth the effort made in climbing to the top (I was out of breath, then the view took away what little breath I had!)

In 1986, UNESCO designated Durham Castle and Cathedral and surrounding buildings as a World Heritage Site (Ref: 370bis) due to their superb Norman architecture. This classification is well-deserved as ‘The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham’ – to give it it’s full title – is, no matter what your faith, a magnificent feat of construction, a true miracle in stone.

One last note; my maternal grandfather served during World War One in the Durham Light Infantry. Along with all other members of that august regiment of the British Army, he is commemorated in the Cathedral; in 1918, a Mediaeval chapel to Our Lady of Bolton was re-dedicated as the Chapel of the Durham Light Infantry.


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