Durham Cathedral

Durham and its Cathedral holds a special place in the North-East. A small town in itself, Durham has the oldest University in England after Oxford and Cambridge and it has been for centuries an ecclesiastical centre of great importance - the Bishophric of Durham is the third highest in the Church of England after York and Canterbury. Not surprising then that it has a superb Cathedral to match its status.

Some historical comments are helpful to put this in perspective. The Christian tradition was kept alive and prospered in the North-East of England, notably at the monastry at Lindisfarne (as well, later on, at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth.) The Lindisfarne Gospels, a celebrated 8th. C illuminated biblical manuscript now in the British Library, most probably by the monk Eadfrith around 720 A.D. is one of the great treasures from the period. Cuthbert was probably the most venerated of the Bishops of Lindisfarne, and it is recounted that some time after his death in 687 AD, monks at Lindisfarne decided to relocate his bones from their original burial place. Upon opening the sarcophagus, they found to their amazement, that his body was apparently perfectly preserved. Deemed a Saint by virtue of his holiness, a cult of St. Cuthbert quickly grew up. When Lindisfarne was later invaded by the Vikings in the late 8th. C it was abandoned but Cuthbert's coffin was taken by the monks and over the course of time resided in many places, notably Chester-le-Street. When even this became unsafe, a new site for a church & monastry was sought, and it is reputed that the monks were "commanded to follow a dun cow, and to build their church wherever it might come to rest." That spot is the present location of Durham Cathedral as well as the final resting place of Cuthbert.

To begin with, the church was a relatively simple structure, built in 998 AD, but dismantled about 100 years later. Following the Norman invasion in the 1066 AD, work was begun in 1093AD on the construction of the present day Cathedral, and the result is now acknowledged (even by the French, who should know !) to be the finest example in existence of Norman Cathedral architecture. In an imposing location above a bend in the River Wear, it remains for us today to visit, admire and marvel at. Perhaps some of the following pictures may give some idea of this.

On a technical note, cathedrals tend to be gloomy places where taking pictures can be difficult, particularly where flash is not permitted (or desirable.) Here I have used Ilford XP2, a chromogenic film with speed rating of 400 ASA. It produces excellent tonal gradation and surprisingly fine grain (as the image is dye rather than silver), and is my film of choice when required to photograph in poorly lit conditions. Here, the EC gives quite a good account of itself; all interiors were hand-held. As in all my Galleries, to keep download times reasonable, image resolution has been kept to a moderate level with significant compression - still more detail is actually available in most cases, and in a couple of instances, I have used somewhat higher resolution. Click on the images to see a larger version.

A good place to begin is at Framwellgate Bridge from where one has views upon the Cathedral, adjoining Castle, and down on to the River Wear as it meanders around the high outcrop upon which the Cathedral stands. There is a footpath on either side of the river offering a peaceful stroll at any season.

From the footpath on the opposite bank, the Cathedral almost dominates the skyline, and is perhaps seen at it best from here. Below the Cathedral, a shallow weir spans the river where at one time stood a cornmill. Almost all the pictures and paintings one finds of the Cathedral in travel books, mementos and so on are very likely to have been taken from here as it is surely the most favoured spot of photographers in all of Durham !

So I have added my contribution here too:


After a leisurely walk round the loop in the river, one ascends through University buildings toward Palace Green, passing the east end of the Cathedral with its fine stained glass windows. From the Green itself, there is the first close view of the Cathedral itself with its impressive tower standing high above its surroundings. Normally open to visitors, with expansive views of the surrounding countryside, unfortunately the tower was closed on this visit. I will try to add some views in a future update.


Many people have their first view of the Cathedral from Palace Green, but it's really quite difficult to convey in a photograph (with any kind of camera) just how impressive the building appears and Minox is no more successful than most. This isn't a problem peculiar to Durham Cathedral, of course, it's encountered with almost any large structure at relatively short range from the ground. Cathedrals too, often acquire lots of small buildings in their immediate vicinity making it hard to get a clear view - St. Paul's in London, or Le Sacre Coeur, Paris for example.

Entry to the Cathedral is by this ancient timbered door with its slightly grotesque knocker (this, of a scandinavian design, is a copy; the original is in the Cathedral Treasury). Formerly, the Cathedral was a place of sanctuary, and persons accused of a crime could be sheltered for up to thirty days, after which they must stand trial or accept exile. The knocker allowed the watchmen to be summoned at need to gain admittance.

The interior of the Cathedral matches the outside in grandeur. Nine massive pairs of pillars support the high vaulted roof, while the spacious nave is lit through high stained glass windows on either side, though the transept, where stands the substantial pulpit near the choir screen, is somewhat obscure.

Throughout are many fine pieces of stained glass, some ancient, some modern. Here on the left for example, are some in the Chapel of Nine Altars (built 1242 -74) at the east end of the Cathedral, whilst on the right we have one of the most recent - the Milennium Window marking '1000 years' from the first burial of St. Cuthbert in 995 AD; moreover, the Cathedral is over 900 hyears old, so approaching its own milennium too.

At the east end of the Cathedral, situated behind the High Altar, one finds what is perhaps the most venerated spot in the whole building - the tomb of Saint Cuthbert. His coffin, the remains of which are still preserved in the Cathedral Treasury along with a few personal, and some beautiful artefacts, was carried by the monks as they wandered from place to place after leaving Lindisfarne. This is his final resting place, emshrined in a tomb in 1104 AD, and unsurprisingly one of the most visited places in the Cathedral.

On the south side of the Cathedral are the ancient cloisters. These comprised part of the original monastry attached to the Cathedral and which escaped destruction at the dissolution during the 16th. C by King Henry VIII, although they have been rebuilt at various times since and only the roof timbers are truly original. Besides the cloisters, other structures remain, including the Dormitory - now a magnificent Library, and the Undercroft, now a restaurant for visitors.

These parts of the building probably survived because the Bishophric of Durham was still too powerful in Henry's time. William the Conqueror in 1071 AD elevated Bishop Walcher to the title of Earl-Bishop, a practice which continued up till 1836 with the death of Bishop van Mildert, the last Prince Bishop. The Bishop, amongst many other powers, was allowed to retain a standing army to help maintain security in the region, partly as security against an Anglo-Saxon uprising and partly against the threat of invasion.

Finally, but by no means the least, at the west end of the Cathedral, we have the Galilee Chapel. Here is located the tomb of The Venerable Bede. He was the greatest scholar of his age and in his lifetime (7th. & early 8th. C), wrote many books, the best known of which is his "History of the English Church and People".

Bede travelled very little and passed almost all his life in the Monastry at Jarrow; on the other hand he corresponded widely and drew inspiration and information from many places, so that his writings are one of the main sources we have about the period, though he is corroborated by other contemporary authors. After he died he was interred at Jarrow, but his remains were removed in 1022 AD by monks (without permission) and taken to Durham where they have remained ever since. His remains were placed in the Galilee Chapel in 1370 AD.

I hope these pictures have given even a little of the quality of this great building. Naturally there is very much more that could be said and shown - for that, visitors must come and see for themselves. If you find yourself on the Great North Road, take a little time to turn aside and see for yourself - you will not be disappointed.

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© Stuart Hill - May, 2003