Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Durham Cathedral (Durham)

The Cathedral of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary towers above the River Wear at Durham, and is one of the outstanding buildings of England.

It was voted Britain's most loved building in a poll by listeners to BBC Radio Four.

The see was founded at Lindisfarne in 635, but moved to Chester-le-Street in 883 at the time of the Viking pillaging of these coasts, and then on to Durham in 997.

The monks of Lindisfarne carried the bones of their beloved St. Cuthbert, to keep them safe from harm, for many years, before settling on this rocky crag as a suitable resting place.

Tradition says that they were led here when following a young girl who was looking for her lost cow, which she found on this site. The monks decided that the cow had given a sign from God, and built the first church here, which would have been a temporary structure of wood .

A permanent church was built in 998, but the existing cathedral was almost entirely built in the late 11th century by the Norman Bishop William de St. Carileph. The consecration was attended by Malcolm III of Scotland, the husband of St. Margaret.

For centuries the North East was ruled from Durham by the "Prince Bishops", who exercised almost all the power of Kings. Some of the Bishops themselves rode into battle.

The Cathedral was largely completed by 1140, and was the birthplace of the stone vault. Norman churches had previously been roofed with timber or thatch, and were vulnerable to fire. It was here that experiments with pointed arches led to the vault concept.

The Galilee Chapel at the West end stands right on the edge of the cliff over the Wear. The intention was to locate the shrine of St. Cuthbert in a Lady Chapel at the West end, but the builders experienced considerable difficulties, and this was ascribed to Cuthbert's indignation at having anything with a suggestion of femininity anywhere near his tomb. Cuthbert did not like women.

Thus the Galilee Chapel, in which Purbeck marble was used for the first time in a Northern church, houses St. Cuthbert's tomb, and also that of the Venerable Bede. With Cuthbert is the head of St. Oswald, the King of Northumbria, who founded the see at Lindisfarne.

The Transept of the Nine Altars, to give each priest room to say mass, was the idea of Bishop Richard de Poore, who had previously been Bishop of Salisbury, where he had initiated the move from Old Sarum.

The magnificent Neville Screen, made of Caen stone, was brought in pieces by sea to Newcastle-upon-Tyne and put together by local masons. The architect was probably the great Henry Yevele, responsible for most of Westminster Abbey. There were originally 107 statues in the niches, but these were lost at the Reformation.

The enormous Bishop's throne was constructed in the late 14th century for Bishop Hatfield, and includes his tomb and chantry.

The North door has a modern replica of the famous 12th century sanctuary knocker. The original is now held in the Treasury. In the troubled 16th century, more than 300 people sought sanctuary, which could last for up to thirty seven days, here.

The mediaeval cloisters were restored in the 19th century, but their roof is original. The monks' dormitory, with room for forty, has a 14th century beam roof.

Much of the fittings of Durham Cathedral were destroyed after the Battle of Dunbar, when it was used as a prison for Scottish Presbyterian prisoners.

The interior has been used for some of the Hogwarts scenes in the Harry Potter films.

Sir Walter Scott described it as "Half church of God, half castle 'gainst the Scot".

The view of Durham cathedral from the train is absolutely unforgettable.

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