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Durham Cathedral
North Bailey, Durham, UK
Durham Cathedral
associated engineer
Not known
date  1093 - 1133, 1173 - 1189, 1217 - 1226, 1242, 1465 - 1490
era  Medieval  |  category  Cathedral  |  reference  NZ272421
photo  Jane Joyce
Durham Cathedral started life as a monastic cathedral, part of a Benedictine priory. It was built to house the shrine of St Cuthbert, the remains of whom had been brought to Durham in 995. The major work was completed in five stages, spanning five centuries, and most of the original Norman craftsmanship, particularly in the nave, choir and transepts, remains. It is home to what are believed to be the earliest examples of structural pointed arches. Travel writer Bill Bryson described Durham as "the best cathedral on planet Earth".
The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham has been a place of worship and pilgrimage for almost a millennium. It is dramatically sited on a peninsula of land created by a loop in the River Wear in the city of Durham, north east England. The north (front) of the cathedral is separated from the adjacent Durham Castle (NZ273423) by Palace Green, while the west end of the building towers over a precipitous gorge.
In September 1066, William the Conqueror (1028-87) invaded Saxon England. As part of imposing Norman rule on the people, in 1071, he appointed William Walcher (d.1080) as Bishop of Durham. When Walcher was murdered in an uprising, William de St Calais (or St Carileph, d.1096), a Benedictine (Roman Catholic) abbot from Le Mans in France, was sent to replace him.
On 11th August 1093, Bishop William laid the cathedral’s foundation stone. Construction began on the stonework for the nave, transepts, choir and south cloister, with a central square tower above the crossing of the nave and transepts. The choir was finished in 1099.
In 1104, a new shrine was completed to the east of (behind) the high altar. It was made to house the remains of St Cuthbert (c.635-87), a former bishop of Lindisfarne. His apparently undecayed body had been brought to Durham in 995, and held previously in the timber Ecclesia Alba (white church) and then the stone Ecclesia Major (great church, consecrated 998) built on the site occupied by the present St Oswald’s Church (NZ275419).
Work continued under a succession of bishops until 1133, with the nave design modified towards the end of the period — the original idea of a timber roof was changed to stone vaulting. The structure now had an overall internal length of 117m, and a 12m wide nave.
The cathedral's builders wanted to maximise the internal space, with a high wide nave flanked by slender-columned masonry arcades. However, to support the Romanesque groined vaults, massive supporting columns were needed for the wide spans to withstand the lateral thrust generated. The masons also employed new technology — pointed vaulting, which tends to direct structural loads downwards, lessening outward thrust.
The vaulted roof of the nave is today supported on alternate massive drum columns and slender composite columns. The drum columns are older.
By limiting the span of the transverse vaults, the lateral thrust exerted on the end walls has been minimised. The large outward forces generated by the span of the longitudinal nave vault are transmitted to the massive side walls using high-level buttressing, enclosed by the arcade roofs. This arrangement anticipates the exterior flying buttresses common to later cathedrals.
The groin lines of the pointed vaulting are marked by prominent stone ribs. The decorative ribs also acted as permanent centring for the roof vault. They were constructed as free-standing arches, and used to support timber and lath formwork. The vault shells were constructed by casting 305-508mm of coursed rubble mixed with lime mortar over the formwork. A plaster finish was applied to the vault surface once the formwork was struck.
Between 1173 and 1189, Hugh Pudsey (c.1125-95), Bishop of Durham, added a lady chapel at the west end of the building. It is known as the Galilee Chapel and was for female worshippers, who were not allowed to enter the main body of the cathedral. Attempts to found the chapel at the east end failed owing to ground conditions, allegedly interpreted as St Cuthbert’s objection to having women near his tomb.
The vaulted chapel roof is supported by a rectangular grid of 12 slender columns. One of its five aisles contains the tomb of St Bede (c.672-735), a monk from the monasteries of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and Saint Paul at Jarrow, whose relics were brought to Durham in 1020. Bede chronicled St Cuthbert’s life and was an unparalled historian and great Anglo-Saxon scholar. His best known work is The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He was declared venerable in 836 and canonised in 1899.
In 1217-26, the two almost square western towers were constructed. They are also known as the North and South Galilee Towers and measure 7.5m by 7.9m.
In the 1230s, work continued on the great central tower and the Chapel of the Nine Altars was begun. Unusually, its floor is set 813mm below the level of the choir aisles though its vaulted ceiling is at the same height. The chapel abuts the east end of the building, beyond the high altar, and was completed in 1242. The level difference is probably because the ground slopes down to the east.
In 1371, the Bishop’s throne, or 'cathedra', was built in the south aisle of the choir above the chantry chapel that contains the tomb of Bishop Thomas Hatfield (d.1381).
The stone reredos (screen behind the high altar) is elaborately carved in medieval Gothic style and made of French stone from Caen. It was constructed in London from 1372, shipped to Newcastle and transported overland to Durham, where it was assembled and adorned originally with 107 alabaster figures. Known as the Neville Screen, it was given to the cathedral by John Neville (1337-88, 3rd Baron Neville de Raby) and consecrated in 1380.
Work on the cloisters adjoining the south side of the cathedral continued during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Four covered cloister walkways surround a small square green called the cloister garth, where the monks washed in a central stone bath. The buildings include the chapter house, scriptorium, refectory, kitchen, vaulted undercroft and a new dormitory for the monks above the west walkway. It has a hewn timber roof with main oak beams that span over 12m, supported on the external walls and by knee braces positioned to reduce stresses.
The 15th century Rose Window in the Chapel of the Nine Altars was made by Richard Pickering of Hemingbrough. The window was reconstructed in the 18th century by James Wyatt, in the style of 13th century stained glass, and depicts Christ surrounded by his 12 apostles. However, much of the cathedral’s stained glass dates from the 19th century.
In May 1429, the upper part of the central tower was destroyed by lightning. It was rebuilt, probably in timber, but was deemed "enfeebled and shaken" by 1458. Between 1465 and 1490, the tower was reconstructed in stone under the supervision of master masons Thomas Barton (from 1465) and John Bell (from 1488). It reaches a height of some 45.7m above the crossing, or 66.4m above ground level.
The ornate medieval clock in the south transept is thought to date from around 1490, or possibly later.
The Reformation of the Monasteries in Tudor times resulted in the dissolution of the priory and its community. In December 1539, the Roman Catholic monastery was surrendered to the Crown. In May 1541, the cathedral was re-established as a Church of England (Anglican) place of worship. St Cuthbert’s shrine was dismantled, his coffin opened and the body — reportedly still incorrupt — interred in a plain grave behind the altar.
In 1553, it was reported that the cathedral had "seven great bells in the steeples" — four in the north west tower and three in the central tower. The four bells were moved into the central tower sometime later in the 16th century. All seven were recast in 1632, with a further recasting of one in 1639.
During the English Civil War (1642-51), the cathedral was closed for worship and used to imprison 3,000 Scottish soldiers following the Battle of Dunbar (1650). Many of them died and were buried in two mass graves near the library. Worship recommenced after the reinstatement of the monarchy.
In December 1662, a George Dallam organ replaced the earlier one (by Thomas Dallam 1621) that had been destroyed by the prisoners. New choir stalls and a choir screen were installed in about 1665, under the direction of Right Reverend Dr John Cosin (1594-1672), the Lord Lieutenant of Durham.
Three of the bells were recast in 1682, 1664 and 1665. An eighth bell was added to the peal when all of them were recast in 1693, by Christopher Hodson. In 1780 the treble bell was replaced by Pack & Chapman, in 1781 another bell was replaced by Chapman, and in 1896 of one of Hodson's bells was recast by Mears & Stainbank.
After 1775 and by 1813, the lead roof covering over the nave and choir was replaced with slates. Possibly the slated roofs over the north transept and Chapel of the Nine Altars were installed at the same time.
A new organ with 17 stops had been installed in summer 1686, by Bernard Smith. It was removed in 1873. In the late 18th century, part of the Norman chapter house was demolished. It was rebuilt to the original design in 1895.
The central tower’s upper portion was covered with cement render in 1810. In 1825, the floor of the Chapel of the Nine Altars was covered with stone flags.
In 1827, St Cuthbert’s grave was re-opened to reveal a skeleton. Artefacts including the timber coffin were removed and are on display in the cathedral’s Treasury Museum, though the human remains were reburied. In 1899, an examination of the skeleton found it to be consistent with all that is known of St Cuthbert’s life.
In 1832, then Bishop of Durham — William Van Mildert (1765-1836) — and the Cathedral Chapter founded Durham University.
In 1846, the carved oak Cosin screen for the choir was dismantled and has been destroyed. The present screen of marble and alabaster is by architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78) and was erected around 1876. Scott also designed the altar, which covers the 17th century one that is still in place.
In 1859, the render on the central tower was removed and the stonework refurbished. By 1860, repeated maintenance on the cathedral’s stone façade had resulted in most of the exterior stonework being redressed or replaced. Degradation of the stone through contour scaling has been an ongoing challenge, not least because some of the replacement stone has been found to be less durable than the original.
The tower of the cathedral dominates the Durham scenery. Visitors can climb the 325 steps of a narrow spiral staircase to the top of the tower, though it is said to be unlucky for university students to climb the tower before graduating.
In March 1877, the cathedral’s present organ, a 55 stop instrument by Henry Willis was completed. It cost £3,150 new, and was refurbished between 1903 and July 1905 by Harrison & Harrison. In 1935, it was modified to 77 stops and again in 1970, to provide 98 stops in seven divisions.
In May 1952, the cathedral and cloisters were given a Grade I heritage listing.
This was followed in 1986 by recognition of the building’s architectural and historical importance through inclusion in a UNESCO Durham World Heritage Site, covering the cathedral and castle. In August 2008, the Site boundaries were extended to include Palace Green and the libraries.
In the 1990s, a series of boreholes were sunk in and adjacent to the River Wear near the cathedral. The results showed the building sits above sound bedrock, including Coal Measures strata with bands of hard sandstone up to 10m thick. The cathedral has suffered little structural movement other than at the east apses, the Galilee Chapel and the north porch. However, the building's foundations don’t extend down far enough, stopping 1.2-2m short of solid rock.
The cathedral receives more than 700,000 visitors every year, holds 1,700 religious services annually and hosts an active programme of exhibitions and events. Its cloisters are well used, with the south west corner containing a restaurant, bookshop and the Treasury Museum. The former monks’ dormitory now houses the library of the Dean and Chapter.
The cathedral tower dominates the Durham scenery. You can climb the 325 steps of a narrow spiral staircase to the top of the tower, though it is said to be unlucky for university students to climb it before graduating.
On the main (north) door is a bronze sanctuary knocker (a replica of the 12th century original, which is in the museum). Any fugitive who knocked and was admitted was granted sanctuary for 37 days, before having to face their accusers or be given safe conduct to the coast, usually at Hartlepool.
Research: ECPK

Durham Cathedral