Durham Cathedral and Castle: ‘The Normans at their most audacious and expansive’

Durham Cathedral and Castle: ‘The Normans at their most audacious and expansive’

The view of Durham from the train is epic and challenging: the cathedral’s great central spire rises as if it were its own impassable cliff, a symbol of Christian civilization that has weathered centuries of enemy waves to stand triumphant.

Western Europe has no shortage of spectacular medieval cathedrals and Durham ranks with the very best. Whether glancing out the window as you whiz by on a train or from the city’s many vantage points, the setting on a sheer sandstone cliff with the great spiers looming over a wooded bend in the River Wear is unforgettable . It is also a significant building in the history of architecture, one of the finest Romanesque churches in Europe and unanimously recognized as a landmark building in this tradition.

The cathedral was literally founded on the corpse of Cuthbert (634-687), one of the most charismatic – albeit misogynist and vindictive – saints of the early English church. In a unique arrangement, his body, which remained incorruptible throughout the Middle Ages, possessed property and had a following like a living person. It was brought to Durham in 995 from its first resting place in Lindisfarne, where Cuthbert had died, after more than a century of wandering across northern England. Traditionally, his coffin was brought to this empty hilltop and miraculously rooted there. The so-called “White Church” was built above it, honoring the site chosen by the saint himself.

The nave of Durham Cathedral, looking east. The rose window can be seen at the east end. ©Paul Barker for country living

Durham developed as an English bulwark against the Scots, and in the Middle Ages its bishops secured an extraordinary combination of royal and ecclesiastical power. They ruled what was known for a time as “The People of the Saints” or Haliwerfolc and occupied the castle, first built by William the Conqueror in 1072, which stands next to the cathedral.

According to the chronicler Symeon, a member of the Benedictine monastic community of Durham (died after 1129), it was the Norman bishop William of St Calais who ordered the construction of the new cathedral, the first stone of which was laid in 1093. After Bishop William died in 1096, his successor Ranulf Flambard led the project almost to completion in 1133.

A late 12th century painting of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral. ©Paul Barker for country living

The new cathedral, which was essentially completed in just 40 years, was laid out on a scale to rival any church in contemporary Christianity. Stone for the building was quarried and shaped into clean-cut blocks. These are laid in lanes of consistent depth. That alone is an enormous technical achievement for a project of this magnitude. The shapes of the building were inspired by Roman architectural models and the entire interior was designed – perhaps for the first time in the history of European architecture – with stone vaults articulated by crossing “ribs” throughout their extent. These ribs help visually connect the building’s interior elevations, carrying the view from side to side across the interior. Such articulation of vaults is an idea later explored in Gothic design to great effect, as was the structural use of the pointed arch – used to define each section or bay of Durham Vaulting – and the buttress; At Durham, great stone arches hidden under the roofs of the aisles counteract the thrust of the high vault.

“What survives today is extraordinary”

Despite these innovative structural details, the building still retains the monumental spirit of the Romanesque period. This is manifested in the alternating drum and composite pillars of the main arcades, which immediately catch the visitor’s eye as they enter. The former are embellished with carved diamond, chevron and spiral designs that were ingeniously constructed using a kit of mass-produced blocks of stone. They have the visual effect of contracting the spaces of the corridor to the main volume of the building.

In the 13th century the east end of the church was rehabilitated to improve the area surrounding the shrine, and in the 1370s the intricate high altar reredos known as the Neville Screen was erected. It was designed in London, carved with stones from Caen and shipped north to Newcastle in parts.

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral towers over the area.

St Cuthbert’s had a reputation for misogyny in medieval times and women were therefore not allowed to enter the east end of the nave or chancel. A number of Frosterley marble slabs can still be seen in the floor of the nave, demarcating the area forbidden to them.

What survives today is extraordinary. Not only is the cathedral intact and all the more impressive due to its stylistic uniformity, since much of it was built in one piece, but large parts of the priory have also been preserved.

The Elvet Bridge over the River Wear with Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle in the background.

Quotes about Durham Cathedral

“Durham still gives the impression that Dr. Johnson conveyed – one of “rocky solidity and indefinite endurance”” – Francis Bond, The Cathedrals of England and Wales (1912)

“Architecturally, Durham Cathedral has no equal among Anglo-Roman buildings… It is the least altered of all the Norman churches in England” – GH Cook, “Portrait of Durham Cathedral” (1948)

“Durham shows indeed that the Normans, in their boldest and most expansive form, were able to build on a scale never attempted since the Romans” – Paul Johnson, “British Cathedrals” (1980)

How to visit Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle

Durham is 20 miles south of Newcastle and on the same major road and rail routes as the largest city in the North East. You won’t miss the Cathedral, located on the top of the hill in the ancient medieval city. Admission is free but a £5 donation is recommended – see durhamcathedral.co.uk.

The rest of Durham is just as worthy of your time, particularly Durham Castle, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Cathedral. The cathedral belongs to the university; Castle College (officially known as University College) students can even live in the castle and realize all their wildest Harry Potter fantasies with stone steps and meals in the Great Hall. It is also open to visitors for a guided tour for £5 – see dur.ac.uk/durham.castle.

Durham Castle.

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