Saturday, 9 June 2012


For my next blog, I would like to present one of my favourite cities: Durham. I can't really say what it is about the place that I like so much, but it it just a magnificent place! Historically, it doesn't have as much as, say, Chester, but what it does have is tremendous - the Cathedral and Castle have been designated a World Heritage Site.

The city began, apparently, in the late tenth century, when some monks from Lindisfarne Island were carrying the bier of St Cuthbert north, but when they came to this place they could move no further. They founded a church there, which has since been supplanted by the present Norman Cathedral. St Cuthbert was the most important English Saint, and his shrine was the preeminent pilgrimage place in the country until the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. The shrine was moved briefly to Lindisfarne for protection during the Norman Invasion, but William, recognising the significance of the relics, brought them back to Durham, to be housed in the new Benedictine monastery here.

Durham was, following the Conquest, the most northern part of the realm, and being so far from London, difficult to control. As Simon Thurley puts it, Durham was, in short, "the Northern Ireland of Norman England". The scene of tremendous unrest, even after the Harrying of the North of 1069-70, William installed an Earl-Bishop here in 1071, bestowed upon him unprecedented power, and basically told him "to get on with it". Even the Marcher Lords of the border with Wales, mentioned in my previous blog, didn't have such powers, which included the ability to mint coins, appoint sheriffs, tax the people, even hold an independent parliament and make his own laws. Consequently, Durham does not appear in Domesday Book, as the King has no jurisdiction here. After 1080, the Bishop was re-styled Prince-Bishop, which continued until Henry VIII curtailed these powers in 1538.

The Cathedral was built between 1093 and 1135, when the vault over the cathedral church was largely finished. The building was a pioneering achievement, getting progressively more decorated as they moved from east to west. The interior is a staggering display of Romanesque (that is, rounded) arches and immense, thick columns that make a powerful statement of permanence.

As at Lincoln, the Normans built a Castle in close proximity to the Cathedral, emphasizing the idea that God is on the side of the conquerors.

The Castle was built alongside the Cathedral, being the primary residence of the Prince-Bishop, and continued as the administrative centre of the county until it was converted into a college in 1837, the Bishop moving to Auckland Castle, further south. The proliferation of Norman buildings on the peninsula provided a show of force for both local rebellion and also as a deterrant against possible Scottish incursions.

With all this Norman stuff and the important Cathedral at its heart, Durham was a prosperous city until the Dissolution. As already said, the power of the Prince-Bishops was curtailed in 1538 by Henry VIII, and on December 31, 1539, the Cathedral was surrendered to the King, and the shrine of St Cuthbert was dismantled. It is quite interesting to note that, while the King's commissioners reported multitudes of wrongdoing and such in the Valor Ecclesiasticus, almost intent on debunking the myths that the monasteries had built around themselves, it was noted with awe that the shrine to St Cuthbert was described as containing the incorruptible corpse of the saint, who looked as fresh in the sixteenth century as when he had died in the seventh century. It was refounded as a Cathedral of the Church of England in 1541, however, but without the incomes provided from the pilgrims the city began to suffer.

During the Civil War, the city was staunchly loyal to Charles I, who stayed briefly here while fleeing Cromwell's forces. With the dissolution of the Church of England in 1650, the Cathedral closed, and was used by Cromwell as a prison following the Battle of Dunbar. Again re-founded in 1660, a programme of restoration began.

^ the Market Place

The Industrial Revolution largely passed the city by, with Newcastle upon Tyne becoming the new major city in the north. The Great Reform Act of 1832 finally put a stop to the extravagant rights remaining to the Prince-Bishops, but the Bishop of Durham remains one of the most senior clerics in Britain.

Auckland Castle, in Bishop Auckland just south of the city, remains the residence of the Bishop. Originally a hunting lodge for the Prince-Bishops, the castle was remodeled to become the official residence in 1837, Durham Castle being left to the University as mentioned above. Auckland Castle is a splendidly over-the-top example of early nineteenth century gothic, with spires and minarets jostling with the crenellations all over the walls. 

The castle began its long association with the Prince-Bishops in the late thirteenth-century, when Bishop Antony Bek used the manor here as his hunting lodge. A very exciting cleric, Bek took part in Edward I's Conquest of Scotland, leading a division of the king's army at the Battle of Falkirk among other actions. But then, the Prince-Bishops had a dual function, their palatine powers requiring them to put down rebellions etc, so it isn't really all that strange to see a Bishop on the battlefield. (William the Conqueror's half-brother Bishop Odo took part in the Battle of Hastings, of course). Bek was named by Pope Clement V as Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1306, making him the most senior cleric in England at that time, and as such he conducted the funeral service of Edward I in 1307. The castle as it remains today is the work of rebuilding conducted following the Restoration by Bishop John Cosin.

^ the elaborate gateway to the castle.

To the north of the city, the nearby Finchale Priory, founded around 1112 as a hermitage of Godric, later canonized, was appropriated by the monks at Durham in 1196 and, by the fourteenth century, was being used by them as something of a holiday retreat / retirement home.

It seems Finchale was a priory like no other - the position of Prior was one that the monks of Durham coveted, and there are references to the monks at the priory being reprimanded for keeping sporting dogs and going hunting.

Following the priory's dissolution in 1538, it seems to have been quietly left to decay, until the eighteenth century and the fashion for romantic ruins. According to the guidebook, it is possible that there was some artful demolition to make the ruins look more attractive, something that a lot of abbeys went through at this time.

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