History in Stone: Durham Cathedral Built 1093

History in Stone: Durham Cathedral Built 1093

Towering skywards Durham Cathedral gave out two powerful messages from the Normans who built it; we are God-fearing Christians who believe in divine power. Their castle across the green had another message; we rule with a military fist.

The importance of Durham Cathedral isn’t appreciated until you look up towards heaven from the buildings mighty nave. It is then you notice that the arches projecting from the massive compound piers, which form the skeleton of the structure, are pointed in the classic Norman style, and not rounded. And why is this so important? Norman masons had worked out, probably after a series of building failures, that a pointed arch was a far superior load bearing structure, solving the problem that had frustrated builders of centuries; how to extend a stone roof structure across a large space.
So Durham Cathedral is the first building in England to have an entirely stone roof, which is strengthened with diagonal ribs that criss-cross the 32ft span creating a breath-taking series of almost ‘floating’ vaults that loftily stand 75ft above the floor of the nave.

It is hard today to comprehend the man-hours and skill it took to raise the cathedral from the rocky platform that stands above the River Wear. Muscle, blocks, ropes and pulleys probably worked in unison over 40 years to construct the 496ft long building surmounted by three huge towers, the largest at the centre, standing 218ft high. France had many fine cathedrals so it would seem natural that after the Norman Conquest in 1066 that the French would want to stamp their authority on the population and make a clear statement about who ruled the newly conquered country. And what better way to do this than build massive cathedrals and powerful castles that would intimidate the locals.

And this is how it is at Durham, the cathedral and castle virtually face each other across a green. The message was clear to the cowering Saxons; Normans are God-fearing Christians who believe in divine power but rule through their military might with a fist of steel. The beaten English got the message and the raiding Scots stayed away, most of the time. The Normans gave their bishops immense power, and Durham almost became an autonomous state governed by what were called Prince Bishops, who were charged with defending the realm. They administered the law, collected the taxes and sent chests of coins to their medieval masters.

As we know French Benedictine monks began the cathedral in 1093, led by Bishop William of St Calais, his masons using pioneering building techniques not seen in England before. The Bishops, who continued the building programme over the next four decades, probably didn’t realise it at the time but they were constructing a spiritual home for the much revered St Cuthbert, whose tomb now lies behind the chancel, and the Venerable Bead, the historian who chronicled English life during the Middle Ages.

Returning to the nave we marvel at the gigantic drum piers, or columns, which are richly carved with crisp geometric patterns including deep cut fluting, chevrons and lozenges, which mirror each other across the nave. The stunning workmanship continues upwards through the three-storey elevation that includes the triforium, with the clerestory sitting on top of that creating a forceful vertical thrust that creates an illusion of space, light and power.

The nave, Latin navis, translates to the ‘ship’, is the body of the cathedral and is marked at its entrance by one of the most breath-taking fonts, its marble bowl dating from 1663, but what is remarkable is the cover, which is a shining example of the wood-carvers skill. The font is symbolic and marks where Christians are welcomed into the mother church through baptism, the nave could be said to be the path of life, and the altar the point of consummation.

Even for a non-believer the grandeur of the church body with the glory, reflected in the magnificent intricately carved Neville screen, the stone it is claimed, having been shipped over from Caen in France, never failing to the lift the human spirit. Detail is everywhere and one can’t imagine how the stonemason’s of the day worked the fine details around the 107 niches that form the delicate screen. In each niche stood a brightly painted statue of a saint or angel – sadly today the niches are empty. Monks hid the statues during the Reformation and nobody has ever found them.

From the alter, the visitor approaches the ethereal shrine to St Cuthbert but on the way don’t fail to miss the creamy, slightly yellow sandstone pillars, which look ‘soft’ and have swirls of different coloured stone running through them. Ascending the steep steps from the quire aisles the mood changes, for here lays St Cuthbert the revered Northumbrian saint, who once lived on Lindisfarne, known to many as the Holy Island. A man of lowly birth, he rose in stature through his preaching and care for the people, and when he died in 687, he was buried on the island.

He was dug up 11 years later and to everyone’s astonishment his body hadn’t decayed, which saw a shrine raised in his glory. Following a period of peace and learning the marauding Vikings arrived in the 9th century and caused mayhem. This lead to the island community leaving to find a safer home and they took the relics of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels with them.

It took over 100 years to finally find a resting place for St Cuthbert, and that was in 1104 when he was interned in his present resting place. In 1537 the shrine was stripped of its jewels, gold and silver but when the king’s commissioners opened the coffin they found the Saint’s body complete with its vestments and not reduced to dust and bones. As a result it was re-interred.

Before leaving the cathedral return to the font, and to the left you will find a door that leads to the Galilee or Lady Chapel, claimed to be one of the most exquisite parts of the building. Although a chapel today, it’s what was originally called a nathax or porch, the original main entrance to the cathedral. Here we find a second shrine, this time to the Venerable Bede. Known as the ‘father of English history’, his writings tell us about life in Saxon times, the role the church played, how St Cuthbert touched the lives of the people of north-east Britain. Born in 673, he joined a monastery at Jarrow and devoted the rest of his life writing about history, science and commentating on the Bible. He died in 735 but his relics were stolen nearly 300 years later by a Durham monk and interred with St Cuthbert, later being moved to the Galilee Chapel where it is visited by tens of thousands of people each year.

The cathedral doorways, many of which lead to the cloisters, the hub of the building, are marvels of design and the mason’s skill, especially the south-west door known as the Prior’s Door. Three Romanesque richly carved arches sit in turn above each other, each sitting on its own carved pillar.
Durham’s cloister’s survived the Dissolution, and today visitors can walk in the hushed cloisters, maybe imagining they are monks – be careful of the low-flying bats – as they look up at the great central tower. You can climb the 325 steps to the top – the views of the city, castle and loop of the River Wear, are said to be worth the exertion.

The problem with Durham Cathedral is it is a place of worship, a shrine, a place to appreciate man’s human efforts to raise a building to the glory of God, a museum and an ecclesiastical work of art, and that means you are going to see a lot and miss just as much. Which is just how life is in reality.

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Mel Russ