Open Treasure: Exploring the Monks’ Dormitory

When you visit Open Treasure, the museum of Durham Cathedral, the first room you see is the Monks’ Dormitory. Today, it houses a permanent exhibition display, looking at early Christianity in the region, the story of Durham’s patron Saint Cuthbert, and the history of the cathedral. However, the room itself is also one of the ‘treasures’ of the cathedral. Join our Open Treasure Exhibitions Officer, Marie-Therese Mayne, as she details the extraordinary story behind the monastic space.

The Dormitory as it is today

The dormitory was where the monks of the Durham Priory slept. Most monasteries had their dormitories on the east side of the cloister, and this was true of Durham as well until the 12th century, when the cathedral was rebuilt and a much taller Chapter House constructed, cutting through the middle of it. Soon afterwards, the dormitory was moved to the west side of the cloister. Between 1360 and 1430, most of the buildings around the cloister were replaced, and in 1398 work began on the present dormitory. John de Middleton was contracted to rebuild it, taking off the steeply-pitched roof, heightening the walls, and inserting windows and doors to light both it and the Undercroft below. For some reason John was unable to complete the work, and in 1401 the contract was taken over by another mason, Peter Dryng. The monks did not want to change the original plans so specified in Peter’s contract that he had to follow the designs as started by John. Completed in 1404, the building work cost over £420 (about £200,000 today), and half of this was paid by Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham.

Dryng’s contract, 1401

Working alongside both John and Peter was the carpenter Ellis Harpour. Ellis was responsible for building the dormitory’s magnificent wooden roof. It is a ‘tie beam roof’, and the 21 trusses supporting it are made from massive oak tree-trunks. Each of the trees would have been around 150-200 years old when they were felled, but one of them was not quite tall enough! When the workmen realised this, they came up with a brilliant solution: using the lowest fork of the branches to stretch the extra distance needed. They even found another forked branch to match it for the wall post below.

One end of the dormitory is more decorated than the other. Some of the beams have large box-ties with carved ends. This might show the point where Peter Dryng took over the contract to build the dormitory, or that the carpenters were running out of time or money to finish the job. Many of the wall posts also have carved plaques at their bases. Some were carved directly onto the posts, others were carved separately and then fixed onto them. The roof is so well designed that the weight of it puts very little pressure on the beams. Very few medieval timber roofs of this scale and quality survive today and Durham’s is probably the best preserved large monastic dormitory in England.

One of the reasons that the Monks’ Dormitory is so well preserved is that the building has never really been out of use. After the Reformation, when the monastery was suppressed in 1539, it was no longer needed for monks, but the cathedral continued, and the buildings around it all took on new functions. In the 17th century, one of the cathedral Canons (priests) had a house inside the dormitory. It had two floors and a roof, all under the main dormitory roof; was situated at the south end of the building, and took up about two thirds of its length. The north end of the room was used for drying laundry! This house was taken down in the late 1840s but traces of it still remain, including marks, stains and patterning, perhaps from wallpaper, on some of the roof timbers.

Image of Dormitory Library, c. 1880

After that, between 1849 and 1856, the dormitory was converted into the Cathedral Library, with a large stone fireplace and bookcases being installed. The library also housed the cathedral’s first museum, with St. Cuthbert’s 7th century wooden coffin on open display. There is still a working library in the Monks’ Dormitory, and in 2016 the museum was redesigned to form Open Treasure.

While our museum is temporarily closed, we hope you enjoy these digital highlights of the Open Treasure spaces. Please remember to come and visit us when it is safe to do so. You can find more information about our award-winning museum here:

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