Our knowledgeable cathedral guides often embellish tours with information on their own special interests (whilst still including all the salient facts about the cathedral of course!)  Here cathedral guide Alex Milbourne provides us with an insight into the life of Prior Turgot, who was Prior of the Monastery at Durham between 1087- 1109. An often overlooked figure, Prior Turgot played an important role in the building of the cathedral, and the translation of St Cuthbert’s body into the Feretory.

Prior Turgot was born in about 1048 in Lincoln to a Saxon family of good standing.  Lincoln at that time was an important wool trading town, with Norway being a significant trading partner.

The Anglo Saxon aristocracy ceased to exist after 1066 and this may have concerned Turgot a great deal.  He was an educated man, most probably educated at St Mary Minster, and could not see much of a future under the Normans.  His fears were realised in 1068 when King William started a programme of castle building to quell any rebellion.  Lincoln Castle was built right in the middle of the town and around 166 properties had to be demolished to make room for it.  

Lincoln Castle (Credit: DncnH via CreativeCommons)

To ward off any dissent a few local men of good standing were held hostage, our future Prior Turgot was one of these men.  Turgot planned an escape.  He judiciously bribed the guards and made his way to the port of Grimsby where he stowed away on board a ship bound for Norway.  Turgot chose Norway because of the links of trade and friendship with his home town.  He landed safely and was soon accepted by the Norse nobles as a Saxon cleric.

During his time at St Mary Minster he had mastered psalmody, the art of singing psalms.  When the king, Olav III, heard this he asked to meet him and was greatly impressed.  He made Turgot his Master of Psalmody and a member of the royal court.  Life for Turgot seemed good again. 

At this time Olav was busy building his Cathedral and we are told that Turgot was involved in the project. He continued to be a favourite of the king, but after six years he began to yearn for home.  He had heard that the monasteries were beginning to thrive again and he decided it may be time to return home and so he set sail with all of his property.  Sadly he was shipwrecked, managing to get back to England but completely destitute.  He made his way to Durham where Bishop Walcher (1071-1080) listened to his adventures and his desire to become a monk.  Walcher sent Turgot to Bede’s ruined monastery at Jarrow which was being rebuilt, and it is here that he began his association with Prior Aldwin. 

After various journeys they came to Durham on 26th May 1083.  Bishop Walcher had been murdered in 1080 and in 1081 William of St-Calais was consecrated as Bishop of Durham.  Bishop William was determined to build the finest Cathedral as a Shrine to St Cuthbert and also as a statement of Norman power.  He had the vision, he had the manpower and he had the money but he needed an administrator.

Prior Aldwin died on 12th April 1087 and it is said that he was greatly mourned by all.  Turgot was appointed Prior and his administration team went on to build our fine cathedral in Durham!  During this time, 1087-1107, Prior Turgot held great power.  Turgot assumed control as the stand for Bishop William who was often away on state business including work on the Doomsday Book.  From 1088-1091 Bishop William was also exiled after falling out of favour with the new king, William II (Rufus). 

Turgot also set about completing some of claustral buildings which Bishop Walcher had started, most notably the undercroft and dining room on the southern range of the cloister.  In 1091 Bishop William of St Calais returned from exile and planning and preparation for the new Cathedral began.  Turgot would have been closely involved with this and on 29th July 1093 he and Bishop William were present as the ground was broken for the foundations.  The work moved on at rapid pace and on 11th August King Malcolm III of Scotland, Bishop William and Prior Turgot laid the foundation stone and Turgot was made Archdeacon of Durham.   Work started at once at the eastern end and progressed quickly.  The aim was to get the structure to the crossing as soon as possible so that the building could be consecrated and St Cuthbert’s body moved into the new feretory behind the high altar.

St Cuthbert’s Shrine. Picture: DAVID WOOD

Turgot was chaplain/confessor to St Margaret and it is largely this connection that accounts for the involvement of Malcolm and his sons in the Cathedral.  Turgot, at the request of Margaret’s daughter, wrote the life of Margaret.  

Towards the end of 1095 Bishop William’s health began to fail and he died at Windsor on the 2nd January 1096.  In 1099 Ranulf Flambard purchased the Bishopric for £1,000 and was consecrated Bishop of Durham on 5th June.  Flambard went back to Normandy after the ceremony and did not return to England until 1107, only becoming fully operative as Bishop in 1112.  However, he did make several visits to inspect the progress of the work and was present in 1104 at St Cuthbert’s translation (move) into the feretory. 

During all of this time the burden of responsibility was carried by Turgot.  His most important task was the translation of St Cuthbert on 29th August 1104.  Some doubts had been raised about the incorrupt body and Turgot was persuaded to open the coffin before the translation.  This was done discreetly at night and the body was indeed found to be complete.  The ceremony was then witnessed by large crowds and the clerical hierarchy.  Turgot was much venerated after this time as being one of only a few living people to have looked upon the face St Cuthbert.  It was also to be his swan song at Durham. 

In 1108 King Alexander of Scotland asked King Henry I to appoint Turgot as Bishop of St Andrews.  Durham Cathedral moved into a new era and so did Turgot. It was in Scotland that he carried out his duties for the rest of his life.  In 1115 his health began to fail and he asked to go to Durham to celebrate mass.  He died at Durham on 31st August 1115 and was buried in the chapter house where he remains to this day, next to Bishop William of St Calais.

Turgot’s name is on the Priors, Deans and Bishops tablet at the side of the Feretory and he is also remembered in glass in the windows showing notable Bishops and Priors on the east wall, near the rose window.

If this story has sparked your interest in Prior Turgot, make a note to visit the cathedral shop when it reopens and look for the book ‘Building St Cuthbert’s Shrine. Durham Cathedral and the life of Prior Turgot’ by Lionel Green (Sacristy Press).

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