The cloisters of Durham Cathedral are once again open to the public, offering a chance to rest and reflect, and a way through to our re-opened shop, restaurant and toilets.
The cloisters are much more than a set of walkways though. When you walk through them, you are truly following in the footsteps of the medieval monks of Durham Priory. For this year’s Heritage Open Days festival, we explore some of the stories behind the medieval cloisters.
What were the cloisters for?
The cloister was an important part of the layout of any monastery. As well as the church with its continuous cycle of prayer and worship, the monks needed spaces in which they could eat, work, meet, study, sleep, wash, and go to the toilet. It was usual to build these various premises around a cloister: a central courtyard surrounded by covered galleries connecting the buildings. This layout made it easy to separate the monks from the many lay servants and workers necessary to the functioning of such large and complex organisations. The buildings used by the monks would be accessed from the cloisters which could easily be locked at one end from the other spaces outside. Cloisters also offered relatively well-lit spaces protected from the weather which were ideal for taking exercise, meditation, and study. They were so much a part of monastic life that the word ‘cloister’ can be used to mean a monastery or monastic life.
The creation of Durham’s cloisters
Durham became a Benedictine monastery in 1083 when Bishop William St Calais brought monks to replace the existing community of married clergy. This community had settled in Durham in 995 bringing Saint Cuthbert and his relics with them. Ten years later, work on the great Norman Cathedral began and the cloister was laid out. The present covered walks date from a remodelling that took place in the early 15th century. The four walks are often referred to as ranges. The north range is the one parallel to the church.
The buildings around the cloisters
The monastic buildings that lead onto the cloisters have a complex history, as successive bishops and priors made their marks and adapted the spaces to suit changing needs. To take just one example, the monks originally slept in a dormitory above the Chapter House on the east range, a typical and sensible arrangement which allowed easy access to the right area of the church for the night-time services. A new dormitory was built in the late 14th century on the upper floor of the west range, perhaps because of drainage and water supply concerns. After the Reformation, the space was used for a clergyman’s house, then became a Library in the 1850s and recently also part of our museum, Open Treasure. Discover more about the claustral buildings (buildings of the cloister) via the reference at the end of this article.
Studying in the cloisters
Much of what we know about the Priory use of the Cloisters comes from the Rites of Durham, a late 16th century text which remembered the services and contents of the pre-Reformation priory. Originally, the windows of the ranges were glazed and those of the east range depicted scenes from the life of Saint Cuthbert. The other windows were left plain so that clear useful light could be available for reading and writing. The glazing has long gone, with the Cuthbert panes being removed during the Reformation. The tracery we now see in the windows dates from the 1760s. The north range contained study carrels for the monks, each bay divided into three, built of wooden panelling with lattice doors, all intended to maximise light so that the monks could read until Evensong. The monks kept some of their books to hand here: traces of the book cupboards are still visible on this wall. The long open space of the west range was used for teaching.
The cloister garth: keeping clean
The cloister windows overlook a tranquil green at the heart of the cloister: the cloister garth. The stone bowl in the middle is what is left of the old lavatorium. This was a kind of water fountain used by the monks to wash themselves before meals. It therefore was originally located in the south-west corner of the garth, handy for what was then the Refectory or eating area (converted into the Refectory Library in the 1660s). The bowl dates from the early 15th century and is made of ‘Teesdale marble’, extracted from quarries at Egglestone Abbey. This is a pale limestone which can be polished like marble. The bowl consists of an octagonal central basin with carved shields, surrounded by a trough. According to the Rites of Durham, the basin once featured many brass spouts and taps for the water supply and was located inside a small building topped by a dovecote.
Back inside the cloisters, the ribbed wooden ceiling is contemporary with the building of these spaces. It is notable for the hundreds of carved bosses covering the joints where the ribs connect. Their fascinating designs depict the coats of arms of people connected with the Cathedral, angels, and ‘green men’. You may also spot the roosts of the common pipistrelle bats who share the space with the Cathedral community. The bats are usually asleep when we are open to visitors. Please don’t touch any bats you see moving or on the ground.
Can you spot these features?
The North range includes a couple of interesting more modern features which are worth noticing on your journey:
The Washington memorial. “Remember in these cloisters …” refers to the Prior of the Cathedral 1416-1446, John Wessington (or Washington), who died in 1451. He played an important part in the story of the Cathedral, cataloguing the Library, building a new Library and writing various histories. Wessington probably took his name from the village of Washington about ten miles from Durham and was related to the family from whom George Washington, first President of the United States of America, was descended, hence the memorial.
The Meridian line. A meridian line is a kind of sundial, in this case using an aperture in the window to focus a beam of sunlight onto the line at the exact time the sun passed the meridian i.e. noon. This enables the time of noon to be accurately determined. This one was installed in 1829 to ensure better regulation of the Cathedral clocks. The winter solstice marking is on the wall and the summer solstice is on the floor. Look out for the wording “MERI DIES” and an arrowhead, plus other markings to determine 5, 10 and 15 minutes past noon. The stonework on the other side of the cloisters had to be adjusted to allow the ray to pass through at the winter solstice.
More recently, the cloisters have been used as a film set, but that is a story for another time! We hope you’ve enjoyed your virtual look around these special spaces and that you will come to see the cloisters for yourself.
If you’re enjoying our #HeritageOpenDays content and would like to help preserve the medieval cloisters of Durham Cathedral, as well as supporting our other work, please consider making a donation at: https://localgiving.org/charity/durhamcathedral/
This piece draws on many sources. For a definitive history and much detail on the cloister buildings, we recommend: Durham Cathedral: history, fabric, and culture, edited by David Brown. Yale University Press, 2015.