Power and Remembrance: the surroundings of Durham Cathedral

As part of our celebrations for the 2020 #HeritageOpenDays festival, our Head of Collections, Alison Cullingford, explores some of the spaces and sights just outside the Cathedral. We hope you enjoy!

High on a peninsula

The Cathedral is set high on a peninsula above the River Wear, alongside Durham Castle. The Cathedral experience begins with a first glimpse of the Cathedral from afar. This view is perhaps most dramatic from the railway station, but it is impressive from all directions.

A classic view of Durham Cathedral, to the southwest and over the River Wear.

The peninsula was an obvious choice to locate a Cathedral and a Castle in dangerous and turbulent times.  It is eminently defensible, with limited access points and protected by very steep banks and the wide River on three sides.  The site also made the power of the church and the state visible for miles around, to defend the border with Scotland and deter local rebellions. 

This early print of Durham, dated 1595, clearly shows the peninsula and how it is dominated by the Castle fortifications. It was created by Swiss wood-engraver Christoph Schweitzer.

Chosen by a Saint, thanks to a cow

The community of Saint Cuthbert had settled on the site a century before the building of the Cathedral and the Castle, in 995. The community had originated in Lindisfarne, a monastery which had been a centre of learning and wonderful art early in the 8th century. This was disrupted by Viking raids on the coast, the first in 793, and eventually they decided to move to a safer place, taking the incorrupt body of Cuthbert and his relics and treasures with them.  They settled in Chester-le-Street in 883, but in 995 moved temporarily to Ripon to avoid more trouble from the Danes.

According to the chronicler Symeon of Durham, on the journey back, the cart carrying Cuthbert’s coffin broke down and could not be moved. Bishop Aldhun had a vision in which the Saint demanded to be taken to a place named Dunholme.  No-one knew where that was. Imagine the confusion and concern that arose as the monks debated where to go and who to ask for help.  Fortunately, a milkmaid came past, asking another woman if she had seen her lost dun (brown) cow. She had: it was last seen going to Dunholme! She pointed the way. The relieved monks were able to move the coffin again and followed her to the place Cuthbert had chosen.

There was actually a good political reason for Aldhun to take his monks and Cuthbert to Dunholme.  These monks, unlike their Benedictine successors at Durham, could and did marry and have children. Aldhun’s daughter had recently married Earl Uchtred of Northumbria and her dowry included the land at Dunholm. However the legend of Cuthbert’s involvement reassured the monks and the wider community which valued Cuthbert so highly that the new site was a good place for the shrine of this beloved northern saint. There the shrine has remained for over a thousand years, centre of worship, pilgrimage and local pride.

Sculpture depicting the legend of the Dun Cow, Durham Cathedral

The dun cow story is celebrated in this characterful 18th century sculpture depicting the two women and the cow.  Look for it on the outside of the North wall of the Cathedral.  Nearby is a narrow lane named Dun Cow Lane.

A World Heritage Site

Visitors approaching the Cathedral from the city of Durham move uphill through narrow medieval streets until suddenly they emerge onto the wide grassy space that is Palace Green.  There is a sudden sense of space as the view opens up and you are faced with the breathtaking mass of the Cathedral ahead. You are in the Durham World Heritage site.

This print from 1754 by Forster and Mynde shows the Cathedral in relation to Palace Green and the surrounding buildings. Some very elegant people are promenading on the verdant Green.

Durham Cathedral is an exceptional piece of architecture.  It is made even more special because it, along with the Castle, forms part of a unique cityscape that shaped the religion and politics of the North for a thousand years.  This significance was recognised in the inscribing of Durham as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1986.

The community of Cuthbert built first a small timber church and then a larger church, probably where the Cathedral cloisters are now.  Work on the Cathedral began in 1093. It was completed in 40 years, a short time for such a building, and an incredible feat of civil engineering.  The Cathedral is made of local sandstone, solidly Norman or Romanesque, its interior dominated by immense pillars, contrasting with the more airy and delicate styles of the later chapels to the East and West.  Work on its neighbour, the Castle, had started in 1072 at the command of King William the Conqueror. It soon became the palace of Bishop Walcher, the first Durham bishop to be known as a Prince-Bishop.  These powerful individuals were virtually autonomous rulers, permitted by the Crown to coin their own money and raise their own armies in return for controlling the rebellious North and the Border, an arrangement that lasted until the 19th century.

Palace Green was the city marketplace until this was moved by Bishop Flambard in the 12th century to protect the Cathedral from ‘fire and filth’.  The non-Cathedral buildings around the Green, including the Castle keep, are all now part of Durham University. This was founded by the Cathedral in 1832.  Researchers and students benefit from the close connections to the Cathedral, they graduate in the Nave, study in the Cathedral Library and are often volunteers. The University uses the buildings in this area in various ways, as a special collections library, as student accommodation, and as academic departments. You can find out more about these buildings and their stories via the Durham World Heritage site website.

Floral designs representing Saint Cuthbert crosses outside Palace Green Library. Credit: Alison Cullingford under licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

A place of remembrance

The North side of the Cathedral was used in the past as a burial ground, and as you make your way into the building you will see many graves and memorials.

South African Durham Light Infantry South African War Memorial, Durham Cathedral. Credit: carcaroth via wikicommons, licence CC-BY-SA-3.0

There are two large and very striking memorials towards the West, just before the cliff drops down to the River. The Durham Light Infantry South African War Memorial commemorates those who died of wounds or disease or were killed in action during the Boer war, 1899-1902. The memorial takes the form of a tall cross in Celtic style, featuring oak leaves twining around scenes from the war. It is dated 1905.

Nearby is the tomb of Dean Kitchin, Dean of Durham 1894-1912 and the first Chancellor of Durham University.  It is a tall cross, topped by a round head containing a design of Saint Cuthbert’s pectoral cross. The stone was created in Keswick in 1912.

Memorial to Dean Kitchin, Durham Cathedral.

The Durham memorial for the First World War is located further round on the East side of the Cathedral, set just below the Rose Window on a peaceful grassy slope.  his memorial comprises a tall round column on a square base surmounted by a cross.  The column is highly distinctive, as it is carved in spirals, echoing the design of the famous pillars inside the Cathedral.  Within the spirals, triangles are carved with soldiers’ kit and weapons.  The memorial was designed by Sir Charles Reilly, with pictures carved by Tyson Smith.  This picture of the opening ceremony in 1928 captures a moment on a windy day when the community gathered to remember in this special place.

The unveiling of the War memorial at Durham Cathedral, 1928. Credit: Gilesgate Archive

Goodbye, and welcome!

We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse of Durham Cathedral’s fascinating surroundings and will come to visit us soon.

At the time this is written, the World Heritage site office, the Castle and Palace Green Library and other University attractions have not yet been re-opened to the public following the Covid-19 lockdown. Keep up to date with this situation via the Durham World Heritage site website.

if you’re enjoying our #HeritageOpenDays content and would like to support Durham Cathedral’s work with a donation, please visit https://localgiving.org/charity/durhamcathedral/

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